Literacy and primary school expansion in Portugal: 1940–62

December 3, 2019

In Portugal, in 1940, only 40% of the population knew how to read. The causes of this backwardness, as well as the the rapid increase of literacy rates in the subsequent decades have been the focus of considerable research, and some controversy.

This paper measures the contribution of the increase in the number of primary schools since the 1940s to the increase in school enrolment and literacy rates by the beginning of the 60s.

The primary school expansion started in December 1940 with the approval of a national plan called Plano dos Centenários. At the time, the literacy rate of the population aged 7–19 varied between 22% and 79% across mainland Portuguese counties (concelhos). The paper shows that these differences were related to the availability of primary schools, the quality of education and the population density. The Plano dos Centenários aimed at building 6,082 new schools across mainland Portugal. The endeavour aimed at approximately one new school for every 90 children aged 7–10 years and a 60% increase in the number of primary schools, providing a remarkable example of schooling expansion. The Plan envisaged the construction of more schools in counties with lower literacy rates: a 10-percentage-point difference in the percentage of the population aged 7–19 who knew how to read at the county level, translated into 0.2 fewer schools planned per 1,000 residents.

The paper uses geographical variation in the number of schools built (and planned) to estimate causal effects of the increase in the supply of primary schools between 1940 and 1962. We find that an additional school per 1,000 residents increased enrolment by 20 students per 1,000 residents older than 7 and increased the literacy rate of the population aged 7 to 39 by 13 percent, relative to that of the population older than 40 in 1960.

Click here to go to the paper by Pedro Gomes and Matilde Pinto Machado.