The unstoppable progress of the arrival of two-year-olds in public schools: “The beginning was terrible.  Now, a treat”

The first cycle of infants (0-2 years) is entering with force in public schools. Until recently, only two autonomous communities had classrooms for two-year-olds in centers that have traditionally enrolled those between the ages of three and 11. Next year, the formula will be extended to 1,284 public schools (out of a total of 10,317 in Spain) of 12 autonomies, and part of them will host classes for even younger children. Many teachers lament the deficiencies of a process that they consider marked by haste. But, above and beyond the criticism, the majority of teachers convey satisfaction at seeing public schools grow at the bottom, and believe that the initiative will help them avoid closures and staff reductions in the demographic storm in which the education system is entering. . The greatest opposition to the incorporation of the youngest students into public schools comes from private nursery schools, which are facing a historic crisis. Last year 20% of them were forced to close, and their representatives fear that when the count is made for the current course the losses will be even worse.

Public schools are tending to concentrate students who until now attended other types of educational centers. At the top, assuming ESO in a still incipient process (270 schools have done so). And above all below, incorporating the first cycle of children. Both trends are driven by the drop in the birth rate, which has been freeing up space in schools for more than a decade: in 2008 there were 519,779 births in Spain, while in 2021 there were 340,635, the lowest figure since the INE began recording the data in 1941. Two other factors are contributing to the incorporation of younger children’s classes into schools. The first is the educational reform of the Government, which has given the first cycle of infants a clearly educational approach and has urged to approach the whole of the stage (0-6 years) in a common way. And the second, the rain of millions, 670, with which the Ministry of Education is promoting the stage to create 65,000 public places, thanks in part to European funds. Several of the sources consulted for this article agree that the integration of the first cycle of pre-school (as well as adding ESO) will help public schools to compete with the concerted ones, many of which offer education from zero to 16 years of age or even up to the 18

Silvia Ferriols, director of the public school Vil·la Romana de Catarroja, in Valencia.
Silvia Ferriols, director of the public school Vil·la Romana de Catarroja, in Valencia.KIKE TABERNER

Until 2014, only the Basque Country and Cantabria had generalized the enrollment of two-year-olds in public schools (there are 452 between the two territories). In 2015 the Valencian Community joined, which in September will reach 415 classes. And the model has continued to grow so that in September there will be them in public schools in Madrid (in 46 centers), Catalonia (42), the Canary Islands (38), Extremadura (42), Castilla y León (121), Castilla-La Mancha (where it can reach 60), Murcia (30), Aragón (35) and La Rioja (3). In some centers in Catalonia and Cantabria there will also be classrooms for those who have one year, and in Madrid and the Canary Islands, from scratch.

The arrival of younger children in schools is positive once the center adapts, says Silvia Ferriols, director of the Vil·la Romana Public School in Catarroja, in Valencia. Although in her case, she says, “the beginning was terrible.” Due to a bureaucratic error, the Ministry of Education did not take into account the need to adapt a classroom and the layout of the rest of the children’s groups had to be reorganized to accommodate the new class. The director had to buy the “manipulative material” in August, and the educator (in the Valencian Community, classrooms for two-year-olds have a maximum of 18 students and a teacher and an educator take care of them) could not join until October. The first few weeks the school had to assign several additional teachers to attend the class, including the director, because “the children were very young and cried a lot,” recalls Ferriols.

After overcoming the initial difficulties, however, the opinion of the director is very good. “It is a pleasure. It is very nice to have such students in the school. They are great and participate in all school activities. But at first you can see that we have no experience with those ages. In fact, we were wrong. We plan the reception period [la incorporación progresiva del nuevo alumnado] like with the three-year-olds, and we realized that we had run too much. These kids need you to slow down. We have learned a lot of things”, says Ferriols.

The person in charge of a school in Madrid (where, unlike what happens in the rest of the communities, teachers very often ask that their names not be published for fear of having labor consequences) explains that her center was chosen by the Ministry of Education to implement the first cycle of children next year due to its low number of students. And that when they told him, they saw it well. “It was a way to make sure that they were not going to eliminate the school and the project seemed nice to us. But it is proving to be very difficult and hasty, and the directorates are assuming responsibilities for contracting, architecture, etc. that exceed our knowledge”.

The director of another school in Madrid adds: “It is a different job from what we have been doing, especially with babies. We will not only have to worry about teaching, but about issues such as sleep, changing diapers, food allergies…”. The response from families is being good and most groups are full. Mari Carmen Morillas, president of the Giner de los Ríos family federation in Madrid, adds: “Well organized, it is an interesting proposal. What we hope is that the classrooms that are going to receive these children are finished in September”.

Classroom for two years at the Vil·la Romana school in Catarroja.
Classroom for two years at the Vil·la Romana school in Catarroja.KIKE TABERNER

A fast and efficient way to expand the network

The formula offers the advantage of allowing a very rapid increase in public places for the first levels of childhood, says Miguel Soler, the Valencian regional secretary for Education. And it allows savings by taking advantage of the classrooms that are empty due to lack of students, adds José Saturnino García, director of the Canarian Agency for Educational Quality and Evaluation: “One of the problems of early childhood education is that building new schools in places where there may be demand , like city centers, is very expensive for a real estate issue”. Most of the published studies, continues García, agree that schooling in the first years of life offers a great long-term academic and social return, especially in children born into vulnerable families, in addition to facilitating work-life balance.

The measure, on the other hand, worries private nursery schools. Ignacio Grima, president of the employers’ association Acade, commented on Friday: “The situation is dramatic. Today two other schools have told me that they do not see the point in opening the next course. In this context they cannot compete or do anything. And it seems tremendously unfair to us that for so many years, when there was no public capacity, private schools have been providing this service to families, and now they are not taken into account.”

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