The Escuela Superior de Comercio Carlos Pellegrini has one of the best academic reputations in Argentina, but Students are not in class. A checkpoint has been set up in the Italianate entrance hall; a table around which a group of students sits drinking mate, eating biscuits, playing guitar, and checking the ID of anyone who wants to enter. For three weeks, students have been occupying the school, sleeping on the premises, and preventing lessons from going ahead. It is just one of a wave of protracted sit-ins that have spread to 30 schools across the city in protest against Education Reforms which students argue amount to enforced child labour.

Students reject reform without consultation

It is not uncommon for students to take such measures. Students closed Carlos Pellegrini for a week in May to demand the removal of a member of staff accused of harassment. The protests are highly organised - a list of rules is pinned up at the entrance to the school: bags must be searched. No spray paint is allowed - and politics is part of school life. The voting age in Argentina was lowered to 16 in 2013, and while voting is not obligatory as it is for adults, 59 percent of those under 18 exercised the right in the 2015 presidential election. The decision to occupy a school and to continue the occupation is taken through regular democratic votes at obligatory assemblies of all students.

Camila, 15, said: “We don’t take the decision lightly. This is the most drastic measure we can take, but it’s the only way make ourselves heard. Nobody in the city government went to a state school, but they’re playing with our education without consulting anyone.”

The first in the latest wave of sit-ins began at the Escuela de Bellas Artes Manuel Belgrano on August 29.

Students arrived at the school with sleeping bags and Thermos flasks, and took control of the building after news of planned educational reforms was leaked. The most contentious part of the city government’s proposal is a plan for students to spend the half of the final year of secondary school in obligatory unpaid work experience.

The government claims it is following the German dual education system, and education minister Soledad Acuña has said that the reforms are necessary to prepare students for the modern workplace, but many students see themselves on the front line of a broader ideological battle.

Student president Malena Parisse said: “Besides the issue of child labour, if students are going to do free work in companies, what happens to the people who would have been doing those jobs otherwise? If the government succeeds in pushing this through, the next step will be labour reform.”

She was also concerned that the proposed change will only widen the gap between private and state schools. Fifty-two percent of students in the City of Buenos Aires now attend private schools, with parents often citing the state of disrepair at state schools, the number of days lost due to strikes and protests at the lack of preparation for university as reasons.

With free further education open to all, Argentina has one of the highest rates of university enrollment in Latin America, but only 20 per cent of those who enroll graduate.

According to Malena, “there’ll be even less chance for state school students to have the academic preparation needed for university. The city government is basically saying that if you go to a state school, you’re not going to go to university.”

Teachers unions have yet to make a formal response to the reforms but many teachers are sympathetic to students’ complaints, while harbouring their own fears about parallel plans to introduce “facilitators,” rather than teachers in some classes.

Mariano Toscano, a history teacher at Escuela Normal No.8, said: “Companies have no idea how it will work, the government has no idea how it will work, and yet they want this to start next year.

Students feel they have to act because if they wait until someone has drawn up a real plan it will be too late."

“From a teacher’s point of view, there isn’t enough detail for us to be able to decide if we agree or not, but we suspect the introduction of facilitators is a way to avoid paying teachers and to bypass the teachers’ unions.”