By Mário Nogueira, General Secretary of FENPROF, Federação Nacional dos Professores (Portugal)
In Portugal, public schools are the prevailing model and their success can be measured in different ways depending on the context.
In some cases, public schools facilitate the learning of pupils who subsequently gain exemplary school grades. In other cases, particularly in regions of greater economic, social, and cultural complexity, the success of public schools may not be entirely evident in pupils’ grades, yet these schools play an extremely important role in pupils’ holistic education.
Thus, the success of public education in Portugal, in spite of the difficulties it faces, is due to the fact that it can provide a comprehensive and often inclusive approach, largely due to the quality of the work of teaching staff and the level of attention they give their students.
In contrast to this integrative and inclusive approach, private schools are selective by nature. Some may choose their students, rejecting those who present any type of special need, whether this is due to a disability, behavioural trait, or any other factor. Other schools receive State funding, based on their claim they also fulfil a public purpose despite being private by nature.
The Portuguese Republic’s Constitution stipulates that the State must provide a network of public schools which meet the needs of the entire population.
The Constitution also recognises private education. It is given a complementary status, either in a supplementary role in regions where there is insufficient public provision (with private education guaranteed by public funding), or as a response to family choice. In the latter case, such families bear the costs associated with their choice. However, the freedom of some people to choose does not mean that all others should carry the burden.
What happened, particularly in the last decade of the 20th Century and in the first 15 years of this century, was that business people involved in education exerted a great deal of pressure over influential governors and politicians, some linked to the private colleges themselves. This led to direct competition between private and public schools, with private schools receiving significant public funding annually.
In order to attract students, many of these private schools instigated smear campaigns against public schools in addition to a variety of strategies targeting public school enrolments so that their own businesses could continue to grow.
In the face of this situation, complaints about the practices of these private schools, and possible favouritism towards them, began to rise, with the Federação Nacional dos Professores (FENPROF) using the media to take on a leading role alongside general public opinion.
FENPROF drew attention to the rapid money-making of many of the private operators and to their violation of legal regulations and conventions: for example, the private operators paid their teaching staff lower than the set minimum, forced them to work far longer hours than the law established, denied workers their basic rights and collected fees from families: and charging fees despite the state having funded the students that attended these schools.
As a result, many of these private schools’ practices were subject to investigation by the General Inspectorate of Education, resulting in numerous disciplinary actions.
Throughout the years, many business people in the education field used public money to create private empires: for example, one business group encompassed more than 30 colleges, a university school and a variety of professional schools, which were connected to businesses in other apparently allied areas such as transport and housing. However, these businesses were often linked together in a nebulous and opaque manner.
The extent of the complaints was such that a Portuguese television channel decided to conduct an in-depth investigation, and what had already been suspected came to light. Journalist Ana Leal exposed unbelievable situations involving the rapid and large-scale money-making of the businesspeople implicated, the improper use of public funds and the violation of many different regulations through malpractices, in a programme which reached a huge audience and was supported by many teachers, some of which are leaders of FENPROF:
However, the political change that Portugal experienced at the end of 2015 -when the Socialist leader Antonio Costa was named prime minister- led to a cut in public funding for private schools operating in areas served by public schools. The private school owners reacted by encouraging demonstrations against the cuts and even threatening and abusing governors, the deputies of left-wing parties and trade union leaders.
In response, FENPROF developed different initiatives and raised awareness nationally with student-led and other types of cultural, political and sporting organisations, as well as artists, athletes, sporting figures, politicians, pedagogues, leaders from the voluntary sector and trade union leaders from different sectors of working life, among many other figures.
Amongst its initiatives were public tribunals, demonstrations and a campaign which saw a caravan spend a month touring the whole of Portugal, accompanied in the main cities by the unveiling of initiatives for students and teachers in schools.
In addition, FENPROF organised the largest demonstration ever in defence of public education in Portugal. This demonstration took place on 18 June 2016 in Lisbon, with over 80,000 people participating in a march. This event constituted an important demonstration of support for public education and was attended not only by the organisers themselves, but also by thousands of ordinary citizens: a social asset which is tremendously important to the nation as a whole.
It is clear that defending public education is about more than just abolishing the public funding of private schools. Defending public education also involves strengthening public schools with the resources that they need: materials, funding, and human resources. But that will be another chapter in the story.
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