Written by Daniel Ordoñez
Brazil stands out as the most biodiverse country on planet Earth, and with a territory covering more than 8.51 million km² is the largest country on the South American continent. Since its independence as a colony of Portugal, its territorial extension and political systems have directly influenced the development of the population, particularly in how the education system has been structured and designed. The constant socio-political changes and economic circumstances have been factors that have directly influenced the education system in the country.
This article will outline the different mechanics and factors that have influenced education in Brazil, as well as the different modifications it has undergone throughout the federal administrations, the projects underway and the challenges facing the system.
The sociocultural context and the education system
With the arrival of the Portuguese colonisers to the South American continent, Brazil would change its historical destiny forever, becoming the most important colony and the future of the Portuguese kingdom, as well as influencing politics, the structuring of the modern Brazilian state and its socio-economic evolution. The Catholic Church strongly influenced Brazilian society due to its past as a Portuguese colony. Unlike many European nations, Brazil was not affected by the various changes brought about by the Reformation movement in Europe.
During its early years of colonisation, Brazil was the destination of numerous Jesuit missions. These missionaries established the first colleges and educational centres in the country. However, in the 18th century, during the burgeoning Enlightenment movements, the Jesuit missions were expelled from the country. This period also brought about reforms in the Brazilian political system, according to Schwartzman (2006). These Enlightenment reforms led to the creation of Brazil’s national primary education system, which meant dismantling much of Catholic education in the country. Finally, it is worth mentioning that in 1838 Pedro II College was founded as the first primary school in Rio de Janeiro and marked an important milestone in the country’s educational system’s evolution.
By the 19th century, Brazil was a predominantly rural society with a highly centralised government that tried to adapt to ideas from Europe’s nation-states. In addition, most of the population was in a precarious economic state, with multiple disconnected provinces and economic models focused solely on mining and sugar exploitation (Schwartzman 11, 2006). A small white elite of Portuguese descent headed most of the decision-making, followed by a mixed majority of slave descendants, Native Americans and Portuguese settlers.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, the demography of the country changed considerably, receiving an influx of immigrants from all continents and countries in the same hemisphere in order to replace the slave labour that worked in the coffee, tobacco and corn plantations and with the industrial revolution, a considerable part of the rural population moved to the big cities, with the promise of better-payed jobs and better life quality. By the mid-20th century, an estimated 25% of the population was literate, with primary and secondary education being the responsibility of the local state. German, Japanese and Italian immigrants formed their private schools, with a strong influence from their native countries.
On 15 November 1889, the Empire was replaced by the Republican regime, which fostered an even more modern state that could more coherently integrate the national community, and established the first public schools. During the process of industrialisation of the country, which began at the end of the 19th century, schools had no system to unify and regulate them, which in a way, it promoted the implementation of modernisation policies, focusing on the creation of “school groups”, using the most advanced architectural technologies for the construction of schools; organising students according to their age and proficiency, following a multi-serial and sequential programme. Likewise, schools for training professional teachers called “escoltas normais” were founded, introducing new teaching and training techniques.
With the government of Getulio Vargas, from 1930 to 1945 and 1951 to 1954, the first fundamental reforms in the educational system were created, promoting a more centralised methodology and creating the Ministry of Education and Culture. During this era, the provision of elementary or primary education, which was expected to be compulsory and universally accessible, spanned four years, accommodating children between the ages of 7 to 10. The gymnasium succeeded in this initial phase, perceived as secondary education, which, too, lasted four years. Lastly, the “college” stage was in place, extending for two to three years, and was designed as a precursor to university education. A vital characteristic that would mark the future of education in the country was the lack of governmental interest in training students and teachers in technical and industrial careers, which left the door open to the private sector to meet this demand. By 1931, the first legislation to promote universities was created with the “Manifest of the Pioneers of the New Education”, implementing a French educational model and an Italian one for the faculties of Philosophy, Sciences and Letters.
After the military dictatorship, which ended in 1988, the new constitution established the right to education for all citizens of Brazil, allowing universities autonomy in research and teaching and promoting free public education from primary to secondary school. Subsequently, in 1996, Congress approved a new reform that would give educational institutions greater freedom and flexibility in setting up courses and programmes.
Challenges of the Education System
The attempt to comprehend and interpret why education in Brazil did not progress as swiftly as in other countries hinges on historical context. In brief, the main reason is the absence of factors in Brazilian society that would encourage its citizens to establish and nurture their academic institutions. Further, at both the national and regional scale, the Brazilian government needed more human and financial resources and the necessary drive to integrate its population into a uniform, top-down educational system. Sources for the development of the educational system, two strong trends marked its evolution, the first was the proliferation of primary and secondary education, and the second was the establishment of institutions for conferring professional competencies and official certifications.
In his 2006 paper entitled “The Challenges of Education in Brazil”, Simon Schwartzman states that the country did not have a properly developed education system due to several factors that hampered its evolution. The domain of teacher education was demoted to less prestigious components of higher educational establishments and the private sector. It did not cultivate robust postgraduate and research programs like those in the more scholarly social sciences such as economics, sociology, political science, and the natural sciences.
The isolation of teacher education and traditional “teaching” social sciences has resulted in some unintended outcomes. This has led to a new generation of well-organised and politically driven teachers who often need more teaching skills or subject matter expertise. They often need clarification about teaching methodologies or content; shockingly, they dismiss these aspects as insignificant. They perceive society as unjust, with exploitation rampant and governments showing apathy towards educators and education. They believe meaningful change can only occur through substantial social transformation or revolution.
According to Schwartzman, another factor was the rapid and uncontrolled expansion of the education system without clear guidance and the early retirement of many retired teachers, with two clear consequences. First, the financial burden of public higher education escalated dramatically, which constrained the government’s capacity to meet the rising demand for higher education and maintain salaries that outpace inflation. As a second point, only a fraction of the appointed individuals possessed the education and skills required for advanced academic tasks. To enhance the quality of education, new laws were enacted, with the objective of promotions and salary hikes with higher educational degrees, resulting in an inflated growth of specialisation and master’s programs.
Another essential aspect to highlight is the rate of young people who drop out of primary education in Brazil, many students lose the motivation to finish their primary or secondary studies because of the low quality of teachers and classes, or they have to work to earn money for themselves or their families. This is due to the expansion of the academic system without proper structuring, with irrelevant courses for young people or teachers who need to be more motivated.
During the OECD’s economic report for 2020 and 2021, during the Covid-19 era, several aspects of the education system that Brazil lacks were highlighted, and challenges about its future and evolution were presented. According to the report, the governmental composition of the country and its bilevel bureaucracy between states and municipalities means that no national system allows the harmonious functioning of roles and responsibilities in the guidelines of how to manage schools and present a coherent education policy. Considering Brazil’s devolved education structure, which places federal, state, and municipal bodies equally, establishing a National Education System is complex. This issue, along with the numerous proposals previously mentioned, continues to be a hot topic of discussion among government bodies, civil society, and the public.
Another aspect highlighted by the OECD report is the growing disparity between the public and private education systems. While the public system covers more than 81% of the youth population, the private system meets the demand for tertiary education, technology and university training. In Brazil, over 75% of undergraduate students are enrolled in private universities, contrasting to less than a third in OECD countries. The previous decades have seen a surge in private sector enrollments and the number of private higher education institutions due to relaxed regulations since the late 1990s. Government funding programs such as the Student Financing Fund (FIES) and the “University for All” Program (ProUni) have facilitated access for underprivileged students to private institutions. However, a more significant proportion of less affluent individuals are enrolled in the public higher education network compared to private institutions (9.7% versus 5.5%). In general, higher education is primarily accessed by the more advantaged individuals.
These figures are also supported by the report presented by the US Department of Commerce in 2023, which shows how private institutions represent the majority of the education system, while public institutions are shown to be small bodies, unable to meet the demand for higher education. Public higher education institutions are positioned as hubs of high-quality learning and research, having extremely selective admission procedures and constrained expansion capabilities. On the other hand, private higher education institutions have crafted a distinct role, primarily addressing the professional demands of the job market. Consequently, they have formulated adaptive programs to cater to the requirements of the working demographic.
Latest projects and policies
Within the report presented by UNICEF in 2018, Brazil introduced a programme for developing the education system for the year 2021. Under national priorities and following the guidelines established in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the country focused its education projects on promoting and “facilitating the generation and knowledge exchange to identify the most excluded children and to monitor and measure the progress of actions in the fulfilment of their rights” (UNICEF 4, 2018). Using the ‘Theory of Change’, Brazil focused on creating partnerships between public and private entities, encompassing civil society, media and private sectors, on ensuring quality education access for all Brazil’s children, regardless of their strata, ethnicity or social conditions.
These UNICEF-driven policies had four fundamental components. Firstly, “Enhanced policies for excluded children”. Secondly, “Quality social policies for vulnerable children”. Thirdly, “Prevention of and response to extreme forms of violence”. Moreover, as a fourth and final component, “Engaged citizenship and participation”.
UNICEF’s final report showed results and progress in several facets of education in Brazil. In the first instance, more evidence was gathered on the causes of the increased exclusion of children through the development of the School Active Search strategy (SAS) and the Successful School Path (SSP) programmes, using the SAS system to monitor and measure the identification and reintegration of out-of-school children.
As a second development, specialised programmes for the most excluded children were created at national and subnational levels; “by the implementation of the SAS, through intersectoral articulation, population engagement, dialogue with families and school involvement and exchange of experiences among participating municipalities and states” (UNICEF 5, 2018).
Thirdly, the retention of both girls and boys in the primary education system has significantly increased, thanks to intersectoral policies that emphasise diversity and incorporate contextualised education. These policies are embodied in a variety of initiatives. For instance, research has been conducted on age-grade distortion and practical guidebooks have been produced to support educational strategies. Moreover, a seminar was held to introduce the “Indicators on Early Childhood Education Methodology”. This included the provision of materials and guidelines to facilitate self-assessment of school performance, this initiative aimed to foster a democratic management style that encourages the participation of children, families, teachers, and employees. One notable effort is the “Open Doors for Inclusion Initiative”, a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). This course guides how to enhance the inclusion of children with disabilities in schools, signifying an essential step towards inclusive education.
The fourth advance, presented by UNICEF, is the improvement in guidance and policies for the promotion of satisfactory schooling trajectories, including children and adolescents who were victims of violence and have dropped out of school or are at risk of dropping out, as well as victims of child labour and children without civil registration.
Fifth, the involvement of citizens in advocating for the rights of boys and girls has grown, mainly through public advocacy efforts. The general election in the latter half of 2018 was seized as a unique chance to highlight the rights of children and adolescents. This was accomplished through the “More than Promises” advocacy campaign, designed around six central issues young people face. The campaign also proposed specific actions for elected officials to address these issues, demonstrating a proactive approach to realising children’s rights.
Finally, the report states how the level of knowledge and the opportunities for mobilisation and participation of adolescents in public decision-making forums have significantly increased. This growth has been particularly evident in actions that aim to enhance the development and participation of adolescents and youth in various debates. Key topics have included the safe use of the Internet and gender issues. As a result of these efforts, more than 30,000 adolescents were allowed to participate in the School Active Search program in 2019, reflecting a notable increase in youth engagement.
Cover image by Matheus Câmara da Silva on Unsplash
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