secretary general of the OEI (Organization of Ibero-American States)

TEXT: MARTA VILLALBA IMAGENS: © OEI, 2020

“We must bear in mind that there exists a world of education outside school”

Secretary General of the OEI (Organization of Ibero-American States) since 2018, Mariano Jabonero (Madrid, 1953) is an open book on educational matters. His professional career in this area has covered every level of this field: first, teaching in infant, high school and college education posts; and, later, he held various institutional posts, ranging from provincial education director to executive positions in both the private and public sector. At different times, he has worked on a range of programs in all the Ibero-American countries as a consultant or expert for UNESCO, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Organization of American States (OAS) and the OEI. We talk to him about how the pandemic has affected education in Latin America and the educational challenges facing this region.

What were the strengths and weaknesses of education in Latin America prior to the pandemic?
In a quantitative analysis, two figures speak for themselves. One is that, for the first time, enrollment in elementary and middle school education was nearly one hundred percent. This was a historic milestone for the region. Never before had they managed to enroll all the boys and girls. The second is that the length of their schooling is highly variable. If a child spends less than eleven years in school, there is a really high risk of an unsatisfactory social, labor and personal future. That length of time is common in Chile, Uruguay, Argentina and the urban areas of Colombia, but is very rare in countries such as Honduras and Guatemala, where the norm is three or four years, clearly an inadequate level of schooling. Dropout rates in the region are very high, with an average of 50 percent, which is a really alarming figure. Education in the region, in terms of quality and inclusion, was very low and unsatisfactory as regards fairness and equality criteria.

And how can that educational quality issue be overcome?
According to the OECD, the factors that most determine an educational system’s quality are the training of teachers and school leaders. A school principal is someone capable of making a school work well, average or poorly. Such a person must combine several profiles at once: be a human resources leader with pedagogical and administrative qualities. This is therefore a complex skill set and, for too long, in many places the post was entrusted to people with no training in those fields.

And what was the situation for college education?
One striking result is that enrollment in higher education achieved a world record. In this region, the number of students in higher education reached 30 million in 2019. This is an unusual, yet highly positive fact which reveals two things: firstly, that social and poverty reduction policies – from the 1990s through to 2012-2015 – really worked; and, secondly, that a lower middle class emerged which was able to start thinking that their children could go to college. 70 percent of those 30 million are boys and girls from families where no one had ever gone to college.

However, quantity does not necessarily mean quality…
Indeed so. The challenge now is to verify the quality offered by each center, as the situation is really varied throughout the region. In Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, higher education is strictly regulated, somewhat similar to that in Europe, and the number of universities is limited. But in countries such as Mexico, the number of university centers is in the thousands, clearly an excessive supply. Moreover, there is a widespread problem as regards relevance: what is studied in the universities has very little to do with the real economy and productivity in the region. Despite being a great source of wealth, a mere two percent of students graduate with degrees related to agriculture. On the contrary, Business Administration, Sociology and Communications degrees are commonplace in the region, although the productive system employs few workers with humanities studies.

Which countries were more advanced in education before the pandemic?
There are many nuances to be considered, but school results in external examinations are a fairly reliable indicator. The best performers in this regard are, basically, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina. And, on the Iberian peninsula, Portugal is the European Union country which has improved its quality of education the most over the past 20 years. This amazing example has set the benchmark for the whole world. Moreover, there is also a tremendous difference between the urban and rural areas, although this is the case in general throughout the region.

“The curriculum must be overhauled to seek out lessons that are meaningful, relevant and socially valid”

And which were most in need of reinforcement?
Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are countries with very poor educational levels, but we must also bear in mind that they are very poor. Sometimes we forget that, until very recently, they were going through civil wars and armed conflicts there, and that leaves really negative aftereffects. And yet another factor. These are lands systematically ravaged by unavoidable natural phenomena that profoundly undermine everything. Each time a hurricane passes through, schools are destroyed. Working there and doing it well is very tough. As for higher education, there are excellent, prestigious universities in all these countries, coexisting with others which perhaps raise doubts as to whether they should be called universities.

And, suddenly, the pandemic hit… What effect did it have on education in the region?
It meant that 177 million students were confined to their homes. And only half of them – the rich ones – were able to continue their education online, thus demonstrating the lack of educational equity in the region. The other 50 percent were excluded and, in some rural areas this figure exceeded 80 percent.

What will this interruption mean for these students long term?
According to research by the OEI, they will lose between 10 and 50 percent of their lessons and this will mean that, when they are older and start working, they will be less competent youngsters. What’s more, we believe that 17 percent will not return to school or college and that percentage of 177 million is a lot of boys and girls.

What is the most immediate challenge to avoid this loss of learning?
The most urgent challenge is to close the digital divide, with Internet access for all. This also happens in Spain and Portugal. In the OEI we have many projects in this area and they don’t entail huge investments. There is also another factor: the poor digital skills of teachers. These are professionals who are not used to employing digital skills and they find it tough. In addition, digital contents need to be developed for languages and math. During the pandemic, the OEI produced more than 500 digital systems that we supplied free of charge to teachers.

Entrevista a Mariano Jabonero

Specifically, what projects are you referring to?
In Peru we carried out an initiative a few years ago – it was called Luces para Aprender [Lights for Learning] – to bring connectivity to rural schools in forest areas where there was no electricity. Everything was resolved by simply installing a solar panel and a pole, all connected to several storage batteries so that their computers had Internet access via a satellite system – which is cheap – and that’s it. The cost is really low.

What do you think of online teaching as a system?
I’m in favor of hybrid education. I believe that classroom teaching is essential, unless the child is sick, but also distance learning. School is no longer confined within four walls, it is totally ubiquitous. And it’s not just a question of giving classes online; you need your own digital production. These days, there are wonderful examples. I’m referring to applications for different subjects that get anyone who sees them instantly hooked, as they are so graphical, highly intuitive and motivating.

Returning to the pandemic, what has been learned from it?
That the education we had was much more fragile and inefficient than we believed. We thought that, once we were schooling all the children, everything was fine, and it wasn’t so. There was a really wide digital divide and it must be closed so that everyone can have the same opportunities. Secondly, it’s necessary to work with hybrid systems and that they become generally available. Thirdly, that the curricula or syllabuses should be revised. Those we are currently using contain lots of things that ar e of no practical use. They have remained in place over time simply due to adminis trative inertia. A friend of mine always asks the same question: we all studied square roots at school, but has anyone ever used one in their life? No one. The curriculum must be overhauled to seek out lessons that ar e meaningful, relevant and socially valid. And a fourth thing: education must not be associated solely with the school. Yes, it is fundamental and indispensable, but there are other educational spheres – sporting and cultural – which generate a great deal of knowledge. There is a world of education that is not in the school; it ’s also in the family, and this must be reinforced and supported, as well as the social fabric within which many of our kids are going to learn. Summer camps, for example, where they learn a range of different things, among them living together, which is so important.

“There exists a really wide digital divide and it must be closed so that everyone can have the same opportunities”

Are you referring to fostering the so-called soft skills, i.e. social and personality traits?
Indeed, these are skills that are not strictly schoolrelated; that’s why I make the distinction between school and education. In surveys conducted by the BID (Inter-American Development Bank) among regional business leaders on education and productivity, they were asked what skills they most appreciated when recruiting a young person. Someone who is able to understand well, interpret, communicate, share, work in a team, be punctual, respectful… When recruiting young leaders in companies, one factor that is highly valued is that they do sports – that scores highly. Because that youngster knows about teamwork, suffering and enjoying together.