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Horizons expand amid the confetti

This is the time when students tear up a year's worth of notes and scatter them like confetti through Santiago, throw each other into fountains, and plan vacations.

As schools wrap up their courses, Chile's educational planners are looking forward to substantial changes in the beleaguered system. At the primary level, national testing has revealed that three out of four students from the poorest half of the population do not understand what they read, and possess less than half the skills required of their grade level.

A cabinet reshuffle in September saw education minister Ernesto Schiefelbein, a UNESCO researcher who had accepted the post in March, replaced by Sergio Molina, a Christian Democrat and an experienced politician.

Molina took one week to hammer out an agreement with the National Teachers' Association, which had held two strikes during the year and was planning a third.

"The most important event in education this year has been the government's announcement that education will be its first priority," says Osvaldo Verdugo, president of the NTA.

President Eduardo Frei made this announcement in May and, four months later, the finance minister said education spending would increase from 3.2 per cent of the gross domestic product to 6 or 7 per cent. A National Commission to Modernise Education is studying a report prepared by an advisory commission. It must present its proposals to Frei this month.

Few argue with the commission's scathing evaluation. Thirty years ago high schools took 14 per cent of potential students. Now the figure is 76 per cent, but 30 per cent drop out, 12.3 per cent repeat, and it takes students an average 5.35 years to complete four years' schooling.

Chilean students study for fewer than 800 hours a year, compared to 1, 177 in Taiwan, 1,073 in France, 1,053 in Switzerland and 1,003 in the United States. Teachers spend from one-fifth to one-quarter of their time on discipline.

But there is little consensus on what should be done. "The technical commission's report is very unclear about the role of public education, " Verdugo says, "and seems to imply it should disappear altogether, a view we do not share." Ninety-two per cent of education is government-financed. Verdugo argues that teachers cannot be blamed for the decline in quality produced by the system's growth and cutbacks under the military government from 1973 to 1990.

The NTA is also demanding a wage reflecting the five years of university studies required for a teaching certificate. In 1990, when an elected government assumed power, Chile's 130,000 teachers earned about Pounds 100 a month. By this month, negotiations and strikes had brought that up to Pounds 330.

Abraham Magendzo, a researcher for PIEE, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to research and development in education, says that the advisory commission's report "puts education at the service of an effort to eliminate poverty through economic growth, viewing it as the motor that is going to produce development" a concept that has become central to proposals from UNESCO and ECLAC, the UN's economic branch.

"But it makes assumptions that are far from proven," Magendzo says. "Many countries have seen their economies grow, with poverty growing at the same time. Higher competivity does not guarantee equity." MECE, a sweeping program for improving primary schools which has gained considerable successes over the past year, will be expanded to secondary schools next year.

"The most significant development in education has been the breaking of the inertia within the system," says Cristian Cox, MECE's director. "The lack of materials, the poor curriculum and the general discouragement among teachers produced poor results. That was the atmosphere of the 1980s and that is over."

Thanks to a Pounds 154m, six-year programme financed by the World Bank, MECE has paid for improved schools, modest libraries and better textbooks. A massive programme of medical check-ups detected tens of thousands of children with sight or hearing problems. "After six months in school, children with a sight or hearing impairment develop the identity of a slow learner," Cox says. "The medical check-ups have literally changed their lives."

A programme for 3,000 rural schools with one or two teachers has ended years of isolation, bringing teachers in for workshops and upgrading study programmes.

"Our motto is to reach out for new horizons, by learning from what surrounds us," Cox says.

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