By Ben Tavener, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Brazil’s education system will be critical in improving the country’s stark inequalities, and last week it was announced that 600,000 tablet computers would be handed out to public school teachers at over 62,000 schools, in an attempt by the Ministry of Education to show new technologies are the way to speed up improvements.
The step could cost as much as R$180 million (US$105 million), but the tablets will be made in Brazil, also boosting the country’s fledgling industry.
“Bringing digital technologies into the classroom must start with the teacher. If [the teacher] doesn’t advance, teaching won’t either,” said Minister for Education Aloizio Mercadanate.
The news comes after broadband internet was installed in 52,000 public schools and 300,000 teachers have now been on supplementary courses, also part of the country’s modernization process.
Brazil has been investing a lot in education. Between 1995 and 2005, it increased 63 percent, now injecting about 5.0 percent of GDP into education, up from 3.5 percent in 1995. To compare, the U.S. and UK invest around 5.5 percent.
The main criticisms of the education system, though not unique to it, center on inequalities, such as the pronounced north-south divide: for example, nine percent of Brazilians (14.6 million) are still termed “illiterate,” but that figure soars to over 17.5 percent in the northeast, according to the IBGE (Institute of Geography and Statistics). In the south, however, the rate is five percent.
Brazil has made major headway with illiteracy since 2000, when the national figure was 13.6 percent, but it remains high, given Brazil recently overtook the UK (where 99 percent are literate) to become the sixth biggest economy.
Another big challenge is simply getting children to school. Despite the “Every Child Learning” project being launched in 2003, the IBGE says 500,000 children between seven and fourteen are still not receiving any education, and 1.7 million fifteen-to-seventeen year-olds are out of school, figures likely to be higher in reality due to difficulties in carrying out surveys in Brazil’s favelas where, for example, 22 percent of Rio’s inhabitants live.
Priscilla Cruz, executive director of non-governmental Todos Pela Educação (“Education for All”), says Brazil should aim to get 98 percent of children in school by 2022, but that there is “a very high risk of this not being achieved without strong structural policy on a national level,” Ms. Cruz warned.
Last year, only half of children achieved the minimum standard in Portuguese and forty percent in mathematics. Ms. Cruz says this ends up spilling into high school, which only half of students finish.
When looking at universities and colleges, although the situation is improving in terms of access, Brazil is a long way from its thirty percent target of people going to university, long achieved by neighbors Chile and Argentina. Forty percent of U.S. and 32 percent of UK students go on to graduate with at least a Bachelor’s degree.
By 2009, the general ENEM exam (Exame Nacional do Ensino Médio, National High School Exam) started being considered as a general “vestibular” (entrance exam) for universities and colleges, rather than simply an end-of-school qualification, in order to promote countrywide standards and equality.
Although universities are not obliged to take ENEM results, and many rely on their own “vestibulares,” the ENEM is being taken far more seriously, now seen as a fundamental part of getting into university. The number taking it has skyrocketed from 1.8 million in 2002 to 6.2 million last year.