On the hunt for the student in Linares

In spring, registration season, the season opens. And concerted schools are launched on the hunt for the student. Radio spots, print ads, bus billboards, online campaigns: whatever it takes to engage kids. The educational system of Linares (Jaén) not only suffers from demographic aging, common to Andalusia as a whole. The population, affected by a long and hard economic crisis, loses inhabitants year after year and has many more school places than students. There are classrooms with only five occupied desks.

“The patient dies,” says Antonio Fernández, director of the Santa Ana school. The name of the center comes to be a sanctification of the place where it stands: next to the immense facilities left empty by the closure, in 2011, of the factory Santana car company, a symbol of Linares’ economic problems. In the Spanish city with the highest unemployment (32.5%), the collapse of the industry has caused a drain on the population. Every year there are fewer inhabitants. Now there are 56,525, according to the INE. In 2010 there were 61,306, more or less the same as in 1960, when mining was still operating.

If in Andalusia as a whole, with almost two million students, the decrease is about 50,000 in the last three years, in Linares the reduction in the number of school-age children is much more serious: this year, the 13 public centers and the nine concerted ones of the city offered some 700 vacancies. 400 of them have been covered.

In parallel, the concerted centers (private but financed with public subsidies) are gaining ground against the public ones. “A few years ago, 70% of children attended a public school; now, just over 50% are in a concerted school”, comments Fernández. Why that slide? Antonio Fernández and Jesús Armijo, director of the Marqueses de Linares higher education center, agree in their suspicion that the Andalusian Government, since the PP came to power in 2018, tacitly favors the concerted centers. In any case, there are objective factors: the concerted ones are located closer to the center, they offer more extracurricular activities and, above all, they can advertise.

Students of the San Joaquín school in Linares, Jaen.
Students of the San Joaquín school in Linares, Jaen.

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“We need the publicity. This year we have spent about a thousand euros on radio spots and brochures and, above all, we have a strong presence on Facebook”, confirms Javier Cruz, a teacher at the Colegio San Joaquín teaching cooperative, the only secular concerted centre. “If we are not visible, we continue to lose students; if we lose students, we end up closing; and if we close, the teachers of the concertada do not transfer us to another place, like those of the public: we go to unemployment, “explains Cruz.

Javier Cruz is quick to express his support for the public school: “It’s where I come from and it’s essential,” he says. Both he and Fernández and Armijo, directors of public schools, are convinced that the Junta de Andalucía should reduce the number of students per classroom and distribute them more or less equally among the various schools, public or concerted. “It’s the only way to keep schools from closing,” he says. Or that lines continue to be lost (the chain of courses that leads from early childhood education to higher education) in each of them. The Ministry of Education rejects these proposals for the time being.

“In the neighborhoods of Linares”, points out Antonio Fernández, “the educational centers are the only cultural reference. There are no libraries, there are no bookstores. There are only schools as a reference and as a place of coexistence. Right now, five of the public schools are at risk of closure and two charter schools are experiencing serious difficulties. The bilingual Spanish-English private school already closed last year.” And he continues: “We are forced to group students from two or three different courses with different ages in a classroom. That can work in a rural environment but in a city it multiplies the teacher’s work and in the end it doesn’t work”.

The gaps in the classrooms and the risk of closure make the concerted schools take advantage of their possibility of promoting themselves in the media. It is what a leader of the Federation of Independent Teaching Unions of Jaén, the majority in concerted education, calls “the hunt for students in spring”.

The promotion actually lasts all year. At the San Joaquín cooperative school they have found an imaginative formula: the appointment of Madrid singer Alejandro Sanz as honorary director. Until now, Sanz has not been able to visit the Linares school, but his name on the center’s organization chart has already earned them television appearances that weigh heavily when it comes to capturing the attention of parents and children. A famous Linaress, Rafael Martos, Raphael, has also been honored at the school. Everything counts.

Closure of factories and companies

You have to survive here and now. The future, however, looks bleak. Linares is usually in the news due to company closures. If the disappearance of Santana (Land Rover, Suzuki, gearboxes) in 2011 represented an almost fatal blow to the economy of Linares ―after the mining operations were abandoned at the end of the 20th century (Linares became the world’s leading producer of lead)―, the closures of Zara and El Corte Inglés in 2020 and 2021 were a severe blow to local self-esteem. The huge empty building of El Corte Inglés, like a beached whale in front of City Hall, is a daily reminder of decadence. Last year’s raging riots, in response to the attack by two off-duty police officers on a man and his teenage daughter, showed that the collective mood is still close to exploding.

“I would like my children to be able to choose between staying or leaving, but here, the truth is, there is little to choose from,” Professor Cruz sighs. Although he continues: “Jaén is a disadvantaged province, without a high-speed train, without large highways, and yet we are right at the crossroads from Castilla to Andalusia, which offers great logistical possibilities; we have people with experience in the industry and people prepared in technology; we have a music conservatory… We must not fall into discouragement and abandonment”.

All teachers consulted, public or concerted, agree to claim the decentralization of the Andalusian autonomous community. And in criticizing the continuous changes in educational laws. And regretting that the Board and the central government are tripped up when (as has been happening) they are occupied by parties with different ideologies. In any case, none of them have too many illusions.

A young woman walks her baby in a stroller near the bullring. What does she prefer for the child, the public school or the concerted one? “Well, I don’t know, we’re waiting for a job to come up in Malaga and, if we’re lucky, we’ll go”.

Electoral posters on a street in the town of Jaén.
Electoral posters on a street in the town of Jaén.PACO BRIDGES

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