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CONFLICT OVER EDUCATION

Cutbacks and PP government’s reform plans fuel students’ strike

Unions say vast majority of teachers stayed away

Education Ministry describes protest as a failure based on “simplistic” slogans

Students demonstrating against public education cutbacks and the government's reform plans in Murcia. Ampliar foto
Students demonstrating against public education cutbacks and the government's reform plans in Murcia. EFE

Thousands of students from all levels of schooling — from kindergarten to university — stayed home on Thursday in support of a nationwide strike against continuing budget cuts to public education.

Many people also participated in street demonstrations against the cuts and against the legal reform known popularly as the Wert Law, after Education Minister José Ignacio Wert. This reform includes controversial items such as state funding for single-sex schools and stricter academic requirements to access study grants.

The strike, which was called by parents, students and unions rather than by teachers, had a greater following than a previous stay-away in May, especially among university students angry at a major hike in tuition fees. Although the secretary of state for education, Montserrat Gomendio, talked about a 20.76-percent turnout, this average does not illustrate the reality of the strike because it mixes teacher absence in public schools, which was high, with absence at concertado schools (private centers that get state funding), which was much lower.

While the central administration would not offer data broken down by regions, the government of Galicia talked about a 26.22 percent turnout in the public non-university sector, with similar figures hovering around 20 percent offered by the Balearics, Extremadura, Castilla y León and the Valencian region.

Gomendio called the strike “a failure” and asked the unions to enter into “a real and open” dialogue with the Education Ministry. She also thanked the teachers, parents and students who did not strike and who failed to react to “simplistic and often offensive slogans” that have “nothing to do” with the ministry’s reform proposals.

The strike had a massive following by students, especially at the

university level

EL PAÍS visited schools and universities across Spain and the picture that emerges is that primary and secondary school teachers observed the strike in greater numbers than university staff. The strike had a massive following by students, especially at the university level.

Meanwhile, the UGT, CCOO, CSI-F and STES unions talked about an 83-percent turnout among public school teachers, and 91 percent at the university level, making this strike “a resounding success” that is “six or seven points above the May strike,” according to their own estimates.

This was the third education strike involving all levels of schooling under the Popular Party (PP) government. The first one focused on the budget cuts that have reduced the number of teachers per school and even left some classrooms without enough heating in the winter. The second added another cause for complaint: LOMCE, the new education bill proposed by the conservative PP, and which certain sectors have described as “classist, segregationist and retrograde.” The motives did not change the third time around, but the number of actors has grown. Protest organizers say this is due to the fact that the teacher body is now better informed about the reach of the reforms, and also to the amendments proposed by the PP in Congress, which favor single-sex schools even more than the original bill did.

One of the groups that called the strike, Platform for Public Education, issued a statement to explain the reasons for their discontent. One of these is the budget cuts that have reduced the money allotted to education by over 6.4 billion euros since 2010. The government also raised the maximum number of students allowed per classroom, loaded teachers with a heavier curriculum and banned replacement teachers unless the main educator is expected to be absent for several weeks.

The 2012 decree that made these decisions possible also allowed regional governments to raise tuition fees at public universities by as much as 92 percent in the case of the more inexpensive degrees in Madrid. Tougher academic requirements to receive study grants will “prevent those who lack sufficient means to pay university fees” from accessing higher education, according to this group.