View from here - Breaking the law to teach

9th October 2009 at 01:00
A government-enforced swine-flu closure in Bolivia couldn't stop some rebel educators reaching their students, reports Laura Jones

Fear of swine flu took hold in Bolivia at the end of last term, just as it did in the UK. But a key difference was that more schools here were ordered to shut, although some found cunning ways to get round the compulsory closures.

For many of the poor families in Bolivia, there was little likelihood they could afford the medical care required if their children caught the H1N1 virus. They might also be tempted to send their children to school even if they were ill, increasing the chances of it spreading.

With this in mind, the 15 provinces in the Santa Cruz region of eastern Bolivia took the decision to shut all their schools, state and private, for a week at the end of term, and on at least one previous occasion.

This decision seemed sensible, given the risk. But the different ways schools responded to the closures revealed how such events can broaden the divide between state and private education.

I have been lucky to be staying with a privileged family in the city of Santa Cruz, who have two young girls at a private, fee-paying school. It is a different world from the typical Bolivian household - the family has drivers, maids, manicures, pools, parties, and so on.

While the state schools remained shut for the week, and provided no extra learning materials, the private school the girls attended ensured they continued doing classwork and homework online.

But it went a step further. Concerned that its pupils might fall behind - or that it might have to extend the next term into the Christmas holiday - it decided to flout the law.

For two days it opened for lessons, surreptitiously. To prevent the headteacher getting into trouble, or even jailed, the girls went in without uniform, in casual clothes.

Of course, there was still a risk that others might notice if pupils arrived and left the school as normal. So the timetable was also adjusted: rather than attending from 8am until 3.10pm, they had classes from 1.30 to 5.30pm.

The school's willingnessness to break the law could be seen as testament to how important it regards classroom teaching - or, more cynically, how seriously parents and teachers take their holidays.

But, meanwhile, pupils in the state system had no lessons at all - and few will have had access to the internet on the other occasions where schools have been closed, pushing them further behind their privately educated counterparts.

While there are undoubtedly inequalities in the British education system, my time in Bolivia has made me grateful to have been born in the UK. The girls tell me it is a common threat to children who aren't working hard, that they will be sent to a state school if they aren't careful...

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