EDUCATION

Parents come down hard on cuts

Final day of students' strike saw children of all ages stay away from schools

Thousands of people marched through downtown Madrid last Thursday in protest at the cutbacks and educational reform.
Thousands of people marched through downtown Madrid last Thursday in protest at the cutbacks and educational reform.CARLOS ROSILLO / EL PAÍS

On weekdays mother of two María Amate gets up around seven each morning. She first wakes her 14-year-old daughter Mireia, and then makes breakfast and prepares her school things, after which she wakes up her two-year-old, Celia. At eight, the eldest girl heads out to her local high school in the working-class district of Vallecas, and María takes Celia to nursery school before going to her office at the social services department.

But on Thursday, the 33-year-old took the day off to support the first strike organized by CEAPA, the country's largest body representing parents of school students, which in turn was backing a three-day walk-out by high school and university students to protest government cuts in education spending. Not all students followed the strike, and some schools remained open, with teachers in attendance. Amate says 99 percent of children were at her daughter's nursery school, but around 60 percent of students were absent from the high school.

But it was a significant step, and came after teachers went on strike in May against the cuts and proposals to change the education system. University students, who have been protesting the cuts since the beginning of the academic year, also supported the action, with some staging sit-ins at their colleges. On Thursday, parents, teachers and students staged marches throughout Spain's main towns and cities, bringing hundreds of thousands of people out on to the streets, and calling for the resignation of the controversial and outspoken Education Minister José Ignacio Wert.

Aside from administering cutbacks, Wert has reform proposals aimed at tailoring education to better suit the needs of the labor market. The government wants to implement exams when students complete elementary school that would determine their level of studies at high school, and again at age 16 that would decide if they were able to undertake two years of studies to prepare for university. Those with low marks would be channeled into technical colleges. Those who passed would have to sit another exam at the end of their two years of studies that would determine which university they could go to.

Syllabus of strife

- Deep cuts. In 2012 alone, spending on education by the central and regional governments was cut by 1.1 billion euros. Add to that the three billion euros the government wants to cut this year and next, along with the reductions outlined in the 2010 budget, and spending since then has fallen by six billion euros.

- Staff cuts. There are still no official figures for this academic year, but labor unions estimated that between 50,000 and 80,000 teachers have been laid off this year. Reducing spending on pay was one of the main objectives of the measures pushed through by the Education Ministry six months ago. At the same time, it intends to increase classroom sizes and reduce teaching time, and not to bring in supply teachers until after the third week of a teacher"s absence. Labor unions and parents complain that students with learning difficulties are already falling behind due to the falling numbers of teachers.

- University fees hiked. State universities will see a significant fall in numbers in the coming years. Students and parents say the sharp rise in fees - up to 400 euros more per year in most regions - will prevent many young people from entering higher education. At the same time, the academic requirements for attaining and maintaining a grant have been toughened, which will see many students lose funding.

- Subsidies dropped. The government"s cuts have seen a drop of up to 50 percent in school meal subsidies and a 75-percent cut in financial help for buying textbooks and other teaching materials, say parents. The Education Ministry says around half a million extra students will not receive help in buying textbooks this year.

- Education reform. The protests are against the changes to the education system being pushed through by Education Minister José Ignacio Wert, who wants to tailor education to better suit the needs of the job market, with students having to decide at age 14 if they are to go to university, and if not, to take vocational courses that would lead to apprenticeships. Students will have to sit exams before beginning high school, as well as at age 16 if they wish to study for university. The focus will be on math, sciences and languages, with schools having a greater say in their teaching specialization. Parents and some teachers describe the reforms as a "throwback to the days of Franco."

Students at age 14 would also have to decide which kind of university degree they wanted to take, or in which profession they wanted to work.

"I am worried about the cuts, but also about the shift toward a system based on economic competitiveness, which means that if you can't afford to pay, you get no education," says María Amate. She adds that she spends 300 euros a month on nursery fees, and that this year, along with half a million other low-income families, was refused a grant to help pay for text books. She says there are 34 students per class at her daughter's school, and that extra tuition has been canceled.

Wert argues that spending more money on education doesn't necessarily produce better results, adding that the cuts will improve efficiency. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's Popular Party (PP) government also raised the country's general value-added tax from September 1 to as much as 21 percent on some goods, driving up the price of school textbooks. The number of students who will receive grants has dropped to 344,260 from 923,895 last year, according to Ministry figures.

Without the grants, more and more families have opted to send their children to school with packed lunches, but some regions such as Madrid and Barcelona want to charge them for using the cafeteria, angering parents. Other regions such as Valencia have made cuts to the school transport system for primary school pupils.

The government has shown no sign of backing down on its economic reforms. Among cuts to various sectors, public spending on education has been slashed by more than a billion euros this year compared with 2011. Public schools employed nearly 3,000 fewer teachers during the 2011-12 academic year, according to the Education Ministry. Concha Palancar, a 49-year-old civil servant, has two children, ages 10 and 14, who attend a public high school in the working-class district of Carabanchel. She says 90 percent of students supported the strike. She too took the day off work.

"The current system has its problems, but the cuts and the changes they want to implement will not make things better. We have to say that this is not the path that we are going to follow, and that public education is the only way of guaranteeing equality of opportunities, and that we are not prepared to see it dismantled," she says.

But not all parents are opposed to the changes while some disagree with the form of protest chosen. At the Amador de los Ríos high school in Madrid, parent Juan Carlos Díaz said he did not support the strike, and called the organizers "irresponsible," saying he had to work, and could not leave his child at home alone: "I'm not interested in this strike. My child needs to study."

Grandparent Ángel Martínez was also taking his grandchildren to school, and said he did not believe the strike would achieve anything. "If they have to make cuts, they'll make them, and they will reduce spending everywhere. This strike is wrong, and it will only harm the children."

CEAPA says around 80 percent of children supported the strike, while the government put the figure at 23 percent. The Socialist Party-controlled regional government of Andalusia said 80 percent of children had not turned up for school during the three-day walkout.

Ministry accuses strikers of playing politics

The three-day protests last week produced a war of words between the organizers and the government. Secretary of State for Education Montserrat Gomendio accused the Students" Union and CEAPA, the body that represents parents of schoolchildren, of "continuing the fight against Franco," and described the strike as "highly politicized, and definitely in support of the Socialist Party."

Gomendio praised parents and students who had not backed the walkout, saying: "At a time of crisis like this, we cannot accept that students should be staying away from school for a number of days."

There were a small number of incidents at some schools. One student was detained by police and released shortly after at the University of Valencia for attempting to prevent an ambulance from entering the campus.

Meanwhile, in Mérida on Tuesday, around 100 students tried to enter a state-funded Catholic junior school, where around 1,000 children were in attendance. Ten of the group did eventually manage to get into the building. "They ran about shouting, and insulting anybody they came across, and trying to prevent the normal running of the school," said the college"s management in a statement.

"The adolescents got in through a back door by the dining room," said the school"s head, Marcos Romero. "Outside, there was another group of children shouting insults such as "Where are the priests? We"re going to burn them"." The head added that one teacher was injured trying to prevent the students from entering the building when a door was slammed on her hand.

CEAPA and the Students" Union said in a press statement that they "condemned" the behavior of those involved in the fracas, whom they said had broken away from a march through the center of the city.

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