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Speech made at Economic and Social Council 2011 Session, Side-event on the right to education as a key to the Millennium Development Goals

6 July 2011

Good afternoon.

Let me thank our co-organizers the NGO Platform on the Right to Education, and also express my gratitude to the Permanent Missions of Portugal and Morocco for co-sponsoring this event on the right to education as a key to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

I have the honor to share this panel with the Honorable Minister of early childhood, elementary and secondary Education of Senegal, Mr. Kalidou Diallo, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to Education, Mr. Kishore Singh, His Excellency Ambassador Gert Rosenthal, Permanent Representative of Guatemala to the United Nations in New York, and with Mr. Alfred Fernandez from OIDEL.

Education is the central theme of the high level segment of ECOSOC, and we all know by now that education is central to individual and society development, with private and social returns for this investment. It is the key tool for sustainable development, in a framework of other socio-economic policies that must be mutually reinforcing. Education is a human right and as such it is very much related to the ability to perform better in many different areas, like poverty, health, equity, environment; that is why it is seen as a key to achieving the MDGs.
Education generates opportunities and must help redress inequalities.

While advancing and achieving MDG2 and 3, the so-called educational goals, we must focus on vulnerable and marginalized groups, the left behind, to address the underlying causes for their disconnection with school. Universal policies must be complemented by focused interventions when needed.

Let me tell you that this is one of the present challenges for my country, Uruguay, a middle income country, where public, compulsory and free national education exist since 1877 (end of XIX century), under the auspices of the Director of Public Education of the time, José Pedro Varela, a pioneer and a visionary.

He gave now the name for a program to overcome adult illiteracy, based on a Cuban experience. Illiteracy in Uruguay still affects 1,7% of its population, but people over 65 years old are over represented (4% of them are illiterate), showing that there is progress in younger generations. Besides, also rural population is over represented (3%). This figure almost doubles the one of urban population and shows the territorial disparities that need to be addressed.

Public free education in Uruguay is compulsory for children aged 4 to 14.

The Public education budget, including University, amounts to 4,5% of the Gross Product Income (GPI) of the country in 2011.

Uruguay has a rate of almost 100% of primary school attendance (age 6 to 11) and it doesn’t change between different socio-economic groups, it has a good level of retention in primary school (measured by UNESCO in the fifth grade) and gender equity in primary education (in tertiary levels women are over represented -6 in 10-, as seen also in Latin America), rating therefore high as per UNESCO index.

Nevertheless, noticing that most children are born in poor contexts, since the 90s, Uruguay started offering programs like The Plan for the Care of Children and the Family (Plan CAIF) and also extending pre-school public education until its universalization. Initial education at age 4 and 5 is now compulsory, and the rates of attendance are of 86,6% and 97,3% respectively. These efforts at an early age are key for an adequate socialization of children, since school reinforces positive behaviors and to other MDGs, like for proper nutrition, vaccination, etc.-

Uruguay has also been extending the full time schools in areas where there is a rather socio-cultural disadvantaged context. This allows freeing mothers to get a job or older sisters to continue their education and offers nutritious food for students, apart from extracurricular courses.

Specific support programs for students and their families that may need so have been put in place, like Communitarian Teachers in primary or Communitarian Classrooms in secondary, Teacher plus teacher, educational camping, educational summer. There is also an awareness to avoid absence to school.

This is accompanied by other social policies that relate to a minimum social protection network, like family allowances per child, cash transfers to those household in a social emergency situation requesting in exchange school enrolment and attendance of kids, programs like Equity Plan, Equality of opportunities for men and women, and other focused anti-poverty measures, going from fiscal policy to decrease inequalities to labor legislation policies focused on collective bargaining of wages and working conditions, even for domestic workers, and a national integrated health system, which aims to generate the conditions for all residents to have access to quality health care without any kind of differences due to income or territorial inequities and which has been extending its coverage to more than 94% of the population, since it covers all families of working persons and retired, with very low tariffs and many free services. These policies that started in 2005 relate to the MDG 1 (and Extreme poverty in Uruguay affects now less than 2% of its population) and MDG 3 on equity.

Going back to the education, an important tool for learning has been more recently the “Plan CEIBAL”, the one laptop per child program.

Uruguay decided in late 2006 to start this program and in only three years universalized the free access for primary education students and teachers, becoming the first country in the world to do so.

Let me tell you that it is possible. It was made at a cost for the State of 260 USD per laptop including teacher training and provision of Internet connection in schools and public spaces and its annual maintenance cost is estimated in 21 USD.- In total, the scheme has cost less than 5% of the education budget. For 2011, the Plan Ceibal budget for its extension to secondary education and technical institutes, that already started, amounts to 2,5% of the public education budget.

The Plan has already been assessed. These are some of the results that show that is a worthwhile investment.

It was useful to improve the right to identity of children, a basis to enjoy other rights, since it requires having a national identity document (given to migrants and refugees as well).
Children learn to use the laptops in less than one month, in one week some of them, and they teach their family.

In 2006, 80% of the uruguayan household didn´t have access to a PC, while at the end of 2009 every household with a child in school had, since the laptop is taken home and used by other members of the family and connectivity is provided in public nearby places.

Mothers make use of this tool and one of the first three uses is to look for health information on Internet.

It has positively influenced in the self-esteem of children and motivation for learning and creativity.

It even reaches children with disabilities, with programs for children with visual disabilities.

Therefore, it is not only a tool for learning and teaching in a globalized and competitive information society, but a tool for equity and social inclusion, it bridges the digital divide between the rich and the poor or disadvantaged. It extended Uruguay’s egalitarianism to computing. Plan CEIBAL transformed a privilege into a right.

We hope to build on this positive experience, since we still face important challenges on Secondary Education, to make it more relevant and of better quality to retain teenagers. We know that the less years of schooling are then reflected in diminished opportunities of employment, and of breaking the vicious cycle of poverty. Our national authorities are now focusing on this.

We will watch a very short video of the Plan Ceibal, showing how socially disadvantaged children appreciate having this opportunity.

I thank you very much.