The concerted school in the face of inequalities: the pending debate

In Spain, concerted education is a diverse and complex sector. Both the profile of state-subsidised schools and their relative weight on enrollment vary considerably between autonomous communities, but also within them. In Catalonia, Madrid or the Basque Country and in some urban areas of other communities, concerted education has a particularly significant weight on total enrollment, and spending on concerts represents a very significant percentage of public spending on education. Despite its great heterogeneity, the data show that concerted education contributes to the generation of educational inequalities, especially in terms of school segregation. The latest PISA study indicates that, for Spain as a whole, public schools enroll a percentage of students with a low socioeconomic level that is 2.2 times higher than state-subsidised schools, and 1.6 times more students of immigrant origin.

A few days ago, we presented the study The Concerted to Debate, which, from an international and comparative perspective, aims to address the issue of educational concerts in Catalonia. Beyond the focus on the Catalan case, a large part of the results and reflections contained in the report also have implications for the debate at the state level.

The international evidence on the relationship between concerted education and educational inequalities is clear and convincing. Those systems with models of mixed provision (where public and private schools financed with public funds are combined), present higher levels of school segregation and social stratification between centers of different ownership. This inequality is accentuated when concerted education has a significant weight on total enrollment. A recent report published by Eurydice confirms this. According to this body of the European Commission in charge of analyzing educational systems, after controlling for the level of public spending on education, segregation based on the academic ability of students is greater in those countries where private education financed with public funds has a higher weight.

In Spain, the origin of the current concert system dates back to the eighties. It emerges as a response to the need to expand education in the context of budget restrictions in the 1980s, but also as a way to resolve a historical tension over the role of the Catholic Church in educational provision. In any case, this historical origin of the concert model should not be an excuse not to review it. Proof of this is that, in recent years, other mixed provision systems with a long history (as is the case of the Netherlands, Belgium or Chile) have initiated processes of debate and reform as a result of the effects of concerted education about educational inequalities.

Concerted education contributes to inequalities, the evidence is overwhelming. The time has come to open the focus of the debate and focus the public conversation on the changes that must be made to the model, just as countries around us have done. The challenge is enormous, but the demographic fall opens a unique opportunity to rethink the system of educational concerts in Spain. The sharp decline in the school population, the effects of which will only increase in the coming years, will have implications for the planning of the education system as a whole, but it will be especially decisive for the concerted sector, whose viability depends especially on its ability to maintain a certain enrollment level. In this context, the regulatory debate should answer two main questions. On the one hand, what reforms can allow the concerted sector to contribute to the objectives of quality and equity in the education system? And, on the other hand, what private schools should have a place in the concert system?

On the first issue, international experience shows that the necessary reforms should occur in different regulatory areas. In the field of school financing, there is an increasing trend towards greater equivalence between public and private schools. It is, however, a change that must be inexorably subject to the co-responsibility of the concerted sector in the schooling of socially disadvantaged students, as well as a firm commitment to make free education effective. This, in turn, inevitably involves the effective abolition of fees and other family contributions to schooling, and requires higher levels of financial transparency. International evidence also points to the need to give the public powers a greater role in the governance of the system, to reinforce the weight of educational planning criteria in the design of public and concerted offer, to avoid, for example, situations of oversupply that contribute to the unbalanced distribution of students.

Regarding which schools should be part of the concert model, it should be borne in mind that the level of co-responsibility of the concerted centers in the schooling of socially vulnerable students is very diverse. An equity agenda should define criteria for the concession and termination of educational agreements with which to ensure that only those centers with a clear desire for public service have a place in the public financing system. This implies conditioning the continuity of the centers in the concert system to their commitment to a free horizon and an unequivocal co-responsibility in a balanced distribution of students. It should be remembered that, especially in those autonomous communities where the concertada has a greater weight on enrollment, there is a segment of educational centers with a clear elitist will integrated into the concertada system. Again, the comparative evidence points to the fact that these are centers that in other contexts would form part of the non-subsidized private offer. It is therefore necessary to establish exit mechanisms from the concert system that allow the concerted offer to be resized according to criteria of equity and public service.

The reform of mixed provision systems is an urgent and complex undertaking. Indeed, attempts to reform concert models tend to be the focus of opposition and resistance. This is what happened in countries like Belgium and Chile, where the opposition has not only come from the owners of concerted schools, but also from the families themselves. Decades of concerted educational provision have implications in aspects such as the population’s preferences regarding provision models, and contribute to the internalization of school choice as a means of social distinction. For this reason, certain reforms are experienced by some families as an usurpation of rights.

In our context, we see how, faced with the proposals for change that have been put forward in recent years, the concerted sector has often responded with a defense of the status quo, claiming an increase in the financing of the sector under the argument that this will automatically translate into a greater co-responsibility of the sector in the enrollment of vulnerable students. However, the necessary reforms are more far-reaching and require adequate regulation of many aspects that include but go far beyond financing. In addition, to be effective, these reforms must have the collaboration and commitment of all the parties involved. For the concerted sector, collaborating with these regulatory changes does not imply giving up its school autonomy, as long as it is not used as a strategy of social closure, for example, through excessively expensive educational projects. But it does imply admitting that the problem of social inequality between public and concerted centers is a reality, and acquiring a firm commitment to the equity objectives of the system and, of course, to the public interest in education.

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