a1schools occupyStudents who have occupied more than 70 schools in the state of Rio de Janeiro insist the education system is crumbling while money is being lavished on the Olympics.

An emergency federal loan is being considered for Rio state, which is in debt due in part to a nationwide recession, and struggling to pay workers and provide basic services.

Meanwhile, the cost of the Games, which begin on August 5, has been estimated at 39.1 billion reals (nearly £8 billion).

A 27% drop in Rio’s education budget from last year has left schools without essential supplies, and students say important staff have been made redundant in order to balance the books.

At the Colegio Estadual Gomes Freire de Andrade school in Penha, in the north of the city, protesting students have gathered since March 28, sleeping in the school at night, holding their own classes and even taking over the canteen to prepare food from donations.

“The government says it is down to lack of money, but they haven’t truly answered our questions since we occupied the school,” said student Carlos Augusto, 19. “I think it’s because the more ignorant you are, the better. The more money there is for them.”

At the first school in Rio to be occupied, Colegio Estadual Prefeito Mendes de Moraes in Ilha do Governador, those students representing the “de-occupy” movement often resorted to violence to try and remove the occupations.

Mendes students eventually chose to support those occupying other schools in the region.

“My school was better when I started four years ago, but the curriculum is not the same as it is in private schools. Teachers haven’t had a salary rise in those four years.

“We want to make something of ourselves, to be able to compete in the job market,” said Thiago Barros, 18, a Mendes pupil.

He pointed out that while many schools are doing without essential staff and resources such as textbooks, the state has found money to fund projects for Rio 2016.

“Everyone says there is no money, but there is money for the Olympics. They have built a VLT [light rail vehicle] in the city centre for tourists. It’s not just private money which has been spent on the Games.

“They have money for the Olympics, but not for education. We must fight to be heard.”

The occupy movement has nevertheless won a series of concessions from the government. Rio’s governor passed a law allowing pupils and teachers to take part in elections for school directors, and a budget of 15,000 reals was set aside for emergency reforms in schools which have been “de-occupied” by students, including Mendes itself.

On June 1, a judicial ruling was passed ordering all schools to re-open, though many teachers across the state have remained on a strike which started at the same time as the occupations.

Pupils cook for each other in the empty canteen at Gomes Freire.

Pupils cook for each other in the empty canteen at Gomes Freire.

For many students, it was a first induction into political activism. Fabiana Dutra, 18, a student at Gomes Freire, said she had faced opposition from her family at first but they had grown to accept her decision.

“My mother was a bit against it,” she said. “She has never been very political. But we needed a school, and she realised the school we had wasn’t what she thought it was.”

As well as preparing meals, the students have been doing their own repairs in schools which were in many cases lacking basic infrastructure such as working doors and windows.

“If something is broken here, we fix it,” said Arthur Cesar, 18, also at Gomes Freire.

A bizarre feature which was repeated across many occupied schools was the discovery by students of textbooks in storage which pupils could have been using but were never handed out.

Arthur Cesar, 18, with the unused books.

Arthur Cesar, 18, with the unused books.

The reason is not known, but Arthur said among the undistributed books at Gomes Freire were crucial past test papers for ENEM, the vestibular exam taken by most pupils as the route into university in Brazil.

Inspired by similar movements in Chile and school occupations in Sao Paulo last year, the Occupy schools movement has now spread to other states and as far as Paraguay.

Orlando Santos Jnr, professor of urban planning at UFRJ and IPPUR (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and Institute of Research and Regional Urban Planning), said budget cuts in public services in Rio de Janeiro can be related to the Olympics.

“They are not linked in the sense that if we didn’t have the Olympics, we would have the health and education that we need,” he explained. “But since 2014 when the recession intensified, you could clearly see that the Olympics was being insulated from it.

“There is a very serious crisis in health in Rio too, but the Olympics was protected from the impact. There are some big interests in the Olympic Games, such as real estate and construction.

“Public debt is expected to increase next year, partly because of the new roads which have been built for the Olympics. It will directly impact on the public purse.”

Report by Beth McLoughlin, Children Win’s reporter embedded in Rio

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