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Spanish schools rage at crisis cutbacks

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Thousands of Spanish pupils, teachers and parents marched on Thursday to protest budget cuts they warn are undermining an already shaky education system in the economic crisis.

Thursday's march crowned three days of strikes in schools who complain the conservative government's deficit-cutting measures are forcing pupils to learn in overcrowded, unheated classrooms.

After a demonstration by students on Wednesday, teachers and parents joined in another on Thursday, the last of three days of strikes called in public schools.

Protesters marched in the cold along the avenues of central Madrid, waving banners and big green pairs of scissors to symbolise the cuts and yelling: "Hands off public education."

The conservative government last year unveiled a plan to make three billion euros ($4 billion) of savings in schools and universities as it fights to stabilise public finances.

"I have classes of 37 pupils with only three and half hours of teaching a week," said English teacher Soledad Hernandez, 49.

"In my university we have spent the winter months without heating," said one of Wednesday's demonstrators, 19-year-old Javier Marin.

The UN's cultural body UNESCO says that one in three Spanish pupils drops out without finishing school, before they are 16. The OECD grouping of developed economies ranks Spain's education system below average among its members and among other European Union states.

Thursday's demonstration came as Education Minister Jose Ignacio Wert met with regional officials to discuss the latest reforms.

Speaking to a news conference afterwards, Wert played down the significance of the demonstrations and claimed the strike had not been widely followed.

The recession in Spain, sparked by the collapse of a decade-long building boom, has driven the unemployment rate among the under-25s above 50 percent and to 26 percent overall.

"In the construction boom years we thought that leaving school and getting an unskilled job was a viable option for a teenager who wanted economic independence," said education expert Lucia Alvarez of the University of Oviedo.

Now in the recession, "lots of young people are going back to school," she added -- just as teaching is suffering from the cuts.

Like protesters in various other sectors, the anger of teachers and pupils has been sharpened by money being allocated to bail out banks and by recent allegations of corruption in the ruling Popular Party.

Fees for state universities have been raised by about half, rising from 1,000 to 1,500 euros on average, protesters say.

Some protesters say this may prevent them from going to university at all.

Tohil Delgado, leader of the national students' union, told AFP education needed more public money, not less, to give people a chance in the crisis.

Alvarez judged meanwhile that "they need not so much to increase the resources as to manage them more efficiently".

Carol Martin, 37, joined Thursday's protest with her three-year-old son.

"I see a dark future for my son. There is hardly any financial support and they are cutting lunch subsidies and teachers," she said.

"That lessens the quality of teaching, which is key for the country's success."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130207/spanish-schools-rage-at-crisis-cutbacks