2. Taking part in education

1. In Brazil, the types and distribution of skills in the labour market have changed dramatically over the last three decades, with many more high- and medium-skilled jobs, and fewer low-skilled jobs (see Figure 2.1). At the same time, the skills levels, as measured by educational attainment, of the adult population have increased markedly. In 20181, nearly half (46%) of young adults (25-34 year-olds) had attained upper secondary education, more than twice the level in the older generation (22% among 55-64 year-olds) (OECD, n.d.[1]).

Despite these improvements, the qualification levels of the adult population are still far lower than those of OECD countries: in 2018 nearly half of those aged 25-64 had not completed upper secondary education (47%), more than double the OECD average of 22% (OECD, 2019[3]). In the same year, only around 18% of 25-64 year-olds had completed tertiary education, less than half the OECD average (39%) and also below some Latin American (LATAM) countries such as Chile and Colombia (OECD, 2019[4]). Even among younger adults aged 25-34, nearly 40% of Brazilian men and nearly 30% of women lacked upper secondary qualifications, a much higher proportion than found on average in OECD countries, though below that of Mexico (see Figure 2.2). Improvements in the levels of attainment and skills will be vital if Brazil is to advance with much-needed structural reforms and open up to the global economy. Higher skills will help boost productivity and prepare the future workforce for jobs that require higher levels of knowledge and skills (OECD, 2020[2]).

Despite major advances in education participation, some groups have been left behind, including the socio-economically disadvantaged, ethnic minorities and those living in rural areas (World Bank, 2018[5]). While socio-economic background is a factor everywhere, its impact is stronger in Brazil than in many comparable countries (see Box 2.1). In Brazil, among 18-29 year-olds, 59% of the poorest quintile had not completed upper-secondary education, several times the equivalent rate for the richest quintile (8%) (IBGE, 2019[6]). This gap is higher than in LATAM countries on average (see Figure 2.11). Similarly, repetition rates for the poorest quintile in Brazil are double those of the richest quintile (see Figure 2.9).

Large inequalities across ethnic groups remain. In 2018, among 18-29 year-olds, only 60% of the black or mixed population had at least attained upper-secondary education, compared to 76% among whites (IBGE, 2019[13]). The proportion of white 18-24 year-olds who were following or had already completed higher education was 36% in 2018, double the proportion found among the black and mixed population, at 18% (IBGE, 2019[13]). In 2019, nearly 25% of black and/or mixed individuals aged 18-24 were not enrolled in education or employed – much larger than the equivalent figure for whites (17%) (IBGE, 2020[14]). Data suggest that black and mixed students often drop out of school early to find a job, and because of social exclusion (Rodrigues, 2014[15]; Folha de São Paulo, 2019[16]).

Such education inequalities both reflect and contribute to Brazil’s large wealth and income disparities. As discussed in Chapter 1, despite a sharp decline in the 2000s, income inequality remains remarkably high (Medeiros, 2016[17]) and evidence suggests that some long-term improvements have been reversed – since the end of 2014, income inequality has started to rise again (Neri, 2018[18]). As discussed in Chapter 1, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to further magnify disparities. Tackling disparities in access to education will be key for Brazil’s social and economic development.

Early childhood education and care (ECEC) has three overlapping functions: first, as a form of care, keeping children healthy, well-nourished and safe while their parents are at work; second, as a means of socialising young children so that they acquire social and emotional skills; and third, as a vehicle for cognitive learning, including basic literacy and numeracy (OECD, 2001 - 2018[19]). The balance across these different roles has changed. Historically, ECEC was mainly seen as a form of childcare, rather than as part of the basic education system. Recent years have changed this perception, not least because of the weight of evidence demonstrating its importance in the development of young children, and its particular value in supporting the most disadvantaged. In Brazil, these factors are weighty, given a legacy of extreme poverty and inequity in some sections of Brazilian society, and the compelling evidence that ECEC, alongside good quality child health and nutrition measures, is one of the most powerful means of rectifying inequity.

In response, Brazil has given increased policy priority to expanding ECEC. A constitutional amendment redefined compulsory education so that it now starts at age 4 (Presidência da República, 2009[20]). In addition, Target 1 of the National Educational Plan (Plano Nacional de Educação, PNE) (see Chapter 1) is universal enrolment in pre-primary education for 4-5 year-old children by 2016, and increasing the offer in nurseries so as to enrol at least half of children aged 0-3 by 2024 (MEC, 2014[8]). Brazil’s Early Childhood Legal Framework (Marco Legal da Primeira Infância) also recognised the importance of quality ECEC for young children’s holistic development (Presidência da República, 2016[21]). The policy objectives in respect of young infants (0-3 year-olds), and slightly older children prior to their entry to primary school (3-years-old and above) have been different in emphasis:

  • Children under the age of 3. An important area of focus, and of progress, in Brazil has been child health, and in particular child mortality. In recent decades, the infant mortality rate has declined dramatically, from 30 deaths per thousand live births in 2000 to 13 in 2018 – similar to Colombia (12), although above Costa Rica (8) and most OECD countries (6) (World Bank, 2020[22]). Progress has also been made in the enrolment of children under the age of 3 in ECEC, which increased from 10% in 2010 to 24% in 2018 (OECD, 2019[3]; OECD, 2020[23]). Still, participation of young children in ECEC (ISCED 0) remains low, and slightly lower than the OECD average2 (26%) (see Figure 2.3, left-hand chart).

  • Those aged over 3. At this age, the focus has been on children’s learning and participation in education. Since the 2000s Brazil has gradually expanded the duration of compulsory education to encompass the earlier years. In 2006 the starting age of primary education was lowered from 7 to 6, and in 2009 pre-primary education was officially included into compulsory education by law (Constitutional Amendment 59/2009) (Presidência da República, 2009[20]). International data show that enrolment in pre-primary education for children aged from 3 to the start of primary education increased from 76% in 2013 to 86% in 2017, slightly higher than the OECD average of 85% and above that of other LATAM countries (see Figure 2.3, right-hand chart).

The Brazilian government has also given increased attention to family literacy, with particular attention to the early years. Two federal programmes are relevant. Conta pra Mim, launched in 2019, seeks to improve interaction between children and their parents, and to incentivise reading habits. The basic literacy program Tempo de Aprender provides financial and pedagogical support to preschools.

Despite improvements, access to ECEC remains unequal in Brazil. While more than half (51%) of 0-3 year-olds from the most affluent quintile of the population were enrolled in some form of early childhood education, the comparable figure for the poorest quintile was only 26% (INEP, 2020[25]). Similarly, 38% of 0-3 year-olds in urban areas were enrolled, compared with only 21% of their rural counterparts. Moreover, there are very large variations in enrolment rates between states, with enrolment rates for 0-3 year-olds varying between 11% in Amapá, and 49% in São Paulo states.

This means that certain segments of Brazilian society are less likely to benefit from the cognitive and non-cognitive developmental opportunities that take place in ECEC settings. As a result, they are not as well prepared for school. This has long-term impacts on their academic achievement, as observed in PISA findings (see Box 2.2 for more details).

To tackle inequality, support for young children needs to be targeted at those most in need. Continued efforts to expand ECEC should be linked to measures designed to tackle extreme poverty, and to support the health and nutrition of very young children (OECD, 2020[2]). Specifically, government-supported ECEC might usefully be targeted at low-income households and single parents in order to close gaps in access and promote female labour force participation.

Since the 1990s, Brazil has made sustained efforts to ensure that all children attend primary school. Today, enrolment in primary school education (Years 1-5, usually 6-10 year-olds) is near universal (UNESCO-UIS, n.d.[24]). In lower secondary education (Years 6-9, usually 11-14 year-olds), net enrolment rates are lower – 79% for boys and 82% for girls – which means that around 20% of young adolescents are not enrolled in this phase of education at the right age or, in some cases, at all (UNESCO-UIS, n.d.[24]). Despite improvements, this remains much higher than in OECD countries, although similar to the LATAM average (see Figure 2.5). Moreover, national data reveal disparities across ethnicities and gender: boys, black and mixed students have lower enrolment rates in lower secondary education (IBGE, n.d.[29]).

In Brazil, 59% of young people (usually 15-17 year-olds) are enrolled in upper secondary education. This is similar to the LATAM average but compares with around 80% in OECD countries (see Figure 2.6). In developed economies, this level of education is often considered the minimum for many types of jobs, in particular for medium-skilled jobs (OECD, 2020[2]). As the number of stable low-skilled jobs decreases in Brazil (see Figure 2.1), young people who do not complete upper secondary education will find it increasingly difficult to find good jobs. At the same time, growing participation in upper secondary education will also help Brazil’s economy, increasing productivity and international competitiveness (OECD, 2020[2]). Recognising the importance of this issue, Brazil has ambitious plans to increase the net enrolment rate in upper secondary education to 85% by 2024 (MEC, 2014[8]).

In many countries, vocational education and training (VET) programmes begin at upper secondary level, and in OECD countries on average more than 40% of those enrolled at this level pursue such programmes. While participation in vocational programmes in Brazil has risen significantly in the past decades (INEP, 2020[25]), it remains limited by international standards. Even among LATAM countries where participation in vocational programmes is generally low, Brazil stands out as having only 11% of students in vocational programmes (see Figure 2.7Progressing through compulsory education: grade repetition, dropout and completion).

Until very recently, students in VET programmes in Brazil took academic and vocational courses as one programme in the same school (ensino técnico de nível médio integrado) or as separate programmes in the same or in separate institutions (ensino técnico de nível médio concomitante). These programmes have tended to attract high-performing students, many of which come from higher socio-economic backgrounds. Studies also show that (outside the quite separate institution of apprenticeship) workplace learning have not been a standard part of VET programmes in Brazil. Internationally, many countries have developed hybrid VET models to allow students to obtain real on-the-job training. This has been shown to be effective for students’ learning progression, allowing them to acquire practical experience and key technical skills. In addition, it can also facilitate a two-way flow of information between potential employers and employees, making recruitment more effective or less costly for the employer (World Bank, 2016[30]). Some studies suggest that low participation in VET programmes is also a result of low awareness of the programmes on offer (Almeida et al., 2015[31]).

In the PNE, Target 11 is to increase enrolment in upper secondary VET threefold, while ensuring the quality of the offer, and delivering at least 50% of this increase in the public sector (OECD, 2018[32]). The intention is that realisation of this target will not only help engage and keep less academically-oriented students in education, offering alternative pathways, but also support upskilling and, through this, improvements in labour market outcomes and productivity. This is particularly important in Brazil, given that a large share of young people enter the labour market directly after leaving school without undertaking tertiary education or further training.

Traditionally, much of the focus of upper secondary education has been on preparation for the National Upper Secondary Exam (Exame Nacional do Ensino Médio, ENEM), which plays a critical role in selection for tertiary education (see Box 2.3). In addition, upper secondary certification is required to access higher education, and is automatically provided by schools or local education authorities upon successful school completion. Upper-secondary certification can also be obtained through adult learning programmes (e.g. Educação de Jovens e Adultos, EJA) or by passing the National Examination for Certification of Youth and Adult Skills (Exame Nacional para Certificação de Competências de Jovens e Adultos, ENCCEJA).

Currently, as described in Chapter 1, a major reform in this level of education is under way, designed to introduce a competence-based and more flexible curriculum coupled with an extension of the school day. If well implemented, it is anticipated that one effect will be to make the curriculum more relevant and engaging for students, and as a result dropout and repetition rates should decrease (World Bank, 2017[33]). The reform is intended to offer more flexibility, so that students would be able to combine professional and technical education with academic programmes of study. This should also help ensure that more students graduate with the technical skills and knowledge required by the labour market.

In many countries, pupils need to demonstrate mastery of the work of a given grade before they can proceed to the next one. Those who fail to do so, according to their results in tests or assessments, are required to repeat the grade or year. However, research evidence suggests that repetition is very costly, not effective in raising outcomes, and can have other negative effects such as further lowering student motivation and engagement (see Box 2.4). In Brazil, rates of grade repetition are much higher than in OECD countries, although comparable with other parts of Latin America (see Figure 2.8).

In Brazil, as in many other countries, repetition is more common among those from poorer and rural households, and among male students. Such disparities are greater in Brazil than in many comparable countries. For example, pupils from the lowest socio-economic quartile (as measured by PISA’s ESCS index) are at least twice as likely to have repeated at least one grade than pupils from the highest quartile in lower secondary education (28% as opposed to 13%, respectively) (see Figure 2.9). In comparison, in OECD countries the absolute difference is much smaller, around 9% and 3%, respectively. One of the consequences of repeating grades is that students end their school careers at a later age than normal: 26% of all upper secondary students in Brazil are two or more years older than the expected age for their year (Todos Pela Educação, 2020[37]). This also means that while the vast majority (93%) of 15-17 year-olds are enrolled in school, many of them have not yet reached upper secondary education – only 71% of 15-17 year-olds are in upper secondary education (Todos Pela Educação, 2020[37]).

In recent years, Brazil has taken major steps to reduce grade retention (see Box 2.5 for a discussion on OECD and partner countries’ strategies). Target 3.5 of the PNE calls for measures “to correct student progression during Brazil’s basic education through individualised support and practices such as tutoring in complementary shifts, recovery studies and partial progression, in order to reposition students in the school cycle in a manner compatible with their age” (MEC, 2014[8]). Some states, municipalities and schools have introduced transition models (e.g. “continuous progression”, which is also referred to as “promotion with support” or “automatic promotion”) that help limit grade repetition as well as tutoring sessions for students falling behind. As a result, repetition rates in Brazil have been decreasing gradually.

Nevertheless the practice remains common, particularly in secondary education, from Year 6 onwards. There are multiple reasons. First, Brazilian families, teachers and schools appear to be attached to this approach (Instituto Unibanco, 2017[43]). Second, the alternative to grade repetition of “automatic promotion” or “continuous progression” is often misunderstood as lowering standards. In fact, the alternative to grade repetition is to offer a range of supports for struggling students. Such students might therefore receive targeted support and take remedial classes and/or tutoring sessions to help them catch up with their peers, and correct any gaps. Such targeted support is more effective and less costly than grade repetition in helping struggling students catch up. Therefore, assuming this support is in place, the effect is to raise rather than lower standards. Third, schools and sub-national units often lack the necessary policies, resources and capacity to identify struggling students and to offer individualised support to students. It is therefore very important to ensure that the cost savings arising from cutting back on grade repetition are cycled back to the schools so that they can invest in this capacity.

Other initiatives have also contributed to the gradual decrease in grade repetition. For example, schools following the Full-Time Upper Secondary programme (Ensino Médio em Tempo Integral, EMTI) are reporting lower repetition rates (MEC, 2018[46]). Box 2.5 reports different initiatives used in OECD and other countries to reduce repetition rates.

Completion rates have increased in Brazil. Over the period 2001-2018, the completion rate rose from 90% to 95% in primary education, from 67% to 86% in lower secondary education and from 44% to 67% in upper secondary education (see Figure 2.10), with current rates similar to those seen in other parts of Latin America.

Despite progress, too many students still fail to complete, particularly at the upper secondary level. Nearly one-third of students did not complete upper secondary education in 2018, with most of the dropout taking place in the first year of upper secondary education (Todos Pela Educação, 2020[37]). National evidence suggests that two main reasons for students to drop out are lack of interest in their studies and the desire to get a job (Packard, 2018[48]). While the current reform to Brazil’s upper secondary model is expected to help reduce dropout (World Bank, 2017[33]) by making the curriculum more engaging and relevant for students, the challenging conditions created by the COVID-19 pandemic may increase the risk of dropout, especially among students in difficult socio-economic and family situations (Gouëdard, Pont and Viennet, 2020[49]; Saavedra, 2020[50]).

In Brazil, completion rates tend to be higher for women, for those living in urban areas and for better-off families. The same pattern is found in other Latin American countries and globally, but in Brazil, the impact of socio-economic background is greater. For example, of those who start upper secondary education in Brazil, only 7% of students from the richest quintile failed to complete, compared with 57% for those from the poorest quintile. In LATAM countries on average, the comparable figures are 13% and 59% respectively (see Figure 2.11).

Factors associated with dropout are very different for female and male students. For example, in 2016, one in four women (26%) aged 14-29 said that they had abandoned education because of caring responsibilities for the household, children or elderly people, compared to less than 1% of men (IBGE, 2017[51]). Male students, on the other hand, might be expected to find a job in order to support their family financially. As a result, the type of activity which women enter upon leaving education differs markedly from men, with a much larger proportion of young women becoming inactive and men entering employment (OECD, 2014[52]).

Studies show that some initiatives such as Bolsa Familia have had a positive impact on reducing dropout rates (Santos et al., 2019[53]; Bruns, Evans and Luque, 2012[11]). However, further measures are needed in order to meet Target 2 of the PNE, which is to ensure that at least 95% of students (aged 6-14) complete education at the recommended age (MEC, 2014[8]). Tackling dropout will require incentives and support directed at students and their families to encourage students to remain in education, alongside measures at the school and classroom level to increase student engagement and motivation, and help accommodate children with different needs (Lyche, 2010[54]).

Following decades of rapid growth, nearly half of young women and more than one-third of young men (aged 25-34) in OECD countries now have tertiary qualifications. In LATAM countries, about one-quarter of this age group has tertiary qualifications: in Chile one-third is qualified at this level (see Figure 2.12).In Brazil however, tertiary attainment, even among the younger generation is low, at 21% of 25-34 year-olds in 2018. Moreover, postgraduate study is uncommon in Brazil: less than one percent of 25-64 year-olds in Brazil have attained a master’s degree, well below the OECD average of 13% (OECD, 2019[4]).

Brazil has made substantial efforts to increase participation in tertiary education. Between 2003 and 2010, 16 new public federal universities were created, and enrolments in federal universities increased by 47% (Traina-Chacon and Calderón, 2015[55]). However, much of the expansion has taken place through growth in private higher education institutions, which more than doubled in number in the 1990s and early 2000s. This has been facilitated by federal financing (FIES) and scholarships, such as the ProUni programme (see Chapter 4). As a result, over three-quarters of bachelor’s students in Brazil now attend private universities, compared with fewer than one-third of students in OECD countries (OECD, 2019[4]).

Despite this growth, only 21% of 20-24 year-olds in Brazil were enrolled in tertiary education in 2018, compared to 34% on average across OECD countries3 (OECD, 2020[23]). Brazil’s comparatively lower levels of participation in tertiary education also reflect very limited opportunities to enrol in advanced technical programmes (ISCED 5 between upper secondary and bachelor’s programmes), which are common in many OECD countries.

Looking to the future, Target 12 of the PNE aims to increase the gross enrolment rate in undergraduate programmes to at least 50% (in 2019, at 37%) and the net enrolment rate4 of 18-24 year-olds to 33% (in 2019, at 25.5%) (MEC, 2014[8]; INEP, 2020[25]; INEP, 2020[56]). Target 14 aims to increase postgraduate enrolment so as to graduate 60 000 masters students and 25 000 doctoral students (MEC, 2014[8]). Raising participation in advanced levels of education – and in particular in master and doctoral programmes – will be critical to developing the highly-skilled workforce needed to support Brazil’s economic growth, as well as the development of a more knowledge-based economy.

Access to higher education has become more equitable in recent years as a result of policies such as FIES, ProUni and the quota system (see Box 2.6). The share of students from the two bottom income quintiles who attend higher education increased from 7% in 2002 to 17% in 2011 in the public sector, and from 2.6% to 10% in the private sector over the same period (IPEA, 2016[57]). Despite improvements, Brazil’s tertiary education system remains highly unequal, with advantaged students much more likely to be enrolled in universities than young people from less privileged backgrounds (see Table 2.1). Chapter 4 further explores the implications of this for funding tertiary education, in a context where there are many competing demands on education budgets, including from sectors such as ECEC, where the contribution to equity is clearer.

Disadvantaged students face several barriers to access and success in tertiary education. First, as discussed in Box 2.3 and in Chapter 3, students from less privileged backgrounds tend to attend lower-quality public schools, and are less likely to have benefitted from private tutoring and extra classes. As a result, they are less prepared to pass the university entry examinations (Medeiros, 2016[17]). Second, even those who succeed and enter tertiary education programmes often receive inadequate financial and academic support. Ensuring that all students are offered the support they need can not only help all students make the most of their university experience, acquiring advanced skills and knowledge that will boost their personal and professional lives, but can also help reduce dropout and reduce completion time at the system level.

Only one-third (33%) of students who enter a full-time bachelor’s programme graduate within its theoretical duration of four or five years, compared to an average of 39% among countries with available data (see Figure 2.13) (OECD, 2019[4]). In part, this may reflect the fact that in Brazil, it is normal for students – including those undertaking a tertiary degree on a full-time basis – to have a part- or full-time job or internship on the side. In 2019, around 48% of students aged 18-24 also worked (Barcellos, 2020[61]). National research suggests that this is particularly common among students in private institutions (58%), in comparison to those in public institutions (36.7%) (Barcellos, 2020[61]). While the explanation for this disparity is unclear, it is likely a consequence of inadequate financial support to disadvantaged students in the private sector (see Chapter 4).

While working experience can enhance students’ practical skills and knowledge, a busy schedule and heavy workload can prevent students from fully committing to their studies and, as a result, many fail courses or spread out their credits over a longer period. This is arguably an inefficient use of public resources and, at the individual level, can delay graduates’ full entry into the labour market and increase their own private expenditure in education (Brocco and Zago, 2016[62]).

In the last two decades, Brazil has made significant progress in ensuring that all children take part in education. While the gap with the OECD has been narrowing, Brazil is still far from reaching OECD levels of participation. In order to sustain growth in participation, three challenges must be addressed.

  • First, a large proportion of young people does not complete education on time or at all. This is the result of a number of factors, including grade repetition and an un-engaging curricula. Some students also abandon education to look for a job or take over caring responsibilities at home. The COVID-19 pandemic may have further encouraged this trend, especially among the most disengaged and disadvantaged. Higher completion rates can help raise the level of qualifications and skills of the Brazilian workforce, and support Brazil’s development goals. In addition, ensuring timely completion can help reduce inefficiencies in expenditure.

  • Second, disadvantaged individuals still face important barriers both in accessing education, particularly at higher levels, as well as obstacles to their success when they do enter programmes. As a result, levels of attainment and participation in education vary significantly across Brazil’s population. While socio-economic background and regional differences are factors in all education systems, their impacts are stronger in Brazil than in many comparable countries. The disparities become particularly prominent in upper secondary and tertiary education, although they have their foundations in the early years. Addressing this issue is not only a moral imperative, but it can also contribute to raising living standards in Brazil.

  • Third, the limited range of educational pathways in secondary education, and the scarcity of postsecondary programmes at ISCED 4 and 5, may discourage students, particularly those with more specific needs or who are less academically-oriented, from remaining or progressing in education. The recent reform of Brazil’s upper secondary education (see Chapter 1) can not only help address this issue, but is designed also to ensure that individuals enter the labour market with a wider set of practical and vocational skills to meet the needs of the labour market and the economy. The reforms are also intended to support the development of a range of 21st century skills, of wide value to those individuals and Brazilian society.


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← 1. For information regarding educational attainment, Brazil’s most recent data available in Education at a Glance (EAG) refers to 2018. For that reason, and to guarantee comparability, the OECD average presented here also refers to 2018, although information from 2019 is available in the latest EAG 2020 publication.

← 2. To be classified in ISCED 0, ECEC services should: 1) have an adequate intentional educational properties; 2) be institutionalised (usually school-based or otherwise institutionalised for a group of children); 3) have an intensity of at least 2 hours per day of educational activities and a duration of at least 100 days a year; 4) have a regulatory framework recognised by the relevant national authorities (e.g. curriculum); and 5) have trained or accredited staff (e.g. requirement of pedagogical qualifications for educators). The average does not account for other registered ECEC services that are not in adherence with all ISCED criteria.

← 3. LATAM average has not been included because of to the lack of available data for the minimum number of countries that compose this average.

← 4. This national indicator, called net enrolment rate, is calculated by dividing the number of 18-24 year-olds who attend or have already completed undergraduate courses by the total number of 18-24 year-olds in the country. The result is then multiplied by 100.

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