Monday, February 22, 2016

Basque schooling: from clandestiny to fame

by Eider Etxebarria Zuluaga

Eider Etxebarria Zuluaga is a graduate student in Spanish Linguistics at the University of Illinois. Eider is planning on finishing her Master’s degree and continuing with a Ph.D. in the same field. She is planning on teaching Basque and Spanish in the future. She wrote this text as a student in 418 ‘Language and Minorities in Europe’.

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1896 was a memorable year in the history of Basque revitalization. This is the year when Kolejio-Ikastechea, the first school that taught entirely in euskera, the Basque language, was founded by Resurrección María de Azkue (1864-1951) in Bilbao. Although the school sorrowfully closed four years later due to the insufficient number of students, at the beginning of the 20th century, so-called auzo-eskolak (neighborhood schools), Basque schools with a more communitarian nature, sprang forth in the Basque-speaking regions. The Second Spanish Republic (1931-1939) authorized the teaching of Basque, to some extent. My great aunt used to tell us that she studied in euskera at school. The Republican era proclaimed religious freedom (“Spain has no official religion”, article3 from the 1931 Constitution), institutionalizing thus laicism in schools. However, with Franco’s dictatorship intrusion, forty years of hunt and terror began, and everything related to euskera, Basque culture or Basque identity was harshly condemned. Bascophilia (euskofilia) was inclemently trampled on. The banner of the Francoist Regime was “España, una, grande y libre” (Spain, one, big and free”) and Castilian was the only language to be used in the Spanish State, of course. Castilian was instilled through institutional tools such as administration, media and education. In this manner, schools were turned into an indoctrination tool at the service of the nation.

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Ikastolak, which emerged during the 60s (1959-1969), constitute the front line of the Basque schooling system. These schools were principally created to fight the imminent extinction of euskera and to confer it with a previously unrecognized status and prestige as a language of culture, administration and life. At the time of their creation, Ikastolak symbolized a socially supported and needed strategy adopted by Basques in Euskal Herria to combat the oppression of Spain and France. As López-Goñi (2003: 662) explains, during the dictatorship they had to be run “on a semi-clandestine basis” under the permanent threat of governmental penalties. These clandestine schools were more commonly known as casas-escuela (school-houses) because classes where taught in particular houses, usually the teachers were the owners of these houses. Las casas-escuelas were financially maintained by students’ parents. It was under these furtive back-door circumstances where ikastolak established themselves as an alternative option for receiving education in Basque. It was around this time when Euskal Herria saw a process of collective awareness strongly sprouting with social gatherings, dancing groups, singing groups, Basque teaching groups, mountain teams, etc.

After the Statute of Autonomy (Autonomia Estatutua) in 1979, better known as the Statute of Guernica (Gernikako Estatutua), ikastolak were legitimately institutionalized. By that time, Spain and France already had well-established national education systems.  Each of these countries alleged that their systems were developers of equality, uniformity, and centrality for their respective nations. This way, the government had complete control and power over all resources such as people, money, information and technology. Ikastolak, for its part, had to be created as a measure of decentralization. Authority passed down to the Basque Government (Euskal Gobernua), who channeled their actions through the Ministry of Education and finally got to each of the individual schools. Thus, although the locus of power remained with the Spanish government, the Basque government could now decide the curriculum content, control the budget and were responsible for employment, building facilities, discipline policies, etc. In the Basque case, as it is in the Breton, Corsican or Catalan cases, the creation of their own forms of schooling enabled and assured the continuity, development and well-being of their languages. Institutionalized Basque education not only played a key role in the prosperity of Basque, but more importantly, it assured its survival.

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The 90s gave a turnaround to the Basque educational system for good but at the same time, they caused the crisis of ikastolak. On February 19, 1993 “Ley de la Escuela Pública Vasca” (Basque Public School Law) passed on. Ikastolak were given three months to decide whether they wanted to become public or stay as ikastolak. 55% of the ikastolak (63 out of 114 schools) remained as ikastolak, while 37% (42 schools) decided to become public. The remaining 8% (11 schools) remains undetermined. Concerning the students, it is estimated that 35,991 students (64%) stayed in ikastolak, while 14,020 students (25%) trusted the public school system. Some of the reasons behind their incorporation to the public school net include the conception that they already accomplished their historical function or economic problems. In such a way, Euskal Eskola Publikoa (Basque Public School) began to take the first steps forward.

Ikastolak are semi-private Basque schools which receive funding from the government in addition to funding from private sources such as enterprises and religious associations, among many others. In contrast, Euskal Eskola Publikoa is the public Basque school system funded and administered by Eusko Jaurlaritza (the Basque Government). This might be a never-ending rivalry between two stances: supporters of the public system argue that quality education should be guaranteed by the government, and it should be accessible and affordable. On the other hand, supporter of the semi-private system argue that money guarantees better quality. In my opinion, one of the issues that harmed most the work behind the educational revolution in Euskal Herria has been the tendency to politicize it. Commonly, the left wing community has relied upon public schools, the center wing has preferred the semi-private schools, and the right wing has trusted private institutions. However, generalizing is falling into committing a terrible mistake. What is undeniable is how indefatigably the Basque education system has worked in the society and for the society. The Basque education system has been the driving force behind the acquisition of euskera in a new generation that might never have acquired it at home, my generation.


Euskal Herriko Ikastolak. Euskaltzaindia. (2003). El movimiento de las ikastolas. Un pueblo en marcha. El modelo ikastola 1960-2010. Jagon Saila, 1-353.

López-Goñi, I. (2003). Ikastola in the twentieth century: an alternative for schooling in the Basque Country. History of Education,32(6), 661-676.


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