Education International
Education International

Chile: education thrown open to the market

published 25 March 2011 updated 25 March 2011

“When it comes to education, Chile is the best of all possible worlds for the privileged.” Fernando Atria, University of Chile

At the beginning of 1980s, Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship set in motion a process of privatisation and decentralisation of the education system in Chile. It was a real ideological and political transformation, breaking away from the popular educational proposals of the deposed President Salvador Allende. The policies continue until the present day because under the Constitution imposed by the dictator, education ceased to be a primordial function of the State.

Exclusive education

As a result, more than 50 per cent of the population in Chile are paying for education. The most vulnerable groups are concentrated in municipal public schools which cover just over a half of the registration fees. The rest go to private schools which are financed by the State and also receive direct payments from families.

Each school can define its own education project, including an admission standard for pupils. This allows them to select and discriminate arbitrarily on the basis of ability, socio-economic position of the family, religious belief, civil status of the parents and any other criterion that they care to lay down. It is not difficult to imagine the wide breach this system has opened up in Chilean society. Every pupil goes to the school that they can afford, and growing segregation is creating a category of students who are economically marginalised from childhood.

Public education is a right

In an article for the union Colegio de Profesores de Chile, Fernando Atria, a law professor at the University of Chile, argues that public education must be subject to a legal regime whereby it is open to all as citizens. He adds: “In principle, everyone must be admitted to the educational establishment on equal terms. Only in this way can education be guaranteed as a fundamental right.”

To understand the concept of public education as a right, Prof. Atria states, it is essential to understand the nature of the relationship between the citizen and the public and private spheres. “The general position of asymmetry in which the citizen stands in relation to the State means that the individual has rights and the State does not, because it is at the service of human beings. In relation to the private establishment, the individual is no longer a citizen but a contracting party. And between the contracting parties there is the symmetry of the contract and the market: no individual is at the service of another.”

Rebuilding popular education

The so-called Movimiento Pedagógico brings together teachers dedicated to the search for alternative models to neo-liberal education policies. It is a quest to rekindle the memory of pedagogical efforts which have marked the history of Chile, and continue to inspire action in favour of the most vulnerable groups in the country. This was the case with the policies of Allende’s government, who tried to introduce a non-elitist education system open to the people, in order to guarantee their involvement within the decision-making processes. This endeavour was cut short by the military coup whose consequences are still felt today. As Mario Benedetti’s poem to Allende goes: “to kill the man who was a whole people, they had to leave the people behind.”

By Mar Candela

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 36, December 2010.