It's the education, stupid!

Talking about education can take one to the presidential palace.

At least that's the case in Chile, where Michelle Bachelet made educational reform one of the key topics of her campaign. The centre-left candidate was elected president in March this year.

Much of Chile's schools were privatised under Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship. Education has become a commodity and people buy the best 'product' they can afford. This has increased socio-economic divisions, Rodrigo Roco, adviser to education minister Nicolás Eyzaguirre, says during a visit to the Viikki primary school in Helsinki.

– Inequality is Chile's biggest problem, and the educational system reflects and reproduces class divisions.

Seven percent of Chile's primary schools are entirely privatised, while free public schools account for slightly under 40 percent.

Most schools are a mix of the two: privately owned companies subsidised from state coffers. Their tuition fees are not as high as in the fully private institutions, but still too much for many families. They are also lucrative businesses.

– President Bachelet wants to put an end to publicly funded profit-seeking. And in the future state subsidised schools will not be allowed to select their pupils either, Dr Roco, who obtained his PhD in education sciences from the University of Burgundy in France, explains.

These changes are included in a reform bill currently under debate at the senate. According to Roco, the right-leaning opposition is trying to block the process, acting out of ideological as well as economic motives. Many people have vested interests in the semi-privatised schools.

There have also been reports of middle-class parents taking to the streets in protest. To them, tuitions have signified quality education and a certain social status that they now fear losing.

– Some schools are selling segregation. It takes time for perceptions to change. Claims about better educational quality, however, are unfounded, Roco says.

Comparative studies show that learning results are markedly poorer in Chile than in other countries with similar income levels, such as Portugal or Poland, for example.

– Even our most expensive private schools, which can charge up to 10,000 dollars per year, do not match the Pisa scores of average French or Finnish elementary schools.

In Finland, the Chilean delegation is hoping to find new ideas to develop their educational system so that it would better serve the entire population.