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Model School Project Riddled with Problems in Venezuela
By Luis Cordova
Inter Press Service

CARACAS, Apr 4 (IPS) - Venezuela will showcase its 'Bolivarian' school project -- a model for integrated education named after its independence leader -- at the upcoming World Education Forum, but even education officials admit there are problems.

Education Ministry representatives who visited some of the 558 'Bolivarian' schools in the country, said they encountered serious problems like poor infrastructure which is hobbling efforts to improve the terrible state of primary education. "They were in much worse condition than we expected,'' they said.

"One of the problems is that we selected the schools by computer,'' admits Education Minister Hector Navarro who rues the fact that the condition of schools was not physically verified beforehand.

As a result, the 'Bolivarian' project, which was intended to transform primary school education and lure children to classrooms, has been burdened by the diversion of funds to improve the infrastructure and train teachers instead.

Yet the government in its country report prepared for the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, between April 26 and 28, says all primary schools are to be brought into the 'Bolivarian' project by 2005.

The schools named after Venezuela's national hero, Simon Bolivar, follow a full day's regimen -- from morning into the afternoon -- including nutritional meals for students. Most schools here follow a half-time schedule.

An assessment report prepared for the Dakar meeting says the 'Bolivarian' strategy provides ''greater attention to the students'' in a country where ''all reports, evaluations and indicators indicate that education is truly a disaster.''

The 'Bolivarian' school system seeks to encompass ''pedagogical, scholastic, educational, nutritional, health and sports issues,'' says the document, which acknowledges the problems plaguing the initiative. Take the dilapidated state of infrastructure. Virgilio Armas, researcher at the Institute of Advanced Educational Studies (IESA), believes it will take ''at least 11 years'' to upgrade Venezuela's schools to implement the 'Bolivarian' strategy.

''The challenges of adapting the infrastructure for all primary school students and of training teachers are huge and will require at least 11 years of work, more than double the originally allotted time,'' Armas says.

Rural schools need air-conditioning, according to the researcher. Many of them have zinc-sheet roofs that quickly heat up the classrooms in which students must spend all day, he said. Moreover, Armas argues that it is essential to educate a new type of teacher so extended school hours do not ''turn into a big playtime'' -- a problem other Latin American countries attempting to apply the integral model have faced.

Armas was among speakers here at a meeting organised in mid-March by IESA to discuss the experiences in educational reform among Latin American countries.

He said the region should return to the extended school day system if it is to ''get all children into the schools.'' All Latin American countries abandoned the full school day in the 1960s and 1970s, trying to raise enrollment.

By the end of the nineties, however, it was clear the system had not worked, and some schools were functioning part-time. Now government intervention has helped to push up school enrollment in Venezuela to 6.1 million students, in 1999. Its network of primary schools cover 92 percent of children, with the government promising 100 percent coverage in 2001.

'We are committed to education,'' said Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has been the principal champion of the integral schools initiative.

In fact in September last year, when the Venezuelan school year began and the 'Bolivarian' schools were still not ready to admit students, the president went on record to say the work would be speeded up to enable children to soon join school.

However, the 558 schools under the project were of uneven quality, according to evidence presented at the IESA forum. Local press reports have pointed to wide disparities in their functioning. For instance the programme to serve hot meals to students works well only in some 'Bolivarian' schools.

Media reports also indicate that some school buildings are in such a state of neglect that they are beyond repair. Yet, despite the project's questionable record, the government is pushing ahead with plans to meet its goal of 1,500 new 'Bolivarian' schools by the end of the year.

This, it claims, will put the country on track to meeting its mid-decade goal of achieving integral primary education for all Venezuelan children. According to Navarro, the country's education minister, Venezuela will need to invest some 4.5 billion dollars in order to reach that goal.

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