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Teachers and pupils on the warpath

The schools strike reflects the frustration of a sector that has been hit hard by cutbacks

Tuesday’s strike, which was supported by tens of thousands of teachers and pupils at all levels of the education system, is a clear sign of the frustration that is being generated by the budget cutbacks in this sector. Without entering into the usual war of figures, the facts are that school activity was considerably reduced throughout almost the whole of Spain — the stoppage was called in 14 regions — though more in the universities than at other educational levels, and that the docking of pay that will follow this new protest will shave a little more off the already diminished salaries of teachers. This ought to be taken into account to counteract the frivolity of those who are attempting to downplay the protests by terming them idle, holiday-making demonstrations, organized by irresponsible public employees actuated by mere political motives.

No doubt there has been a certain degree of overacting in the assertion that the cutbacks now being undertaken amount to a dismantling of the public education system, but it is undeniable that they are going to have worrying effects. It is, at the very least, odd when the same people who defend staff reductions and the new government directives preventing the bringing in of substitute teachers until the regular teacher has exceeded 14 days’ sick leave, now term those who stop schoolwork for a day when exams are not far off irresponsible.

The fact is the national and most of the regional governments, driven by the need to bring down the public deficit, have turned their eyes, among other things, to the voluminous outlay on the education system, which is about to suffer the greatest and sharpest regression in many decades, falling in only five years from 4.9 to 3.9 percent of GDP. This is a hair-raising figure for a system whose quality already leaves much to be desired, and needs the exact opposite: more investment and better management.

It is not expected that a strike — even when preceded by numerous other protests — will modify the Cabinet’s decision, but it would be desirable if the latter, exercising the sense of responsibility that they demand of others, should at least prove capable of accompanying the expenditure-containment measures with plans for the optimization of resources. These are conspicuous by their absence, though, true, it is not easy to reduce the negative impact of cutbacks on the sector. In an increasingly impoverished population — with 2.2 million minors living in households below the poverty-risk line, according to a recent Unicef report — raising university entrance fees, reducing the number of daycare centers, laying off thousands of teachers, increasing the number of pupils per schoolroom, and eliminating after-school programs are moves that are going to increase social inequality. They are also going to erode the quality of public education, and adversely condition the future of the country. To belittle the protests against all these things is frivolity indeed.

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