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OP-ED | 16-01-2021 07:27

Too cool for school, or too hot?

Education is the real orphan of the debate on systemic change.

With classroom education dead in the water all last year save the odd hinterland rural school and with teacher unions threatening this new year by making the perfect the enemy of the good in demanding blanket vaccination among other protocols before returning to work, why is a drastic educational reform not given the same prominence in public debate as that enjoyed by health reform since Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s La Plata speech less than a month ago?

Not that there is any disputing the urgency of health system reform in the midst of an accelerating pandemic with such uneven distribution of hospitals across the country (and even in the same metropolis) and with the unsustainable 290 obras sociales healthcare schemes of an anachronistic trade union movement (an opportunistic 1970 creation of a dictatorship in line with the “union-military pact” incessantly denounced by 1983-1989 Radical president Raúl Alfonsín and not a Peronist “conquest,” as widely believed), of which 10 obras cover half the field. The integral system proposed by the veep to eliminate all the overlaps and maximise efficiency certainly sounds like just the ticket and the pandemic emergency is also the perfect moment.

But if the idea is to create something akin to Britain’s National Health Service (highly respected within Britain although not unchallenged), it is worth asking if Argentina’s current public sector is comparable with the British state with already over a century of a professional civil service when the NHS was created. It is also worth asking whether a sector accounting for around 10 percent of the economy can be entrusted to a predatory ruling party in an election year, especially one accustomed to equating state with government. Such questions are valid but anybody posing them also needs to offer a constructive alternative because reform of the health system is a must.

Education, however, is the real orphan of the debate on systemic change. Despite the aforementioned misgivings about the national government, it is an imperative first step for any reform that it should occupy a more central role in education and health. Both were decentralised to the provincial governments in 1991-1992 following a fiscal rather than a social logic – then economy minister Domingo Cavallo was convinced that he had no chance of attaining the fiscal solvency essential for his brand-new convertibility scheme without shedding these major spending items. But the huge differences between provinces and regions (thus teachers in some Patagonian provinces earn twice as much as in some northern provinces and the differences have been greater in the past) have only compounded the class and income inequalities in a country of the world’s most unequal continent, to which must be added the digital gaps of the rapid technological changes accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Teachers are pushing their luck if they think that they can keep classrooms idle (taken as a free holiday by some, although by no means all) for a further year without enforcing drastic change on a system rooted in the 19th as much as the 20th century. But ahead of any qualitative improvement, teacher overpopulation needs to be addressed. The government estimates the number of educational workers as a priority group for vaccination at 1.3 million (including over a million teachers) – Argentina thus has a third as many teachers as the United States, which has over seven times our population. Impossible to give decent pay to such numbers, which have grown by almost 30 percent in the last decade. Supply teachers for maternity leave becoming permanent is a constant incremental factor in this highly female profession but it could be worth taking a closer look at part of what City Education Minister Soledad Acuña declared so controversially last November, that the teaching profession has become a last resort for those frustrated elsewhere, instead of dismissing it out of hand.

The PISA assessment and other international evaluations do not speak well of Argentina’s educational performance but teachers also serve a social function which will increase resistance to change, quite apart from union militancy. Even where educational standards have sunk to rock-bottom, teachers are still childcare providers (a function especially appreciated in these pandemic months) while school canteens play an invaluable role in protecting the impoverished majority of this country’s children from hunger.

Much more still to be said but the main aim of this editorial is to urge debate on transformational educational reform, as is already beginning with health.           

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