Right-wing scuppers reforms

20th June 1997 at 01:00
CHILE. Plans to build 20,000 classrooms have been overthrown by senators. Lake Sagaris reports.

A right-wing ambush in the Senate has stalled what were the most ambitious plans for education in Latin America, Chile's coalition government has conceded.

A year ago, President Eduardo Frei announced the reforms in his annual May 21 speech to the nation. The sweeping reforms would eliminate the current system, in which schools serve two or even three shifts of students.

Each group of students and teachers would have full-day access to one school, spending afternoons in special workshops, reading and doing homework.

With a thriving economy, the government had long promised more spending on education, and has done so slowly since the military regime handed power over to an elected government in 1990.

The education ministry estimates changes will cost US$1.4 billion (Pounds 872 million) over the next five years, with about half that for building the estimated 20,000 new classrooms, lunchrooms and other facilities necessary to implement the reforms.

The reforms go hand in hand with major changes in curricular goals and a shift away from rote learning towards development of teamwork and problem-solving skills.

The reforms include plans to upgrade the skills of 25,000 teachers, awards for teaching excellence and 1,500 grants for teachers to study abroad.

Juan Pablo Arellano, the education minister, had been confident the government's proposal to maintain value-added tax at 18 per cent would meet approval from government and some opposition party representatives.

The elected government has a majority in the House of Representatives but not in the Senate, where eight appointees of the former military government usually swing the balance in favour of ultra-conservative parties.

It was here that national renovation senator Sebastian Pinera said he would vote for keeping VAT at 18 per cent only if the government reduced customs duties from 11 per cent to 9 per cent.

This trade-off was denounced as completely unacceptable by Eduardo Aninat, the finance minister.

Earlier in the year, a report in Hoy magazine said other government departments calculated that the education ministry had seriously underestimated the reform costs, since estimates did not include funding for new gymnasiums, workshops and other facilities necessary for their success.

When the school year started last March, 3,000 schools extended their teaching day, but most are rural schools with small enrolments that require fewer physical changes to implement the programme.

Urban schools trying to introduce the new school day have run into problems that range from lack of lunchrooms, lack of funding to pay the additional teaching hours and lack of suitable activities to keep students busy at school.

TES june 20 1997 reuters

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