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Educating Brazil’s children

Over the past eight years, Brazil’s economy has grown under President Luiz Inacio Lula da Sliva and millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, thanks in part to the expansion of the ‘Bolsa Familia’ or Family Grant scheme, which gives a monthly payment to more than 12 million poor families.

But as new elections loom in October and President Lula prepares to hand over to his successor on 1st January 2011, a major problem of the country still remains its inequality. The huge gap between the rich and poor has hardly changed in the last 20 years. This means Brazil has high levels of crime, which weakens the economy by deterring investors and draining precious resources through spending on police and prisons.

The key element to reducing such inequality is an increase in work opportunities for children of poor families. But the challenge here is to improve Brazil’s poor quality of education, which is a main constraining factor to growth and development of the country. Thanks to schemes like the ‘Bolsa Familia’ which only pays out when children go to classes, nearly 100% of children between the ages of 7 and 14 now attend school in Brazil. But the expenditure per student is very low. In 2006, the average spending on a child’s education amongst countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was over 7,000 dollars per student. In Brazil, the figure is less than 2,000 dollars.

Only around one third of Brazil’s adults boast a secondary education. Workers in Brazil stay at school on average only seven years, compared to 12 years in the USA and 13 years in most parts of Europe. And even when children are in school, it is typical to find dilapidated buildings, poor equipment and classes containing 45 to 50 pupils. The quality of teachers is also an issue, with a basic state salary for teachers of around 530 dollars per month.

Eric is 16 years old and lives in Sao Paola. His home overlooks a slum area where drug dealers are rife and his walk to school takes him along poor streets lined with the wrecks of burnt-out cars. Eric understands that education should be the key to offering him a better life and he would like to work in the oil industry. But with overcrowded classrooms and demoralised teachers, Eric is unsure whether school will enable him to make his dream a reality. “How can I become an engineer with the kind of education I get?” he asks.

The candidates in Brazil’s presidential elections have all proclaimed education will be a top priority. But beyond general promises, many Brazilians feel they have heard few concrete proposals or ideas for improving the nation’s schools. Unless the politicians are serious about improving the education system and fighting inequality, then Brazil will continue to lag behind developed countries and never fulfil its economic potential.

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