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Special Report on Mexico: School reformer wins high marks

WHEN Mexico's 22 million schoolchildren return to their classes this autumn, many will find brand-new textbooks awaiting them. The old standard texts, with their socialist, anti-American slant, will be consigned to the dustbin. In their place will come crisp new books with an emphasis on reading, writing and arithmetic.

The revised textbooks are part of sweeping education reforms announced last month.

The man behind the changes is Ernesto Zedillo, 40, the Secretary of Education. Before taking up his post in January, Mr Zedillo played a key role in turning Mexico's economy around as the planning and budget chief - the job Mr Salinas did in the previous administration. If he makes a success of it, he could be in line for the presidential nomination in 1994.

'We have modernised our industrial and trade policies, we are undertaking very important reforms in agriculture and we have put our public finances in order, but we will run a big risk of failing in all these reforms if we don't have the proper human resources,' Mr Zedillo said. Mexico has been very successful at attracting assembly plants, but hi-tech investment that requires a skilled workforce has been slow in coming. With its new education policy, the country hopes to become more competitive.

The eventual aim is to shift responsibility for schooling from the federal government to the 31 states, which in future will train their own teachers and negotiate pay. 'There was a need to undertake a total reorganisation of the educational system in order to avoid the inefficiencies that arose from excessive centralisation,' Mr Zedillo said.

Besides a new emphasis on teacher training and a commitment to improving teachers' salaries - which stand at roughly three times the minimum wage - the government has also sent a bill to Congress to make secondary school compulsory. Although primary school is mandatory, around 10 per cent of children in Mexico never attend, and five to 10 million children work illegally out of economic desperation.