Teachers set up flyers in Lisbon on Monday, September 11 as nationwide protests continue
Teachers set up flyers in Lisbon on Monday, September 11 as nationwide protests continue Photo: ANTÓNIO COTRIM/LUSA

Schools reopen with yet another Catch22: too many pupils

State schools reopen this week with teachers ‘still locked in battle with the government’; strikes and industrial action in the pipeline; retirements depleting the teaching pool at an alarming rate – and a new curved ball swinging into the complicated picture: there are too many pupils even for school places available.

Immigration is set to change Portugal ‘for the better’. The government has made a point of encouraging working-age immigrants into this country, but appears not to have assured ‘the necessary infrastructure’ to accommodate them.

Explain reports: “The number of pupils in the schools increased last year for the first time in a decade. This year it is the same story: there are another 18,000, many of them the children and teenagers of foreigners. But there is a problem: the number of places in schools has not increased”.

“There is a shortage of schools!” Rui Cardoso, director of the Viso school grouping in Viseu told Correio da Manhã. “We have terms this year with more pupils than the law permits, because the number of pupils in obligatory schooling has increased, due to immigration.

“We have classes with 32 pupils, instead of the 28 (limit, by law). In Braga and Viseu we have started receiving a lot of Brazilians. The schools are simply not prepared to receive so many pupils; there isn’t the space available”.

In Leiria, too. This year sees an extra 745 new pupils, of which 20% are foreigners, from “various countries”.

Brazilians are the largest nationality group settling in Portugal and opting almost always for the State school system, followed by Angolans, French and Ukrainians.

At the end of July, roughly 30,000 foreign pupils were already enrolled in Portuguese schools. More will have arrived over the summer.

Filinto Lima, president of the national association of school grouping directors, explains: “Pupils from other countries arrive almost every day. We are duty-bound to receive them and place them in a school. There are limits to the number of pupils in any one class, but if the Pedagogical Council gives its authorisation, a determined class can take more pupils”.

In other words, the ‘law’ limiting class numbers can be legally circumnavigated. But that is not the point: the point is that schools in this country are being asked to go beyond the limits in which pupils can ‘learn best’, when ‘the atmosphere’ with regards teachers’ long-running crusade for ‘respect’ and ‘appreciation’ is in tatters, and teacher placements (as always) are incomplete.

According to FENPROF, the national federation of teachers, 100,000 pupils will be starting the school year without their full complement of teachers.

The lack of teachers “mainly affects schools in the Algarve and Lisbon/ Vale do Tejo areas” adds Lusa, which alludes to a government plan – hugely criticised – to ‘hire teachers without professional qualifications’ to make up for the shortfall of staff available.

Meantime, S.T.O.P – arguably the most militant of teachers’ syndicates – has already announced a week of strikes from next Monday (September 18); FENPROF, representing a platform of nine other unions, has called a national strike for October.

Other actions/ works-to-rule/ bans on overtime are being discussed, while the number of teachers taking retirement this year is “unprecedented” – reportedly as many as 3,500.

A little like the crisis in housing, this is one that has been a long time in coming; ‘the writing has been on the wall’, seemingly ignored, until the arrival of an undeniable ‘crunch point’.

Portugal will be 34,500 teachers short in just seven years time

Habitual readers will be aware that teachers are battling for six years, six months and 23 days in which their salaries and career progressions were ‘frozen’ by past governments to save money. While the autonomous governments of Azores/ Madeira are making good on these freezes, with phased pay increases, Portugal’s central government is not. It has said there is no money in the kitty – hence the long-running strife in education; the strikes and the bitterness.

This week, in Almada, opening a school for the new academic year, education minister João Costa admitted “there are no magic wands”. He may have been referring specifically to the lack of teachers this year (which he claims will be dealt with “gradually”) or he may have been referring to research that suggests Portugal “will be lacking 34,500 teachers that the country needs” by 2030.

Again, this latter drama ‘has been a long time coming’.

According to Nova SBE (Nova School of Business and Economics) researcher Pedro Freitas who has been giving copious interviews on this subject, there are various reasons for the looming brick wall in terms of teacher numbers – not least the years of the financial crisis/ control by the troika when teachers found themselves at the bottom of the list of priorities in Portugal; schools (particularly primary schools) were summarily closed and merged into much larger units, requiring less staff; class sizes increased – suddenly ‘being a teacher’ dropped from children’s lists of aspirations – and now there may not be enough time to make up the consequences just as the country is ‘filling up with the children of immigrant foreigners’..

“Various measures are being considered”, said the education minister in Almada on Monday, agreeing that political leaders need to be “concentrated in finding solutions”.

It is in this context that the media reacted to the prime minister’s ‘silence’ at last week’s Council of State (called to discuss the country’s increasing number of problems) – interpreting it colloquially as a kind of ‘sulk’. PS Socialists were quick to say it was nothing of the sort, but even on Tuesday (a full week after the meeting), leader writers were still producing comment pieces on the ‘sulky silence’: Manuel S. Fonseca summing it up in one fairly brutal paragraph:

“The silence that hurts is the silence of the last eight years that António Costa has taken over the reforms that Portugal needs. Costa sees the degradation of the SNS (state health service), of education, of justice, and responds with silence, silencing the word reform. Latvia, Estonia, Romania have accelerated their GDP; Portugal watches them go by, and Costa’s atrocious silence”.

By Natasha Donn
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