The Brazilian Education Fracture and COVID-19: A Historical Perspective

André Hedlund, Chevening Alumnus, MSc in Psychology of Education from the School of Education at the University of Bristol

“Challenging. The Brazilian Educational System is Huge”

This is written on the website of Todos Pela Educação (All for Education), an NGO that provides information about the Brazilian educational scenario in order to help boost quality and access to basic education.

Brazil has a history of elitism and oppression. Education was used as an evangelisation tool by the Jesuits to convert Indigenous Brazilians in the early colonial years, between the 16th and the 19th centuries. Till this day, many schools are run by religious institutions. In the 19th century, the elite either had the luxury of private tutors or sent their children abroad, particularly Portugal, for their studies while slaves traded in from Africa were not allowed any type of education at all. Black people are still marginalised as a consequence of structural racism.

We can trace the origins of Brazilian current education legislation and structure back to the 1930s and 1940s.  In the next four decades, research and Higher Education institutes flourished but also came the military regime through the 1964 coup. The dictatorship was responsible for the persecution of intellectuals and left-wing supporters, undermining free speech and critical thinking.

A bright future

After more than two decades of an authoritarian period, the 90s seemed to be the beginning of a bright future. Enrolment rates of 15-17 year-old students in secondary education grew from 58.1% in 1991 to 77.7% in 2000 (Costa, 2013).When the Labour Party won the presidential elections in 2002, with Luiz Inácio da Silva (aka Lula) as president, Brazil went through important educational changes. Federal funding for education increased substantially – The Ministry of Education (MEC) nearly tripled its budget and the National Fund for Basic Education (Fundeb) was created. Access to basic education was de facto universalized and reinforced by social programs’ requirements such as Bolsa Família (a state-funded pension to families living under the poverty line provided their kids were enrolled and attending schools as well as vaccinated).

From 2002 to 2010, Brazil saw its low quality educational indexes rise. PISA scores grew, university enrolments skyrocketed, Federal Higher Education Institutes were inaugurated all over the country (almost doubling their numbers), illiteracy levels dropped, and scholarships, research grants, and travel grants were available to many students.

However, still during the Labour Party’s government, the education budget began to dwindle and it has not stopped since. A huge corruption scandal involving the Labour Party undermined its political capital and a massive political crisis grew.

Until today, basic reading comprehension and mathematical skills in high school have not improved significantly and Brazil has figured among the world’s champions in terms of physical violence against teachers. Scientists have fled the country in a huge human capital flight movement because of the terrible conditions they worked under, often having to buy basic research tools or pay for analyses out of their own pockets.

The Dark Ages

The real disaster came when president Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019. Bolsonaro’s far-right proclivities made him focus his efforts into ridding Brazil of the influence of Paulo Freire’s Marxist pedagogy. Paulo Freire, world-renowned Brazilian educator, father of critical pedagogy and patron of Brazilian education is currently one of the most cited and studied authors around the globe and he believed in education as a transformational tool that could liberate people from oppression.

In under 2 years, Bolsonaro’s appointees as Ministers of Education have been nothing but controversial and utterly incompetent. The most iconic one who was recently exonerated, Abraham Weintraub, was fixated in fighting an ideological war against the so-called left-wing indoctrination in universities. He has accused public universities of planting marijuana on campus and committing “balbúrdia” which means a state of mess or shambles. Under his command, many controversies happened but there were no clear guidelines and leadership towards the advancement of educational policy.

Weintraub and many of Bolsonaro’s ministers are disciples of Olavo de Carvalho, a conspiracy theorist, self-appointed philosopher, who recruits his acolytes through his books, tweets, videos and online courses. Ricardo Salles, Environment Minister, is a climate change denier and supporter of environmental disasters such as the deforestation and burns in the Amazon, downregulation and flexibilisation of environmental law to benefit big corporations and big farming. Ernesto Araújo, Minister of Foreign Affairs, is also a climate change denier and has written in his personal blog that the pandemic is part of an evil globalist plan to implement communism and that the “communavirus” (his word) is far more dangerous than the coronavirus.

The ministers’ antiscientific rhetoric finds support in the ignorant crowds led by the million dollar business of fake news. Videos and fake profiles can be found on social media propagating conspiracy theories about the pandemic and encouraging people to ignore the precautions and restrictions imposed by the quarantine. Scientists and university professors are being “cancelled”, attacked, and threatened online by extremist groups as well as disrespected by the average citizen.

Education fracture

With the harsh blow of the pandemic since March, millions of students have transitioned to remote classes. But that is only for a privileged minority.  According to the DataSenado Institute, 35% of the 56 million enrolled in basic and higher education today have had their classes suspended. The data also reveal that 26% of state school students’ homes have no internet access (compared to only 4% of private students’ homes). State school students often have no mobile or computer and need to pick up printed activities at school to do them at home where they are likely to share the little space they have with other members of their family.

For those who are having remote classes, the problem is also multifaceted:

-Teachers’ struggle to plan and deliver online lessons, which causes stress and exhaustion

– Some teachers had never flipped their lessons before nor had they used a sharing tool for remote collaboration (such as Google Docs of Google Classroom).

-Students are not self-efficacious and, consequently, the need for parents to help them be on task during the lessons

-Parents constantly interfere. Some families require teachers to send more activities, other require less work for their kids and many believe they know better what and how things need to be taught

-School managers are under pressure because parents are taking their kids off school

-Old-fashioned teacher-centred methods are still replicated in the educational system

-Sticking to the syllabus and covering as much content as possible is still l’ordre du jour instead of rethinking the curriculum  

One of the main problems can be summarised in the words of Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Brazilian philosopher and politician who helped architect the transition to a democractic government. He said it during an interview on a Talk Show:

“In education we have a teaching method/pedagogy obsessed with shallow encyclopedism and memorisation as if the objective of Brazilian education was to turn 21st-century Brazilian children into 19th-century French children”

What now?

This rather negative testimonial about the current Brazilian educational scenario could end on a more positive note. After all, important developments in educational policy have made their way into the classroom or at least into the discussion arena recently. That is the case of BNCC (National Common Curricular Base), our own and finalised Common Core, which places more emphasis on developing skills and competencies rather than the shallow encyclopedism that marked our history as referred to by Mangabeira Unger. We have also started walking toward legislation concerning the status of bilingual education in the country. Schools and teaching staff may have adapted to the use of digital technologies and that brings us a step closer to the long needed modernisation of the teaching-learning process. However, instead of hope, Brazil is an example of the catastrophe that can happen to a nation when too much value is placed on populism, authoritarianism, as well as simplistic and immediate solutions to complex structural problems.

Education should not be seen as the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire, as William Butler Yeats once said. But it is exactly the opposite of what many people think of the purpose of our educational system. COVID-19 has exposed the fracture of Brazilian education showing that it is still a privilege for the elite, that it tends to marginalise lower class kids, particularly black students, that it is anacronic, that it lacks digital technologies, and that many strings are still pulled by religion and its indoctrination.

But above all else, the fracture shows more than ever that education in Brazil is under attack and being systematically sabotaged by fake news, the anti-science movement, populism, and lack of investment. Funding is being reduced, scholarships are being cut, grants are dwindling, morale is low among scholars and hope is fading away.

Nevertheless, Brazil is also home to brilliant minds, competent and committed individuals who care about education and science. My hope is that my country embraces the type of mindset Débora Garofalo represents. Débora was the first woman from South America to be a Global Teacher Prize finalist for her incredible project in a state school in São Paulo where she joined rubbish collection and recycling with robotics.

No matter how much technological advancement we will integrate into our curricula, people will always be at the heart of our educational system and unless we make sure everyone has access to good quality education that allows them to think critically and liberate themselves from bigotry, cognitive dissonance, and oppression, we will continue to see incompetent people in high positions making decisions that affect everyone. As Paulo Freire once said:

“Education does not change the world. Education changes people. People change the world.”


Alonso, L (2020). Em blog, Ernesto Araújo escreve que coronavírus desperta para ‘pesadelo comunista’. Retrieved on 15/08 via

Azevedo, R. (2018). A História da Educação no Brasil: uma Longa Jornada Rumo à Universalização. Retrieved on 17/08 via

BBC (2020). Seis Polêmicas que Marcaram a Gestão de Abraham Weintraub. Retrieved on 16/08 via

Chagas, E. (2020). DataSenado: quase 20 milhões de alunos deixaram de ter aulas durante pandemia. Fonte: Agência Senado. Retrieved on 17/08 via

Costa, Gilvan Luiz Machado. (2013). O ensino médio no Brasil: desafios à matrícula e ao trabalho docente. Revista Brasileira de Estudos Pedagógicos, 94(236), 185-210.

TODOS PELA EDUCAÇÃO (2019). Cenário da Educação. Retrieved on 18/08 via

Trisotto, F. (2019). O ‘Roubo’ em Noronha e mais 5 polêmicas ambientais do governo bolsonaro. Retrieved on 14/08 via

This blog was originally posted on the University of Bristol, School of Education Blog, read the original article here.