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by Euro Reporter
2013-09-09 10:49:55
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School scheme shows social impact of Spain’s economic crisis

The late morning sun is burning bright, the beaches that line the coast around Málaga are only a short bus ride away. But when Maribel Galacho opens the gate of the Colegio Severo Ochoa, the junior school she heads in the southern Spanish city, the principal finds dozens of pupils waiting. The students from the impoverished district that abuts the school have made the daily trip in the Summer break for a simple reason: to get a decent meal. After they kiss their mothers goodbye, the students head straight down to the school canteen for a late breakfast of chocolate milk, fruit and sandwiches stuffed with spicy chorizo sausage. For most, says Ms Galacho, it will be the first food they have eaten all day. “We have pupils who don’t have their basic needs covered, even things like clothing and hygiene,” says Ms Galacho.

Her school is part of programme launched by the government of Andalucia this year to combat the rising social hardship caused by Spain’s prolonged economic crisis. It allows children from poor families to spend July and August back at school, where they are entertained with games and special projects. More importantly, they receive breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack, a balanced diet that includes fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and fish and that is often hard to come by in their homes.  Even in an age of abundant food supplies and discount supermarkets, food has become a worry for Spain’s poorest. Over the past year, says Ms Galacho, she and her colleagues noticed that a growing number of students were falling asleep in class, apparently from fatigue and lack of a proper diet. “They arrive in the morning, and by mid-morning they fall asleep,” she says. “They just don’t have the energy to follow the school programme.” The Colegio Severo Ochoa is one of 12 state schools in Malaga that have stayed open over the summer. Across Andalucia, some 11,000 children have taken part in the programme. Regional governments in Extremadura and the Canary Islands have offered similar but smaller-scale schemes. While the economic news in Spain has been brightening in recent months, few believe there will be a speedy turnround for the country’s poorest and their children. The unemployment outlook also remains bleak with 6m out of 47m people out of work.

According to recent data from Unicef, the UN child welfare organisation, child poverty in Spain has been sharply on the rise since the start of the crisis more than five years ago. The UN body found that almost one in five Spanish children live below the poverty line, one of the worst performers among the 29 advanced countries included in the ranking – and below other crisis-ridden southern European states such as Italy, Portugal and Greece. “Due to the crisis, families with real economic problems often have problems to supply their children with proper food, to buy fish and meat and vegetables. Families are cutting spending on everything, including on food,” says Marta Arias, a director at Unicef in Spain. She cites a recent poll according to which 40 per cent of Spaniards say they are changing their eating habits as a result of the economic crisis.

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Spain's 'barbell' workforce weighs down economic recovery

As Spanish students return to school for a new academic year, a pressing concern under debate nationally is whether their education will help them find a niche in the Spanish economy, which has been racked by recession and rampant unemployment. But are they even being trained for the jobs that the Spanish economy needs to recover? Many economists say no, warning that Spain has an oversupply of both highly educated talent and undereducated labor, and insufficient mid-level skilled workers now and forecast into the future.

Spain's population trends and rising academic failure are “catastrophic, considering the demographic and economic perspective,” says Josep Oliver, applied economics professor in the Unviersidad Autónoma de Barcelona and an expert on labor and education policies. And to fix its "barbell" workforce, the solution is to significantly improve elementary and secondary education, experts warn. Not doing so “is the most foolish thing we can do from a social and economic point of view,” Dr. Oliver says. “Spain’s does not need an education refurbishing, but an overhaul. We will inevitably need a qualified work force or will have to resort to importing it. We look more like Mexico, but I’d like to be more like Finland.”

During its boom decade starting in the mid-1990s, the Spanish economy was fueled primarily by construction, mostly of homes that Spaniards bought up in an apparent infinite climb in real estate prices. In the process, high-school dropout rates spiked as students were lured by rich salaries in construction. But when the housing bubble burst in 2008, hundreds of thousands lost their jobs with little to no hope of regaining them, as the model became untenable. Some politicians and economists proposed a high-tech, research-and-development model, like Germany's high-tech sector. But economic experts say that Spain’s best shot at overcoming the economic crisis is implementing a model more like Germany's mid-level industrial output of products like cars, industrial equipment and spare parts, and even high-end food stuffs and shoes. Exports of mid-level industry, like automobiles, are driving Spain’s economic recovery, statistics show. “If you look at what they are exporting, middle-tech sectors like automotive and capital goods are doing well. There is room there, and even some room at the top, for example with alternative energies,” says Gayle Allard, an economics professor in Madrid-based IE Business School.

But Spain's mid-level industry is small. And if expanding it is the goal, there's a major problem to be overcome in reaching it: educating the skilled workers the sector requires. There is little debate that the workforce is imbalanced: Experts, labor statistics, and multinational studies all say so. But the crisis has worsened the structural problems, not only by destroying jobs and shrinking salaries, but by shaping the next generation into a "barbell" workforce – lots of workers with insufficient skills, lots of workers who are overqualified, and very few in between. The country’s most pressing handicap is that 46 percent of the working age population only have elementary education, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in its annual report on Spain's education, which was released in June. That percentage is the second worst in Europe after Portugal, and twice as high as that of Chile, in South America.

What's worse, around a quarter of Spaniards have insufficient skills to make a living in the country’s current – and future – labor markets, meaning they are barely literate, Oliver says. On the other end of the spectrum, Spaniards are more likely to be overqualified in the labor force than most of their peers in OECD countries. Different studies estimate as much as 30 percent of the workforce is overqualified. “That wouldn’t be a problem if our economy worked well, though,” Oliver notes. But in the middle – that is, high-school graduates without a university degree – Spain remains acutely deficient. Its mid-level, technically trained workforce is half the OECD average: almost a third that of Germany’s, smaller than Brazil’s or Chile’s, and more comparable to Mexico’s. It’s not for lack of resources, but waste, experts say. Spain is among the highest spender in education in per capita terms in the OECD, but its test results are consistently among the lowest in the Europe.

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Gibraltar dispute is not over sovereignty

Spain's Foreign Minister insisted in the country's parliament on Tuesday that Gibraltar "has been, is, and will be" a key focus but said frienship with the UK should prevail. José Manuel García-Margallo used his appearance in parliament to stand up for the actions taken by Spain in the current row with the UK over Gibraltar. These actions were in defence of the country's interests in the face of what Spain considered violations by Gibraltar's authorities, García-Margallo said to the country's MPs. The current tensions over Gibraltar began in July after boats from the territory dumped blocks of concrete into the sea near the territory. Gibraltar said it was creating an artificial reef that would foster fish populations. But Spain said the reef would block its fishing boats and introduced stringent border checks which it said are needed to stop smuggling, creating long waits for motorists trying to enter the territory. In parliament on Tuesday, Spain's Foreign Minister reiterated that Spain couldn't watch on with arms crossed in the face of the creation of the reef and the growing traffic in contraband tobacco.

"The danger is not in our actions, but in doing nothing," García-Margallo added. The minister also welcomed the European Union's (EU) decision to send inspectors to monitor the situation at the Spain—Gibraltar border.  He stressed that Spain had accepted the inspectors' presence and that the mission hadn't come at the behest of the UK. "Legality is the only framework within which Spain is operating," said García-Margallo of the country's decision to take up the row with the UK to the European Courts. The Foreign Minister highlighted that sovereignty was not the issue in the current dispute. Rather the focus was on compliance with EU laws.

He said he would support any moves towards the creation of ad hoc groups to look at fishing and environmental issues, adding these could include representatives from Spain, the UK, the southern Spanish region of Andalusia and Gibraltar as appropriate.  He told Spanish MPs that friendship with the UK "should prevail". Also on Tuesday, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague told the UK Commons: "Gibraltar is British and wants to stay British and for us that is the end of the matter and we will never negotiate over sovereignty over the people of Gibraltar's heads as the last Labour government did." In similar news, the UK Foreign office in London also reported that UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg spoke by telephone on Tuesday to Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria about Gibraltar.


          
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