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Thousands stranded by financial crisis

Stephen Mackey on problems caused by an ambitious plan to raise the school -leaving age

Eighteen thousand pupils in Madrid who are due to start secondary education next October will find themselves stranded at their primary schools as the effects of Spain's education funding crisis worsen.

The country's ambitious education law, known as LOGSE, is to come into force at the beginning of the new academic year. It will transfer the country's 12 to 14-year-olds into secondary education as a compulsory 12-16 stage is introduced.

However, there is no room for the new pupils in two-thirds of the capital's secondary schools, a common problem across the country. As a result, the pupils who have to stay at primary will miss out on certain subjects in the curriculum requiring special equipment, such as technology.

Schools and teaching unions have been complaining about lack of cash for the LOGSE reforms since pilot schemes began last year. "The new law makes a mockery of educational principles because of inadequate funding," says Paco Garcia, secretary of the education branch of the Comisiones Obreras trade union.

Until now, Spanish children have been able to leave school at the age of 14. If they stayed on they would move up to a second tier for three years, then take a one-year pre-university course. LOGSE eliminates the last two tiers and raises the school-leaving age to 16. Primary school is from 6 to 12, with secondary school from 12 to 16. After this there will be an optional two years for those wishing to go to university.

Last October, Silverio Lanza secondary, 15 kilometres south of Madrid, admitted 250 12 and 13-year-olds and the authorities provided the school with an extra building. However, a shortage of money meant that the annexe lacked any materials - even paper.

"The teachers have had to bring their own materials from home. Some even scour builders' skips. It's shameful," complained Rosina Vega, 37, an English teacher at the school.

The crisis comes as cold comfort for Spain's governing Popular party, who won March's general election pledging support for private education. The situation, with 64 per cent of Madrid's new secondary pupils in limbo, has presented Esperanza Aguirre, the new education minister, with a dilemma. Ms Aguirre has promised to extend free education to all children from three upwards, a sizeable proportion of whom would be subsidised by the state to attend private schools. But she may now have to shelve the plan and bail out the state schools instead .

Current funding levels would take three years to clear the backlog. A failure to inject cash into state schools would leave Ms Aguirre open to the accusation that she favours private education at any price.

Most state teachers agree that the new education authorities will be forced to plough cash into reinforcing the system.

Maria Jesus Fernandez is a teacher at Calvo Sotelo primary school in Madrid which will be forced to keep its 12 to 14-year-olds on next October. "All talk of the government's reforms is just electioneering," she says. "It sounds good that the new government has reforms up its sleeve but what we really need are more funds to put LOGSE into practice."

The Popular party's proposals have been independently estimated to cost Pounds 250m.

Ms Aguirre herself has admitted they are costly but has added that educational reform is a "political priority". Nevertheless, with education spending falling in real terms every year since 1991, morale among state teachers is low and she may be forced to temper her liberalising zeal.

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