Date: Tue, 15 Sep 98 17:27:13 CDT
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Investing in Education Pays Off
By Laura Vargas, IPS, 11 September 1998
SAN SALVADOR, Sep 11 (IPS) - El Salvador has slashed its illiteracy rate from 50 to 16 percent in just six years by investing in education after the end of its civil war in 1992, education officials there say.
While the Central American nation has not overcome all its education problems, it has managed to raise the percentage of children in kindergarten schools from 4 to 47 and to increase primary-school coverage from 77 to 95 percent.
The educational reform was first implemented between 1991 and 1992, starting with a diagnosis of the most important problems, Deputy Minister of Education Darling Meza told IPS. "The first problem we encountered was that of access to education in rural areas," Meza said. "Only 4 percent of the school-age population managed to get into the system, while close to 500,000 children were left out."
Curricula had not been updated for 20 years, teachers had not been receiving refresher training, and running the schools was the preserve of principals, with no participation from society or from parents. Moreover, said Meza, there was an absence of values in the country after 12 years of war, during which 1.5 million people migrated to the United States.
Against this background, the Central American country embarked on a massive effort to increase access to education, modernize programmes, upgrade teachers and promote ethical and civic values.
One of the pillars of this reform, particularly in rural areas, has been the Educo program, in which parents are directly involved in hiring teachers, and oversee the education of their children, while the state provides the resources needed. "Now all schools are managed under a model in which decisions are made by a School Board in which all sectors, including students, are represented," Meza said.
A literacy and primary education programme for adults has also been implemented. In three years, it has taught 300,000 mostly rural Salvadorans above the age of 16 to read and write, she added.
For Meza, the progress in education was encouraged by the replacing of obsolete legislation and the creation of a high-level commission where education issues can be debated and where proposals about the structure of the system as a whole can made.
"We knew that we had to depoliticize education and so a pluralistic commission was created in which all political and civil-society sectors were represented," she said.
The Educo programme was launched with funding from the World Bank, but after five years the government picked up the tab. In 1997, the programme received the World Bank's Award of Excellence, besting some 900 other projects financed by the Bank worldwide.
Despite these accomplishments, however, El Salvador has not resolved all its education problems. The investments of the early 1990s went mainly towards improving primary education, while little attention was paid to secondary schools.
"A problem arises when a student finishes elementary school, but cannot continue to the next stage," said Norma Guevara, a parliamentarian from the opposition Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
In fact, only about 37 percent of children of high-school age are actually in school. The government is now investing 56 million dollars borrowed from the World Bank in secondary education.
Meza feels that the lack of access to secondary education, which is not free in El Salvador, is also related to poverty. "In our country, close to 20 percent of school-age kids must stop their studies and work to help their families survive," she stated.
El Salvador has a new law on higher education and, with the collaboration of Harvard University in the United States, it has been evaluating its private universities.
The country has just one public university, the University of the Nation, which reopened after the end of the civil war. There were 35 private universities but the evaluators have deemed some of them below par. As a result, the Ministry of Education has closed down five of the institutions.
For Meza, the first challenge for the country is to retain the current level of enrolment in primary schools and increase the number of years students spend in school, guaranteeing at least nine years of primary education for rural children.
It also needs to increase access to secondary education from the current 37 percent to 80 percent.(END/IPS/mso/ag/ed/mg/kb/98)
Origin: ROMAWAS/EL SALVADOR/
[c] 1998, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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