Mexico's President Pena Nieto defends education reform

Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto addresses the audience during his annual state of the union address in Mexico City on September 2, 2013 Mexico's Enrique Pena Nieto believes the future of Mexico depends on reforming the education system

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The President of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto, has used his first state-of-the-union address to defend his government's education reform.

Tens of thousands of teachers oppose a plan to introduce mandatory evaluations, which they believe would lead to massive lay-offs.

But the president said Mexico's future depended on the reform, and argued it would improve the quality of education.

He pledged federal funding for teachers who needed retraining.

"The education reform will move forward because it carries with it the future of Mexico," Mr Pena Nieto said to applause before an audience of officials, military officers and lawmakers.

"Our dilemma had been whether to continue to stagnate or to allow the state to recover the leadership and transform and improve the quality of education," he added.

Weeks of protests

But as he spoke at his presidential residence, thousands of teachers maintained a base camp in Mexico City's historic Zocalo square, from where they have launched weeks of protests against the measure.

Protesters march through Mexico City September 1, 2013 Many teachers say the education reform will lead to massive lay-offs

On Sunday, they marched through the streets of the capital but were prevented from reaching the Congress building by thousands of riot police and military officers.

Earlier, there were clashes between security forces and young anti-government demonstrators who threw rocks and petrol bombs to disrupt the opening of a new legislative session of parliament.

The education bill, which still needs the approval of the Senate, calls for mandatory assessment of teachers for them to keep their jobs and receive promotions.

Under the current system, teachers can inherit their positions.

Wide-ranging agenda

In his state-of-the-union address, which lasted a little over an hour, President Pena Nieto also touted the "grand transformation" of Mexico that he said he had pushed since he took office nine months ago.

He said that drug-related murders had dropped by 20% in the first six months of his government, compared to the same period last year.

And he insisted that his plans to shake up the energy and banking sectors, as well as the tax system, were crucial for the country's growth.

He spoke of the "hundreds of thousands of jobs" which he expected to be generated by a proposed reform of the energy sector and the state-run oil giant, Pemex.

However, the BBC's Will Grant in Mexico City said that the speech will anger opponents for the things it failed to mention as much as for those it did, in particular: a 5% unemployment rate, millions working in the informal economy and floundering growth rates.

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