Tucked behind São Paulo FC’s stadium in the upper-class neighborhood of Morumbi, Porto Seguro is a lavish private school with intense security. It boasts its own football ground, an adjoining terrace and athletics track, chic snack bars and even a zoo containing a rare peacock donated by a Swedish princess who once studied there. In classrooms laden with the latest state-of-the-art technology, its predominantly white alumni follow both the German and Brazilian curriculum and, in their English classes, the senior sets have just concluded a famous 1932 novel by Aldous Huxley while dreaming of Ivy League colleges and the finest European universities. On one wall, a huge display contains the photos and current destinations of the class of 2016 who successfully realized such ambitions.
A mile up the road in Paraisópolis, the city’s second-largest favela, its much smaller public counterpart, E.E. Etelvina Goes Marcucci, has a cold, industrial look. Its factory-like building seems depressed and uninviting from the exterior, manned by a lone bulky guard donning the supporters’ apparel for the local várzea amateur team. Inside the school becomes intimidating, its walls covered in fading paint with broken, graffiti-covered desks and a suffocating lack of space as football is played in a chairless canteen that forces its diners to eat standing up.
The 17 and 18-year-olds, or rather those in their third and final years of high school, of both establishments are about to enter a Brave New World as they gear up to take their ENEM exams on November 1st and 2nd. Yet, just like the Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons of that landmark dystopian work, it would seem that those in the public system already have their fates predetermined – providing they’ve even made it this far – with ironic plans for a World State-like Monorail in Paraisópolis put on hold during the ongoing recession as elite decision makers retain São Paulo’s standing as second only to New York City for its usage of helicopters.
Established in 1998 under the rule of ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the Exame Nacional do Ensino Médio (The National High School Exam) was created with the intention of merely testing high school education. However, it now plays a role in gaining access to prestigious, free federal higher education, which often requires students to pass an additional highly competitive entrance exam.
Though they form only 29.1 percent of Brazil’s educational establishments at the high school level, harboring approximately one million students from 15 to 18 years old or 12.5 percent of the total school population at this age, the Ministry of Education revealed in 2016 that of the top 100 institutions with the best ENEM marks the previous year, 97 were private. The remaining three that managed to scrape their way on to the list were federal schools, which are rare and intensely competitive. Potential candidates are required to take a vestubilinho mini-test, which is more commonly passed by those who have received private education beforehand.
The right to public education
Fresh out of military rule that had spanned over two decades and finally came to an end in 1985, a new constitution took two years to draw up. It was eventually passed in 1988 with a wide range of reforms focusing heavily on personal rights and freedoms demanded by the population and various social movements.
Among those at the forefront of the battle to guarantee access to public education was Cenpec (The Center for Studies and Research in Education, Culture and Community Action), now in its 30th year and also based in São Paulo. Securing obligatory free education from four to 17 years of age, the passing of Article 208 which it played a heavy part in was a landmark victory for all concerned.
As Solange Feitoza, the body’s project manager, who for years worked in City Hall’s Secretary of Education department before deciding to embark on a quest to try and make a difference, explained that Cenpec came to the realization that it “now had a much bigger fight on its hands in establishing permanency in the public system”. In a 2016 census, 48 million children were found to be attending school, yet 2.8 million had already fallen between the cracks and exited education. Worryingly, the largest number of absentees was found across the high school bracket: roughly 1.7 million in total with close to 900,000 failing to make it to the final year of studies, and therefore the ENEM.
In its own report The Conclusion of Basic Education Between Young People From 18 to 29 Years of Age, published in July last year, Cenpec found that 14.7 million Brazilians of this maturity, or more specifically four in ten of those surveyed, had not completed high school. Throughout its research, there was a prevalence of students from low-income families dropping out to enter the working world.
Now 21, Samuel Costa Farias gave up on high school at 16, orphaned and “walking with bad company”. Moving to São Paulo two years ago from the city of Belém (Pará) with his older brother, Farias returned to education for six months at a public school in Paraisópolis that offered night classes to adults who had not concluded their studies. He terminated his studies again when his brother’s girlfriend fell pregnant, feeling a strong need to help out more at home himself. “I’d like to go back,” Farias lamented, “but I now work from eight to eight with an estate agent and can’t find a schedule anywhere that fits into mine”.
Though this trend is common across both sexes, it was found that males, at 56.8 percent, had given up on education before completion more than their female counterparts – whose greatest reason for following suit is gymslip pregnancy – but that 67.3 percent of black youths overall between 18 and 29 had terminated their studies prematurely.
Black males therefore represented a majority group of dropouts. They are known by experts to be stigmatized throughout their often-curt school journey, “invisible” and ignored by teachers who automatically deem them either uninterested or better to remain undisturbed so as not to incite violence. Feitoza explains that “they become frustrated and don’t view education as offering them any sort of future.” In the most extreme cases, young men enrolled at schools located in Brazil’s favelas like Paraisópolis can be lured away from education by the trappings of gang culture and easy money.
Even for those that did finish high school, low paying jobs offering a minimum salary of around 950 BRL are all that await them. And with 70 percent of those requiring at least the completion of high school, dropouts are likelier still to settle for lower-paid, more exploitive roles.
An additional fault that bodies such as Cenpec have identified in the public setup is the phenomena of grade repetition, meaning that if a young male such as Samuel had not passed 18 years of age and was to return to the fold and try and get his life back on track, he would have to start from the year he decided to leave education. In any municipal or state school, 25 percent of students are either repeating or not in their intended school year by the ninth grade, or 14 years of age, which can cause embarrassment and resentment likely to result in a re-exiting of the classroom in addition to an imbalance between children of differing ages who should ideally not be studying alongside and influencing one another.
Public and private schools generally start out on the same footing, though disparities begin to quickly manifest. In the first year, there is a matched taxa de insucesso (a rate of failure among those that must repeat the year) of exactly 2.3 percent between the two in the first year of education. But by the third grade, the gap begins to widen, as the public rate rises to 13.3 percent compared to 1.8 percent in the private system.
Sitting in on their classes and discussing some of the similarities between the World State in Brave New World and modern Brazil with them, I was pleased to find that Porto Seguro’s paying students were highly aware of their privileged positions. They were also aware of the difficulties faced by their public counterparts, and some touchingly stated intentions to help the local favelas and orphanages during their gap years or summer breaks. Likewise, with its Escola da Comunidade, the school itself provides scholarships to Paraisópolis’ kids. However, the offering of just 66 spots for five-year-olds next year in a neighborhood of 100,000 inhabitants will barely make a ripple in the grand scheme of things.
During his time as president of the Student Council, ex-pupil Pietro Leite initiated a campaign to help the school’s disadvantaged youth. However, he hit a brick wall of “bureaucratism and conservative inertia peculiar to Porto Seguro”. Similar efforts were apparently made again this year by native German teachers, yet also fell on deaf ears.
On his way to Harvard in the near future, Leite recently featured in the national media as part of a handy video tutorial advising fellow hopefuls on how to secure their dream spot at the U.S.’ most respected universities. There will be few at the Etelvina Goes Marcucci that will have found the clip to be of any use, though. Irrespective of the fact that the ENEM is deemed useless by stateside colleges who demand Brazilian students take the SATs instead. For the vast majority of public school kids, the limit of their desires is simply getting any kind of job, almost always low-paid and dead end, as they believe that’s all life has in store with them.
Tested out of a thousand points, a minimum of 900 are usually needed to enter Brazil’s top free, federal universities such as the Universidade of São Paulo, where intense competition for coveted spots is a constant in addition to navigation of the aforementioned additional college entrance exam. Ironically conducted on the same campus, research by professor Ocimar Munhoz Alavarse in the Education department has found that up to 92 percent of public school students fell far short of this by achieving 520 points or under.
Under the rule of Lula da Silva, which also brought in divisive quotas, it was decided that the ENEM could be used towards pursuing higher education as part of the Programa Univesidade para Todos (Prouni) scheme. In a Bizarro World run of events, though there are bolsa scholarships for gifted students, private school kids whose parents have paid for their education their whole school lives fill free federal universities, while their less fortunate counterparts from public schools attempt to enter paying private higher education.
With monthly fees for respectable institutions running to almost a full minimum wage of 700+ reais, many will be unable to meet these demands. This means that cheaper, lower-tier establishments are often viewed by prospective employers as nothing more than glorified paper mills.
This year, the Ministry of Education has announced that results from the ENEM will not be divulged. Offering a paltry excuse of students receiving their own scores being sufficient enough without the need for further publication, Alavarse sees this as a direct ploy to “prevent such disparities between public and private education being aired,” as he and his department continue to ruffle feathers with their findings.
One of the ENEM’s main tools to separate the wheat from the chaff is its redação – a lengthy essay that asks students to provide their thoughts on typical social issues and topics. Again, much like the proles in Brave New World (though not prohibited), critical thinking is often underdeveloped in Brazilian public schools. Other factors, such as oversized classes and unmotivated, underpaid teachers who receive little on-the-job training after graduation, also playing their part. In some cases, kids are sent home early as their professors haven’t turned up or are left to their own devices as their usual tutor has to try and cover other classes of colleagues who haven’t been seen in months.
In groundbreaking research published in 2014, however, Alavarse’s colleague Rodrigo Travitzki found that family income and the education obtained by parents, as well as other socioeconomic factors, explain 80 percent of the average marks of schools. This was especially true of schools located in Brazil’s periferias. The remaining 20 percent of these marks can be attributed to the teaching level of the school itself.
As for the test itself, Travitzki claims that the ranking of schools is capable of reducing the level of Brazilian public education. “Schools start to become more concerned with good results,” he explains, “and forget other important elements such as emotional intelligence and the capacity to work in groups.” Additionally, rankings can “increase inequality as schools which produce the best results are favored” over others that don’t fare as well.
To balance the scales, Feitoza and Cenpec suggest an increment on the 22.4 percent of high school students who take night classes. It would mean that those who have to work during the day could fit school into their lives, in addition to alternative – though by no means easier – methods of teaching for each differing period. Further still, pushing for progressive political and social reforms could improve living conditions of lower-income families, so that adolescents wouldn’t be required to seek employment. Until then, however, education will remain the primary catalyst for Brazil’s staggering inequality and its related consequences.