A school system rocked by protest, theft and sabotage

22nd January 2016 at 00:00
Education in Mexico is changing as the country bids to climb the rankings – but some teachers are resisting

Exam facilities are being sabotaged, teachers are setting up city-centre protest encampments and parents are having to guard school tablets from thieves.

But fortunately for education secretary Nicky Morgan, this is not a turbulent start to the year in England, it’s the reality facing Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto – who has made overhauling his country’s education system a priority.

He wants to reverse his country’s poor performance in the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings. But his reforms are not going entirely to plan.

Details of the difficulties emerged in a TES interview with a Mexican government source, who said that the introduction of a new exam – for teachers rather than pupils – had been one of the most controversial policies.

Three strikes and you’re out

Teachers in Mexico must now take an online test covering their subject knowledge and general pedagogy. If they perform well, they will get a pay rise, but if they fail three times, they will be barred from teaching.

The government stresses that those who fail the test will not become unemployed but be given administrative jobs in schools instead. However, this has failed to reassure one group of teachers, who have sabotaged test centres. Electricity to the buildings has been cut and demonstrating teachers have forcibly prevented their colleagues from entering.

Teachers started the protest by holding strikes and marches, a government source said, adding that they “installed themselves in camping tents all over the main square in Mexico City”.

“The government said, ‘You cannot continue occupying public spaces this way,’ so they started trying different types of protest, such as sabotaging the electrical facilities of the places where the exam was going to be,” he said. “Sometimes, they would pretend to participate in one of these exams and once they were inside, try to stop everyone taking the exam, using violent means. They would say, if you do this [test] you will lose your job, which is not true.”

He told TES the resistance was from a small group of teachers and came despite “almost universal” support for the reform among parents, and the backing of most staff.

“Teachers have had the most important place in Mexican communities – they have always been the protectors of poor people in small communities,” he said. “But this time, parents have backed the government because they want some change. The Pisa results [led to] strong pressure from public opinion because they were devastating for the Mexican government.”

The source said that the reform aimed to raise the status of the country’s teaching profession, which has historically been made up of people from poor backgrounds without a university education.

The country’s main teaching union, the SNTE, supports the changes, but a group of its members have broken away to oppose them. “As a union we’re fighting to tell teachers, ‘Don’t be afraid of the [teacher] evaluation,’” the SNTE’s international secretary María Antonieta García Lascurain told TES.

She said that teachers who opposed the reforms were “frightened for their jobs”.

“Of course, there are teachers that do not agree with this evaluation, but I think that, little by little, they will see it’s not for punishment,” Ms García Lascurain said. “The evaluation is just a tool to facilitate the necessary training of teachers, training that the government should honour with the quality required.”

She added that she was disappointed by the violent protests, which were “not the way things should happen”.

The union has had its own problems; its former leader, Elba Esther Gordillo, was arrested in 2013 over allegations of fraud and organised crime.

Her detention – on suspicion of embezzling approximately £140 million – came the day after the government began to enact its controversial reforms. Ms Gordillo reportedly spent millions on plastic surgery, property and a private plane.

Guarding gadgets

Since then, another element of the reforms has led to unexpected difficulties. A drive to provide tablet computers to all 6th-grade students (aged 11-12) has been targeted by thieves. Pupils have been told not to take the tablets home because some devices have been taken by family members and sold.

But even keeping the gadgets in school is not enough to protect them: many have been stolen at night. In response, some frustrated parents have started guarding them.

“Parents decided to take turns to take care of the school during the night, so that their children wouldn’t lose their tablets,” the government source said. “They’re quite concerned. The attitude that prevails is that parents think, ‘I want this for my children because it will be better than what I had.’ ”

Yet the facilities in many schools remain substandard – a problem that the government is starting to address with extra funding.

“Most [government] resources are addressing the physical condition of schools, because they’re quite poor,” the source said. “In some states, about 20 per cent of schools don’t even have a toilet facility. These are schools in rural villages in the mountains, so children would go behind a tree.

“In schools that did have a toilet facility, the whole town would be using the school bathrooms because they’re clean, and sometimes it would damage their facilities.”


The Pisa verdict on Mexico

Between its first Pisa assessment in 2003 and its most recent in 2012, Mexico increased the enrolment of 15-year-olds in formal education from 58 per cent to just under 70 per cent. But even then, the only Pisa participants with lower levels of enrolment were Albania and Vietnam.

In maths, Mexico’s highest-performing students get the same score as an average student in Japan. The average Mexican student scored 413 points in the subject, compared with the OECD average of 494 – a difference that is equivalent to almost two years’ extra schooling.

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