Mexico's payout for education does not pay off

21st December 2012 at 00:00
Despite spending a great deal on schools, it is not getting good results

Mexico spends more than 6 per cent of GDP on education, which is well above the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average of 4.6 per cent, and more than any other Latin American country, but it does not get the desired results.

The OECD has rated the system consistently as bottom or second bottom in the world and, though test results in the Programme for International Student Assessment have improved, they are still not at the expected level.

Why? There are a number of factors. The system is very centralised with the Federal Education Ministry (SEP) dominant: it sets the curriculum, provides primary textbooks, prescribes secondary ones, hires and fires all personnel, sets salary schedules and the calendar.

In 1992, education was decentralised to the 32 states, but largely for administrative purposes only. More than 80 per cent of the budget goes on teachers' salaries, but in some states it is as high as 98 per cent. There are problems with red tape, as a recent census showed, since a number of teachers listed were imaginary and one had been recorded as earning #163;35,000 per month.

There is no independent inspectorate, little or no evaluation of any work done, or of schemes introduced. A great deal of information is gathered by the ministry but it is never published and there is no tradition of educational research, except by a small number of individuals and consultancies. There are plenty of good ideas and interesting pilot projects but they often are not fully implemented.

Another issue has been the strength of the teachers' union. By law, everyone must be a member and 1 per cent of salaries is deducted to pay the dues. The union has over 1.2 million members and is a strong political force, claiming credit for deciding the outcome of a previous presidential election. It negotiates salaries and conditions as you would expect but, while salaries are not high, some of the conditions are unusual. Until recently, a teacher's job was hereditary so that when you retired you could simply pass your job on to a relative and, in some cases, buy and sell it.

Teacher absenteeism is high, even reaching 50 per cent in some areas. There are long holidays, you can have permission to have time off without giving any reason and you do not need to have any training other than the most basic. It is possible to become a teacher based on passing one exam and sending in a video of yourself in front of a class. There is no accreditation of training, no standard set nor competence measured. Teacher training is of inconsistent quality.

Between 1970 and 2000, school enrolments grew from 9.7 million to 21.6 million - currently over 31 million. The infrastructure could not keep pace. There are three shifts a day in primary schools with each child receiving only four hours daily, two shifts in secondaries, supposedly of seven hours, and some night schools. Many teachers work multiple shifts to increase their salaries.

Distance learning is used for 20 per cent of pupils, especially for rural areas, with 15-minute programmes delivered by one teacher to a class of 22 pupils. Since education is only compulsory for years 1-9 (P1-S2), there is a high dropout rate - only 51 per cent are attending upper secondary.

MEXICAN NUMBERS

6% - proportion of GDP spent on education.

31 million - total enrolment.

51% - proportion of pupils who attend upper secondary.

1.2 million - membership of teachers' union.

46th in reading in the OECD's PISA survey 49th in maths; 51st in science.

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