The government must solve the immigration crisis in state schools, which has been exacerbated by the flight of Spanish pupils to the publicly-funded private sector, the parliamentary ombudsman on human rights has declared.
"Intervention is absolutely necessary," according to the Madrid-based Defensor del Pueblo (Defender of the People). The ombudsman has published a report on the issue following an exhaustive survey carried out on its behalf by Unicef, the United Nations' Children's Fund.
The crisis was highlighted by the resignation after Easter of 17 out of 18 state school headteachers in Tarragona, one of the cities where the problem is acute.
The heads, whose resignations were rejected, are furious that the state has carried on funding more private-school places for Spanish children while they struggle with half-empty classrooms dominated by immigrants ("Parents snub state schools", TES, May 23).
Spanish parents can choose, free of charge, to send their children to oversubscribed state-sponsored private schools that are mostly run by Catholic organisations.
The result is that state schools have increasingly large numbers of vacancies and, the Unicef survey reveals a concentration of immigrant children. This has damaged the quality of education in those schools, according to the teachers interviewed for the survey.
The number of immigrant pupils in Spanish schools has more than doubled in the past decade to 124,000, at a time when the indigenous school population has been shrinking.
In Madrid and Catalunya up to 65 per cent of students in some state schools are of non-Spanish origin, two thirds of them from Latin America or North Africa.
In Spain, largely autonomous regions control education and each is taking measures to counter the problem.
In Catalunya, where 18 per cent of immigrant pupils live, the government is promising extra resources from the start of the next school year. Schools where more than 25 per cent pupils are immigrants will get funding for an extra hour of tuition per day for the children concerned.
In Madrid - which educates 29 per cent of immigrant schoolchildrent - the government has set up special classes in 142 schools (10 per cent of the total) with immigrant children.
But teacher unions complain that these measures are superficial and do not address the fundamental problem - that children are unequally distributed between state and private schools.
This is important because the Defensor del Pueblo does not have the power to change the law, but the body's recommendations carry significant political weight. The report concludes that there must be equal distribution of immigrant pupils throughout the public and private sector; that large concentrations of immigrant schoolchildren in schools must be avoided; and that extra resources for integration must be found.
The issue is likely to become a major battleground in the forthcoming elections in Spain. In October the autonomous regions go to the polls, and in March 2004 there is a general election.
The issue is particularly sensitive in Catalunya, where education is high on the agenda of the Socialist party's Pascal Maragall, who looks likely to topple Jordi Pujol's conservative-nationalist CiU party, which has been in power since dictator General Franco's death.