The Brazilian education sector stands at an important crossroads. For decades regarded as a privilege rather than a right, the recent universalisation of access to basic schooling has been a trying, but largely successful, process. The challenge that the country faces today is ensuring that the quality of education its 40 million children receive from the public school system befits the world’s seventh-largest economy.
On the surface, the system’s structure is familiar. From the age of six to fourteen, children receive compulsory primary education, moving on to non-compulsory secondary education from fifteen to seventeen. At age eighteen, students can enter higher education. Unlike in the UK and the US, the most highly-regarded universities are public, their tuition entirely free, but access to them is extremely competitive.
It is an awkward paradox that while the Brazilian elite prefer to send their children to expensive private schools, it is to these free universities that the best students invariably go on to apply. Priced out of a good basic education, the majority of Brazilians are then tested out of the best universities, paying instead to attend private institutions with mixed reputations. But higher education remains in its infancy: USP, Brazil’s oldest university, was only founded in 1934. Since the 1950s, Capes, the federal agency for the support and evaluation of higher education, has been responsible for the sector’s rapid growth.
The government’s national education plan (PNE) set a target of 98 percent inclusion in schools by 2023. To stay on course, however, 2.9 million children need to be incorporated into the system this year alone and the process of universalisation has taken its toll on Brazil’s public schools. In order for the plan to succeed, President Rousseff admits it must “converge the efforts of all areas of government”, or an already stretched education system will be pushed to its limits.
The teaching profession in Brazil has long been undervalued. Without the resources to cope with full-time students, children only attend classes in the mornings or afternoons. The knock-on effects for teaching efficiency are striking, and it is here that the PNE is hoped to make a major impact. Efforts at lowering drop-out rates, improving teacher training and management and expanding higher education all come backed by a major boost in investment between now and 2023, using money from the pre-salt oil exploration programme.
In a country the size of Brazil, with a population of over 200 million spread over 8.5 million kilometres, finding a solution for the needs of those both in the urban centres and in the remote, rural districts represents an enormous challenge.
There is no national curriculum and Sao Paulo is the only state to have implemented a single curriculum across all of its schools. As such, it is difficult to evaluate students and teachers, and continuity in teaching is a challenge. Without the economies of scale offered by a single, countrywide system, the cost of books, materials and technology is also greater than it could be.
Having fallen behind neighbouring countries like Argentina and Chile in the last century, there is now a great deal to catch up on if the country is to meet 21st century demands, too. Soft skills, citizenship and the basic tenets of punctuality and collaboration all have to be bolted on to the fundamental elements of reading and writing. Functional illiteracy is the frighteningly common ailment affecting somewhere between 18-27 percent of Brazilians, and, while the blame for a widening skills gap is regularly passed from the private sector to the universities and all the way down to basic education, it remains an issue that successive administrations have failed to address. In light of the national education plan, it is a problem that, if handled correctly and efficiently, can also bring enormous opportunities.
Viewpoint: Celso Lafer, president of FAPESP
The Sao Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) puts research into practice, acting as a business incubator and helping the state strengthen its position as an important global hub for science, technology and innovation.
“Half of the knowledge produced by Brazil is generated here in Sao Paulo because the state has such a dense research infrastructure: the three state universities (USP, UNESP and Unicamp), Unifesp, PUC and ITA. Fapesp also has a very strong relationship with the UK, including research councils with Imperial College, Birmingham University and several others.”
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