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70 percent of Spaniards reject new plans for religion classes in schools

Critics see PP’s reforms as serving the Church’s interests rather than society’s

A teacher takes a religion class in a school. Over the last 15 years, enrolment in such classed has plummeted. Ampliar foto
A teacher takes a religion class in a school. Over the last 15 years, enrolment in such classed has plummeted.

Spain’s latest education reform is already meeting with broad popular rejection before it even comes into effect. A recent survey shows that 70 percent of Spaniards disagree with an item in the bill that will put religion class on the same footing as other subjects, with the goal of attracting more students and halting a decades-long drain in attendance.

Under the new system, grades obtained in religion class would count toward the student’s average grade the same way math or language courses do. Proponents hope this will make the subject more appealing to students who don’t see the point of enrolling.

The Catholic Church is also hoping that the new curriculum will include a “strong” alternative to religion class — tough enough that it will make religion seem more attractive to students who now choose the easy way out.

But the Metroscopia poll, conducted on May 22 and 23, reflects a massive rejection of this move by Socialist voters, and also by nearly half (48 percent) of supporters of the governing conservative Popular Party (PP). Even the Catholic community shows little support: 60 percent of those who said they practice their faith occasionally disagree, while that rate goes up to 70 percent of non-practicing Catholics. Only practicing Catholics, who represent 17 percent of the adult population, show support for the measure (61 percent). Within this group, 33 percent said they were against it.

In primary school, it’s the parents who choose, not the children”

Critics of the bill say the PP is serving the Church’s interests, not society’s. Despite the fact that a majority of Spaniards are nominally Catholic, growing numbers declare themselves non-practicing with every new generation, and statistics reflect that trend. In the school year 1996-1997, more than 80 percent of all school kids took religion class, according to the Spanish Catholic Church. In public schools, that rate was 75 percent. At the time the bishops complained that the education laws then in force were “deteriorating the normal development of religion class.”

Over the last 15 years, enrolment in religion class has plummeted. This school year, 66.7 percent of primary, secondary and post-secondary students signed up for the course. High school students show the least interest in it, with 73.4 percent of public school students choosing the alternative.

There is a reason for this. “In primary school, it’s the parents who choose, not the children,” notes José María Contreras Mazario, a professor of ecclesiastical law at Universidad Pablo de Olavide and director general for religious affairs for the government between 2008 and 2010. This year, only 26.6 percent of high-school students at public centers opted for religion class, a full 30 percentage points lower than 16 years ago.

Critics also note that bringing religion class up to par with other subject matter only fulfills the wishes of one Spaniard out of four, while it seems to fully satisfy the Church hierarchy, leading to speculation that the PP government is simply bowing to pressure from its own more conservative sector, rather than responding to a social demand or an academic need. This, at least, is the view of 64 percent of citizens, including, significantly, 44 percent of PP voters.

The survey suggests that society has yet to debate the issue of religion in school

In any case, if the item prospers, people would like for the Spanish state to be responsible for choosing the religion teachers, not the Catholic Church.

The survey seems to suggest that Spanish society has yet to undertake an honest, serene debate on the issue of religion in school — a debate encompassing believers and non-believers alike, from all faiths. It should be obvious that in a plural democracy, religion should not be the subject of easy insult, either at school or outside of it, nor should it be used for proselytism and indoctrination (and count for grades, too).

This and other changes to the existing law, including state subsidies for schools that segregate students by gender, appear to satisfy many historical demands by the Church. For over two decades — since the 1990 LOGSE education law went into effect — the bishops have been complaining about “discrimination” against religion class.

Prelates talk about “indifference and underestimation” of the importance of religion class on the part of parents and students. A 2010 survey conducted by the Church-associated Fundación Santa María (SM) shows that 53.31 percent of students between 15 and 17 who took religion class feel that it was “practically useless.” Only 15 percent thought it was “very useful.”

And this feeling extends to the Church in general. “Religion still takes one of the last spots on the scale of important things to young people,” says the sociologist Maite Valls Iparraguirre in the report Jóvenes españoles 2010. Youngsters aged 15 to 24 who participated in the study were asked to appraise 16 institutions. The Church placed last, even behind major corporations. “In other words: youngsters trust McDonald’s more than they trust the Church,” notes Juan María González-Anleo, a sociologist who participated in the last two editions of the Fundación Santa María survey.

Ultimately, and perhaps most significantly, the recent Metroscopia survey shows that Spaniards almost unanimously (86 percent) feel the education system will only improve when parties come together to produce a long-lasting pact, rather than make partisan reforms each time one of them reaches power, as has been the case so far. And the bill proposed by Education Minister José Ignacio Wert appears to fall squarely in the second category.