Sunday, September 29, 2013

Time for a change? The end of the siesta?

The other night I got a call from ABC Radio in Australia, asking me to comment on this story about Spain abandoning the siesta and changing (back) to the same timezone as the countries on Britain's latitude.

I did a short interview on their breakfast show [click on the MP3 link here to listen to it] and I argued that these proposed changes are (underneath all the supposed reasons) largely an attempt to get more hours of work from people without paying them more for it.

The study was set-up by Rajoy's PP government who have continually made it very clear that one of their biggest plans is to reduce wages and “reform” labour conditions. 

The report that was produced was part-authored by Nuria Chinchilla, a business school executive. That says a lot to me.

Business representatives are the first to blame workers for the economic problems in this country, while ignoring their part in often hiring relatives and friends ahead of better qualified and more experienced candidates.

It means that this kind of nepotism creates a type of employee who believes they do not have to work well to keep their job and the cycle of “jobs as favours” for those with connections continues. To me, this a much greater problem than anything related to hours of work.

One of the proposals being put is that people work 9 to 5 and have no siesta at all.

I have never had a two-hour lunch break and plenty of people here do not, but the less obvious part of the plan is to bump up the time spent working in the average day of the average working man or woman in Spain.

As Ignacio Buqueras, president of the Association for the Rationalisation of Spanish Working Hours says in a related Guardian article, "We should be starting between 7.30am and 9am and never finishing work later than 6pm. Half an hour, or an hour, is more than enough to time to eat a healthy lunch." In other words, it could be legal to start much earlier than 9am, work until 6pm and have only 30 minutes for lunch.

What are the chances that an increase in wages will accompany an increase in working time?

Zero percent chance.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Education in Catalonia - My latest article for Catalonia Today magazine


 [A version of this article was first published in Catalonia Today, Sept. 2013.]

This month thousands of parents across Catalonia will be almost cheering with relief, but most teachers will be feeling a mixture of dread and anticipation. The long summer break is now over and a new school year is beginning again, but what is education here all about?

As both a former secondary-school teacher and parent of a now 12 year-old boy, I think the system of education here has a number of very good points in its favour. Strangely though, these do not relate so much to the strictly academic side of schooling, but are more about the socialising of children and the habits of learning they generally acquire very well.

What strikes me most is how uplifting it is to to see older kids caring for younger ones and treating them well, and the fact that this is done naturally and informally (without any prefects, head boys or head girls -who usually do the opposite anyway.) While there is some bullying in schools here, the amount and severity of it is in real contrast to what I have often witnessed and had to deal with personally in Australia or the UK.

Another aspect of children's school life that provides emotional benefits for them is that their daily routine is structured in a predictable rhythm and there is typically little change among teaching staff. This means that in many public and semi-private concertada schools the kids know who will teach them in the following year and this is understood by the whole school community. This is just one way that students feel so secure at school here.

As I found when doing research for my book, “The Re-Made Parent,” surveys of mothers and fathers here have shown that a large majority of them feel that they are “welcome at school and that it is easy to contact the teachers...who are polite and respectful.” Equally, the food served to children at lunchtime is largely well-balanced in quality and variety, reflecting the outlook on good nutrition here, which is again not often the case in too many other nations.

In short, Catalonias schools play a crucial part in creating young people who in wider society are confident, well-behaved and usually polite, even if they are sometimes as loud as those from any other country. So, while the overall picture of schooling in Catalonia is a good one in some important areas, there are some points where it does not do so well.

A basic fact about education here is that it is both ccompulsory and free until the end of the fourth year of secondary school [ESO] and optional (but still free) for a further two years of Baccalaureate courses, or where 16 year old students can instead enter into a vocational “world of work” stream.

This means that, as with other European systems, parents and their kids are here being forced into deciding the future job paths they are obliged to take at a relatively very young age. I don't believe that there is enough maturity or self-knowledge in many15 year-old boys or girls to make such important judgements.

Also, as with most country's mainstream school systems, there is a very strong emphasis on exams being the best (and often only) way to determine a student's knowledge and understanding of topics. Here, the pressure of testing begins early in primary school and it goes along with large amounts of daily and weekly homework tasks in the “key” subjects.

Too often, these outside school “duties” are merely a repetition of classroom work and not an extension of learning or a development of learning. Teachers and students both know that homework tasks are typically meaningless but are compelled to follow this practise - big in quantity, rather than quality.

As well as this, old-fashioned teaching methods still largely dominate classroom activities. Rote-learning is still very common (though it is surely quite a useful skill in memory-development) and teacher 'chalk and talk' continues to take up the majority of time in most subjects.

I believe that teachers here are probably more friendly and personable with their students than in Japan for example, but too many precious hours are wasted every month when classes are very slow to start and classes are regularly left without the teacher actually present. This does only partly explain why secondary schools in general have a very poor academic record. 30 % of teenagers leave education with no qualifications at all. Other factors can include a high level of cheating in tests, sometimes accepted by teachers, student dis-engagement with the content and recently, rising class sizes (which leads to less individual teacher help for students, overall.)

However, competition to get into university is still a particularly strong feature of education here. This is one reason why after-school classes at logopèdias and academias are so popular, especially with Maths and English, but Catalan and Castellano are also standard subjects for further work.And it is here in the realm of languages where Catalonia is noteworthy.

Any article on education here cannot ignore the controversial (and at times emotive) question of Catalan in Catalonia's schools. By law, Catalan “will normally be used except in the study of other languages.” But when students have finished their compulsory education they are supposed to“know the two official languages and have a good knowledge of at least one foreign language” (in practise, this being usually English.)

Today, Catalonia faces the bizarre situation that the use of it's language in schools is under challenge from the current conservative Spanish national government. Change here is unlikely but some things will continue to alter. There has been a huge rise in the number of immigrant students since 1991, when it was less than 1%. Now kids from immigrant families are more than 15% of the population (including my own son!)

In the future, the challenges thrown up by “the crisis” (which I explore elsewhere in this month's magazine) will put new stresses on an education system that is both doing well, and not so well, by different measures.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

How the economic "crisis" kills

Photo: Corbis *from source.
On Monday morning a woman committed suicide in the Madrid suburb of Carabanchel, after receiving an eviction notice.

She was only the most recent victim of a problem that psychologists have been warning about for several years : mental disorders caused by the crisis, mainly due to a rapid increase in unemployment, ending up raising suicide rates.

But, even though there have been numerous studies linking mental disorders and economic crisis there had been no fully-conclusive evidence of it.

Until now.

The crisis has made
the suicide rate increase markedly around the world.

A new study published in the British Medical Journal this week says that in 2009, the year after
the start of the global economic crisis, the overall suicide rate among men rose by 3.3 %, an increase of approximately 5,000 self-inflicted deaths in all countries analyzed in respect to the expected trend. 


In Spain, suicides increased by 7.2% more than expected, but only among men, one of the authors of the study, professor of epidemiology at the University of Bristol, David Gunnell confirms.

In the
20 European countries that already have data for 2010, the analysis indicates an even greater increase in male suicide: 10.8 % more than in 2009.

Researchers from the University of Hong Kong , Oxford and Bristol, found that the evidence suggests that the increase in the number of deaths was observed mainly in the 27 European countries studied (up 4.2%) and in 18 countries in the Americas (6.4%) .

They further stress that their findings are "
probably an underestimate of the true impact of the global economic crisis on suicide " because some countries data was not yet available.

In fact , in the 20 European states that already have information on 2010, his analysis indicates an even greater increase in male suicide, 10.8% more than in 2009.

The increase in the suicide rate is particularly high among men in countries where the level of pre-crisis unemployment in 2007 was relatively low (in Spain it was at 8.26% ) .

According to the researchers, this is explained by "the economic crisis and rising unemployment causing more fear and anxiety...and countries where unemployment was low, which in turn has resulted in increased suicides."

For scientists, an increase in the suicide rate is usually the tip of the iceberg of emotional distress related to the recession. According to statistics, for every person who takes his own life, about 30-40 try to, and for every attempted suicide a dozen people experience suicidal thoughts.

The impact of the economic crisis on the mental health of the Spanish was investigated by a team of scientists from the University of the Balearic Islands, led by Dr. Margalida Gili.

They published their findings last year in the European Journal of Public Health. According to them, between 2006 and 2010, mental disorders (as seen by primary care physicians) grew significantly. In this period diagnoses of depression increased by 19.4 %, anxiety was up 8.4 % and there was a 4.6 % jump in alcoholism.

The government's austerity policy is causing further loss of jobs, and increasing the risk of suicide, the authors of the study found, but they are cautiously hopeful and insist that this problem has a solution:

"Our findings show that the economic crisis causes a significant increase in suicides, but previous research shows that this risk is not inevitable. Programs to boost the labor market may help offset the impact of the recession on suicide levels, since a successful relocation of the unemployed significantly reduces or eliminates risks to mental health on the unemployment. In times of cuts, countries with limited resources can focus their aid on young men of working age. In many countries, however, government austerity is causing further loss of jobs, which will increase the risk of suicide. Urgent action is needed before the economic crisis causes a further increase in suicides.

My translation from original source here.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Does this sound familiar...?

The events of the 1590s had suddenly brought home to more thoughtful Castilians the harsh truth about their native land – its poverty in the midst of riches, its power that had shown itself impotent…

For this was not only a time of crisis, but a time also of the awareness of crisis – of a bitter realization that things had gone wrong. It was under the influence of the arbitristas that early seventeenth-century Castile surrendered itself to an orgy of national introspection, desperately attempting to discover at what point reality had been exchanged for illusion….

The arbitristas proposed that Government expenditure should be slashed…

Most of the arbitristas recommended the reduction of schools and convents and the clearing of the Court as the solution to the problem. Yet this was really to mistake the symptoms for the cause.

MartínGonzález de Cellorigo was almost alone in appreciating that the fundamental problem lay not so much in heavy spending by Crown and upper classes –since this spending itself created a valuable demand for goods and services – as in the disproportion between expenditure and investment.

Money is not true wealth,’ he wrote, and his concern was to increase the national wealth by increasing the nation’s productive capacity rather than its stock of precious metals. This could only be achieved by investing more money in agricultural and industrial development. At present, surplus wealth was being unproductively invested –‘dissipated on thin air – on papers, contracts, censos, and letters of exchange, on cash, and silver, and gold – instead of being expended on things that yield profits and attract riches from outside to augment the riches within.And thus there is no money, gold, or silver in Spain because there is so much; and it is not rich, because of all its riches….’

The Castile of González de Cellorigo was…a society in which both money and labour were misapplied; an unbalanced, top-heavy society, in which, according to González, there were thirty parasites for every one man who did an honest day’s work; a society with a false sense of values, which mistook the shadow for substance, and substance for the shadow.

J.H. Elliott, Imperial Spain: 1469-1716

[Many thanks to Tom Young for sending me the above text.]

Saturday, September 14, 2013

"Who Killed Walter Benjamin?" - Screening of documentary in Barcelona

This new film by David Mauas will be shown in Barcelona on Monday the 16th of September. (Details: here.)
"In September 1940, after seven years of exile, Walter Benjamin crosses the Pyrenees in a desperate attempt to escape the Nazis.

According to the official version, Walter Benjamin did make it across the French-Spanish border successfully. But when he arrived in the Catalan town of Portbou, a sudden change in legislation impeded his entry into Spain and he was obliged to spend the night at a local hotel under the close vigilance of three guards, whose orders were to deport him the following morning.

In utter despair, Benjamin took his own life, swallowing an overdose of morphine. The local doctor, however, declared it a natural death and Benjamin was given a Catholic burial in the municipal cemetery, under a wrong name.

Did the doctor conceal some hidden cause of Benjamin´s death? Was there really a change of legislation? Was Walter Benjamin aware that Portbou was a pro-Franco town virtually occupied by the Nazis?

Who killed Walter Benjamin reaches for answers among the suspicious circumstances of his death. Giving at the same time, a portrait of a frontier town anchored between two fronts, constant witness of evasion, persecution and false hopes..."

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Human Chain and “The Human Headline”

While today in Catalonia (or Catalunya as I think it should be called in English) there is a human chain being attempted along the "Catalan Way" from the Valencian border to the French border, in support of Catalan independence on their national day, across Spain there is continuing outrage.

But this outrage is not against Catalunya this time but is instead being directed towards a woman called Ana Botella.

As the highly-controversial PP Mayor of Madrid (and also wife of ex-Prime Minister Aznar) she gave a short speech as part of a presentation to persuade international delegates to support Madrid's candidacy for the Olympics in 2020.( See below...)

I know (from this article) that her political views and public statements are almost entirely objectionable but, after actually listening to it, I thought this short speech was actually OK, given the audience.

Yes, Botella speaks with an accent (who the hell doesn't) but I understood every word and she seemed to me to be sincere in her enthusiasm about the city.

She had to simplify things (which the PP is particularly good at doing) and her statement that Madrid is "full of welcoming people" is a bit of an exaggeration but she has a good point about the rich culture of the city.

I'd give her 6.5 out of 10. It was no disaster but could have been quite a bit better, of course.

I'm sure she has a disgusting amount of privileges thrown her way, but getting plenty of practice with English was obviously not one of them, just as the average Spaniard or Catalan has few opportunities to use English unless they go out of their way to find them.

Much of the criticism of Botella is that she alone is to blame for Madrid not being awarded the 2020 Olympics, which have instead gone to Tokyo.

(There is even a satirical song about her called “A relaxing cup of café con leche.”)

I am always in favour of targeting individuals in power over their words and actions but I would think that her record as Mayor has a lot more in it to criticise than one average speech. In her time in public life she could easily be called a “human headline” because of her tendency to regualrly make ridiculous and poorly considered statements.

In my comments above I am simply trying to be fair to her because she is speaking a second language in a public forum, but it seems Ana Botella isn't fair to anyone except herself.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

What is "the crisis?" - My latest article in Catalonia Today magazine

(Photo: Javier)

This so-called crisis, which would more accurately be called a “depression” is a thousand varied things that need never have happened.
Despite the occasional sensation that life is just continuing on very much as before, the crisis here is certainly the more obvious things that many of us see when we care to look: more beggars on the streets, long queues in shoe repair shops, the recent appearance of solitary men selling tissues or cigarette lighters on the trains and Metro, a greater number of empty shops for sale or rent (or replaced by cheapo-import Chinese shops) and it is also reading more socio-political graffiti on walls. 

The crisis is a European-wide failure of institutions like the financial system and the pathetic political response to it, but it is also a very immediate, local phenomenon. 

In the small town where I live, three years ago there was both a bank and a restaurant – now there is neither.
As well, there are the abstract statistics that simply cannot put a human face to this tragedy - day after day of grim, sullen economic news. 

Three months ago, a newspaper headline stated that “60% of Andalusian children live in poverty.”

This sounds remote and abstract until we learn that there were children in Catalonia who were still going to school in July just to eat lunch, and they had to do this because it is next to impossible for their parents to provide daily meals at home.
But the crisis is about work too. 

It is hearing that another man has lost his job, or finding that your wife's job has been cut in half and therefore her income has also been halved. 

It is thousands of workers still lucky enough to have a job but not being “lucky” enough to get paid for their labour...for yet another month. 

And it is the insult of “mini-jobs” - (the underpaid mileurista is seeming like the one who is well-off) or it is listening to people at a café talking about the benefits of learning Chinese or German, ahead of English.
As well, the crisis is the news media being full of corrupt, cowardly politicians talking about everything except what could end the crisis. 

For thousands of people not in the aptly-termed “political class”, it is a rapid or a gradual descent into poverty – what George Orwell called “the crust-wiping,” - that constant search for ways to save money but still ending up unsatisfied after you eat. 

On top of all this, the crisis is that all-day sensation of being unpleasantly squeezed by the invisible forces of debt, a permanent unconscious burden that is carried by the unemployed and under-employed when a family has no genuine bread-winner.
But what is it that has saved this country from violence, riots and social disturbance on a grand scale? 

The family. 

The extended family, acting as helpers, carers and givers of money, love, and as many kinds of assistance that you can think of. 

Without this blood-linked stability across Mediterranean Europe, things would surely be even worse.
Sometimes, when I have thought about the crisis I have been reminded of a Bob Dylan line about how the sun starts to shine on him.

 But then (in a single phrase that could speak for millions of Europe's economic victims) he sadly sings “but it's not like the sun that used to be.”

[A version of the above text was first published as an opinion piece in Catalonia Today magazine, September 2013.]