Earlier this year, a state-of-the art school founded by the Colombian singer and Grammy winner, Shakira, opened amid much fanfare in her hometown of Barranquilla. Both Colombia’s President Álavro Uribe and Bill Clinton visited the model $6 million school.
The children, many from poor and displaced families, attending the Barefoot Foundation School are the privileged ones. Boasting nutritionists and psychologists on site, sports fields and well-equipped classrooms, the school is the exception, not the norm in Colombia.
The opening of the school should have prompted a much-needed debate about the lack of investment in education and the overall dire state of education in Colombia. But it didn’t.
Talking to cabinet ministers and government officials over the years in Colombia is a clear reminder of just how low education is on the pecking order of priorities. They all talk about development and reel off statistics about economic growth and falling crime rates in parrot fashion. But education rarely gets a mention. Few even bother to mention the word education in their political discourses and the issue gets cursory attention during elections.
As a former school teacher in the United Kingdom and Colombia, I am convinced that there is a clear correlation between access to good schools and reducing poverty. But few government ministers in Colombia appear to believe that a key way to create a growing middle class and reduce the gap between rich and poor is to invest in education and make a serious commitment to provide good-quality teaching to children from low-income families.
Sergio Fajardo, ex-mayor of Medellín and presidential hopeful, appears to be in the minority. He has a track record of taking education seriously and believes it can be the driving force behind development in general. “Whenever I visit a town or village, I always pop in to have a look at the school in the poorest neighborhood,” Farjado once told me. “It’s a true litmus test that shows whether development and progress is really taking place or not.” Other government ministers would do well to follow his example.
Education is not a vote winner in Colombia. As the low-intensity war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) continues, the buzz word here is security. President Uribe’s success and popularity is inextricably linked to and measured by his hard-line stance against the FARC and military defeats inflicted by the armed forces on the guerrillas. The government has a clear and defined war plan and spends 6.5 percent of the country’s GDP on defense. In comparison, around 5 percent of GDP is spent on education. Many officials would be hard-pressed to outline the government policy on education.
It’s no surprise, then, that school drop-out rates remain high. Worst still, only one Colombian university, Los Andes, is ranked in the world’s top 500 universities, according to the Times Higher Education list. The percentage of children attending state primary and secondary schools has increased only marginally from 84 percent in 2002 to 89 percent in 2007.
In theory, primary and secondary school education is free in Colombia. But in practice it isn’t. Every year, hundreds of children are regularly turned away at the school gates because they don’t have the right uniform, textbooks or pen and paper. Take a single mother with six children who have been displaced from their home because of the violence. She often can’t afford to buy these essential requisites for all her children to attend school. Such discriminatory practices should be scrapped and schools doing this should be named and shamed. Local government funds or loans should be made available to poor families to buy their children uniforms. It’s just one solution that could help more children gain access to education, and in doing so reduce poverty in Colombia.