Parents snub state schools

23rd May 2003 at 01:00

Heads with empty classrooms resign en masse over public funding for private places. Alex Leith reports.

A muddy no-man's land and 10ft graffiti-daubed wall lies between two schools in the Catalan town of Tarragona which have sparked a national debate about the flight of pupils to publicly-funded private schools.

Seventeen of 18 state heads in the town have resigned in protest at the centre-right Catalan government's policy of favouring private schools, which are mainly run by the church. They say state schools are increasingly being filled by newly-arrived immigrant children, while local children flee to the growing number of places in the private sector.

The mass resignation happened after Claudio Perez, head of the state-run Col-legi Serrallo, resigned after Easter because the Government decided to fund extra classes next door at the private Collegi El Carme to satisfy increasing demand, rather than fill empty places in his school. "The state favours private schools because it has to contribute half as much per pupil," said Mr Perez.

Col-legi El Carme is a typical example of a publicly-funded Catalan private school. From outside, its marble walls and mirrored windows mean the children can be heard but not seen. Inside , it is spotless and austere.

The Carmelite Sisters of St Joseph receive government cash to rent classrooms and to pay wages. The religious order receives no fees for enrolments, but gets revenue for extra-curricular activities that most children take part in in. Such schools educate 40 per cent of Catalan children - a figure that rises to 65 per cent in Barcelona - compared with a 30 per cent average nationally. Parents pay up to e250 (pound;150) a month in extra costs.

The schools are oversubscribed and government moves to fund extra places in response to demand have led to this crisis.

The drain of pupils into private education means state schools almost always have vacancies which are being filled by children from China, Pakistan, Morocco, and Latin America. Such immigrants now make up 40 per cent of state rolls in Catalonia. All must be taught Catalan before they can fully integrate into classes.

The heads' resignations were not accepted, but they are still threatening not to stand for re-election by their school council next year.

Catalan-born parents are avoiding the high immigrant population of state schools, exacerbating the problem. "It's a vicious circle," said Mr Perez.

"If we haven't yet reached a point where it has become a stigma for Catalans to send their children to a state school, we're not far off it."

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