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SANTIAGO, Apr 27 2006 (IPS) - The countries of Latin America and the Caribbean should take advantage of the fact that they have achieved virtually universal primary education, and that the school-age population is shrinking, to better orient funding and improve quality, according to United Nations experts.
A study by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), published to coincide with the international Education for All Week (Apr. 24-30), concludes that teacher shortages around the world threaten quality education.
The report, titled “Teachers and Educational Quality: Monitoring Global Needs for 2015”, examines measures that can be taken to “bridge the gap” between “teacher quantity and quality”, “especially in developing countries.”
It also compares the strengths and shortcomings of hiring and deployment policies as well as working conditions around the world.
“While other regions in the world must hire new teachers to achieve universal primary education by 2015, Latin America and the Caribbean can actually reduce the teaching force due to a steady decline in the school-age population,” states the report by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS).
Universal primary education is the second of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2000, to be met by 2015. Another is to reduce child mortality by two-thirds and maternal mortality by three-quarters, taking 1990 as the baseline year.
The situation in Latin America and the Caribbean offers an important opportunity to improve quality of education by investing more resources per student and per teacher, says the report, which was presented simultaneously Tuesday in Santiago, New York, Montreal, Brussels and Paris.
Only the Bahamas, Guatemala and Paraguay need to slightly expand the number of teachers to reach universal primary school coverage in the region, says the study.
Education for All Week is held annually on or around the anniversary of the World Education Forum held in Dakar, Senegal in April 2000, to remind governments to meet the commitments assumed during that conference. This year, the theme is “Every child needs a teacher.”
The UIS estimates that over the next decade, it will be necessary to hire more than 18 million teachers worldwide. But Latin America and the Caribbean represent less than 10 percent of that total. The study, which focused on 102 countries, including 20 in Latin America and the Caribbean, reports that in 2004 there were a total of 26 million teachers around the world.
UNESCO also notes that the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean should pay special attention to combating grade repetition, “which reduces the chances that a pupil will complete his or her education and puts considerable strain on teachers.”
Between 2004 and 2015, 1.6 million more primary school teachers will be needed in the region, because an estimated 6.5 percent of teachers leave the profession every year for a diversity of reasons.
Overall, the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean have less than 40 students per teacher, considered the upper limit for quality education. Cuba has the lowest class sizes in the region: 10 students per teacher.
With respect to the professional qualifications of teachers, “In general, standards are quite high in the region. Slightly more than half of the countries require a tertiary degree and the proportions of teachers actually meeting this qualification are also high (95 percent or more in seven countries).”
The situation in Latin America and the Caribbean contrasts with that of other regions that must meet the needs of a constantly growing school-age population, which requires an increase in investment to build new schools and hire more teachers.
In that sense, sub-Saharan Africa poses the biggest challenge, because from 2006 to 2015 it will have to expand its teaching force by 68 percent, or 1.6 million new teachers, in order to provide every child with a primary education.
“Countries in the greatest need of teachers also face severe fiscal constraints,” says the report. “Many have no choice but to rely upon ‘para-teachers’, who generally have lower qualifications than their civil servant counterparts and are paid just a fraction (25-50 percent) of their salaries. More than half the primary teachers in the Congo, for example, consist of ‘volunteer parents’ with limited or no formal training.”
Meanwhile, the regional UNESCO office, based in Santiago, suggested that countries in the region focus their efforts on improving working conditions for teachers and on encouraging the creation of educational “teams”, in order to overcome the isolation of teachers in remote rural areas.
It also recommended the expansion of preschool coverage, efforts to reduce grade repetition and class sizes, and the freeing up of additional economic funds for education.
“The situation of teachers in Chile is sweet and sour,” Juan Eduardo García-Huidobro, director of the School of Education at the private Alberto Hurtado University, and of the Centre for Research and Development of Education (CIDE), told IPS.
“Although the majority of teachers have degrees from institutions of higher learning, which gives them a certain advantage, they are currently facing huge difficulties,” he commented.
For example, teachers in Chile today have problems understanding the younger generations, “who are globalised and are experts in technology, which forces teachers to continuously update their training,” he added.
García-Huidobro also observed that during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, the teaching profession lost prestige through salary cuts, the weakening of university departments of education, and the recruitment of teachers with low academic qualifications. A similar phenomenon occurred in other Latin American countries under de facto military regimes in the 1970s and 1980s.
That era left its legacy in Chile, even though the centre-left coalition that has governed the country since the return to democracy in 1990 has made huge efforts to restore the quality of education and the image of the teaching profession.
The expert said that two of the biggest hurdles faced by teachers in Chile today to ensure quality education are their insufficient training to incorporate new realities, and the country’s extremely unequal educational system.
The interim president of the Chilean teachers’ association, Darío Vásquez, told IPS that the country’s teachers are concerned over the projection that the number of school-age children will decline by 10 percent over the next decade, which will translate into a gradual decrease in job security.
He also complained about the working conditions of teachers, who have little time for planning their lessons, and whose class sizes average 45.
In addition, he said teachers in Chile suffer a high level of both physical and mental ailments, as found by a 2005 study by the regional UNESCO office.
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