Fewer students, more quality in education?


For the fourth consecutive year, demographic data indicate a notable drop in birth rates in Spain . If this represents a long-term structural trend, can we think that education budgets will suffer a significant decrease? Can some logic be established between spending on education and the number of schoolchildren? Would it be acceptable that a decrease in the number of students enrolled in school would correspond to a reduction in investment?

In 2021, the last year with consolidated data, public spending on education amounted to almost 60 billion euros , a figure that includes investment in all educational stages by central and regional educational administrations. Of this sum, 72% was allocated to the stages of early childhood, secondary, high school and vocational training. That is, nearly 43 billion euros were allocated to the educational sections that welcomed, also in 2021, more than 9 million students of non-university education, exactly 9,129,023.

Expenditure-student ratio

A historical review enlightens us about the relationship between public spending and school enrollment. Thus, a decade earlier, in 2011, we had 7,782,182 non-university students (17% less) and public spending amounted to around 35 billion (22% less). In short, in these 10 years there has been stronger growth in economic terms than in the number of students.

It is true that fluctuations in educational investment are associated with more or less severe economic crises and containment policies that some parties have carried out in education. In any case, the data are stable and have maintained a similar trend in recent decades.

Number of teachers

If we take into account that, of the 60 billion euros in 2021, more than 75% was allocated to personnel, the most substantial increase in this decade has also occurred in the number of teachers, which has gone from 720,000 to 810 000: a 12.5% ​​increase. In any case, that 17% increase in students has not been accompanied by a similar figure in teachers, which means, therefore, that the pressure in the classrooms has increased.

All of this leads to a set of reflections that must be considered globally, never separately.

Rural or urban birth

It is worth thinking that the reduction in birth rates is not occurring in the same way in all territories or in all populated areas. There is an inequality that is once again polarized in urban and metropolitan areas to the detriment of rural areas, to which is added in the latter the phenomenon of depopulation .

Furthermore, demographic studies do not agree on whether we are witnessing a structural phenomenon, in the long term, or a conjunctural phenomenon, in the medium or short term. All of this is usually determined based on other variables that go beyond what is strictly educational: economic recovery, aid to families, the housing market, immigration policies, etc.

School closures

According to the Spain 2050 report , which follows European statistics in this regard, the downward demographic trend would lead to the closure of some 30,000 schools , which would mainly affect the most depopulated rural areas and the oldest urban centers.

It is understood that a number of students below a critical number, difficult to specify, does not justify the maintenance of buildings and teachers. In semi-depopulated rural areas, for example, the closure of the school predicts the almost total abandonment of the population in the medium term, something that is unaffordable for local public authorities.

For its part, in urban areas affected by population aging, where a gentrification phenomenon is also likely to occur, the middle and lower classes tend to move to other areas, also causing a reduction in school enrollment. For all these reasons, the criteria for closing schools vary depending on the social, economic and demographic conditions of the environment.

On the other hand, it is worth differentiating the situation of public schools and that of private schools supported by public funds (concerted schools). In this sense, we must remember that in 2021 financial transfers in the form of educational concerts to these private schools accounted for 12% of the total budget of 60 billion. Thus, another school selection criterion would be added: in the case of a drastic reduction of classrooms and centers, in places where public schools and private schools coexist, the politician on duty will have to make the decision of which schools to close.

In this same horizon of falling birth rates, it is necessary to remember that a good part of the teaching staff that entered the profession with the growth of the 1980s will be close to retirement, which can help offset this possible decline.

Recomposition of the educational system

However, if the forecasts are only met in the medium term, with a not so pronounced drop in birth rates and compensated by an increase in the incoming migratory flow, it is more than likely that we will witness a recomposition of the educational system.

Firstly, this can help lighten the student-teacher ratio; That is, the pressure in classrooms that has been seen increasing in the last decade can be reduced. Pedagogical trends point towards co-teaching models, with the presence of two or more teachers in a classroom, which allows us to think about more direct attention to the students.

Furthermore, the drop in birth rates may allow teachers to dedicate themselves to new tasks that arise from socio-educational needs that are emerging in schools in recent decades and are not being attended to appropriately: attention to the most vulnerable, fight against abandonment and absenteeism, school reinforcement to ensure quality, attention to bullying situations, emotional support, etc.

This diversification of tasks and professional profiles can allow the recomposition of more interdisciplinary educational teams in schools, which provide an outlet for the situations described and can open up more towards the community, to achieve more open educational spaces.

All of this would not result, therefore, in a reduction in public spending, but quite the opposite: as anticipated in the aforementioned Spain 2050 report , within three decades public spending per student could be doubled, as long as the figures were maintained. current.

In short, we must carefully follow the evolution of this trend and expect from our politicians intelligent solutions to something that we can foresee in advance and that can undoubtedly contribute to the improvement of the educational service.

Author Bio: Enric Prats is a Professor of Pedagogy at the University of Barcelona