By Anna Wolmuth

The gates of Colegio Arkipreste de Hita are plastered with banners and signs: ‘amigos os espero en mi cole’ [friends I am waiting for you in my school]; ‘quiero que seamos amigos’ [I want us to be friends]; ‘¡Organiza  tu rabia y comparte tu alegria!’ [Organise your rage and share your happiness!]; and the‘102 dias’ counting the days that parents and community members have been occupying empty classrooms in the school.

From the outside, it’s difficult to tell whether the whole building is now out of use as a school, but I spot some silhouettes in the corridors. This used to be a public school for 1,800 children aged 3-12. Now there are places for only 300.

Jesús, one of the parents involved in the occupation, explained that what is happening in Fuenlabrada is the deliberate ‘killing off’ of public education. In the 1980s, the population of Fuenlebrada grew rapidly, like other suburbs of Madrid. It had the highest birthrate in Europe at this time. Primary schools like Arkipreste de Hita grew to the huge scale of 1,800, and still they could not keep up with the birthrate. Private education providers arrived to make up the shortfall, and the Communidad of Madrid funded places in these profit-making institutions to meet their legal obligations to offer school places. Many of these were religious in character, and also required costly uniforms (state schools in Spain, like much of the rest of Europe, rarely have a uniform).

Now the demographic trend has reversed, with falling birth rates meaning excess school places. The state is protecting the interests of the private schools by closing public schools, while there is still demand for public education. The Communidad of Madrid is aggressively promoting private education, peddling the narrative that publicly provided services are lower quality and less efficient than services provided by the private sector. Public classrooms are left empty while subsidies are offered for parents to send their children to private schools. These are subsidies that only the rich can afford to receive, because they do not cover the hidden costs of attending these schools, in terms of uniform, materials and school dinners. 

As Jesús explained the background to the struggle, the circle around the table grew. The waitress dodged enthusiastic hand gestures to pass us our coffee. Passers by came by to greet him and a local trade unionist turned up with more materials. The local public schools have shown their support by holding daily 1 hour strikes in the first week of the new school year. They see that this is not an isolated case.

‘The family keeps growing’, says Jesús. It started with 19 families. Now there are between 20 and 30 people sleeping in the occupied classrooms each night, and hundreds join for demonstrations and activities ranging from concerts, children’s parties, dinners, and basketball matches to ‘aulas en la calle’. These are classrooms in the street organised by local ‘interinos’, teachers who do not have fixed contracts as 'funcionarios'/ civil servants, but are a second class pool of supply staff, hit hard by cuts in education budgets. 'There has been a huge raise in consciousness, including amongst the children'.

When do they think they will win? ‘We are already winning’. Four classrooms in the Madrid area have been saved from closure since the occupation started, and people involved in these victories have written to the Arkipresta campaign to thank them for the inspiration they have provided. With local elections coming up in May, Jesús is hopeful that the Commuidad’s position will become untenable in Fuenlabrada too... 

Anna Wolmuth is a UK teacher who is presently working in a primary school in Spain