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Can Catalonia show the way?

With devolution on the cards, viable alternatives to the centralised state come under the microscope. Catalonia in the north-eastern corner of Spain is one such case. It is often cited as an example of a historically distinct people who have managed to achieve a large measure of self-government within the structures of a larger state.

The Spanish experiment in regional autonomy began in 1980 and Catalonia, with the other "historical nationalities", the Basque country and Galicia, was first to take on responsibility for education. The last 10 regions will only do so on January 1 next year.

Almost 17 years later, the powers of regional governments differ widely. The Basques, for instance, have wider powers than Catalonia and can raise their own taxes. A few prerogatives remain firmly in Madrid. In education, central government formulates major legislation such as the 1990 root-and-branch reform of school education.

Central government also ensures a degree of uniformity between regions in terms of qualifications and teachers' working conditions. The approach could be characterised as ensuring the political centre sets a minimum framework and then allowing the regions considerable freedom in implementation. Magi Cadevall, education spokesman for the Socialist opposition in the Catalan parliament, says: "It is more a case of how you do things rather than what. "

The Catalan government, or Generalitat, has substantial freedom to run education in the way it sees fit. While overall funding is negotiated with Madrid, the Generalitat establishes its own priorities. "If Catalonia were to decide to spend more on education than on roads, it can do so, so long as we fulfil certain minimum requirements which are defined by law," Joseph Xavier Hernandez, the minister of education, says.

Decisions over where state schools will be built, levels of subsidy for private schools and nurseries, what will be taught in classrooms or even whether classes will be taught in Catalan or Castilian are all matters for the Generalitat.

The Generalitat has been controlled since 1980 by the centre-right Catalan nationalists of Converg nciai Unio, headed by veteran politician Jordi Pujol. Following Spain's last two general elections the party has found itself in the incongruous position of providing parliamentary support first to a minority socialist and now to a centralist conservative administration. In spite of pacts in Madrid however, relations on the regional stage do not always run smoothly.

Mr Hernandez thinks the division of responsibilities for education needs further clarification. Matters such as deciding who gets book or travel grants or regulations covering the size of school buildings should be the province of the Generalitat. "We agree that basic aspects of education should be state competences," he says, "but we totally disagree that whether a classroom is 80 square metres or 85 is a basic aspect."

Mr Cadevall goes a step further and says relations with Madrid are "full of continuous small conflicts". He cites battles over Catalan language requirements for teachers.

Views on Converg nciai Unio's record are divided. Ricardo Rodilla, spokesperson for the Catalan teachers' union, approves of the consensual way Catalan has been brought in as the main working language in schools but believes the level of subsidy for private schools and nurseries is unjustified. "We are heading for a two or even a three-tier system," he warns.

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