In Brazil, just three in 10 of the students who finish high school possess basic literacy in Portuguese and just one in ten have basic skills in mathematics. Consider then that only half of the 50 million children in South America’s most populous country get as far as finishing education and you grasp the scale of the problem. Even so, this is an advance on the situation in 1994, when the Ayrton Senna Institute was formed six months after the tragic accidental death of the racing driver, who is still one of the country’s most loved sons.

Ayrton Senna Institute class

Ayrton Senna’s vision

Shortly before Senna’s fatal crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, he had talked with his sister, Viviane Senna, about setting up a charitable foundation to help the young. But this would not be a foundation that built schools. It was far more ambitious than that and ahead of its time. The idea was that the Ayrton Senna Institute should engineer a systemic change in Brazil’s education system – a change that would deliver the greatest possible improvement across the country.

Twenty six years later, the institute can claim to have helped 15 million children. It is present in 17 states and over 660 districts, improving the training of over 70,000 teaching professionals each year and effectively supporting the education of over 1.9 million students a year.

Changing the system

“We could, for example, have adopted a school here in the neighbourhood, or created a school and be the best school in Brazil,” explains Viviane, President of the institute. “But would that solve the problem of education in Brazil? No. That’s why we preferred to adopt much more a logic of improving education as a whole. Because with a similar effort you get a more systemic result. It is very important when you enter the social area to be capable of thinking big.”

The institute stresses the importance of creating educational policies based on research and scientific data. Surveying the copious research into the factors that influence school results brought them to one conclusion: the quality of the student depends largely on the quality of the teacher. Broadly speaking, the research showed that as much as 70% of a student’s outcome was related to good or bad teaching.

The institute concluded that teacher training was the key. And, in Brazil it judged that training was too theoretical and conceptual, rather than being practical. Training should teach the teacher to teach.

Training the teachers is key

Consequently, the institute developed a more practical teacher training programme, emphasising what it takes to be a good teacher. “The result is that these teachers who might be judged to have 10% efficiency now have 90% or more efficiency with the same students,” says Senna. “The same teacher who had students who failed had students who were a success.

“What changed was the training. And training is not just about knowing more, it is how you manage the class, the pedagogical practices.”

When the institute started out, it identified poor literacy as a root cause of Brazil’s educational problem. If students could not read properly they would fail in every other subject. As a result, many would fall behind and leave school – helping to explain why only a third of students were finishing education at the time.

“Training is not just about knowing more, it is how you manage the class.”

-Viviane Senna

So, the institute designed a policy for teaching reading and writing in early schooling. The result? One of the first municipalities that the institute worked with was Sobral in the state of Ceará in the country’s poor northeast. Almost all students were falling behind and many were quitting education. But the policy quickly lifted literacy. Today Sobral is recognised as an example of best practice, and the institute has introduced its policy in many other municipalities besides with similar results. As the world enters a time of intense change, though, these cognitive skills are no longer enough. The institute is also focusing on developing the ‘soft’ inter-personal skills that are increasingly required..

The power of storytelling

Much of the institute’s lasting success arises from the enduring story of Ayrton Senna, the three times Formula One champion, who is still revered in his home country and respected as one of the greatest ever racing drivers globally. That allows the institute to raise funds through the brand of Ayrton Senna or Senninha, a children’s character he inspired.

That power of the story of the young driver also attracts companies to partner with the institute. They donate money and knowledge in the cause of Brazilian education.

So, what is Viviane’s dream for the institute? “To fully develop people on a large scale and with efficiency so that Brazil becomes a country for all, not the few. Everything depends on a quality education that reaches all people, giving them a chance to work as citizens of the country and the world.”