Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

PERU: Rural Education Reflects Ethnic, Socioeconomic Inequalities

Milagros Salazar

LIMA, Jan 31 2011 (IPS) - In rural villages in the Amazon district of Datem de Marañón in northern Peru, teachers often have 70 students in their one-room schoolhouses and travel two or three days to get to their jobs, said Emir Masegkai, describing the challenges of providing education in remote areas of this South American country.

National Conference on Rural Education and Development Credit: Foro Educativo

National Conference on Rural Education and Development Credit: Foro Educativo

Because of the isolation of some of the schools, many teachers live in their schoolhouses — where they teach children of all ages — and only return home in summertime and during school vacations.

“If education overall is in a bad state, in the countryside things are even worse,” said Masegkai, a schoolteacher from the Awajún indigenous community of Kaupan and outgoing mayor of Datem de Marañón, which is in the northern region of Loreto, where 75 percent of the population is Amerindian.

“It is one thing to imagine what things are like there, and another thing to live there,” he told IPS.

Masegkai was one of 400 teachers, researchers, and local and regional authorities who took part in a National Conference on Rural Education and Development, organised Jan. 26-29 by the non-governmental Foro Educativo (Educational Forum) in Lima.

Experts at the conference said the inequality that marks Peruvian society, despite the recent high levels of economic growth, is reproduced in the educational system, and that rural regions lag behind cities on every level.

Participants recommended establishing a national plan for rural education that would take into account the ethnic and cultural diversity of the population and would be implemented in a decentralised manner, in coordination with regional plans, and with an inter-sectoral focus.

Only 12 percent of students in rural areas passed the reading comprehension test, compared to 29 percent in urban areas, according to the 2009 educational assessment. In math, the proportions were seven percent in the countryside and 17 percent in cities.

Although the figures showed slight progress from the 2008 evaluation, the advances were only seen in some regions.

In Apurímac, a highlands region in south-central Peru, there was a slight improvement, of two percentage points, although the score remained below the national average. In 2009, 8.2 percent of students passed the reading comprehension test, compared to six percent in 2008.

In the region of Huánuco, in Peru’s central highlands, the situation was similar: 10.1 percent passed in 2009, up from 6.7 percent in 2008.

“The gap between the rural and urban worlds is enormous,” said José Rivero, a consultant on education who spoke to IPS. “Peru is the most unequal country in Latin America, in education,” he added, citing a 2008 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

In this South American country, indigenous people account for an estimated 45 percent of the population of 29 million. “Mestizos” or people of mixed ethnic heritage (mainly indigenous and Spanish ancestry) represent roughly 37 percent of the population; an estimated 15 percent is of European descent; and there are small black and Asian minorities.

The 25 regions into which Peru is divided drew up regional educational plans, but most failed to adopt concrete measures aimed at benefiting students in rural areas.

Nor has the central government incorporated the realities and challenges of the countryside in its national education plan, César Sánchez of the Foro Educativo told IPS, stressing that this is the responsibility of different government institutions.

“The decentralisation process must serve as an opportunity to improve the quality of education in remote areas, to come up with new forms of administration, and to take into account the changes that have been occurring in rural areas,” said Sánchez.

He highlighted the experience of the Amazon region of San Martín in northern Peru, where medium-term plans have been established and have been assigned specific budgets.

There are 44,480 educational institutions in rural areas of Peru, including 22,000 primary schools. In one-fourth of the cases, the students’ homes are far from their schools. Many students live with other families during the week to attend school, returning to their rural homes only on weekends or during school breaks.

In 2006, only 13 percent of rural villages and towns had secondary schools.

One-quarter of Peru’s population is rural, and 60 percent of the rural population is poor while 28 percent lives in extreme poverty, compared to a national poverty rate of 34 percent, according to official figures.

Educational quality in Peru closely correlates with social and economic conditions.

“The teacher is often the only presence of the state in these communities,” Masegkai said.

In one of the workshops at the conference, it was proposed that schoolteachers, given the importance of the role they play, form part of the “participative” regional government councils in order to provide an on-the-ground assessment of the needs and conditions of the local population in each area.

The participants also stressed the need for local residents to be involved in the decentralisation process, and not to leave everything in the hands of the authorities.

Carmen Montero with the Institute of Peruvian Studies (IEP), one of this country’s leading sociological research centres, mentioned the need to take into consideration the geographic and cultural differences of the rural population.

“Who knows better than the regional authorities about what is happening in their areas? We have to get the regions to take a good look at themselves,” Montero said in her presentation at the conference.

Furthermore, the definition of “rural” is not static. Today, even isolated villages are increasingly urbanised and globalised, in the midst of conflicts over land and access to natural resources like minerals, said Carlos Monge of Propuesta Ciudadana, a coalition of NGOS working at the provincial and national levels.

Rural villages are also increasingly empowered, he added. Nevertheless, he said, the countryside is still overwhelmingly poor.

“It must be understood that we are not a homogeneous country where we can talk about ‘average’ behaviours,” he told participants at the conference.

Magaly Robalino, UNESCO regional specialist in teacher education, said that in different countries of Latin America, the role of the teacher is not clear, and should be determined on the basis of knowledge of rural areas that goes beyond stereotypes that lead to “stigma and discrimination.”

“It’s true that there is backwardness, but there are also cultural aspects that should be salvaged” in the design of educational plans, Robalino added.

There is “a global approach to education that requires analysing what specific impacts are generated in different settings, and thinking about other ways of measuring knowledge in the classroom,” she told IPS.

“Culture is maintained as a result of education, but now what we are seeing is that students are becoming more and more distanced from their traditions, and are losing their identity,” Masegkai said.

“What is the balance between teaching traditions and aspects of modern-day life in schools in rural areas?” asked María Amelia Palacios, head of the SUMA primary education project implemented by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), mainly in the countryside.

The response to that challenge lies in fomenting innovative approaches among teachers that value traditions as well as tools provided by the modern world, and in getting the educational system to recognise differences as a contribution to teaching and culture, she told IPS.

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