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Alert in early childhood education

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Several children with masks in a nursery class at a school in Santiago de Compostela.
Several children with masks in a nursery class at a school in Santiago de Compostela.Oscar Corral

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The latest statistical report from the Ministry of Education highlights the disaster that the first cycle of early childhood education has suffered. The stage that covers children from zero to three years old has lost this year more than 70,000 students as a result of the pandemic. The drop in the birth rate has had an influence. But if in September the forecast of the Ministry of Education was that the cycle would lose 4,419 students (0.9%), the decrease has finally been 79,333 (16.9%), according to the progress report, whose data has not yet they are final. The causes of the fall lie, according to members of the educational community and experts, in parents’ fear that their children will contract the virus and the economic consequences of the pandemic. The fact that many parents have lost their jobs has been a determining factor. On the one hand, because in such circumstances many have preferred to take care of their children personally. And on the other, because it has been more difficult for them to pay for an educational stage that in many cases continues to be paid. Private children’s centers have lost 19.8% of their students, while the decrease in publicly-owned centers has been 14.2%. The stage’s enrollment rate has fallen for the first time since the early 1990s, when it began to be registered, from 41.1% to 36%.

Enrollment has also been reduced, to a lesser degree, in the second cycle of nursery school, attended by children from three to six years of age. If compared with the official forecast for September, the excess drop rises to 24,000 students. At this stage, attendance is not compulsory, but the Administrations are obliged to guarantee a universal free offer, which is why the decline seems to respond exclusively to parents’ fear of infection in their children. The enrollment rate here has fallen from 97.2% to 96%, the lowest since 2000.

The drop in enrollment should be cause for alarm. There has long been evidence that going to school in the first years of life is one of the most effective and efficient ways to compensate for socioeconomic inequalities at the outset. The increase in years of early schooling translates into better results throughout the academic life, an effect that is greater the lower the socioeconomic level of the family to which the child belongs. Something particularly important in a country like Spain, which does not stand out for its results in international assessment tests or for the success of its educational system in correcting the inequality of origin of students.

About 100,000 children who under normal circumstances would have gone to nursery school have not done so this year. And a part of them will foreseeably also be lost the next one, in view of the health and economic situation. The Government planned to create 65,000 new public places between this year and 2023. The new scenario should lead it, as far as possible, to strengthen its program and accelerate the creation of free positions, as well as to continue to influence that schools have proven to be safe spaces.

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