|Parents have to buy uniforms; government doesn't have to buy desks|
You know a problem has become critical when it gets a snappy name.
Like the “ninis” in Honduras, young people who “ni trabaja ni estudia” - neither work nor go to school.
About 24 per cent of Hondurans between 12 and 24 aren’t in school or working, according to the latest numbers. That’s a problem on many levels. Many youths with nothing to do get into trouble - gangs or petty crime or early, ill-advised relationships. (About 25 per cent of births are to women, or girls, under 18.)
And the country’s future prospects are blighted when such a huge portion of the population lack education and opportunity. Some 582,000 youths are in the ‘nini’ camp.
A government official focused on the economic consequences - without a skilled or educated population, Honduras won’t move toward greater prosperity.
The political and social damage is just as significant. Educated people, literate, numerate and with problem-solving skills, are much more likely and able to hold government to account, participate in political life and bring social change to a country that badly needs it.
Not that the Honduran school system is producing people with those skills. It’s accepted that the education system is dismal. Schools are overcrowded and often in disrepair, teachers poorly qualified, the curriculum is outmoded and basic supplies are lacking. The education ministry can’t pay teachers on time or manage the system. (It has now been decreed that all students will learn English, ignoring the fact that there are almost no teachers capable of providing the instruction.)
It’s not just anecdotal. The Human Sciences Research Council assessed math and science skills knowledge in 45 countries, using Grade 8 students in almost all countries and Grade 9 students in Honduras.
Honduras was in the bottom three countries, with South Africa and Botswana. In the U.S., 68 per cent of Grade 8 students reached at least the intermediate level in math and science. In Chile, 23 per cent met the standard.
In Honduras, only four per cent. Only two students in a class of 50 reached the intermediate level in skills fundamental to competence in today’s world.
The country claims a literacy rate of 80 per cent, but in Copan Ruinas the only store that sells books offers a handful of titles aimed at tourists. Bodega Gloria put in a small magazine rack about six weeks ago, the first in town. People might be able to read, but they don’t.
The poor educational quality is probably one reason kids don’t go to school. Some families want children to help around the home or work or look after younger siblings. And it’s hard to make an argument that education opens the door to economic opportunity when jobs are so scarce.
Education is impossible for many children. Rural coverage is scarce and transportation - except on foot - non-existent. Only 15 per cent of rural students have access to education beyond Grade 9; for many Grade 6 is the highest level practically possible. About 10 per cent of the school-age population has no access at all, according to a 2010 study by the Honduran Commission of Human Rights.
And fees and strange extra charges - despite the fact that education is supposed to be free - are huge barriers for poor families. Uniforms, for example, are mandatory, and kids whose families can’t afford them stay home. There are levies for school maintenance and supplies and graduation ceremonies - even from kindergarten. Grade 6 grad fees can add up to $50; about 50 per cent of Hondurans live in extreme poverty and a wage of $6 a day isn’t bad.
That also means that many families have to choose one child to attend school, while brothers and sisters stay home, or quit early.
A generation ago, the nonfunctioning education system mattered less. Beyond some agricultural exports, Honduras was a closed economy. People stayed in their villages and practised subsistence farming.
Honduras, for better or worse, is part of an international economy today. Subsistence agriculture can’t provide for a larger population (and is seriously threatened by climate change, with projections of 30-per-cent corn crop losses in some regions within a decade).
About 582,000 ninis in Honduras equals a huge wasted opportunity, and a potentially destructive force.
The country has a big portfolio of problems.
But fixing the education system, and providing real access, need to be at the top of the list. Unless today's kids get a decent education, the country's future is bleaker than it needs to be.