Hunt is on for Rio's phantom teachers
The Brazilian authorities are clamping down on more than 25,000 "phantom" Rio de Janeiro state-school teachers who are taking their salaries although they have not reported for work for years.
"We have a desperate shortage of teachers in the classrooms and yet there are at least 25,000 on the payroll who have failed to turn up at schools for years and have somehow slipped controls," said Fernando Pinto, education secretary of the Rio de Janeiro state government.
"The plan is to re-register every teacher in the state, find out who the phantom teachers are and what they are doing, and return some of them to the classrooms," said Mr Pinto.
The move is part of a clean-up of Brazil's traditionally bloated state system and promises to be the beginning of long-overdue reforms to revamp the public education system.
The state of Rio de Janeiro, with a population of 10 million one of Brazil's most populous, has 71,000 teachers registered and receiving monthly salaries, more than it needs to cater for 900,000 primary and secondary school pupils.
But this is just on paper. In reality classrooms have a desperate shortage, especially in the shanty towns in the north of the city and the industrial outskirts. According to Mr Pinto, at least 60,000 of the 755,000 primary school pupils do not have teachers for core subjects such as mathematics and Portuguese, Brazil's official language.
"Last week we had to bring in 3,000 emergency teachers to fill in lessons, " he said. "It is outrageous since there should be more than enough for all the schools."
The "phantom" teachers are generally thought to have taken up jobs elsewhere to supplement meagre incomes averaging Pounds 187 a month. Over the years mismanaged state governments have allowed teachers to continue cashing in on their teacher's salary while employed elsewhere.
Explained Rio governor Marcello Mencar: "Past administrations worked on a system of patronage. Jobs were given out like hot cakes and there was no one checking on how the schools actually functioned."
The abuses exacerbated acute teacher shortages and put additional pressure on teachers who did fulfil their duties in the classrooms.
Geography teacher Claudia Landim da Fonseca, 33, said: "We have not had a rise in our poor salaries for years and are forced to do extra teaching to make ends meet." She supplements a monthly salary of Pounds 125 by giving night classes and is forced to leave her own four children alone at home during most of the week.
At the Escola Estadual Paulo de Frontin, the 500-pupil state school where she works in the Rio suburb of Tijuca, there are no teachers qualified to teach maths, physics, chemistry, biology, history or languages.
"On many occasions we have to tell children to go home because there are no teachers," she said.
The Rio state government has been the first to admit to the mismanagement which has left the state school system in disarray and the first to announce a reform plan. But similar crises affect other states, especially poorer, remoter northern regions.
The central government of President Fernando Enrique has urged a clean-up in all the states, rather than giving out a bigger education budget. "First we have to streamline the system that already exists and make sure funds are not wasted," said a government spokesman.
The world's eighth largest economy is aspiring to develop into a "modern" state and a regional power-broker. However, education has traditionally been low on the priority list and academics agree it may take years to reconstruct the inefficient system.
Godot de Oliveira Neto, a literature professor at the University of Rio de Janeiro, said: "Education of the poorer under-class has never been a priority in this socially divided country. We will have to adjust culturally to realise that a country cannot develop without schooling the majority."
Statistics show that 40 per cent of Brazil's 150 million people are semi-literate, which often means they can just about write their name. Only 10 per cent go to university or higher education and more than 50 per cent of those who finished primary school last year did not go on to secondary education.