Madrid: Spain’s education minister said Wednesday the government wants to “hispanicise” school pupils in Catalonia, sparking fury in a powerful region where many are calling for independence.

Education Minister Jose Ignacio Wert was broadly criticised for his comments to parliament, made as the debt-ridden northeastern region prepares for snap elections November 25.

“Our interest is to hispanicise the Catalan pupils and that they feel as proud to be Spaniards as they are to be Catalans,” Wert said, adding that the same words had been spoken by the Catalan education chief.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s right-leaning Popular Party government wants those children “to be able to have a balanced existence between the two identities because both enrich them and strengthen them,” Wert added.

“And we will carry on along this line.”

The minister was asked whether he believed the Catalan education system was responsible for independence stirrings in the region.

“The drift that has taken place in part of the education system in Catalonia facilitates a concealment or minimisation of common elements, in particular those historical elements that make up the history of Catalonia within Spain,” he said.

Catalonia believes it gets a raw deal from the central government, which levies far more taxes in the region than it returns.

The discontent has grown as Catalonia is forced, like the other regions in Spain, to slash health and education spending so as to lower its deficit. Catalonia has been forced to go cap in hand to Madrid for money to finance its public debt and pay off suppliers.

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Barcelona on September 11 this year, the Catalan national day, calling for independence.

In a football match Sunday between Barcelona and Real Madrid, which ended in a 2-2 draw, a giant mosaic in the colours of the Catalan flag was spread across the Catalan city’s Camp Nou stadium. One banner amongst the 98,000 fans read simply: “Freedom for Catalonia”.

Catalonia’s regional education chief Irene Rigau said Wert’s comments revealed a “pre-constitutional vision of Spain,” a reference to General Franciso Franco’s policy of concentrating power in the centre.

The Spanish education minister “does not care about quality or efficiency but about hispanicising”, said Anna Simo, spokeswoman for the pro-independence party Republican Left of Catalonia.

“We urgently need citizenship education for ministers,” Carme Chacon, former Spanish defence minister in the previous Socialist government, wrote on her Twitter account.