For over 40 years the education sytem in Chile has been one of the most segregated in the world, as a result of being the test bed for neo-liberalism – a situation made possible by the bloody coup in 1973 by the dictator Pinochet. Although he eventually left office and was succeeded by an ostensible democracy, those 'reforms' have remained in place. Indeed under the last left-leaning governments they were further developed, as the then teaching union leaders co-operated with government to allow measures like standardised testing and the beginnings of performance related pay to be rolled out in public schools. Meanwhile teachers in the bloated private school sector were unregulated. 

For the World Bank, Chile's education system has been a success story. Measured by PISA, it has done comparatively well, and in their latest report on Latin America, the author uses Chile as a role model of effective change. Never mind that the market-driven policies mean that it is segregated according to income – on average the students do well in tests. Chilean Professor Mario Waissbluth, from his considerable experience of teaching the students who emerge from this system, sums it up thus 'They spent 12 years in school, training to answer multiple choice sheets, speedily forgotten to open brain space for next year´s new payload of material.'

When multi-millionaire and right wing President Sebastian Pinera came to power in 2009, he attempted to complete the neo-liberal 'reform' process by sweeping away all the labour rights of teachers and making them subject to a draconian system of performance related pay and tenure, characterised by the World Bank as 'the most comprehensive and coherent policy reform in Latin America to date.' However the reform was stopped in its tracks by a movement for free education led by students, which included massive and creative street protests as well as occupations of universities and high schools. They were often joined by teachers who maintained a determined opposition to the reform.

As a result of this struggle, a left leaning government, led my Michelle Bachelet, won the next election, promising to reverse the damaging policies of the last 40 years and replace them with a free education system from kindergarten to university. As the present leader of the teachers union says: 'It is important to make it clear that this reform would not have passed into law if it had not been for the struggle led by the social and political movement.' And what is key is that the struggle did not stop with the election of the Bachelet government. Students and teachers were out in the streets in their thousands last year demanding that the government move further and faster with the promised reforms.

It is not clear how far the reforms will go or whether they will dismantle the damaging standardised testing and performance related pay policies. One thing is certain, proponents of market-driven education are circling – the World Bank is continuing to propagate its policies and those who stand most to gain from private education in the country are beginning to organise.

Chile has long held an iconic place for those who struggle for social justice. The dreadful, bloody coup, the bravery of those who resisted and now the inspirational and creative struggle of the school and university students as they continue the fight for free public education have all affected and inspired people all over the world. Once again that country is teaching us a lesson – that only through concerted struggle is it possible to roll back the neo-liberal juggernaut and advocate for democratic education.

To read an excellent and more detailed exposition of these events go here.