Brazil has made great progress in improving its education system in recent years, but the current street protests provide a dramatic reminder that wide inequalities in education and society still need to be tackled. Protesters across the nation are calling for the government to prioritize better services including education, health care and transportation over building football stadiums for the World Cup.
As with recent protests in Turkey, the Occupy movement in the United States and student demonstrations in Chile, the protests in Brazil are largely driven by students and better-educated youth who are angry over government policies that benefit the rich. Education is often cited by protesters as a key issue, and for good reason: the quality of one's education profoundly influences employment, income and opportunities throughout life.
Brazil's education system is a complex case: as we highlighted in the 2012 EFA Global Monitoring Report, the government has reduced educational inequalities significantly since the late 1990s. However, in many cases the reforms have not gone far enough, and many of the poorest still lack access to quality schools.
A key policy that has improved education equality is the Bolsa Familia programme, which gives 1% to 2% of the gross national income to 12 million of the poorest households on the condition that their children attend school. It has had significant success in improving school attendance and education outcomes, particularly for girls in lower secondary schools. In many cases, these targeted reforms have helped disadvantaged students to catch up.
Brazil has also invested in teacher recruitment and training. The government funds places for teachers at universities, especially in high-need subject areas, to encourage talented new teachers to join the profession. On a national level, recent reforms in the education system distribute a larger share of government spending to the poorest states, allowing them to invest more in schools and teachers.
Despite these positive reforms, Brazil's education system still faces many challenges, as the protesters are acutely aware. In 2009, nearly seven out of ten 15-year-olds performed at or below the minimum benchmark set for the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in mathematics, and one in two performed at or below the minimum benchmark in science and reading, with the best-performing students tending to come from richer households. The poor quality of education has left a legacy of youth and adult illiteracy: there are 14 million illiterate adults living in Brazil, the eighth highest number of any country in the world. Gaps in education often have left the poorest behind, especially those who live in rural areas. According to our latest report, among those aged 15 to 24, almost half of the poorest drop out before completing lower secondary school.
Gaps in education and learning contribute significantly to the youth unemployment that is a major problem in Brazil. The 2012 EFA Global Monitoring Report found that nearly one in five young people available for work are unemployed. Those with less education are particularly affected, as are female and urban youth. In rural areas, the problem is more that young people are forced to take work that pays a wage too low to live on: among rural youth with primary education or less, around one-third earn salaries below $1.25 per day.
Governments worldwide should pay attention to the protesters in Brazil and their demand to reduce inequality by investing in education that benefits all citizens. Quality education should not be a benefit for the privileged; it is a human right for all people.