News Can Brazil learn from its success? | Siân Herbert

Can Brazil learn from its success? | Siân Herbert

Without a complete overhaul of education, Brazil's economic miracle of development and poverty reduction is at risk

In inimitable Brazilian style, the upcoming national elections, to be held on 3 October, have inspired a cavalcade of electoral pledges and corruption scandals. Yet, despite a vigorous electoral race, no candidate has yet credibly tackled the most important challenge and opportunity facing Brazil today: education.

Brazil is currently surfing a wave of economic development with a demographic boom to boot. The country's economy has been transformed from the days of stagnation, inflation and crisis, which marred the post-dictatorship political landscape of the 1980s. In the early 90s, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso laid the foundations, and now Brazil is placed as the 10th biggest economy in the world. The outgoing President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva has presided over eight impressive years, which have seen 20 million Brazilians lifted out of absolute poverty and 31 million move into the middle class.

One of the biggest successes has been the enormous advances made to school enrolment. This is largely thanks to Brazil's very effective programme, Bolsa Família ("Family Fund"), which pays poor families if their children attend school. This fund has pushed children off the street and into the school room, while also providing the poorest with a well-needed form of income support.

Despite these successes, however, Lula has failed to take his battle with poverty as far as he should. The past 16 years have seen governments initiate a variety of reforms, but Brazil's cardinal problems of poverty and inequality still remain. The surge in school attendance has not been matched by a surge in quality: only 39% of Brazilians aged 25-64 have successfully completed upper secondary education (compared to 70% for the UK). Education in Brazil remains under-funded, inefficiently run and, to top it all off, disproportionately benefitting the wealthy. What Brazil now needs is a cultural and structural revolution in education policy.

Education is undervalued in Brazilian society and rarely features in debates in the public or private spheres; this is fuelled by average illiteracy levels of 12%. In fact, Lula often used his personal lack of education as a rhetorical tool to undermine his political opponents, the ruling elites. According to the UNDP's recent Human Development Report for Latin America and the Caribbean, 10 of the world's 15 most unequal countries are located in Latin America. Failing education systems lie at the very heart of this problem. It's no coincidence that Brazil is the 10th most unequal country in the world.

Latin America has the second youngest population of any of the world's continents (first is Africa). In 30 years, developed economies will be battling against ageing populations; Brazil, on the other hand, will have a young workforce. Brazil needs to harness this demographic boom and train a generation that will go to build the future of this economic giant. As the World Bank warned in 2008, "unfortunately, in an era of global competition, the current state of education in Brazil means it is likely to fall behind other developing economies in the search for new investment and economic growth opportunities."

In its current form, the Brazilian education system entrenches inequality and poverty, stifling prosperity for the majority. Due to low educational standards and lack of investment in public schools, 14% of Brazilian children attend private schools. However, most private-school leavers then apply for public, free universities – which conversely have prestigious reputations and high levels of investment. This severely limits social mobility.

In the recent presidential debates, neither of the two frontrunners have proposed any real education reforms. The debates have, instead, been dominated by talk of the economy, development and infrastructure, as the top two candidates follow in the "developmentalist" model taken by Lula. Investment in human resources through education, though urgently needed, does not appear to be a vote winner, and the subject has been "practically ignored" by the top two presidential candidates.

Lula's heir, Dilma Rousseff, is campaigning on the axiom Para o Brasil Seguir Mudando ("So that Brazil keeps on Changing"). Although "more education" is her fifth campaign priority, she is widely expected to follow Lula's hands-off strategy. Meanwhile, the main opposition candidate, José Serra, has committed to expanding the Bolsa Família programme to include more families, but has failed to put a case forward for specific educational reform. The only candidate to put education at the centre of her election campaign is the Green party's Marina Silva, currently placed a distant third with 10% of the vote, who has promised to increase GDP spending on education from 5% to 7%. (According to a recent OECD report, Brazil spends less per student overall than most OECD countries, especially in primary and secondary schooling.)

It's time that Brazilian politicians and the public acted to turn Brazil's education strategy on its head – diverting generous university funds for the few towards essential schooling for the many. Dilma Rousseff is almost certain to take the presidential reins in just two weeks; yet the question remains, can Brazil "keep on changing" if it doesn't overhaul its education system?

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