Brazil is often hailed as one of the countries that survived the worldwide economic crisis largely unscathed, thanks to years of strong growth and falling unemployment.
But although adults can find jobs, the youth unemployment rate is soaring, with almost one in five Brazilians between the ages of 15 and 24 not in education, employment or training (Neet). Now the country has been warned that it urgently needs to increase its investment in education for the sake of future economic development.
A major report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) claims that the quality of education in Brazil is "a major cause for concern". Indeed, anger over this situation has been cited as one of the causes of the strikes and violent protests that have gripped many of Brazil's major cities this year.
The report, Investing in Youth: Brazil, says that despite the fact that the country has made significant improvements in the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests in recent years, Brazilian 15-year-olds continue to trail behind their peers from other nations. Most students spend less than four hours a day in school, with only 8.3 per cent attending full time.
Attracting good teachers also poses serious problems because teaching is not considered a desirable career and there are few incentives to provide good pedagogy, the report says.
It goes on to state that the curriculum lacks relevance for most students, with little vocational education on offer; 50 per cent of young people drop out of education altogether by the age of 18. Only 5.6 per cent of Brazil's gross domestic product is currently earmarked for education, compared with the OECD average of 6.3 per cent.
As previously reported by TES, in September the government agreed to divert three-quarters of royalties from newly discovered oilfields to the country's education system. The potential windfall for schools could be unprecedented, with the government set to earn $1 billion (pound;627 million) in the next year alone.
But the OECD report warns that this alone will not be enough, and says that efforts need to be made to make sure the cash is spent efficiently and distributed equally across the country.
Anthony Hall, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics and an expert on Brazil, said that the country had underinvested in education compared with its level of economic development.
"It's basically down to political laziness," he said. "They simply haven't given it the priority that's necessary. As a result, Brazilian companies are looking more and more to immigrants from Europe to get the skilled resources lacking in the economy, and Brazilian youngsters are left as Neets."
The OECD report recommends that as well as investing in schools and teachers, Brazil's government should improve vocational education and apprenticeships.
Speaking at the report's launch, OECD secretary-general Angel Gurria said that Brazil's economic strength was proportionate to the skills of its youth. "The current and the next generations of young Brazilians will build the country of the next 100 years," he said.
"Providing support so that young people can develop their full potential is crucial for the future of the country, and policies aimed at helping them to develop skills are key to making progress in this direction."
Professor Hall said that the message was finally starting to get through. "I think policymakers realise that education is fundamentally important as a form of human capital investment, and to neglect this sector is suicidal in the longer term.
"The OECD report is a long and useful checklist. But just throwing money at the problem won't necessarily cure anything," he said. "This requires a serious long-term political commitment and it will take a while for things to filter through to the economy."
System not working
- Young people in Brazil are at least three times as likely to be jobless than adults.
- Youth unemployment stands at 15.3 per cent, and almost one in five 15- to 24-year-olds is not in education, employment or training.
- In 2011, 8.5 million Brazilians aged 15-24 did not finish basic education, and a third of 20- to 24-year-olds left school without an upper-secondary qualification, twice the average rate of OECD countries.