1. The Brazilian education system

During the first decade of the millennium, Brazil achieved remarkable social and economic development. However, as argued in the recent OECD economic review of Brazil, much of it is now at risk (OECD, 2020[1]). Even before the COVID-19 crisis, economic growth had stalled, and productivity levels lagged behind that of other emerging economies, undermining competitiveness. Social progress has stalled and, in some cases, gone into reverse. The COVID-19 outbreak has caused severe human suffering in Brazil, and plunged the economy into another, even deeper recession. The social and economic effects of the pandemic have hit the most vulnerable individuals and communities hardest, increasing the risks of poverty and exacerbating inequalities.

Education, the topic of this report, plays a big part in this story. Over recent decades, the expansion of education was an integral part of the country’s progress, with higher enrolment rates at every level of education, a reduction of inequalities in access and falling rates of illiteracy. The younger generations entering the workforce are much better educated than previous generations, and this higher skilled workforce has played, and will continue to play a vital role in Brazil’s economic development.

At the same time, education shares in the wider challenges now faced by Brazil. To support the country’s recovery, the progress that has been achieved needs not only to be sustained, but also improved upon, with more focus on improving students’ learning outcomes and reducing inequalities. Most urgently, many millions of students have had their education interrupted by school closures and will need well-planned support to facilitate their learning recovery and support their well-being. This calls for redoubled, well-resourced and sustained efforts to improve the quality and equity of education provision, alongside immediate measures to deal with the effects of the crisis. In addressing this challenge, Brazil can draw on its many demonstrated strengths and track record in innovative policy development, evident not only nationally, but also in the host of creative initiatives in states, municipalities, schools, and universities across the country.

This report, which aims to help in meeting this challenge, was prepared by the OECD, drawing on the extensive range of data available to the OECD, wide experience of other countries and how they have tackled challenges similar to those now faced by Brazil, and through consultation with experts. It draws on a wide range of indicators to compare Brazil’s education system with those of other OECD and non-OECD countries, augmented by an examination of national data sources. This chapter sets the scene, describing the national context, the education system of Brazil and how it is organised and governed. Chapter 2 looks at participation, documenting its growth over time as well as how participation rates compare internationally. It also explores the issue of dropout and grade repetition. Chapter 3 draws on evidence from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and some national and regional studies to assess learning outcomes. Chapter 4 looks at financing and resource issues, including mechanisms such as the Basic Education Maintenance and Development Fund (Fundo de Manutenção e Desenvolvimento da Educação Básica, FUNDEB), and other options for prioritising education funding. Chapter 5 examines school leaders, teachers, and teaching, drawing on rich evidence from PISA and the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS). Chapter 6 considers the school climate, increasingly recognised as a key driver of education outcomes, exploring issues like the sense of school belonging, and the prevalence of school bullying. Chapter 7 draws the threads together to identify policy implications in the form of ten steps to a stronger education system.

Brazil’s 2019 population of 211 million people lives mostly (87%) in urban areas (World Bank, 2020[2]). The population is concentrated in the Southeast (42%) and Northeast (27%) regions (IBGE, 2020[3]). In recent decades, falling fertility rates, particularly among the most disadvantaged and least educated, alongside some decline in mortality rates, have caused sharp changes in the demographic profile – between 2010 and 2015, fertility rates had fallen to 1.7 per woman, well below the population replacement rate of 2.1 (UNFPA Brazil, 2018[4]). Consequently, Brazil’s population is rapidly ageing. The share of the population aged over 65 will double from around 10% of the population in 2020 to 23% in 2050 (United Nations, 2019[5]). Among OECD countries, only Costa Rica1 and Korea will age more rapidly (OECD, 2020[1]). At the same time, the number of children and young people in the country will continue to fall, with important implications for the education system and the labour market (United Nations, 2019[5]).

In Brazil, economic growth has been supported for many years by favourable demographics and high commodity prices. Economic growth, alongside targeted policies, improved living standards, lifting more than 29 million people out of poverty between 2003 and 2014, reducing child mortality by 73% between 1990 and 2011, and expanding access to basic education (World Bank, 2020[6]; UN, 2012[7]; Ipea, 2014[8]). However, around 2015, the country entered a deep recession (OECD, 2018[9]; World Bank, 2020[6]; OECD, 2020[1]). In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic also reversed a gradual recovery from the last downturn and plunged the economy into another, even deeper recession, with a GDP drop of 4% (IBGE, n.d.[10]). Unemployment increased from 6.6% in 2014 to 12% in 2019 (World Bank, 2020[2]), and is expected to reach 15% in 20212 (OECD, 2020[1]). High levels of public spending and a large government debt burden present major challenges of fiscal sustainability (OECD, 2020[1]). Looking to the future, the rapid ageing of the population and the moderate and unstable price of commodities are forecasted to slow the economy’s potential growth (Bogmans and Restrepo, 2019[11]; OECD, 2020[1]), putting Brazil’s economic development model into question.

By some measures Brazil has the second highest level of inequality among OECD and partner countries (OECD, 2018[12]). Currently, the bottom 40% of income earners receive only 10% of disposable income, while the top 10% pocket more than four times as much (OECD, 2020[1]). The recent economic recessions have reverted much of the progress in social mobility and equality that took place in the 2000s: 20% of the population was living under the poverty line3 in 2018, up from 18% in 2014 (see Figure 1.1) (World Bank, 2020[2]; Medeiros, 2016[13]; OECD, 2020[1]).

Other measures of national development also highlight challenges. Brazil’s ranking is low on the OECD Better Life Index, which compares well-being across countries according to indicators of safety, income, education, health and housing (see Figure 1.2) (OECD, 2020[1]). Brazil ranked last in the index for safety, partly because of its very high homicide rates (UNDP, n.d.[14]). In health and housing, Brazil also lags, with only two-thirds (68%) of the population having access to basic sanitation, and worse figures in the North and Northeast. Some households still lack access to water (IBGE, 2020[3]).

Brazil’s ethnically, culturally, and socio-economically diverse population (see Box 1.2) is marked by deep-rooted inequalities which are often intersectional. Vulnerable groups include racial and sexual minorities, indigenous populations, people living in the favelas, riverside populations and others. For example, black and mixed individuals represent more than half of the population (56%) (IBGE, 2020[3]), and are disproportionally represented among the most disadvantaged. In 2018, black or mixed individuals made up over 75% of the poorest decile of the population (IBGE, 2019[15]), and recent years show little sign of any narrowing of the race-based income gap (see Figure 1.3). The black and mixed population lags behind whites on a wide range of indicators, including representation in politics (IBGE, 2019[15]). They constitute only 24% and 30% of federal and state congressmen, respectively – an issue related to a lack of support and incentives (IBGE, 2019[15]). Geographic disparities can also be large: for example, average per-capita income in Maranhão, in the Northeast, is less than half of that for São Paulo, in the Southeast (see Figure 1.4) (OECD, 2020[1]).

In 2019, 41% of the workforce was working in the informal economy (IBGE, 2020[18]). These informal workers commonly have less job security, and poverty levels are four times higher among these workers than the national average (OECD, 2020[1]). Women, black and mixed individuals, and those with lower educational attainment are more likely to be informally employed (see Figure 1.5) (IBGE, 2019[16]).

Around 90% of Brazilians think that corruption is an important issue and more than half of those (54%) think that it has worsened recently (Transparency International, 2019[19]). National and international reports signal setbacks in the fight against corruption in recent years (Transparency International, 2019[20]; OECD, 2019[21]; Transparência Internacional, 2021[22]; Transparência Internacional, n.d.[23]), including the watering down of the country’s anti-corruption legislation, growing political interference in law-enforcement institutions and lack of communication between government and civil society organisations and increasing press harassment (Transparency International, 2019[20]). Corruption is also a problem in the education sphere. National and international evidence shows that mismanagement of public spending on education damages the quality of teaching and learning. In Brazil, around 60% of corruption cases are linked to the education and health sectors (Ferraz, Finan and Moreira, 2012[24]) (see Chapter 4).

Coupled with the perception of lack of representation in politics and the sometimes questionable electoral mechanisms, much of the population does not trust government, its bodies and representatives (Transparency International, 2019[19]). According to a national public survey carried out in 2017, 78% of citizens did not trust politicians or their political parties (FGV/DAPP, 2017[25]).

Education is a social right in Brazil and the country’s Federal Constitution guarantees access to free public education at all levels. Brazil divides its education system into basic and higher education levels. The basic level includes: early childhood education (ISCED 0, and in Portuguese, ensino infantil); primary and lower secondary education (ISCED 1 and 2, also known in the country as elementary education, and in Portuguese, ensino fundamental); and upper secondary education (ISCED 3, and in Portuguese, ensino médio) (see Figure 1.6). Compulsory education starts at the age of four, in pre-school education, and lasts 14 years, up until the end of upper secondary education.

Brazil has a three-level federal system of government, including: the federal government, and federative entities (including 26 states, the Federal District and 5 569 municipalities). Responsibility for education is shared among the three levels (see Figure 1.7). States and municipalities have direct responsibility for the delivery of education for ISCED 0 to ISCED 3, with municipalities primarily delivering early childhood education and care (ECEC), primary and lower secondary education, and states primarily delivering lower and upper secondary education. The federal government is primarily responsible for higher education (see Figure 1.6).

In Brazil’s decentralised education system, federal, state and municipal entities are on equal footing, meaning that local governments are not subordinate to the federal government. Nevertheless, reports suggest that the federal government has been predominantly anchored in a vertical and centralised mode of operation (CNE, 2012[28]). According to the OECD report Auditing Decentralised Policies in Brazil, top down, centralised policies are unable to account for the heterogeneity of Brazilian cities and states, which is critical as the country shifts its focus from access to education to the quality of education (OECD, 2020[29]).

The federal government’s education functions include: setting national standards and overall objectives for the country (e.g. the PNE); directly managing institutions including the federal universities and vocational federal schools; co-ordinating education policies and practices across the different levels of government; and providing technical and financial assistance to states and municipalities. The Ministry of Education (Ministério da Educação, MEC) is also responsible for regulating all education levels in Brazil, from early childhood to higher education. MEC evaluates the education system through the National Institute of Educational Studies and Research Anísio Teixeira (Instituto Nacional de Estudos e Pesquisas Educacionais Anísio Teixeira, INEP), which focuses primarily on pre-tertiary education, and the Foundation for the Co-ordination of Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior, CAPES), which focuses on higher education. In collaboration with state and municipal governments, MEC determines curricular guidelines (i.e. common competencies and subjects) to be taught at schools. Three key associated bodies are:

  • The National Council of Education (Conselho Nacional de Educação, CNE). It is a collegiate body to the Ministry of Education that is responsible for advising and monitoring the design and implementation of national education policy. It ensures the participation of the Brazilian society in education policy development and improvement.

  • INEP, which is a semi-autonomous agency responsible for carrying out assessments and exams to evaluate Brazil’s basic and higher education and establishing quality performance indicators. It is responsible, among other matters, for: the main national-level assessment during pre-tertiary education (Sistema de Avaliação da Educação Básica, SAEB) and in tertiary education (Exame Nacional de Desempenho dos Estudantes, ENADE); the main national indicator to measure the quality of pre-tertiary education (Índice de Desenvolvimento da Educação Básica, IDEB) (see Chapter 3); and the main exam granting access to higher education in the country (Exame Nacional do Ensino Médio, ENEM). It also collects and disseminates reference information and statistics on the education system in Brazil.

  • The National Education Development Fund (Fundo Nacional de Desenvolvimento da Educação, FNDE), which is a semi-autonomous body responsible for resource allocation and providing technical support to states and municipalities.

State and municipal governments are responsible for their respective education networks. These responsibilities are exercised through State Education Secretariats and Councils (Secretaria de Estado da Educação, SEEs and Conselho Estadual de Educação, CEEs, respectively) and Municipal Education Secretariats and Councils (Secretaria Municipal de Educação, SMEs and Conselho Municipal de Educação, CMEs, respectively). Table 1.1 presents a full description of some of their main responsibilities.

The National Council of Education Secretariats (Conselho Nacional de Secretários de Educação, CONSED) at the state level and the National Union of Municipal Education Managers (Education União Nacional dos Dirigentes Municipais de Educação, UNDIME) at the municipal level, promote and support the interaction between local stakeholders and between them and the federal government. Nevertheless, horizontal co-ordination, such as between municipalities, is reported to be low (Abrucio, 2017[32]; OECD, 2020[29]).

Brazil has a complex governance structure, reflecting in part its size and diversity. It also faces some distinct challenges. It is unusual for two separate levels of government – states and municipalities – to directly run schools at the same education level. Normally that responsibility is given to one or other level of government on grounds of clarity and efficiency. In addition, Brazil still lacks a national system that clearly outlines and harmonises the roles and responsibilities of the different levels of government, laying out the ways in which they should work together to deliver education policy (SASE/MEC, 2014[33]) (see Box 1.3). While CONSED and UNDIME play a role in articulating state and municipal stakeholders, respectively, they are not formal government entities. Moreover, despite the existence of some participatory spheres, such as deliberative councils, (see Table 3.4 in (OECD, 2020[29]) there are no official regular arrangements or body to facilitate the co-ordination of all the different levels of government with actual decision-making powers. This lack of co-ordination often leads to overlap or duplication of work, inefficiencies, and gaps in education provision (SASE/MEC, 2015[34]; OECD, 2020[29]).

Brazil enshrines in law and in key regulations certain education rights and guidelines, helping to ensure consistency and minimum standards in provision. Key elements include:

  • Brazil’s 1988 Federal Constitution established public education as a right to be provided free of charge at all education levels, from early childhood education to higher education.

  • The 1996 National Education Guidelines and Framework Law (Lei de Diretrizes e Bases da educação nacional, LDB) defines the structure of Brazil’s basic education and its education levels; sets the main responsibilities of the federal government, states, and municipalities in education, and lays down the minimum qualification levels for teachers.

  • The PNE 2014-2024 sets out 20 targets to be achieved by the Brazilian educational system by 2024. Following the Plan, every state and municipality in Brazil has had to develop their own educational plan to support the achievement of the targets set in the PNE, while taking into account their own local needs and demands. Every two years, INEP publishes a monitoring report assessing progress towards the goals established in the PNE (see Table 1.2).

  • The 2013 National Curriculum Guidelines (Diretrizes Curriculares Nacionais, DCNs), covering ISCED 0 to 3, establish the structure of curricula for all these levels, and, individually for each education level (ISCED 0, ISCED 1 and 2, ISCED 3), as well as for special education modalities such as Quilombola Schools4 and Indigenous School Education. The DCNs establish the structure of the curricula to be followed by all schools.

  • The recently introduced National Common Curricular Base (Base Nacional Comum Curricular, BNCC), which defines minimum national learning standards in each stage of Brazil’s basic education. The BNCC is not a curriculum per se but offers content guidelines for curriculum planning. This achievement follows years of work and intensive consultation. In 2017, the BNCC was approved for early childhood education (0-5 year-olds), primary and lower secondary education and a year after, for upper-secondary education. Pre-primary, primary and lower secondary schools had until the beginning of 2020 school year to implement the BNCC’s guidelines – including curriculum adaptation, training of the teaching staff, updating teaching materials, etc. For upper-secondary education, schools will have until 2022 to apply the changes.

  • The Basic Education Maintenance and Development Fund (Fundo de Manutenção e Desenvolvimento da Educação Básica, FUNDEB). It was implemented to replace its predecessor, the Primary and Lower Secondary Education Maintenance, Development and Teacher Promotion Fund (Fundo de Manutenção e Desenvolvimento do Ensino Fundamental e de Valorização do Magistério, FUNDEF), which was in place from 2007 until the end of 2020. FUNDEB redistributes financial resources across states, backed by a contribution from the federal government. It is currently being relaunched from 2021 with a new mandate and as a permanent feature of Brazil’s education funding system (see Chapter 4).

In the Brazilian basic level, most students are enrolled in public institutions (81%) (INEP, 2020[38]) (see Figure 1.9). Private institutions charge a monthly fee for students’ enrolments, and fees are unregulated. Grants and scholarships for private schools are not common or publicly-supported. As a result, across all cycles of the basic level, most students in public schools come from the poorest socio-economic quintiles, while the reverse is true for private schools (see Table 1.3).

Demographic changes in Brazil mean that there are declining numbers of children and young people. As a result, in 2019, 47.9 million students were enrolled in Brazil’s basic education system, around 9% less than in 2009 (INEP, 2009[40]). During the same period, public sector enrolments fell by around 14%, while private sector participation increased by 24% (INEP, 2009[40]). However, private sector growth has slowed since 2015 (INEP, 2020[38]), and in 2020 was thrown into sharp reverse by the COVID-19 crisis. One survey found that 60% of surveyed private schools have lost more than 10% of their students (Folha de São Paulo, 2020[41]) and according to some accounts, around 300 000 teachers working in private institutions have been let go during the pandemic – mainly because of the non-payment of tuition fees and lower school revenues (Folha de São Paulo, 2020[41]). According to the National Federation of Private Schools (Federação Nacional das Escolas Particulares, FENEP) around two-thirds of 0-3 year-olds will leave private crèche facilities in 2020 (Agência Brasil, 2020[42]). One potential impact will be a sudden influx of students into the public school system (see discussion in Chapter 7).

Over three-quarters of bachelor’s students in Brazil attend private universities, compared to less than one-third among OECD countries. (OECD, 2019[43]). Recent decades have witnessed a rapid increase in private sector enrolments, and in the number of private higher education institutions, following regulatory relaxation from the end of the 1990s (Traina-Chacon and Calderón, 2015[44]; Barros, 2015[45]). Government funding programmes such as the Student Financing Fund (Financiamento Estudantil, FIES) and the “University for All” Programme (Programa Universidade para Todos, ProUni), (see Chapter 2) expanded access by helping disadvantaged students to enrol in private institutions. However, the public higher education network has a higher share of poorer individuals enrolled if compared to private higher education institutions (9.7% and 5.5%, respectively) (IBGE, 2019[16]). Overall, higher education is still mainly accessed by the most privileged individuals (see Table 1.3).The equity challenges of entry and participation in tertiary education are further discussed in Chapters 2 and 4.

A major reform of upper secondary education was agreed in 2017 and is now being implemented. Students will follow a common core programme (including mandatory Portuguese and mathematics in all years) alongside options in one (or more) programmes: languages; mathematics; natural sciences; human and social sciences; technical and professional training. Vocational education is no longer a separate track, but has instead become an optional component of students’ upper secondary studies. The reform reduces the number of mandatory subjects to be taught every year throughout the three years of upper secondary education and progressively increases class time, with schools having to reach 1 000 annual hours by 2022. Up to 1 800 of the total hours making up upper secondary education will cover the BNCC, and at least 1 200 hours will be used to cover the optional pathways students choose to pursue according to the availability of programmes offered by schools.

The reform is intended to improve quality, align the curriculum and instruction methods with student needs, offer more choice and make upper secondary education more attractive and engaging – a key requirement given high dropout rates at this level (see Chapter 2). Education networks, together with schools, will have flexibility to develop their curricula and programme offer. This approach offers considerable advantages, which must be set alongside the risk that the degree of choice will depend very much on the resources available to the school (Catelli, 2017[46]). Looking to the future, key challenges include the use of extra teaching hours, the precise structure of vocational programmes, as well as training of teachers (Muylaert, 2019[47]; Catelli, 2017[46]).

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, most schools in Brazil closed for the most part of 2020 and into the first quarter of 20215. In total, estimates reveal that schools closed for over 40 weeks during the pandemic crisis (UNESCO, n.d.[48]). While online and other forms of distance teaching were developed in response, differences in households’ access to the Internet, parents’ capacity to provide support to their children, coupled with disparities across school systems in their ability to implement effective education responses during the crisis, meant that students from disadvantaged backgrounds and schools often missed important learning opportunities. This also contributed to amplifying gaps across students and raising dropout rates.

However, the impact of COVID-19 is not only seen in students’ learning outcomes. Confinement and social distancing have negative consequences for students’ overall well-being. Being prevented from going to school and having to stay home increases the risk of poor nutrition among children, their potential exposure to domestic violence, as well as raising stress and anxiety levels among young people (OECD, 2020[49]). As, hopefully, the pandemic recedes, the main challenge will become that of re-opening schools under new physical distancing measures and hygiene protocols, implementing learning recovery plans for the students who have had their learning interrupted and providing socio-emotional support to children. This issue is discussed throughout this report, but particularly in Chapter 7.


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← 1. Costa Rica is still in the process of becoming a full OECD member country. In May 2020, OECD countries unanimously decided to invite Costa Rica to become a member of the Organisation. Costa Rica’s accession, extending the OECD’s membership to 38 countries, will take effect after the country has taken the appropriate steps at the national level to accede to the OECD Convention, and deposited its instrument of accession with the French government, the depository of the Convention.

← 2. This figure is likely underestimating the actual levels of unemployment in the country, since it does not take into account the large numbers of unemployed people who are not even looking for a job.

← 3. Poverty gap at USD 5.50 (dollars) a day (2011 purchasing power parity, PPP) (%).

← 4. Quilombola schools are schools implemented in quilombola settings (quilombos). Quilombos are Brazilian settlements founded and formed by descendants of enslaved Africans, who mostly live on subsistence agriculture on lands which were donated, purchased or that have been occupied for a long time. Quilombola schools were implemented as a way of supporting the local culture, traditions, and ways of learning. These schools were regulated in 2012 with the creation of National Curricular Guidelines for the Quilombola Scholar Education.

← 5. Responses to school operations have varied across Brazil. Some states and municipalities have closed schools, others have left them fully open or employed hybrid models. Approaches have also depended on the education level.

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