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Constructing a foundation for the education debate in Brazil

Reos Partners
November, 2015


Reos Partners wants to be involved in helping people with their toughest and most important issues. In Brazil, among the toughest is the education system. It’s one of the largest in the world—and one of the most challenged. Yet until recently, education has not been a top priority here. What’s exciting now is a growing public concern about quality education, and a recognition that it can be a primary vehicle for reducing historical inequalities and creating a more just society.

To help further this debate, we undertook a transformative scenarios process. The resulting National Education Scenarios for Brazil, with a horizon of 2032, were released in August. This is our second project under the auspices of Instituto Reos, the institute we set up here in 2013 to enable our convening of large projects, the first being the Scenarios for Civil Society in Brazil. The new education scenarios are now being disseminated by members of the scenario team, with launches planned in each region of the country.

Given deep antagonisms between the country’s diverse stakeholders, it was an achievement to convene and complete this process. In bringing together this group of people to discuss possible futures, Reos Partners “did the impossible,” says one member of the convening alliance. But further, the process produced a clear shift in the tenor of the relationships among key stakeholders, creating a foundation for the challenges ahead.

“The most important thing is that this group is optimistic,” another member of the convening alliance said at the close of the process. “We have different visions, but we are united in fighting for an education that is for all.”

A huge system seeking to raise expectations

Brazil’s education system faces many issues similar to those in other countries, such as scarce resources and unequal opportunity. Sheer scale compounds these: of a population of 200 million, 50 million are students; there are 200,000 schools and 2 million teachers. “It’s not an easy system to tackle,” says Christel Scholten, Reos Partners managing director in Brazil. “Many of the players have been involved for decades, and they’re still struggling with these issues of scale.”

In addition, although public education became a constitutional right in 1988, the general public is just beginning to see it as a priority. For example, standards and salaries for teachers are quite low. Not surprisingly, then, Brazil ranks between 54th and 60th out of 65 countries on international tests measuring math, science, and language skills among 15-year-olds (the PISA, or Programme for International Student Assessment).

“Not for all, but for many poorer Brazilians, this is the first generation to have access to education,” Scholten says. “Families are satisfied that their kids are in school at all. Now the big challenge is to look at the quality of the education and raise the country’s collective expectations.”

A lost generation of “not-nots”

It’s all too clear that the system is failing thousands of young people every year. There’s a popular expression for these youths: the “not-nots”: not students, not active in the workforce. Many are drawn into drugs and violence.

Indeed, Brazil has one of the world’s highest youth incarceration rates, and it could get worse: in August, just days after the launch of the scenarios, a proposal to lower the legal age for incarceration from 18 to 16 was being negotiated. Its passage into law would a huge setback in the eyes of educators and others, says Scholten.

These are just some of the ripple effects of the failing education system in the wider system. Says Scholten, “Every time we do a project in Brazil, it always comes back to education.”

Diverse stakeholders in dialogue for the first time

In this context, the exploratory nature of the transformative scenarios process made it a natural place to begin helping people in the education system to have real conversations—often for the first time.

We began the scenarios process in mid 2014 by conducting dialogue interviews with 71 leaders from across the education system. Of these, 41 were invited to participate in the scenario construction process. In one measure of the political and interpersonal complexity at work here, it took three months of discussion and negotiations to decide whom to invite to be on the scenario team, Scholten says.

Adding to the challenge, the scenario workshops began shortly after a new 10-year national education plan was formalized and sanctioned by President Dilma Rousseff. Negotiations on that plan had been difficult and protracted: the typical year of review had extended to three. Many on the scenario team were involved in that process, and they were tense as our work began.

Yet the timing was opportune, Scholten says. What many of them see as advances in education over the last few decades are being challenged by the current administration. “There’s a lot of religious conservatism. There are threats to gender, sexual orientation, and diversity rights in education. Among the other issues is regression on indigenous land rights. They see all the gains they’ve made in these areas being challenged and questioned.”

Scenarios for the future unfold in the present

The group met four times over 12 months, producing four scenarios for the future of education in Brazil, each of which explores six themes: inequalities and diversities; social participation and control; the role of the state; pedagogy, educational purpose, role of the educator and student, quality, curriculum, and evaluation; management models; and the balance between public and private.

As the workshops came to a close, Scholten says, the diverse team members agreed that the most likely scenario was “tico-tico” (named after a Brazilian bird), which describes a continuation of the status quo: The government aims to universalize education but is incapable, and quality is for only a few. There is more violence and religious influence. Persistent impasses prevent any real advances in the system.

Developments in the months since the final workshop (including the proposed age of incarceration) have made simply maintaining the status quo a priority for many who are unhappy with it, as the “hawk” scenario of privatization looms. In August, a widespread sense of dissatisfaction with government, corruption, the economy, education, and other public services spurred protests in all 26 of Brazil’s states, in 200 cities.

“Aspects of what’s happening now are described in tico-tico and hawk,” Scholten says. “But the team didn’t predict that Brazil would be facing these issues so soon.”

Early outcome: building trust in the midst of chaos

In this fraught and unstable situation, the relationship building that occurred during the scenarios process may well provide a foundation for progress.

“There’s been a real transformation of relationships,” Scholten says. “The first workshop was intense. We were just trying to build trust. But as we entered the second workshop, you could already see a shift. When we opened the doors, the scenario team greeted each other with smiles and embraces.”

A member of the scenario team described the experience this way: “We created partnerships and friendships, relationships. It was a profound learning process. The experience we had together, a group of diverse actors, was very rich.”

This is the frequent outcome of a scenarios process. Whatever system we’re working in, it’s often the case that the opposing actors have encountered each other—if they have met at all—only in forums for debate. The process often marks the first time they have been in dialogue with each other, sitting at the same tables, going on paired walks, brainstorming together on flip charts . . . never mind working together with Lego bricks.

And so it was here, Scholten says. “It’s quite a different format than a government congress on education.”

Our own learning on trust and impartiality

To get people in the room, the building of trust in Reos Partners and our work has to start long before the actual workshops, and even before the initial interviews. But the participation of a truly diverse set of stakeholders is essential for the process and for the legitimacy of the resulting scenarios. In this case, it took months to get the organizations that later became the convening alliance on board.

While the project did achieve the necessary diversity, the Reos Partners team and the convening alliance were not able to cultivate relationships with certain adversaries whose presence would have made for a richer dynamic.

“In hindsight,” Scholten says, “we might have invested more time in trust building with those who chose not to participate. When we initiated the project, we were relatively new to the education field here, and some of the players were unknown to us. If we had secured interviews with them, they might have become more engaged, as people often do, and then accepted the invitation to participate in the scenarios process.”

An atypical aspect of this project that required some adaptation on the part of our facilitation team was the larger group’s insistence that this exercise be about making a contribution to the public debate around education, and not about creating agendas and influencing public policy—there are formal mechanisms and forums for that. Usually, those we work with want to use the scenarios process to influence change. We too want to influence change. But this group resisted that kind of language.

Meanwhile, as the scenarios are disseminated around the country, we expect that they will indeed contribute to the public debate on the future of education in Brazil. They offer a new language, an invaluable rhetoric-free focal point, and a precedent of relationship within the sector.

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