Character Education in Spain: Problems and Potential

One of the developing trends in education, internationally, over the last few years, has been the renewed attention to the moral dimensions of education, and more specifically, to character education. Spain is slowly starting to refocus its interest in the sphere of character education; however, it is happening more slowly than in other countries such as the USA or UK. The reasons for this reluctance have deep sociohistorical roots, and I cannot possibly analyse all of them in detail here.  However, I will focus on two of the most significant issues before finally exploring the potential for character education in Spain in the immediate future.

We should begin by referring back to Spain’s history during the twentieth century; the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the Franco regime and the Spanish Constitution that gave place to democracy in 1978. Despite the amount of time past, almost four decades, the conflict between the two sides is still kept alive in many different ambits of Spanish society, and some wounds have yet to heal. This can be seen in the educational context, where we have witnessed a lack of focus on moral issues, not only in educational laws, but in the writings of many scholars and the educational projects of many schools; and not just public schools, but also religious schools. For many, the concept of moral education has been considered too close to indoctrination, and the word virtue has lost its true meaning, in the classical sense, and is perceived only in its religious dimension, and thus rejected; being interpreted as a move towards secularisation on the one hand, and modernity, laicity and democracy, on the other.

The second issue cannot be viewed in isolation from the first, and within the sociohistorical context, the two are very much interrelated.  Despite the constitutional agreement, since the beginning of Spain’s democracy, several educational laws have been alternatively approved by left and right parties, which have failed to reach a basic consensus on education that avoided ideological confrontation and allowed coexistence. Article 27 of the Spanish Constitution establishes both the right to education and the freedom of teaching; these have been interpreted in different ways, and have either emphasised one or the other. This has produced, in some cases, zero sum games, where accepting one automatically suppresses the other.

As a solution, Spain passed a paradigmatic law, the Ley Orgánica de Educación (LOE), which in 2006 included citizenship education as a compulsory subject for every school. This received a lot of criticism from some influential quarters of the Spanish population due to its mandatory focus on character and its ideological and legalist dimensions. However, this can be seen from two perspectives, which in fact provides us with two faces of the same coin. Whilst it was an important moment that again placed on the table certain moral aspects of education, it was at the same time a lost opportunity. This is because a new education proposal with axiological character did not foster a consensus but instead continued to perpetuate those old social conflicts.

Nevertheless, despite these problems, we can say that never before have we had such an opportunity to promote moral education in Spain, and therefore, character education. Whilst there is a general dissatisfaction with the use of education as a political football, it seems that some initiatives are being developed to reach a minimum consensus that avoids past legislative swing and promotes respect for these two constitutionals principles. Whilst the failed citizenship education has highlighted the difficulty, if not the impossibility of reaching a consensus, it does not mean that education with an explicit moral dimension should be rejected outright. We should continue to look for a new way that could be adopted to accommodate different sensibilities, taking into account the number of mainly religious schools, but not limited to Catholic schools, according to the Spanish Constitution.

Within this new framework, character education could be a valuable option because of its versatility in different contexts, its attention to intellectual, social and individual aspects, and its important theoretical basis that avoids being reduced to a new educational fad, and susceptible to ideological manipulation. But this very much depends on us.

Dr. Juan Fuentes is an Assistant Professor in the Theory and History of Education Department at Complutense University of Madrid. Juan is on a scholarship from the Spanish Government and is working at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

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