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ARGENTINA | 04-08-2023 06:12

School dropouts: the pandemic which does not end

According to estimates, between 350,000 and 700,000 students left school in 2021. Whether through lack of funds, the pressures of child labour or other challenges, only 10% of Argentina’s pupils end their secondary schooling on time. To tackle the problem, football stars are joining a campaign to challenge the school dropout problem, an issue aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Argentina has an education problem: UNICEF calculates that at least 357,000 children dropped out of school in 2021, with the worst estimates giving a figure of 694,000.

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the National Education Ministry said 13 percent of students at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels had little or no contact with the educational system. In total, some 880,000 youngsters find themselves in particularly vulnerable situations, in general due to issues linked to poverty such as the lack of an Internet connection, computers or mobile telephones, making them more prone to falling behind in class.

Apart from being deprived of equipment, the absence of personalised education is one of the weightiest reasons when evaluating school dropouts. The Cimientos NGO carried out a survey in which they asked: “Do you agree with the following affirmation: a personalised tuition is crucial for students staying linked to the school instead of abandoning it?” Almost six out of every 10 believe that it is “very or pretty crucial” for avoiding dropouts. It thus becomes evident that the suspension of class attendance during the pandemic generated a major new problem for students. Among the main causes for losing touch with school, the organisation singled out the lack of motivation, connectivity, sustained contact on the part of the educational institution and family accompaniment.

 

New campaign

In order to try and erase these arrears while providing incentives to both children and adults to resume their studies, a new campaign, Volver a Estudiar (“Return to Studying”) has been created by the Organisation of Ibero-American States for Education, Science and Culture (OEI in its Spanish acronym). The Argentine Football Association (AFA) and the Futbolistas Argentinos Agremiados players union have signed up the cause too, with an initiative proposing incentives to students to finish their studies, with the visit of a local footballing idol among the rewards.

National team stars Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gómez, Lisandro Martínez and Nicolás Tagliafico, Rodrigo Aliendro (River Plate), Florencia Chiribelo (Independiente), Javier García and Andrea Ojeda (Boca Juniors) are some of the players backing the project. 

Football reaches all social classes, everybody watches and feels it, probably with a very particular intensity here compared to the other countries in the world. Many players, faced with the prospect of stardom, interrupted their studies and now know how important schooling is, explains Luis Scasso, director of OEI Argentina.

Most players completed secondary school with great effort in the midst of training and sporting commitments with some of them moving on to higher studies of some kind afterwards. “So why shouldn’t football and education work together to promote something essentially good?” asks the professional.

Scasso highlights that schools were closed for two years during the pandemic, with the loss of learning experiences and many children becoming disconnected. But education doesn’t stop here, he adds. 

“Our experience makes it evident that when youths and adults are given the opportunity to terminate their secondary studies and obtain job training, thus permitting them to reconstruct a project of life, their success is notable. Classrooms are overcrowded,” assures Scasso.

The thirst is clearly there. Recently in Mar del Plata the SMATA auto workers union opened up mechanics courses for 30 vacancies – 600 people applied.

 

Adult students

Who finds reinsertion most difficult, youngsters or adults? We might say very generally that it is more complicated for adults because, apart from their educational responsibilities, they have family and job obligations. “The challenge today is to broaden the access for adults to finalise their studies and that means recognising their previous skills,” affirms Scasso.

An adult who has no secondary studies on occasion knows much of what is learnt in school.  Recognising knowhow and holding exams to ascertain the level of each student seems to be the key to giving adults incentives. People work, acquire experience, read and inform themselves. Their educational track record could be facilitated by placing at their disposal the tools which will help to recognise their previous skills, says the OEI representative.

First, the school. Education is important, we all agree. For example, if there is crime, that is due to a deficient education in values. If it is a cliché to point out that education is important to resolve many of the problems causing our society stress, then we should not skimp on any type of resource, says Scasso.

“Education is the only inclusive tool we have to resolve a great part of society’s problems since education is in itself a tool of social inclusion. The campaign is a project which generates equality via football, thus successfully sending that message not only to sportspeople but to all society. It is highly important and very valuable to keep adding people to a gesture which should be a state policy lasting the next 20 or 30 years,” agrees Sergio Marchi, secretary-general of Futbolistas Argentinos Agremiados.

Experience and learning are what permit knowledge to be transmitted from one generation to another, supplying the tools for the best development of the new generations, adds Scasso. 

Having completed studies is an exclusive requisite for applying for many jobs. The difficulties which lead children to drop their studies halfway through in the first moment thus only intensify with the years, making it impossible for the adult to gain access to a well-paid job. 

 

Structural problem

Even if the dropouts problem has only intensified with the pandemic, the structure of the Argentine educational system still has serious flaws. Only 53 percent of students reach the last year of secondary school without repeating and only 16 percent of pupils both complete their studies on time and satisfy linguistic and mathematical standards, according to the data of the Observatorio de Argentinos por la Educación.

And as can be seen above, it is not for lack of will. Indeed, attendance peaks in the first and second year of secondary school with over 800,000 pupils registered every year. Then as the adolescents grow up, the numbers begin to fall – curiously enough, just when the children are starting to approach the legal age to work.

Law 26,390 prohibits child labour below the age of 16, but there are loopholes: at 14 you can already start working in the company of your father, mother or tutor. In such cases you can work three hours daily or 15 hours weekly. The age of 14 overlaps precisely with the first years of secondary school when the number of registered students begins to fall.

It is worth noting that over a million children work in Argentina or 23 percent of those in the 13 to 17 age-group, according to the data of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Half of them started to do so during the pandemic.

Volver a Estudiar is now entering its second edition with last year’s campaign a resounding success for various reasons. Firstly, it was a response to the situation prior to the pandemic. Then for the commitment of the players who were also involved in the World Cup qualifiers. Sports players from different national squads, countries and football teams generously offered to donate their image and their contributions to the campaign were received without anything in exchange, the OEI director highlighted.

 

National projects

There are also state proposals for scholastic reincorporation like the Volvé a la Escuela (“I returned to School”) national programme which reached 402,000 beneficiaries nationwide, according to official data. Completing studies can even be used to qualify for the Potenciar Trabajo social scheme instead of actually working.

Furthermore, Law 24,660 governing prison sentences grants benefits to the detained against their time of study as a form of social reinsertion. It may be read within that legislation that the prison terms within the penitentiary system will be reduced in accordance with the guidelines fixed in this article regarding the convicts who satisfactorily complete totally or partially their primary, secondary, tertiary, university or postgraduate studies or equivalent courses of professional training. 

Among those term reductions are: one month off for attending an annual course of studies, two months for completing primary studies, three for secondary school and four for universities. These reductions are cumulative up to a maximum of 20 months and some well-known names have benefitted from them, including former vice-president Amado Boudou.

 

A global outlook

An estimated 244 million children worldwide have no schooling. A recent UNICEF report observed that one out of every five adolescents does not go to secondary school while 20 percent of youngsters aged between 15 and 17 living in countries affected by conflicts or disasters have never been to school.

In addition, two out of every five globally have not finished primary school. Poverty and the need to work figure among the main factors behind children dropping out of school.

“In the Philippines, for example, three-quarters of the children registered in the first year of secondary education finish a complete year of studies, a percentage dropping to 40 percent in the poorest homes,” indicates the NGO.

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Sabrina Chemen

Sabrina Chemen

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