In the deepest part of the valley of the birth curve, early childhood education, known as 0-2 years, reaches levels never seen before. Two years after the pandemic made it lose 80,000 students and caused the closure of 200 private centers, the stage has recovered the level of enrollment prior to the covid. And, as births have continued to fall, the school enrollment rate has risen to its highest level ever, at 45.6%. In other words, almost half of the children in those ages go to school. In the case of two-year-old children, the rate shoots up to 71.3%, when before the coronavirus it was 63.6% and two decades ago, at 22.1%.
The takeoff occurs in the context of a strong public drive for the stage, traditionally considered educationally unimportant, but whose benefits arouse more and more consensus among experts. Not only in subsequent academic performance, but in areas such as career trajectory and long-term health conditions, especially for children from disadvantaged homes. The general schooling rate hides pronounced territorial contrasts, which in stage 0-2 range from 56% in Galicia to 24% in Murcia. And, after two years, from 93% of Euskadi to 38% of Asturias.
Two-year classroom in a public school, in June 2022.KIKE TABERNER
“During the pandemic, many people canceled their enrollment for fear, above all, that their grandparents would get infected,” says Vicky Trent, a teacher at the El Trenet nursery school in Valencia, “but since then demand has not only recovered, but every year we fill the groups before”. The case of its center, a small cooperative located in the Valencian neighborhood of Patraix, does not seem, however, representative of what most private nursery schools continue to experience. Ignacio Grimá, president of the Acade employers’ association, affirms: “The situation is very complicated. In the first place, because the birth rate continues to be fatal. We are behind the European Union, and the data that was published a few weeks ago shows that we are still at minimum levels. And second, because that is generating a very complicated competitive context”. Schools, both public and private, which have lost 159,288 primary students in five years, have launched to enroll children in the first cycle of infants, Grima points out. “The first cycle of kindergarten requires great specialization, but for many families they think more about going to school, and logistically it seems better to put all their children in the same center.”
The statistics reflect that the number of educational centers that offer the first cycle of infants has not only recovered since the pandemic, but that there are now 625 more (up to a total of 10,960) than in 2019. But according to Grima, this is not due to the recovery of nursery schools, but rather the vertiginous increase in schools that have incorporated the first cycle of infants, at least the two-year classroom. “This can lead to the disappearance of a huge percentage of nursery schools and almost everything is concentrated in schools,” she laments.
The record in the school enrollment rate of 0-2 (in absolute numbers the 468,511 children enrolled last year are 4,696 less than those reached in 2017) have contributed to the high level of employment. And the Government’s plan to create 65,000 cycle places in the 2020-2023 period (Education has so far transferred 532 million to the autonomies to open 43,500 places). This has not translated, for the moment, in an advance in the proportion of students of the stage that receives the public network, located at 51% since 2017.
The maintenance of the balance between public and private is influenced by the fact that, in parallel to the Ministry of Education’s policy, several autonomous communities, such as Galicia, La Rioja, Madrid, the Valencian Community, the Basque Country, Cantabria and the Balearic Islands, have taken steps towards free of the stage, at least in the two-year class (although almost all of them are still very far from universalization; that is, from having places for all children), not only increasing public places but also subsidizing those in private schools. A line for which, in this new legislature, the regional executives of the PP are especially committed.
Child education expert Vicenç Arnaiz believes, on the other hand, that the best way to continue expanding the stage is through free public places, at least for low-income families. Because any payment, even when it consists of families advancing enrollment until the administration makes the aid effective, acts as an access barrier for disadvantaged classes. According to a report published in 2019 by Save the Children, 62.5% of children from the richest families are in school at the stage, compared to 26.3% of children from the poorest homes.
The public policies of 0-2 have traditionally tended to “subsidize the schooling of middle-class and upper-class children and have left the most disadvantaged classes unprotected, who are the ones who need it the most,” continues Arnaiz. “Spain has one of the highest child poverty data in Europe. In round numbers, one in three children is in a situation of child poverty. And that means living in very unfavorable family conditions, in homes in poor condition, with problems accessing healthy food, lack of spaces for coexistence outside the home, because they tend to live in marginal neighborhoods… Studies show that the biggest factor of compensation is the school. And that if the most disadvantaged children go to school late, then it is more difficult to get them to normalize”, adds the promoter of the Escoletas network in Menorca.
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The Spanish schooling rate is situated in an intermediate zone between the countries of the EU. Far above that of the Netherlands (69.4%) or France (58%), and also far below those of Germany (39.2%) or Italy (26.4%). It cannot be said, says Arnaiz, from what moment schooling is better “without putting on the other side of the scale what protection measures the family and children have”, aid that in Spain, he adds, has traditionally been very scarce . “If a family with economic difficulties has a child and the first few months they cannot work or if they work they have to leave it anyway, that child has to go to school,” he says. “Generically, if the economic and social conditions allow it, because the State protects families, it would be best to have a year’s salary to be able to dedicate yourself to the child. Schooling the first year is also very complicated, among other things because they come into contact with many viruses”.
Irene Casanova and Gonçalo Rodrigues, oncology researchers in Barcelona, enrolled their son in a nursery school in the city last September, when he was 10 months old. “We took it because we had run out of maternity, paternity, lactation and vacation leave. We had no family support, nor could we afford to pay someone to take care of the child. And we already saw him a little prepared to interact”, says Casanova. Would he have preferred to wait until he was one year old? In an ideal world, yes. Because around that age, when he started to walk, I saw that he adapted much better to school. But because of the type of job I have, I wouldn’t have taken a lower job either, I wouldn’t have been able to be away for so long”.
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