Education in Brazil




Image of Book covered with brazilian flag

The Federal Government of Brazil

The Federal Government of Brazil regulates this country’s educational system through the Ministry of Education.The government provides each area with funding and educational guidelines, and the individual states are responsible for implementing and enforcing these. Brazil is equipped with public and private sector schools.

The private sector schools are of a far superior nature, but are costly, while the public sector schooling is free of charge.

The school career of children is broken up into different, progressive stages:
• Elementary school (Ensino Fundamental) – six to 14 years of age
• High school (Ensino Médio) – 15 to 17 years of age
• Higher education (Ensino Superior) – this occurs after schooling is completed.

School is compulsory for all children between seven and 14 years of age. However, this is seldom enforced, as many children live in rural areas or have to work to make money for their families instead of spending time at school. Public schools often lack plumbing and heating and the structures are dilapidated and neglected. This has led to a high rate of illiteracy and unemployment in Brazil, which has, in turn, led to even less schooling as these ones must then involve their children in the work sector to bring in extra funds. The vicious circle continues.

The number of Brazilian children that make it to high school is dropping at a steady rate. In fact, only about a third of school children ever get to Grade Six. For this reason, the government is taking some definite steps forward to improve the situation of schooling. The foreign debt that saps the government of so much money is being paid off and the available funds reallocated to make allowances for education.

In terms of universities, there is a mixture of publicly- and privately-funded institutions. Publicly-funded universities are completed financially supported by the government and offer a superior education to those that are privately-funded.

A Bachelor degree in Brazil takes between four and six years to complete. As such, it exceeds the level and category of a European Bachelor’s degree, and can be compared (although not completely alike) to the European Master’s degree.

The grading system is usually either based on percentages (from 0% to 100%) or on a scale system, where 0 is the worst and 10 is the best mark. The grading system works as follows:

A: 90% – 100% (Excellent)
B: 80% – 89% (Very good)
C: 70% – 79% (Good)
D: 60% – 69% (Satisfactory)
E: < 60% (Failing grade)

The lowest passing grade is usually 6 or 7 out of 10, which is equivalent to a C or D symbol. However, this grade is up to the university involved, and some drop their pass rate to a 5.


Professional shortage in Brazil has highlighted a constant problem, that has always been ignored by the government throughout the years: education.


Brazil has made huge improvements towards reducing the levels of illiteracy in the country, decreasing the number of illiterates from 16.3 million in 2000 to 13.2 million in 2012. During 2013 the government saw this reduction stagnate. Even financial incentives like the Bolsa Familia, which was one of the best bets by the government to improve Brazilian education levels, has proven to be ineffective and the country is still far from reaching literacy levels found in other BRIC counterparts like Russia and China.


One of the biggest issues that Brazil faces, mainly due to a poor public education system, is the fact that nearly 18% of the Brazilian population is functionally illiterate, meaning that they know words and numbers but are unable to comprehend a sentence or perform a simple mathematical operation. Perhaps what is most alarming is that according to research by the Instituto Paulo Montenegro (IPM), related to research company Ibope, 38% of Brazilian undergraduates are also functionally illiterate.


These figures show how fragile the educational system in Brazil is and the difficulties that the government still needs to address in order to sustain the growth of the country.


Government Propositions to Improve Education

In 2014 the Brazilian Government announced a set of aggressive measurements that will be implemented up until 2024 in order to boost the educational system performance.


This program, denominated PNE, short for Plano Nacional de Educação, is composed of 21 measures and aims, amongst others, to increase the number of mandatory education years, the percentage of Brazilians going to schools and universities and provide means for teachers to improve their qualifications and skills.


To reach the targets established by PNE, the government will nearly double the investments in education. In 2012, the government directed 5,3% of the GDP to education and by 2014 the goal is to raise the investments to 10%.


Public versus Private Education

The Brazilian education system is composed of public and private schools. Even though public education still holds more than 80% of the students, the number of students enrolled at private schools increased 14% from 2010 to 2013 according to the research Censo da Educação Básica, by INEP.


There are several reasons that justify the movement towards private institutions. One of them is that the rise of the lower classes has provided many families with the possibility to ensure their children a better education at private schools. The other is due to the fact that public schools still suffer from a lack of teachers, overcrowded classrooms, lack of security and general issues with infrastructure.


Last but not least, the controversial law which allows students in public institutions to be promoted to the next grade even if they fail, generates further skepticism to the effectiveness of the public school learning.


Understanding the Brazilian Education System

The educational system in Brazil is divided into mandatory and non-mandatory levels. We will outline the main aspects of each level here:


Educação Infantil, or Pre-school: This level is aimed at children between 2 to 5 years old which is comprised of both day care and pre-school. For children aged between 2 and 4, day care, known as creche in Portuguese, may be offered by the government but as it is not mandatory, there is no guarantee that there are available places for all children. The pré-escola, which is the pre-school will be mandatory from 2016 and therefore guaranteed by the government for children between 4 and 6

Ensino Fundamental I e II or Fundamental Education I and II: This stage is mandatory for children and adolescents between 6 to 14 years old. Both correspond to two stages: the first one goes from 1st to 5th grade and the second, from 6th to 9th grade

Ensino Médio or Secondary School: Aimed at adolescents between 15 to 17, being considered mandatory by the government from 2016

Ensino Técnico or Technical school: A technician degree that can be obtained together with ensino médio. It requires that the student has completed ensino fundamental and is usually provided by public institutions

Ensino Superior or higher education: This stage is no longer mandatory and is aimed at adults aged 18 and above

Path to higher education

The Brazilian educational system has several deficiencies throughout, but the difference between students from private and public schools becomes even more aggravated when they are competing for places at public universities. Different from education at Fundamental and Secondary levels, public higher education still holds a paramount status, and the competition for places at renowned universities, especially the Federal ones, is extremely fierce.


In an attempt to address this issue and provide a more balanced chance for the students coming from public schools, the government created in 2012 a law guaranteeing them 50% of the places in Federal universities and educational institutions. In addition to this quota, several universities also reserve a percentage of the places for black, mixed race and indigenous students.


The government also created a program called Prouni, which grants students from lower income families partial or total scholarships at private universities. There is also a financing programme by the Ministry of Education called Fundo de Financiamento Estudantil or FIES, which allows students to finance the education at low interest rates, which can be used in addition to Prouni.


However with the increasing number of private universities that offer courses with a rather questionable quality, it seems that the issue related to education in Brazil is still far from being resolved, and the country will still continue to struggle with functional illiteracy at higher education for several years to come. 


When Kingdom of Portugal's explorers arrived in Brazil in the 15th century and started to colonize their new possessions in the New World, the territory was inhabited by indigenous peoples and tribes who had no writing system or school education.


The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) was, since its beginnings in 1540, a missionary order. Evangelisation was one of the main goals of the Jesuits and they were committed to teaching and education, in Europe and overseas. The missionary activities, in the cities and in the countryside, were complemented by a strong commitment to education. This took the form of the opening of schools for boys, first in Europe but rapidly extended to America and Asia. The foundation of Catholic missions, schools, and seminaries was another consequence of the Jesuit involvement in education. As the spaces and cultures where the Jesuits were present varied considerably, their evangelising methods were very often quite different from one place to another. However, the society's engagement in trade, architecture, science, literature, languages, arts, music and religious debate corresponded to the same main purpose of Christianisation. By the middle of the 16th century the Jesuits were present in West Africa, South America, Ethiopia, India, China, and Japan. This enlargement of their missionary activities took shape to a large extent within the framework of the Portuguese Empire.


In a period when the world had a largely illiterate population, the Portuguese Empire was home to one of the first universities founded in Europe — the University of Coimbra, which is one of the oldest universities in continuous operation. Throughout the centuries of Portuguese rule, Brazilian students, mostly graduated of the Jesuit missions and seminaries, were allowed and even encouraged to enroll at higher education in mainland Portugal.



College of Law.

The Jesuits, a religious order founded to promote the cause and teachings of Catholicism, had gained influence with the Portuguese crown and over education, and had begun missionary work in Portugal's overseas possessions, including the colony of Brazil. By 1700, and reflecting a larger transformation of the Portuguese Empire, the Jesuits had decisively shifted from the East Indies to Brazil. In the late 18th century, Portuguese minister of the kingdom Marquis of Pombal attacked the power of the privileged nobility and the church, and expelled the Jesuits from Portugal and its overseas possessions. Pombal seized the Jesuit schools and introduced education reforms all over the empire. In Brazil, the reforms were noted.


In 1772, before the establishment of the Science Academy of Lisbon (1779), one of the first learned societies of Brazil and the Portuguese Empire was founded in Rio de Janeiro: the Sociedade Scientifica. In 1797, the first botanic institute was founded in Salvador, Bahia. During the late 18th century, the Escola Politécnica (Polytechnic School) was created, then the Real Academia de Artilharia, Fortificação e Desenho (Royal Academy for Artillery, Fortifications and Design) was created in Rio de Janeiro, 1792, through a decree issued by the Portuguese authorities as a higher education school for the teaching of the sciences and engineering. Its legacy is shared by the Instituto Militar de Engenharia (Military Engineering Institute) and the Escola Politécnica da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (Polytechnic School of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) — the oldest engineering school of Brazil and one of the oldest in the world.


A royal letter of November 20, 1800 by the King John VI of Portugal established the Aula Prática de Desenho e Figura (Practice Class for Design and Form) in Rio de Janeiro. It was the first institution in Brazil systematically dedicated to teaching the arts. During colonial times, the arts were mainly religious or utilitarian and were learnt in a system of apprenticeship. A decree on August 12, 1816 created the Escola Real de Ciências, Artes e Ofícios (Royal School of Sciences, Arts and Crafts), which established an official education in the fine arts and built the foundations of the current Escola Nacional de Belas Artes (School of Fine Arts).



Music school of Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

In the 19th century, the Portuguese royal family, headed by D. João VI, arrived in Rio de Janeiro, escaping from the Napoleon's army invasion of Portugal in 1807. D. João VI gave impetus to the expansion of European civilization to Brazil. In the short period between 1808 and 1810, the Portuguese government founded the Academia Real dos Guarda Marinha (Royal Naval Academy), the Real Academia Militar (Royal Military Academy), the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library of Brazil), the Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden), the Academia Médico-Cirúrgica da Bahia (Medic-Cirurgical Academy of Bahia), now known as Faculdade de Medicina (Med School) in the Universidade Federal da Bahia (Federal University of Bahia) and the Academia Médico-Cirúrgica do Rio de Janeiro (Medic-Cirurgical Academy of Rio de Janeiro) which is now the medical school of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.


Brazil achieved independence in 1822. Until the 20th century, it was a large rural nation with low social and economic standards comparing to the average North American and European standards. Its economy was based on the primary sector, possessing an unskilled and increasingly larger workforce, composed of free people (including slave owners) and slaves or their direct descendants. Among the first law schools founded in Brazil were the ones in Recife and São Paulo in 1827. But for decades to come, most Brazilian lawyers studied at European universities, such as in the ancient University of Coimbra, in Portugal, which had awarded degrees to generations of Brazilian students since the 16th century.


In 1872 there were 9,930,478 inhabitants (84.8% free and 15.2% slave). According to the national census made in this year, among the free inhabitants (8,419,672 people), 38% were white, 39% mulattoes (white and black mix), 11% black and 5% caboclos (white and Indian mix). Only 23.4% of the free men and 13.4% of the free women could read and write. In 1889, six decades after independence, only 20% of the total population could read and write. In the former colonial power, Portugal, about 80% of the population was classified as illiterate.


With the massive post-war expansion that lasts to date, the government focused on strengthening Brazil's tertiary education, while simultaneously neglecting assistance to primary and secondary education. The problems of primary and secondary education were compounded by significant quality differences across regions, with the northeast suffering dramatically. In the aftermath of Brazilian military rule, education became seen as a way to create a fairer society. "Citizen schools" emerged, designed to promote critical thinking, incorporation of marginalized people, and curiosity (over rote memorization and obedience).


Today, Brazil struggles to improve the public education offered at earlier stages and maintain the high standards that the population has come to expect from public universities. The choice on public funding is an issue. In particular, the U.N. Development Goal of Universal Primary Education and a larger offer of education for students with special needs are pursued by Brazilian policy-makers.


Despite its shortcomings, Brazil has progressed substantially since the 1980s. The nation witnessed an increase in school enrollment for children age 7–14, from 80.9% in 1980 to 96.4% in the year 2000. In the 15-17 age demographic, in the same period, this rate rose from 49.7% to 83%. Literacy rates rose from 75% to 90.0%.



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