Latin America & Caribbean

Booming Brazil held back by education gap

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Media captionThe BBC's Katty Kay says tackling vested interests makes educational reform in Brazil extremely difficult

It's the start of the day for the students at the Wilma Flor public school in the eastern suburbs of Sao Paulo. Only it's not 8am, or even 9am. It's 1pm.

Wilma Flor runs three shifts. The first group of students has school in the morning, the next in the afternoon and the final shift doesn't start until 7pm.

Over the past 20 years Brazil has done an impressive job of getting more students into the education system. Many of the children here at Wilma Flor are the first in their families to finish high school. Some have parents who didn't even finish elementary school.

That's the good news in Brazil's education story. Here's the bad news.

Brazil now has the sixth biggest economy in the world, but its education standards lag far behind. In an international study of education systems, PISA, it came in at 53rd. That threatens to hold this country back.

Political will

No-one here disputes that those figures must change, and soon. Brazil's recent economic boom has depended in large part on exporting its vast natural resources to other growing economies.

As one Brazilian economist suggested to me, this country's rapid expansion can be explained in one word: China.

But if Brazil wants to move beyond being simply a commodity provider, or if China's growth slows and it demands fewer Brazilian resources, then what?

Put simply, if Brazil wants to develop from an emerging economy to an emerged economy it will have to do a better job educating its population.

Improving education takes time - time this country doesn't have much of. Tackling the vested interests of administrators, teachers' unions and bureaucrats makes it one of the most politically difficult things any country can do. Look at the fights America has gone through over standardised testing.

Priscilla Cruz, a campaigner for education reform from Todos Pela Educacao, sums up the challenge like this: "The political issue is that teachers are voters, and in Brazil there are two million of them that can decide elections, so it is very hard to make changes".

One change that teachers' unions reject would be to make it easier to get rid of teachers who don't perform.

In Brazil, teachers can get tenure after only three years on the job, and once they have tenure they can't be fired.

Out at the Wilma Flor school we found teachers clearly wanting to do better but held back, ironically, by a lack of teaching for themselves.

When Regilene Cunha entered her first classroom as a teacher she had zero practical experience. She had the university qualification to be a teacher, but it was all academic theory, no hands on practice.

It was, she admits, a terrifying experience: "I felt insecure and apprehensive. The same as new teachers now."

Importing Europe

If Brazil's schools and universities cannot provide the skilled workforce to satisfy its economic needs, then Brazilian companies will look elsewhere for labour.

The government is exploring ways to reduce immigration restrictions to make it easier for technical professionals, particularly those with experience in the petro-chemical industry, can come and work in Brazil.

It's not lost on Brazilian companies that the recession in Europe means highly educated people are prepared to travel across the Atlantic for a job.

Joao Nunes arrived in Sao Paolo a year ago from Portugal. He's an engineer who works for a head-hunting company.

"When you talk about engineers, Brazil has a huge demand of technical professionals to face the growth of the country," he says.

Yet even he admits this is a short-term solution to Brazil's problem.

In the long run, the country cannot rely on engineers from Lisbon to make up its labour shortage, it will have to develop them at home.

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