Bearing more than a kilo of mangos, oranges and apples on his shoulders, 13-year-old José slips through the queue and jumps on the bus. Here, he walks along the aisle offering his goods for sale. But in an instant, he's back down on the road and on his way to the next bus, squinting from the mixture of midday Guatemalan sun and diesel clouds. José knows how to spot a potential customer and when it's not worth sticking around. Instead of being in school, he has spent nearly every day earning money this way since the age of six. The proportion of seven- to 12-year-olds enrolled in Guatemala's schools is rising, according to the United Nations, and has increased from 85% to 89% in the last 20 years. The Guatemalan government puts the figure at 95% – a jump, it says, from 89% eight years ago. But, despite the improvement, a growing underclass of children is emerging, of which José is a part. Very little – if any – of their "education" will be spent in classrooms. Most of what they learn will have been picked up on their country's increasingly dangerous streets. At La Terminal, the bus station in Guatemala City where José plies his trade, shootings, thefts and gang violence are commonplace. Even the fried chicken joint now employs an armed security guard. José has had his daily earnings of about 75 Quetzales – £6 – stolen more than once.
In Guatemala, there are 52 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to one murder per 100,000 in the UK and five per 100,000 in the US. Many predict this to increase this year, as tensions rise with the election of a new Guatemalan president in the autumn. Guatemalans say more people are dying now than during the country's bitter 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996. As José walks to the next bus, half a dozen vehicles sound their horns. He takes a side-step to avoid a man who is unstable on his feet, and holds out gold-coloured bracelets in his palm to passers-by. It's nearly impossible to judge how many children in Guatemala are missing out on a formal education to work the streets as José does. Viva, an umbrella organisation for charities that help street children, says up to 1.5 million are consistently out of school – about a fifth of what the country's pupil population should be. Unesco's Education for All Global Monitoring Report, published this month, reckons one in 28 Guatemalan children are missing out on school. José says he wants to be a teacher, but the closest he has come to entering a school is the informal one set up by Guatemalan charity Pennat. The school takes a few hundred children for a couple of hours of lessons each day above a shop in the capital's main marketplace. Classes start at 7.30am and end by 11am so the children can catch the mid-morning swell of customers.
A UK-based charity, Toybox, is providing the funds for another informal school to be set up. It will be run by El Castillo, Toybox's partner in Guatemala. El Castillo's 40 workers visit parents whose children work on the streets and try to convince them of the long-term value of sending the children to school. They encourage street children to start – or re-start – their studies, and buy them uniform and equipment. Children found living on the streets without adults are offered shelter in El Castillo's residential home, if there is space. Jomara Pineda, head of El Castillo's rescue and prevention team, doesn't hold out much hope of José or his 11-year-old sister, Rosalita, going to a proper school any time soon. In fact, she thinks they are likely to stop going to the informal school before long. "It's a lot to do with the parents," she says. "They have the opportunity to change the fate of their children, but they often don't seem to want to let the children stop earning. The children get used to earning, too." José's mother, Laura, and grandmother, Rosa, sold fruit on the streets at José's age and see this as normal, although they admit that today the streets are more dangerous. Guatemala already has one of the worst poverty gaps in the world. Here there are more private helicopters per capita than anywhere else in central America, according to the US Department of Commerce. Meanwhile, Guatemala has the fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world. And according to a study conducted last year by The Fund for Peace, a US-based research institute, the inequality is becoming worse. José's family is among the 58% of Guatemalans who, according to the United Nations World Food Programme and the World Bank, live in extreme poverty, without even the means to afford to buy a basket of basic food. Five of them sleep on two beds in a damp shack that is much more like a cellar than a home. It has a corrugated iron roof, no windows and no running water. Plastic buckets are stacked on the stone floor and the only possessions visible are some clothes hanging over string and a couple of blankets folded in the corner. Not far away, chickens nod their way into a space roughly three metres by five occupied by a family of seven – including two children. Dirty nappies lie in yellow puddles outside the door. Amid this acute poverty and overcrowding, family breakdown is common, as are violence and sexual abuse. Miguel Angel Franco, a deputy minister in the Guatemalan government's education department, says he is well aware that some children can't continue their studies because of a lack of funds. But he points at the considerable success of a scheme started in 2008 called Mi Familia Progresa (my family progresses). It gives poor families cash if they regularly send their children to school. The government has spent 2.04bn Quetzales (£162m) on the initiative and claims it has helped an extra 800,000 parents – 6% of the population – send their children to school.
Franco also highlights the rising aspirations of many poor families – something Flora Suarez, a headteacher, has also noticed. In Suarez's primary school, in a deprived neighbourhood in the north of Guatemala City, working-class parents are now daring to hope that their children will have middle-class jobs when they are in their twenties. The bricklayers are encouraging their children to become architects and engineers, she says. "They think their children will be able to get these jobs if they have an education and they support everything the school tries to do – they have understood the value of going to school."The parents who have stalls in the market haven't reached this stage yet, she says.
In 2000, world leaders vowed to ensure that, by 2015, every child would stay in school long enough to complete their primary education. There are 40 million more children who have been given this opportunity than when the promise was made, but 60 million are still missing out. José is one of them. He can barely write his own name. A future as a teacher is out of his grasp until he comes off the streets and goes to school. 'The sheer poverty was a shock to our system': two UK teenagers' journey Two teenagers from the UK are planning to tell thousands of their peers about the plight of street children over the next few months following a fact-finding trip to Guatemala. Navdeep Bual, 15, and Yasir Yeahia, 14, spent a week meeting street children, politicians, teachers and charity workers in Guatemala City. The pair, from Seven Kings high school in Ilford, Essex, visited a primary school in a deprived part of the city and met the British ambassador to Guatemala. They travelled to the shanty towns where some of the street children live and were invited into their homes. The teenagers were introduced to young people their age who gave them an idea of some of the country's education problems. Navdeep and Yasir were winners of the Steve Sinnott award for Young Global Education Campaigners. The competition was launched by a group of overseas aid agencies that believe education is the key to escaping poverty. Sinnott, who died in 2008, was general secretary of the National Union of Teachers and a passionate advocate of the Global Campaign for Education, an umbrella group of charities and teaching unions. The two students were accompanied on their trip by the charity Toybox and Education Guardian. Yasir says he was shocked at Jose's life and living conditions. "He had to go to the bus station, which was filled with drug addicts. He worked tirelessly and went from bus to bus trying to sell. We then visited his home ... The flies, the smell and the black bags filled with rubbish, the chaos ... You had to go through narrow alleyways to even get there."
He says he has been struck by the responsibility young children have to earn money for their families. "It seems so much pressure to put on someone that young," he says. "I want to make people in the UK know that we've a lot to be grateful for. People our age may think they can't make a difference, when in fact they can." Navdeep says she was upset at the response Jose's sister, Rosalita, gave her when she asked what she wanted to do when she was older. "She told me she wanted to work on the street and sell fruit, like her mum. It was heartbreaking to hear her because she had no real ambition, purely because she didn't know there was a world outside the one her family was trapped in." Guatemalan teenagers told Navdeep and Yasir that being raped on the way to school is a major worry for girls their age. "It seems so inhumane that while that is happening, in other parts of the world, people live in mansions," Navdeep says. "The sheer poverty was a shock to our system and definitely opened our eyes to the problems other children face purely because of where they were born. In the short term, education can't completely solve the problems that street children face. What it can do is afford girls like Rosalita an opportunity to see a life free of danger, poverty and injustice. Without education, countries like Guatemala can not develop and move forward." Now the pupils plan to hold a peaceful protest in central London to remind the British government that international aid must be a high priority. They also hope to spark a viral online campaign to raise awareness of the poverty of children in Guatemala and the barriers they face to receiving an education. For free school resources and details on the Global Campaign for Education visit www.sendmyfriend.org