Brazilian schools hit the jackpot with oil windfall

Billion-dollar cash injection for system ranked 53rd in world

Darren Evans

Brazil's schools are set to reap a massive windfall after the government agreed to divert three-quarters of royalties from newly discovered oilfields to the country's education system.

Under the new law, which will come into effect next year, 100 per cent of oil profits will go to public services, with 75 per cent set aside for education and 25 per cent going to health.

The impact on schools is expected to be unprecedented. In the next year alone, the Brazilian government stands to earn up to $1 billion (#163;643 million) in profits from its new offshore oilfields in the Atlantic. Experts are predicting that the country could make anywhere between $150 billion and $300 billion over the next 35 years.

The move will help to boost Brazil's national education budget considerably and will go some way towards helping the government reach its target of spending 10 per cent of gross domestic product on the sector by 2020. Although the proportion has been rising steadily over the past decade, only 5.6 per cent of Brazil's GDP is currently earmarked for education, compared with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average of 6.3 per cent.

The new law has been hailed by Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff as a "historic victory" after months of civil unrest over public spending. "For me and my government, education is the principal pillar to transform Brazil into a great nation, assuring that our people are freed from poverty," she said.

Anthony Hall, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics and an expert on Brazil, said there had been a long-running campaign to improve education.

"Campaigners want more state support for basic education and they have been putting pressure on the government to increase allocations," he said. "It was one of the elements behind the recent wave of public demonstrations and strikes.

"Now politicians have agreed to use this potential jackpot of resources; campaigners see it as a huge victory."

Despite having the world's sixth-largest economy, Brazil's education system lags far behind most of those in the developed world. In the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests, Brazil was ranked 53rd overall out of 65 countries. According to OECD figures, only 43 per cent of 25- to 64-year-old Brazilians had an upper secondary qualification in 2011, compared with an average of 75 per cent across OECD countries as a whole.

And while enrolment rates in early childhood education increased between 2005 and 2011, pre-primary education is still rare in Brazil. Only 36 per cent of three-year-olds and 57 per cent of four-year-olds in the country were enrolled in early childhood programmes in 2011, compared with an OECD average of 67 per cent and 85 per cent respectively.

The Brazilian government has yet to outline exactly what the money will be spent on, but Professor Hall said that many areas were in need of funds.

"So far, we have had a generalised set of promises to keep everyone happy, with the ultimate aim of improving the coverage and quality of education, to bring the system into the modern age," he said. "The biggest issues are with infrastructure and teacher training but there is also a lack of resources, particularly a shortage of books and scientific and computer equipment."

Professor Hall said that making teaching more "professional" would be an important first step. "Brazil has a large population of teachers, particularly at primary level, who are under-qualified or not qualified at all. Many are recruited from the community or other professions," he said.

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Darren Evans

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