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(DIS)ENCHANTED EDUCATION

TERESA DA SILVA
For a couple of weeks now the media has bombarded us with images of raging students, frustrated parents and desperate teachers dressed in yellow demanding the maintenance of their private schools. As far as I have gathered, their schools have never been required to close and the only issue being debated is whether or not the government will continue to cooperate with them and partially finance some of these private institutions. I am glad to notice that the Minister for Education doesn’t seem to live in an ivory tower and truly hope he won’t be easily broken by lobbying.
Over thirty years ago, I arrived in a newly-born democratic Portugal – a country that was almost completely void of a balanced educational system. I moved from a high-performance British educational system with top-notch facilities to a school that laboured in rundown installations and make-do container classrooms. As a student and later as a teacher I have witnessed the advances in the Portuguese educational system. It has become open to almost everyone and, though I may disagree with some of the measures, it has tried to become as inclusive as possible.
Back then I had to do my twelfth grade and take university admission exams at a local private school. I didn’t need to meet the requirements for med school nor pass with flying colours (I was always an average student) – it was just that my local public school didn’t have Humanities in the twelfth grade. And no, I didn’t pay any fees! But no other favours… My mother would have to drive me there, as bus links were non-existent and it was too far to walk. I simply had to adjust to a system that was being worked on. It was understood that it was a temporary situation and that the lack of that specific public service would be addressed as soon as possible which happened two years later.
In other words, the private institutions was aided by the government to fill in the blanks of a fragile situation that was being looked into. Many other students were there because their parents preferred to have them there. They were also the ones that drove their brand new Mercedes to school the minute they got their license or played hooky most of the year because daddy could afford repeated retention. And, as far as I can gather, it seem to be like this to this day.
In thirty years Portugal grew astronomically. Basic facilities and services were guaranteed, communication systems were set in place so we could become an EU member, investment was made that rendered more and better paid jobs. Portugal almost became a first world country….I would have to cover a lot of ground if I were to examine all the political and social changes that occurred over the past thirty something years. No, I’ll just concentrated on my particular views regarding education. Perhaps as a result of my previous participation I would like to share my hopes and dreams about education.
As an undergraduate I heard one of my professors say “I do not believe in education for all if there is not enough food to put on every child’s plate”. It was thought-provoking. Yet, I couldn’t relate because I had never gone hungry. I’d heard about it from my parents who migrated in search of a better life but I’d never experienced it or had any contact with it. I was (am) privileged!
I was content with the idea that education was the basis of social reform. Like Robert Owen, a great utopian, I believed that “[t]o train and educate the rising generation will at all times be the first object of society, to which every other will be subordinate.”[1] Personally, I could not have concurred more: I was living proof! My parents had come impoverished backgrounds and had managed to provide their three daughters with higher education. This had improved our hierarchical position in society and we had made them proud.
It wasn’t until I was placed in Alentejo as a teacher and the economic crisis hit Portugal in a very hard way that my teacher’s words began to make sense. How can we hope to educate a child on an empty stomach? How can we hope to give the child critical thinking skills if we evaluate them in a standardized manner and don’t take into account their personal background? Malala’s words “[o]ne child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world”[2] became a victory cry for many, myself included, but they merely bring us back to the basics of education. What about the rest? When will people realise that an empty stomach doesn’t learn and that learning is as essential as eating?…they come hand-in-hand.
Therefore, instead of wearing yellow to protest because the government finance my posh education, I shall wear another colour like green for hope (also, because yellow doesn’t become me). Blue to encourage our government to make primary education actually free. No more shopping for school supplies, no more struggling to get through the month of September because half the salary was used to pay for the children’s schoolbooks. Pink to prompt our government to offer the primary school children their books, their meals, their pencils and pens, and their extracurricular activities. Purple to have enough psychologists for those who need the help, special needs’ classes and educational specialists to help with our special children. White to get warm classrooms in winter, sports facilities and free bus rides….I’m sure I’ve forgotten more measures but there are still quite a number of colours to get through.
If that were to come true at the primary level, image the utopian education we would create. If that were to come true at the primary level, we’d be investing in a future generation that would be above average and they might guarantee that all levels would be soon free.

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