Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Releasing the Stranglehold: Feature

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Releasing the Stranglehold: Feature

Article excerpt

If you thought that teacher unions were powerful in this country, in underperforming Mexico they protect the status quo with almost absolute power, in a system where school jobs can even be bought and sold. James Bargent reports on attempts at reform.

Six years ago, after being elected to the Mexican presidency by the narrowest of margins, Felipe Calderon declared war on the country's drug cartels. Now, with Mexicans heading to the polls on 1 July to vote for his replacement, the political debate is understandably dominated by the spiralling violence unleashed by this war, in which 50,000 people have died.

Nonetheless, the cartels are far from being Mexico's only problem: the country's education system, for example, is crumbling and bedevilled by persistent underperformance. Yet just one of the presidential candidates, Gabriel Quadri, has treated this issue with any seriousness, while the front-runners have tried to avoid it.

Yet why is such an acute problem being overlooked? In the latest education report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Mexico ranked bottom of 34 countries in student performance. The system is rife with underqualified, and even unqualified, teachers. Extraordinarily, many teaching jobs are bought, inherited or handed out through patronage. A recent survey showed that only 16 per cent of teachers got their jobs through open competition, while 20 per cent got them through union contacts, 5 per cent inherited them and 1 per cent paid for them.

It is therefore unsurprising that poor student performance is mirrored by that of the teachers. In a 2008 teacher evaluation, a staggering 80 per cent of teachers failed to achieve an "acceptable" rating.

As a result, Quadri - who is standing for a party firmly rooted in the education sector, the New Alliance (Nueva Alianza) - is basing his central campaign around a revolutionary, teacher-led overhaul of Mexico's education system. But as so often happens in public life in this central American country, it is far from being as simple as that sounds.

Behind the scenes of Quadri's campaign is the diminutive but imposing figure of Elba Esther Gordillo, known in Mexico as La Maestra (The Teacher). The 67-year-old Gordillo is the president-for-life and "moral leader" of the National Education Workers' Union (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educacion: SNTE), Latin America's largest union - and one of its most powerful.

The SNTE created the Nueva Alianza in 2005 after Gordillo was forced out of her position as the congressional leader of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional: PRI), which effectively governed Mexico as a one-party state until 2000.

Despite being a founding pillar of the party, the SNTE has never previously backed a Nueva Alianza presidential candidate, preferring to cut deals with other parties. And with Quadri trailing badly in the polls, La Maestra and the union are in danger of losing their reputations as presidential kingmakers, earned through their political manoeuvring in previous elections.

Gordillo's story is an extraordinary one. Her mother, Estela, was one of 41 illegitimate children fathered by a rich distiller in rural Mexico. Disowned after a marriage disapproved of by her father, Estela was widowed and struggled to raise her children on the meagre wages of a public school teacher. Since then, Gordillo has reportedly amassed a vast personal fortune and is said to own properties in Mexico, California, England, France and Argentina, as well as a yacht and two private jets. To say she has exerted an iron grip on the SNTE since assuming the leadership in 1989 would be an understatement.

She has been dogged by allegations of bribery, extortion, embezzlement, intimidation and influence-peddling and was even accused of organising the murder of a political rival in the 1980s - although the death was investigated and Gordillo was never charged. …

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