In Neruda’s Chile, good education eludes masses

May 11th, 2008 - 11:18 am ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Pratibha Patil
By Liz Mathew
Santiago, May 11 (IANS) In Chile - the land of literary giants like Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral - its young citizens strangely do not have a great affinity for books. The government’s attempts to reintroduce the writers have not had many takers. Concerned about diminishing reading habits among youngsters, the government in this South American nation has proposed a scheme to distribute books to 400,000 poor families. But people here are pessimistic about the programme. They say the government should first give priority to improving educational facilities.

While some Chileans in capital Santiago feel President Michelle Bachelet’s new scheme to refresh literary traditions in the country would at least inspire people to read books, the majority predicts the scheme would be an utter failure.

“If you distribute books to poor families, they will sell them off and buy food with the money,” said Doroti Hecke, an interpreter. Chile’s GDP grew by 5.1 percent in 2007 against 4.6 percent in 2006.

The government’s scheme for 400,000 families envisages a ‘maletin literario’ or box of up to nine books each that includes poetry and fiction apart from an encyclopaedia or a dictionary.

Bachelet’s idea came at a time when teachers as well as educationists were demanding more changes in the quality of educational institutions for economically backward people, including low official grants for such schools.

“Government-run schools have been in a bad shape. The teachers are badly paid. They take several shifts in different schools to earn money. In effect, no child gets attention from them,” Hecke complained.

According to Hecke, a very small percentage of Chilean children study in fully privatised schools, around 40 percent go to municipal public schools, which have improved their standards considerably in the last two years, but around 50 percent attend cheaper public schools which are fully funded by the government.

“But the results from the poor schools are still bad. Pupils from the cheaper schools score an average 50 percent less than their peers at the Grange (private schools),” she added.

In a study on education released by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Chile fared better than other Latin American countries despite its ranking as 40th among 57 developed countries. But it also found that the gap between the performances of different schools was the widest in the region.

Although Chile, with a population of 16 million and almost 91 percent people living in urban areas, has a literacy rate of 95.7 percent, only 31.4 percent go for higher education.

Immediately after taking over as president in January 2006, Bachelet had faced an unprecedented strike - the largest in Chile’s history - from the country’s education sector, with more than one million students demanding an upgrade of the public school system.

The government had then allocated more money for the improvement of the public schools. However, Chileans say, it is not enough to lift the education system which is in a shambles.

Isabel Madiola, director of the education department, Municipality de Providencia, admitted that the current government provides sizeable funds for the education of the poor.

“But there is no coordination between the central government and the 345 communes. Instead of the centre spending the money directly, the local administration should have been given the powers to utilise funds as they can understand the needs better.”

“There should be more decentralisation in the education machinery,” Madiola told a visiting IANS correspondent who traveled there recently with Indian President Pratibha Patil.

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