September is the month of going back to school and this for many families involves a series of extra costs that they are not always able to bear. In addition, the return to school in 2021 occurs in a context of worsening the economic situation of households and with a significant increase in severe material deprivation. According to data from the National Statistics Institute (INE) and the latest Living Conditions Survey, 27% of those under 16 years of age face a situation of risk of poverty or social exclusion. The child population living in extreme poverty exceeds 13%. The indicators of all households with dependent minors have worsened, and especially in single-parent households (more specifically, by majority, single-parent).
The data on child poverty in Spain are alarming and urgent high-impact actions should be prompted. If we want to end systemic inequalities, we must increase investment in education as well as its effectiveness. Investing in education is more urgent than ever and it must be done from the root, with a holistic vision, including the necessary tools and measures that guarantee equity and compensate for inequalities of origin. At the very least, it should be equated with the EU average of 4.7% of GDP. This investment would be decisive in maintaining the rate of reduction in the child poverty rate that had been achieved during the post-crisis recovery period, between 2014 and 2019, and that has now been reversed. Spain – the fourth largest economy in Europe – is at the top of the EU caboose in this category, only ahead of Romania and Bulgaria.
In this context we vindicate the midday space, that of the school cafeteria, as an indispensable part of the fundamental right to education. The school cafeteria guarantees a daily nutritious meal, essential for performance, in a country where half a million boys and girls do not eat meat, chicken or fish every other day. But, beyond that, the school canteen provides a space for protection, socialization, education and training in values. It contributes to mitigating differences and reinforcing equal opportunities for all male and female students. This midday space allows us to address many systemic differences from the root, to build a fairer system from the ground up.
On the eve of the new academic year, we already know that many students will be left without access to the dining room because they do not meet all the administrative requirements or because the administration has not yet resolved the requests that were made between April and May. In the last year for which we have data, we estimate that scholarships and aid for compulsory education canteen were given to 11% of the students enrolled, a figure that would not cover the percentage of boys and girls that we have said suffer from extreme poverty ( 13.3%) and would be very far from those in relative poverty, 27.1% of all children under this age.
The cost of the school canteen for families is a high percentage of the extra costs linked to going back to school (it can reach almost 50%) to which must be added the usual costs to meet payments in the main house, such as mortgage, rent, community, or basic supplies like electricity, gas, or essential purchases. Thus, this year, the percentage of households where children and adolescents live who have had difficulties to meet these payments has risen by five points, standing at 15%. And the situation worsens, in single-parent households with one or more children under 18 years of age, where this index went from 18.3% in 2019 to 20.7% in 2020.
Many of these data on poverty constitute the most accurate predictors of the opportunities that children living in situations of greater vulnerability will have in the future. In Spain, according to the Government’s own Strategy ‘Spain 2050’, being born and living in low-income families conditions education and professional development opportunities to a greater extent than in other European countries. Child poverty is a drag on reducing school dropouts and improving educational results, and conditions equal opportunities in and from childhood. This strategy also shows its concern about the persistence of the intergenerational transmission of educational disadvantage: 45% of those born in homes with basic studies remain at the same level, and only 32% of children from families with studies basic achieves higher education.
An educational system that penalizes families with the greatest needs does not respond to the international regulatory framework and violates the essential principle of equitable education. It is urgent to react and act and today we ask that, while we put the universality of the canteen on the horizon, it be done by expanding the number and amount of the school canteen scholarships, while giving greater flexibility to the requirements for obtaining them. We need to be able to guarantee a fundamental and basic right to all the boys and girls who start the new year. It is urgent to act so that all the boys and girls who return to school in the coming days can do so with enthusiasm and with their most basic needs covered. It is a question of justice and of guaranteeing the most fundamental rights of the child.
Educo is a global cooperation NGO for development and humanitarian action present in Spain and 13 other countries, which has been acting for more than 30 years in favor of children and in defense of their rights, especially the right to receive an education from quality.