The public institute directed by Toni Solano in Castellón, inaugurated a decade ago, was built by a public company of the Valencian Generalitat, Ciegsa, which was the protagonist of one of the great corruption scandals of the Valencian PP. It has a careful design, but as soon as you cross the door, the director points out a water leak in the courtyard that has flooded part of the soccer field. The institute, the Bovalar, is located next to the Jaume I University campus, in an area of urban expansion, and welcomes students from very different neighbourhoods. “We have everything, from the children of university professors to kids who are in a shack,” he says. The center is also overcrowded: it was built for 600 students and next year it will accommodate 900. Born in Montilla (Córdoba) 54 years ago, a Spanish Language and Literature teacher, Solano opened a blog in 2006 and thousands of teachers follow your opinions on social media. His tone turns to concern, especially when he talks about the impact that these years of pandemic have left on the students’ minds.
Ask. A few years ago I warned of a schism between teachers who were supporters of educational innovation and others who were against it. Do you think it has gone further?
Answer. There is a movement that thinks that the school is going forward and another that thinks that it is going backwards. Those who think that the school is getting worse constitute themselves as reactionaries to any change, and those who believe that it is going to get better defend the changes. And in that tension we are. I don’t think it’s so much a question of innovation, a concept that perhaps has been closely linked to technologies and certain methodological models, such as gamification (the educational use of games), I think it doesn’t go that far. There is a lot of innovation that is done without technology and that has nothing to do with educational snobbery. For me, innovation is improvements that lead to a reduction in school failure.
Q. What do you understand by moving forward in education?
R. That public education reaches more and more people, not only minors, but that it extends to adults. That it be inclusive, of quality and diverse, because reality is diverse. A school in which, although it sounds like a cliché, there is room for everyone and they get the attention they deserve. It seems like a utopian point, but I think that with resources it can be reached, what happens is that in that case resources cannot be diverted to other things.
By setting more difficult exams we are not going to get a higher level
Q. What do you think of the trend that claims traditional teaching?
R. The traditional teaching models that we know have left out 50% of Spaniards. It is what happened in the seventies or eighties, you just have to look at the statistics. Compulsory secondary education has spread and has progressively reached more layers of society, there are more and more high school graduates and people who go to university. And I think it’s an achievement. Even so, we still have a long way to go, because many people still remain on the road. There is still a human potential that we need to attend to and that the school has to assume. When I hear people say that we have to return to the demands, the first thing I think about is the students who have difficulties. Because those were the ones who were left in a corner and invited to leave the system. By setting more difficult exams we are not going to get a higher level. We will ensure that only those who are capable of solving difficult exams remain.
Q. There are voices, left and right, who argue that education reform will hurt disadvantaged students.
R. Sometimes (learning through) competencies is linked to privatizations and the OECD. I seem to mix some things with others. When I think of competitions I think of kids learning, not the OECD. When I work on the skills in Language and Literature projects, we can see San Juan de la Cruz, Machado or Cernuda. I don’t think they have much to do with the OECD. Behind school failure there is a socioeconomic factor, and the public school should at least mitigate that family gap. When it is not able to compensate, in most cases due to lack of resources, it is not fulfilling its function. And with this, those who want to privatize it agree with it and say: “If it doesn’t solve anything, then let it be a free educational market and save whoever can.” I think competency-based teaching models can help a bit. But they are not going to solve it completely if there are not also resources.
Q. The new education system has to begin to be applied in September, but the approval of the regulations that specify it is delayed. Are you worried?
R. I see it as very hasty that we start with the new law, because it is going to catch us with the wrong foot and we are going to generate some discomfort. But the truth is that reforms are always rushed. Perhaps educational policies should go in another line. It seems that they are done quickly for fear that others will come and change them.
Q. You teach Spanish Language and Literature, how do you see the new curriculum for the subject?
R. I have not done a detailed analysis. I like the approach, because it includes many of the things that we have been reflecting on and working on for years. The people I know who have been behind the curriculum give me the most confidence and work the way I like. It is also true that many structural changes are missing for these proposals to take hold. We return to the issue of resources and attention to diversity. It is very difficult for a teacher to work like this in a classroom with 30 students if they do not have these resources, it must be said very clearly. I have worked many times on projects and, either we have had co-teaching (two professors in the class), or I have had ratio reductions doing splits, or I have been overwhelmed and there has been no way to manage it. This approach, for me more effective, can remain in borage water if there is no accompaniment of resources.
Of all those who repeat there are few, perhaps 10%, who take advantage of it
Q. Now, with more perspective, how would you say these years of pandemic have impacted the students?
R. On the one hand, they have endured a super complicated situation of stress and anguish for which none of us were prepared. They less because they are children. I’ve seen them super strong, but it’s taking its toll on them. It has happened to all of us, but especially to them. Every day we see more self-injurious and suicidal tendencies, anxieties, depressions, like never before. It is true that the trend came from before the pandemic. Probably, and it is my personal judgment, from the pressure and continuous exposure to the networks, to mobile phones… I see children badly, they need a lot of help. The directors continuously request, in all meetings with the Administration, specialized personnel in mental disorders. We cannot diagnose or supervise. We have boys and girls who have to be accompanied throughout the school day for fear that they may harm themselves and, once again, we do not have the resources to be on top of them.
Q. And in the academic field?
R. I think it is true that there is going to be a covid generation, with deficiencies, because there were three months of confinement and then at some levels blended learning, which was going halfway. They are young, malleable and flexible and they will probably end up making up for those deficiencies, well… But it will show, although I think it will affect them more emotionally and psychologically.
Q. The current reform reduces course repetitions. Why are you critical of them?
R. We are the neighboring country with the highest repetition rate and we are at the tail of school failure. If it were a good measure, the result would be the opposite. Experience has shown me that of all those who repeat there are few, perhaps 10%, who take advantage of it. But in most cases it is a lack of maturity that could be perfectly resolved the following year. Repetition is something that generates neglect and frustration in many students. They internalize the idea of: “I am the clumsy one”. And the following year they yield even less. It forces teachers to design attention plans that, given the diversity in the classroom, it is very difficult for them to follow up… There are very few reasons to keep repeating. It should really be, as the law says, an exceptional measure, because it generates a repeater plug that does not solve anything. Some say that his classmates, if they see that others pass the course (with failures), they will stop making an effort, but I have never observed anything like that. I think adolescents don’t work that way.
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