In Southern Europe, we are immersed in a deep financial crisis. This is largely due to greed within the banking sector in this hyper-liberalised financial system, a growth model highly dependent on speculation and the 'bad government' prevalent in the region that has tolerated, if not pro-actively fuelled, this erratic development model.
In response to the financial crisis, Southern European governments have embraced austerity measures characterised by significant cuts in fundamental social services such as health and education.
Spain is a good example of the scale of educational cuts in the region. Public education system resources have been dramatically reduced in recent weeks. This process has been implemented through executive orders which have been passed without any parliamentary or public debate.
So far, Spain has decided to:
- Cut the education budget by more than €3 billion
- Lay off thousands of teachers
- Increase the ratio of students per class by one quarter
- Reduce public contributions to childcare
- Increase the number of leave days before a teacher can be substituted (which, in practice, will lead to an increase in teaching hours)
- Increase student fees by 66 per cent
- Reduce the number of scholarships
- Introduce fees for vocational training for the first time
- Drastically cut research budgets
- Reduce extra support classes for students with special needs
As we can see, the number of changes that the Spanish educational system is suffering from at all levels in such a short period of time is dizzying. However, we should bear in mind that similar policies are also being implemented in countries such as Portugal, Italy and Greece.
While it is true that these cuts have been imposed to a large extent by the so-called Troika, represented by the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), these policies fit perfectly with the ideologies of conservative and/or technocratic governments which dominate Southern European, for whom those issues of equity and social cohesion which could contribute significantly to quality public education are far from their programme priorities.
Cuts and their main effects
The size of the cuts being applied will almost inevitably have negative effects on educational quality and, therefore, future opportunities for many people. However, the political right insists that cutting spending is not incompatible with the effectiveness of the education system. In multiple appearances in the media, the Spanish Education Minister, José I. Wert, has emphasised that "the measures taken in education do not substantially impair teaching quality". Such statements are inopportune and, moreover, inaccurate for several reasons.
- Many of the measures being implemented directly affect the quality of education. We refer to, for example, the reduction in the number of teachers within the system, the reduction in teaching hours for extra support classes (usually aimed at children with learning difficulties), the increase in teaching hours (which reduces time previously used for teamwork, coordination and class preparation) or increased class sizes. Regarding the latter, there is ample evidence that smaller class sizes make it easier to give pupils individualised support, especially those from socially marginalised backgrounds.
- Higher costs and challenges associated with educating an increasingly impoverished population are significant indirect effects of the prevailing budgetary austerity both in education and extracurricular activities. The financial crisis is being dealt with by labour deregularisation and deficit reduction resulting in a significant increase in unemployment, informal and precarious work, and poverty. According to a recent report by UNICEF, the level of child poverty has risen significantly in Southern European countries such as Portugal, Spain and Italy, where millions of children are already living in vulnerable situations. Numerous research studies show that a deterioration in children and young people's material and social conditions negatively affects their learning opportunities. Therefore, the gradual impoverishment of the population seems to indicate that the educational level of the countries in question will lower substantially. In fact, school systems need more educational and material resources to promote learning in those children experiencing socio-economic difficulties. But, paradoxically, the prevailing austerity measures not only prevent school systems from having the resources they need to meet these new challenges, but take away the ones they already have.
- The fact that the cuts affect equality in education will also negatively affect the learning outcomes of children. The latest OECD PISA* report shows that the educational systems which score the highest on this international test (which evaluates and compares 15-year-old students from many countries around the world on various subjects) are the ones that have the smallest differences between the highest and the lowest marks. In other words, the countries with more equitable education systems secure better PISA scores. Less equitable systems get poorer results on average. Austerity measures affect our most vulnerable children's education. They increase educational inequalities both directly and indirectly and, therefore, reduce educational quality. Furthermore, since measures to promote equality are expensive, budget cuts will prevent them from being implemented.
Conclusion: cuts affect children's education
In Southern European countries, cuts in education are implemented with the short-term goal of paying off debt. These cuts are objectionable because they make it difficult for countries to fulfil their obligations to ensure the right to quality education. Even though our leaders try to play down the effects of the cuts, they will affect the experience and educational opportunities of many children, especially those who are from poorer backgrounds or have learning difficulties.
To overcome this crisis and also to lay the foundations for a more cohesive society and a more innovative and social economy, we need strong, equitable public education systems. Unfortunately, the financial servitude of Southern European rulers and their elitism when it comes to understanding education lead us in the opposite direction towards an inferior, more fragmented and unequal educational system.
*OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development); PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). The author wishes to thank Adrián Zancajo, Xavier Bonal y Mª del Mar Griera for their comments in a previous version of this post.