Cry of help for urgent repairs

25th August 2006 at 01:00

"The difference between state and private education in Argentina is huge,"

says Mariana Viterales, 33, whose eight-year-old daughter Florencia attends state school number 7 in Batan, an impoverished agricultural town on the outskirts of the coastal city of Mar del Plata.

"Children with lots of potential are not able to fulfil it at the state schools," she said. "Last month, this school had to be closed for 21 days because the gas heaters didn't work."

School Number 7 is 50 years old and has 530 students aged between six and 12. There is rubbish in the playground, classrooms have windows patched up with black bags, paintwork is peeling and teachers have been unable to use the blackboards for three days because they have run out of chalk.

In June, 60 parents staged a two-day sit-in at the school to stop the local authority from forcing the children to use makeshift, iron-clad classrooms, which they say resemble chicken pens. The local authority gave way and promised to start building a new school in November.

School Number 7, located in an area with 40 per cent unemployment, illustrates the divisions in Argentine society and the dire state of education. At present, the government is conducting a survey of more than 2 million people about a new law that would address the education crisis.

Florencia said: "I would like a new, modern school. One with enough books and computers."

More than 720,000 children in Argentina are not in school - largely because the country's severe economic crisis in 2002 forced poor parents to make their children find work.

According to the Single Syndicate of Education Workers, one of the main teachers' unions in Buenos Aires province, about 400 of the 10,500 schools in the province are in a poor condition.

Alicia Cabrera, head of School Number 7, said: "The priorities for education must be improving the quality of the buildings and helping teachers so that they can concentrate on education rather than having to take care of the children's general needs."

The school provides about 300 pupils with their main meal of the day. The education authority gives it just 1.10 pesos (19 pence) per child per day for food. Some 36 teachers work part-time at the school. Most of them teach in three different schools and their average monthly income before tax is 1,800 pesos (pound;309).

The government is planning to increase the proportion of the country's gross domestic product given to education from 4.5 per cent to at least 6 per cent within five years. About 109,000 people have completed detailed questionnaires about what should be the priorities for the education system. Two weeks ago, 400 volunteers manned stands in the streets of Buenos Aires at which members of the public could fill in the forms.

Ms Viterales said: "I think it's incredibly important that education is made compulsory for all children until the age of 17.

"There are not enough state schools in this area, and many children are unable to go to school because the distances are too far."

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