The Mission of the School is to Transform the Country

Universal education is now considered one the most important duties of the state. This is, however, a recent development. Today, 14 April, to mark the anniversary of the proclamation of the Spanish Second Republic in 1931, we publish a blog-post on the efforts made by the early governments of the Republic to to deal with the high levels of illiteracy by establishing a system of universal primary education

Spain had been one of the first European states to recognise the importance of universal education. The 1812 Constitution proclaimed that every village should have a primary school (article 366) and the Moyano Law of 1857 made school attendance obligatory until the age of nine.

These ambitious aims were, however, not translated into reality and the state relied heavily on the Church to provide education, both at primary level and at secondary, where some of its schools were among the most prestigious in the country.  In 1931 the Ministry of Education estimated that there were 32,680 schools and 27,151 more were needed [see Educación y Cultura en la Segunda República]. Based on an assumption that the average rural primary school would have one class of 50 pupils, there was a deficit of one million primary school places.

The consequences of this shortfall in school provision were to be found in the high rates of adult illiteracy, which amounted to over 30 per cent in the early 20th century and which, in some provinces, were over 60% [see detail]. As in any society with such high levels of illiteracy,  the abilities of many of those who qualified as literate were probably also very low.  Not surprisingly these estimates obscured major variations – between different social classes, between urban and rural areas (literacy tended to be higher in cities) and also between different parts of the country (northern Spain was generally more literate than the south). Illiteracy also largely affected women: the overall rate of adult illiteracy in the province of Zaragoza at the time was 30 per cent but 62 per cent of those who were illiterate were women, according to the Museo Pedagógico de Aragón

For the political leaders of the Second Republic universal literacy was fundamental. The Republican project did not simply represent the replacement of the monarchical form of government, but rather the opportunity to modernise Spain. Part of that modernisation was the creation of a literate and informed citizenry who would be capable of exercising the responsibilities necessary to support a system of representative government. This was recognised, for example, by Manuel Azaña, who became Prime Minister in October 1933, when he stated that “the state school should be the shield of the Republic” [“la escuela pública debía ser el escudo de la República”]. The role of education was also stressed by Rodolfo Llopis, Director-General of Primary Education, in a speech in Zaragoza in December 1932:

the mission of the school is to transform the country….so that those people who are now treated as subjects may become the responsible citizens of a Republic [La misión de la escuela es transformar el país en estos momentos (…) que los que estaban condenados a ser súbditos, puedan ser ciudadanos conscientes de una República] [source]

Llopis’s words were reflected in several articles in the 1931 Constitution, which stated that “the provision of culture is an essential responsibility of the State, and it will be provided by means of educational institutions linked to a unified system of schooling”. [El servicio de la cultura es atribución esencial del Estado, y lo prestará mediante instituciones educativas enlazadas por el sistema de la escuela unificada].  Under Article 48 primary education was to be “free and obligatory” [gratuita y obligatoria] and teaching was to be “carried out by lay professionals” [laica] and “inspired by ideals of human solidarity” [se inspirará en ideales de solidaridad humana].

Given the shortage of primary schools, the new government  committed itself almost immediately to a plan to build 5,000 new primary schools a year for the next five years. Land was to be provided by municipalities while the government would contribute towards construction costs and pay the salaries of teachers.

After the first ten months the Minister of Education was able to announce the construction of over 7,000 new schools.  Thereafter the pace of building dropped, partly because of financial restraints and partly because of the conflict with the Church and its political consequences. As a result the figure for 1932 was 2,580, for 1933 3,990 and for 1934-35 (the two years of government by the centre-right) 3,421. This represented a total of 9,991 in four years. These figures should be compared with the  total of 11,128 new schools opened under the monarchy in the three decades after 1900.

The government ministers most closely associated with this building programme – and with further reforms to strengthen and modernise the school system –  were Marcelino Domingo, Minister of Education between April and October 1931 and Fernando de los Ríos who succeeded him from October 1931 until the fall of the Azaña government in October 1933.

Of course, new schools required more teachers and the Ministry launched a programme to recruit some of the many holders of the title of licenciado (a teaching qualification) who had no teaching experience by providing 7,000 places on refresher courses. There were also measures to improve the status and pay of primary teachers: the notoriously low pay of teachers was reflected in the common expression “to be as poor as a school-teacher” [“pasar más hambre que un maestro de escuela”]. Teachers, who under the Constitution were given the status of public servants or  “funcionarios publicos”,  saw their salaries increase by about 15% between 1931 and 1933.

Teachers were, in fact, seen as key figures in the consolidation of the Republic: as the Revista de Pedagogía stressed in May 1931: “As Spanish teachers, we more than anyone, are obliged to be the most enthusiastic defenders of the Republic. We have the duty of providing the schools with the essential ideas which support it: liberty, personal independence, solidarity, civility”. [“Los educadores españoles estamos, como nadie, obligados a ser los defensores más entusiastas de la República. Tenemos el deber de llevar a las escuelas las ideas esenciales en que se apoya: libertad, autonomía, solidaridad, civilidad.” [source]. As Carlos París has noted:

“this gave rise to a generation of teachers identified with the Republic. The Franco regime identified this and banned from teaching those who had taught in the Republican zone during the Civil War” [“Surge así toda una generación de maestros identificados con la República. El régimen franquista tomó tan buena nota de ello, que prohibió la enseñanza a todas las personas que la habían ejercido en la zona republicana durante la Guerra Civil.”

Measures were also taken to improve and extend secondary education, including the building of new schools. Co-educational secondary schools were to replace single-sex provision, a move which provoked opposition from parents especially in some rural areas and smaller cities. Co-education would later be banned by the Franco Dictatorship. 

The Republic’s educational reforms helped to fuel a serious dispute with the Church and to earn it the hostility of many devout Catholics. Article 26 of the Constitution prohibited religious orders from teaching. In 1931 the Ministry of Education asked municipalities for the number attending religious primary schools. The total came to 350,000 – to replace which, again on the basis of fifty pupils per school, would require the state to build an additional 7,000 schools. The Church also owned about 300 secondary schools with some 20,000 pupils. Unlike primary schools, the government could not immediately replace these because of the lack of qualified staff to substitute for the members of religious orders who taught in them. However, before this issue could be resolved, the Azaña government fell from office and was replaced by a centre-right administration led by Alejandro Lerroux which ignored this constitutional provision.  

PHOTO: José Sánchez Rosa’s school. He was an Andalusian rationalist teacher, follower of Francisco Ferrer Guardia’s teaching model. Image taken in Seville in 1936, shortly before the so-called ‘Alzamiento
Nacional’ (National Rising), the name given by its supporters to the
attempted military coup.. Author: Franciscojosecuevasnoa [CC BY-SA]

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