The Kids Aren’t Alright

Although Brazil has taken huge strides towards decreasing its staggering illiteracy rates, a dire public education system languishing in 60th place in the world rankings table severely lags behind that of its western counterparts. Simultaneously, such failings also have a direct effect on crime, inequality and the country’s overall growth and productivity.

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While it must be conceded that cities such as São Paulo boast excellent free public crèches (with 65,000 rug rats waiting to be placed in them providing an endless headache for newly-installed mayor João Doria, who made a campaign pledge to resolve the matter) and reasonable kindergartens at a time when school is perhaps more focused on fun and learning to get along with one another as opposed to anything serious, problems begin to emerge at around six years of age.

This is when a child enters the Ensino Fundamental phase of their education, compulsory until 14, and it can become common to a find a child nearing 10 years old yet still unable to read or write as each passing semester brings the increased risk of a struggling student falling through the cracks. Whilst inroads were made to combat illiteracy through the Bolsa Familia social welfare programme that rewarded poor families with a monthly subsidy providing their offspring kept up their attendance, this project, while lifting millions out of poverty, capacitated manipulations and corrupt behaviour while juked stats in schemes akin to the US’ No Child Left Behind programme, especially in the run-up to elections, have also proven counter-productive.

During Brazil’s now-failed economic boom, governing bodies found that even though considerable improvements had been made, illiteracy rate reductions still paled in comparison to those of its BRIC rivals such as Russia and China with over 13 million illiterate students at the start of the decade. This could be down to any number of factors that instantaneously combine and contribute to an insufficient overall education being provided to the country’s children, literate or not. Firstly, inflated class sizes lead to overcrowding and mean teachers are unable to provide each student with the attention they deserve. These same teachers are also overworked, underpaid and therefore unmotivated with deteriorating classrooms and text books hardly fostering an environment in which the juventude actually wish to spend their days.

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Coupled with regular strikes over salaries and general conditions, not to mention recent school closures in low-income neighbourhoods at the height of the ongoing recession and their resulting occupations by protesters, the amount of allotted sick days per year a public employee is allowed to take off often results in students arriving for classes only to find that they have been cancelled for the day.

That’s not to say that, in any event, Brazilian kids are generally behind a desk as often as they should be. Lessons run for just four to five hours per day with a month off in July and a staggering amount of time away from the classroom in the run up to Christmas. From early December, school is out until the middle of February before any kind of rhythm is then broken up again a week later by Carnaval.

Although finally made mandatory by the government last year in a bid to curb drop-out rates, with gym slip pregnancies and steep falls into the trappings of gang culture sadly also a common occurrence in contributing to these trends in the poorer parts of Brazil’s towns and cities,  the Ensino Médio phase often fails to motivate teenagers from 15 to 17 years of age.

While it goes without saying that some are simply too tired to study and absorb information if their classes, as is often the case, run from around seven to 11pm at night – especially if they have already entered the workforce to help out their parents – students becoming more self-aware than before as they mature towards young adulthood could have already deemed education to be a lost cause. In what are arguably the most important years of a young person’s school journey in the run-up to higher education, products of the public system often stand little chance of pipping their privately-educated counterparts to the post for coveted spots to attend the country’s highly-esteemed federal universities. Whether taking the national ENEM exam or the test created specifically by an institution itself, public school students often find that they simply haven’t been taught the material on the paper or their teachers, solely focused on just getting through another day, whizzed through it in a manner that was difficult for them to comprehend and then later implement when it matters most.

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At this point, Brazil’s education set-up then crosses over into Bizarro World territory with those who have spent their formative years in expensive private establishments mostly filling free, federal universities and those who have passed through free public schools having to settle for private, paid higher education – another factor which may have contributed to giving up all hope early doors, especially for those on or beneath the poverty line.

With private universities, often in session for only three to four hours per day during the morning or at night, some may suggest the prospect of working in order to pay for one’s studies. While this argument would usually be logically-sound, menial jobs offered to those with an Ensino Médio education provide menial compensation often below the minimum salary of 800-900 reais ($260-300 USD or £200-235) as exploitive companies take advantage of the fact that full time hours aren’t contracted by such an employee in this predicament. With monthly fees to a reputable institute running at upwards of 700 reais, this ambition is simply impossible to realise especially for those who, again, must contribute to the family budget or may have already left home.

Just as complicit in the exploitation of striving young people are second-rate private institutions offering higher education for just a few hundred reais a month. To prospective employers and wider society, these universities are viewed as little more than paper mills with their degrees not worth the ink used to print them out. This isn’t to say that awards such as bolsas (i.e. scholarships, subsidiaries and grants) aren’t possible to attain yet they are often only handed out to the brightest, stand-out students who may have had the foresight to self-educate or are naturally gifted.

Likewise, quotas for Afro-descent students are also made available but present a limited amount of spaces for an ethnic group made to look like a minority despite actually being the most predominant in Brazil representative of more than 50% of its 200 million-plus population. As with the Affirmative Action campaign in the US, quotas are a divisive subject with vocal corners of the black community preferring a level playing field through satisfactory schooling as opposed to having to be singled out for special treatment.

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In any case, this conundrum as a whole can often cause resentment between the classes and is a huge contributor to the country’s startling inequality – in turn creating a poorly-kept secret apartheid in which it can be common to walk across an office floor in Brazil and find that the only black or mixed-race members of staff are cleaners and security guards. What must be noted though is that while the upper echelons of society would probably always send their children to private academies regardless of the quality of public education, middle class parents become frustrated by having to work long hours to meet wincing school fees of anything up to 4,000 reais ($1,300 USD or £1,050) per month just for their kin to not get left behind. Rather, they would prefer that their heavy taxes of 27.5% or more provide sufficient free education as well as acceptable health care, which many also prefer to pay for privately. Naturally, these punishing wage deductions also fail to provide adequate security resulting in the haves becoming walking targets for those have nots – the failed alumni of public education – who have chosen to pursue a life of crime as opposed to lingering in suppressive and low-paid dead end jobs as the aforementioned school-to-prison pipeline chews them up and spits them out.

As is the case with any public service, the onus lies solely on the authorities to invest in education and completely overhaul its current insufficient framework, which would result in vast improvements to both literacy and security as well as reductions in crime and inequality. While ever the political elite inhabit gated communities though and send their kids to private schools often overseas – whilst also helping themselves to the contents of the State’s coffers as frequent reports of long-running corruption scandals reveal – there seems little hope of positive changes being made any time soon with no quick-fix solution in sight as Brazil suffers its worst economic depression since the 1930’s.

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