BRAZIL has made massive strides towards "education for all" since President Fernando
Henrique Cardoso's socialist government took office in 1995, its education minister claims.
Paulo Renato Souza was in London last week to update government officials and educationists on Brazil's progress.
The president made education his priority and appointed Dr Renato Souza, a labour economist and education secretary for the state of Sao Paulo, as his minister.
"I am still here after five years - and we've had 50 ministers in 70 years," Dr Souza said. Previous governments left a legacy of regional disparities, extremes of wealth and poverty, illiteracy and a poorly-trained workforce in a country of 167 million people.
Some progress had been made by the time he took office: 89 per cent of seven to 14-year-olds were attending school compared to only 60 per cent in the 1960s. But too many children were dropping out or repeating years.
Last year 96 per cent of seven to 14-year-olds were in school. Primary enrolments had risen by 13 per cent and the proportion of 11 to 14-year-olds in education rose by 27 per cent.
Dr Renato Souza said resources had been directed at higher education in the 1970s and 80s. "We were building luxury penthouses, but they were lacking foundations; the problem was how to complete the building. So we made primary our priority and results are starting to appear."
The key to this progress lies in financial reforms, enacted in 1996, which forced the 26 state authorities to spend federal government grants on primary education and teachers' salaries. The government also tops up minimum spending per pupil when state funds are isufficient.
"Now the mayors (of 5,506 municipalities) are going after children to get them in schools; if they don't have students, they don't get the money."
The reforms increased teachers' income in the poorest states by half and raised the poorest regions' revenue by more than 20 per cent. In the richer states, education funds often went on building sports stadiums or paving roads outside schools, he said. "It wasn't corruption but deviation."
He is giving yearly grants to schools, but only to those with parent-teacher associations, to encourage links between home and school. PTAs have increased in number from 11,000 to 70,000.
Other reforms included new curriculum guidelines for all levels and minorities, introducing environmental, ethical and cultural issues in core subjects; doubling school lunch spending; updating and improving textbooks and libraries; and establishing a new national exam for school-leavers.
Yet problems remain. Pupils are forced to repeat years until they reach the required standard. "We have 37 million seven to 17-year-olds, but 44m in the system - which means 7m surplus."
Despite opposition, Dr Renato Souza's ministry has set up an accelerated learning programme to help slower pupils.
"Taxi drivers tell me: 'My wife is a teacher and I'm telling you, minister, what you are doing is wrong'."
But the school drop-out rate is falling in all 26 states and soon all students should be in the correct grade. Spending on education, at 4.8 per cent of the GDP, is now on a par with the United States, Japan and the UK.
Financial reforms are forcing state authorities to improve teachers' pay and pupil attendance