Uncertain course of school education in Venezuela. With eight million schoolchildren, and a ratio of 77 % public, 23 % private, the directors denounce that the students go hungry, but encourage them not to give up in their efforts.
TEXT - Marcos Pantin, Maracaibo (Venezuela)
We tour the facilities of a representative public high school in Maracaibo, capital of the state of Zulia, Venezuela's second largest city. I go with the school principal. We are met by bright, witty students, with contagious joy: that's the way the students are. marabinos.
The building is solid and well designed, built in the early 1960s. It accommodates half a thousand students studying for a Bachelor of Science degree. It has a staff of 42 full-time teachers. The school is open in the afternoon, from 1:00 to 5:40 pm. Lunch is served mid-afternoon in the school cafeteria.
The building has not been maintained for years. Large leaks stain the roofs. Wiring and electrical panels have been stolen and the dismembered desks are not big enough for all the students. A cursory calculation reveals that there are few students and hardly any teachers to be seen.
Decline of public education
The State has been the great educator in Venezuela. For 70 years, about 80 % of the student body receives public education, and 20 % private. Official figures from 2016 ensure that the total school population is 8,040,628 students, distributed in 77 % in public education and 23 % in private education.
Fifty years ago, there was no shortage of excellent public high schools in the country's main cities. "In the 1980s, the decline began. Curricular changes and the replacement of normalista teachers hindered the learning of basic skills such as reading, writing and mathematical reasoning." points out Leonardo Carvajal, director of the doctorate in Pedagogical Sciences at the Catholic University of Caracas. Carvajal adds that in the 1970s, schools went from full to half shifts, losing hours of academic work.
Among the best teachers in the public high schools were university professionals with no teaching studies. In the 1980s, under pressure from the teachers' union, they were banned from teaching in schools and the human and scientific level of these centers declined", says Fernando Vizcaya, dean of the Faculty of Education at the Universidad Monteávila in Caracas. However, public schools have not been immune to the fate of the country: political sectarianism, improvisation, economic and social crisis.
In the last decade
Total enrollment in public education has been declining since 2007, while private education has maintained its growth rate: "It is a recession, which, because it is prolonged and contractionary, is already a generalized depression of the school system." says Luis Bravo Jáuregui, researcher at the School of Education of the Universidad Central de Venezuela. Bravo Jáuregui recalls that the economic and social crisis has exacerbated the usual shortcomings of the educational system.
"This government did the magic art of disappearing a trillion dollars in 18 years. An unbelievable thing." says Fernando Spiritto. Director of postgraduate studies in Economic and Social Sciences at the Catholic University of Caracas, Spiritto recalls that the money has gone to imports, corruption or non-productive activities.
Cost of living and inflation
Although there are no official figures, inflation closed last year at 2,600 % and remains at 85 % per month. A school teacher earns at most 2 million bolivars per month (9 US dollars at the free exchange rate). However, he pays 5 million for housing rent; 10 million a month in food for three people; 2 million in public transportation. Not counting health, clothing and children's education expenses. His life is very complicated.
In addition, the incredible shortage of cash doubles the prices of everything paid in cash. In one day, a teacher can pay more in public transportation than he or she spends for food and what he or she earns per working day.
The management of a public high school: educating and wading through the crisis. Let's go back to the corridors of the school. We have been brought a coffee and the principal is getting more and more confident: "We work with our fingernails. We lack the essentials for our day-to-day operations: stationery, office supplies, cleaning products, etc. I keep asking. They tell us that we have to 'self-manage'. The situation is serious, the director points out, because food is scarce at school, let alone at home. He explains: "The vast majority of teachers work two shifts: 16 hours a day, and they only eat one meal a day. And let's not talk about the hunger the kids go through. Let's be clear: the students come to school for the food plate. We are receiving half of the allotted food. We have not been able to give them anything for two weeks now. In the corridors I am approached: 'Teacher, when is the food coming? There is no food in my house.
This serious shortage causes "a lot of pain"adds the head of the lyceum. "There is a sadness in the air, a kind of nostalgia that affects teachers and students. When there is no food, attendance does not exceed one third of the students. Every day four or five students faint because they haven't eaten anything. When we have food, attendance reaches 90 %".
The question inevitably arises: how can they comply with the lesson plan? "The evaluation system is designed to prevent the student from losing the year. It is the so-called 'battle against repetition'.
Boys finish high school with huge gaps. This is the facile populism that bulks up the Ministry's statistics. Students pay dearly for fraud: "If they come from a high school without regular subjects because they were given them as passed without having a teacher, they have no chance of passing the first year of university." explains Enrique Planchart, rector of the Simón Bolívar University in Caracas. "I am extremely concerned about non-attendance." continues the high school principal. "When they manage to come, the kids bring a bag full of illusions. I want them to go home with fulfilled illusions, but they leave with a lot of questions: why didn't the teacher come? why wasn't there any food today? what are we going to do?"
Hunger is so severe that "Teachers and employees are losing weight at an alarming rate. There is no food in their homes and their children go to school fasting. The option is to leave the country. I am about to lose six teachers in critical areas. But we have to persevere. We cannot give up, concludes.
The crisis in private schools
Not far from the public high school is a private school. With almost fifty years of activity, the enrollment reaches a thousand students in elementary and high school. It operates with about two hundred teachers and employees. The buildings have been erected gradually as the number of students has increased.
The center's management acknowledges that there have been "a change of mentality" at the school's address. "But we are not alone in the endeavor. Families are very supportive. But this requires time and effort. Through donations from families and other sources we are working to increase the teachers' income; solve the transportation problem; facilitate access to food, always through the channels allowed by the Ministry of Education."
The head of this private center admits openly that "Before, I was mostly concerned with the problems of the children and the attention to their families. And it is no small thing to take care of the families: they are suffering from the country's crisis in many ways. Every day I see four or five of them.
But now, along with the task of running the school, I spend no less than 4 or 5 hours a day attending to the teachers, listening to them personally or looking for external help to subsidize monetary, transportation, food or health needs. For this I moved the school administrator's office next to mine, because we spend a lot of time attending to these situations".
The conclusion of this educational expert is clear. If this crisis continues, "the educational model in Venezuela would necessarily change. We would have to reduce the class schedule and eliminate the extracurricular activities that give the human and familiar tone to school work".
However, the expert believes that the harshness of this weather will subside and better days will come: "The crisis will pass and we will live in new times with God's favor. I witness the daily effort of teachers to do their work well.
It is a permanent stimulus. I am infected by the natural enthusiasm of the children in the classrooms, without forgetting that in public schools they suffer a lot. Our country has a great future. Definitely, the key is in the formation of these young people who are going to build the new Venezuela".