Argentina's tough truths for improving schools

Bullrich in school
Image caption Esteban Bullrich says Argentina needs to begin on the long slow road to improving education

"We don't want to accept that we're doing badly at anything," says Argentina's education minister, Esteban Bullrich.

Whether it is admitting to levels of poverty, the inflation rate or weaknesses in the education system, Mr Bullrich says Argentina has been ill-served by a political culture which has not wanted to face up to uncomfortable truths.

Improving the quality of schools is the task facing the minister and he says the first point is to admit to the extent of the difficulties.

This is an education system where most schools are only open for four hours a day and he says that despite previous claims to the contrary - only about half of young people actually successfully complete their secondary education.

Left behind

The results of the latest international Pisa results, published by the OECD this month, seem emblematic of the challenge.

Image copyright iStock
Image caption In the 1970s, Argentina was much better off than South Korea - now the positions are reversed

Argentina was not included in the results after confusion over the sample of schools taking the tests - so it remains uncertain where the country stands in such international rankings.

The problems with the test pre-dated Mr Bullrich's time as education minister, but he is now picking up the pieces.

Another awkward question is why Latin American countries have been left standing by the rising Asian star performers, such as Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam, who are building their economies on investment in education.

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Mr Bullrich says that in the 1970s, Argentina had a GDP per capita that was five times greater than South Korea - now it is three times smaller.

Argentina has failed to keep up and economies such as South Korea and Singapore are reaping the rewards.

Even though South Korea started from a long way behind, the world is watching Samsung televisions rather than any technology built in Argentina.

Long-term planning

The challenge for Mr Bullrich is how to begin to catch up - and he dismisses the self-serving argument that Pisa tests are really for European and Asian systems and not applicable elsewhere.

He says education has to be taken seriously - on an international as well as a national stage.

So when Argentina hosts the G20 summit in 2018, he says an education section will be introduced for the first time.

Mr Bullrich has an ambitious set of reforms - but speaking in London, he says it will mean long-term investment rather than relying on "magic answers" from "messianic leaders".

Image caption Mr Bullrich wants to import some of the best ideas being used in top education systems

It will take until 2030 to turn around his country's school system, says Mr Bullrich, which will mean any political benefits will come long after his time in office.

He wants to extend the school day to six hours - and for teachers to have an eight-hour day, including time for lesson preparation.

That will mean extra cost - but he says the challenge in Argentina is not about funding, but how efficiently the money is targeted.

At present, he says Argentina spends about the same proportion of GDP on schools as Finland and adds: "But we're not spending it wisely."

Importing ideas

Mr Bullrich wants to take ideas from the most successful education systems.

He wants to learn from the "exemplary" teacher training approach in Finland and is copying some of the recruitment incentives used in Singapore to get the best graduates into teaching.

Image copyright iStock
Image caption Argentina has been overtaken by international education competitors such as Vietnam

Ideas for improving vocational training and skills are being borrowed from Australia, he says.

There are plans for building 400 to 500 new schools, equipped with up-to-date technology.

But it is a complicated system to change. Mr Bullrich is the national education minister - but he has to seek a consensus with 24 regional education ministers.

Phone the minister

When Mr Bullrich was an education minister for Buenos Aires he took a direct approach to trying to tackle chronic industrial relations problems, complicated by having to negotiate with 17 different teachers' unions.

He gave teachers his personal mobile phone number and invited them to call him with any problems. It was a symbolic statement of wanting to listen - and for politicians to show some "humility".

Image copyright AP
Image caption There have been concerns about the wealth gap in Argentina

And what really surprised teachers was that he called them back, to get details of the real-life problems with leaking buildings and unpaid salaries.

As Argentina's education minister he has tried to protect the status of teachers - with a proposal that anyone physically or verbally attacking a teacher should face a higher tariff in fines or jail sentences.

Mr Bullrich is passionate about reforming state schools. There were Pisa test results for Buenos Aires, entered separately from the rest of the country, which showed significant improvements.

And in particular, he says he was pleased to see the closing of the achievement gap between rich and poor.

The school system already delivers - particularly for those from affluent families - and he says that for those pupils, standards are as high as anywhere.

"We are preparing children at the level of Finland - we have to understand why it's not that way for everyone," he said.

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