Going South: Education in Latin America

Going South: Education in Latin America

In our previous posts we mostly discussed education systems in Western and Eastern Europe and in the countries of North America. We also looked at the education problem in such countries as Mali, Pakistan, Eritrea, and other states where less than half the population cannot write and read. In this post we would like to focus on the school system of another region, which is extremely huge and very interesting. This region is Latin America.

Latin America is well known for its amazing, bright carnivals (especially the one that take place in Brazil). This world region has a most fantastic and beautiful nature, with its famous rainforests and breathtaking waterfalls. Latin America is famous for its wonders (like Machu Picchu) and, of course, great football players. Latin American counties have a lot of things to be proud of. And what about their schools and universities? How effective is their education system? Let’s look at it closer.


Although a significant progress have been observed in the school system of Latin America, there is still a huge debate on the quality of education in this part of the world. According to the results of PISA (The Programme for International Students Assessment), which evaluates 15-year-old students’ performance in reading, mathematics, and science, Chile (which students demonstrate the top performance among other Latin American countries) scores 10 percent lower than average. This means that the rest of the Latin American countries have an even worse situation.

  • Colombia
Colombia is situated in the North of South America. Before Spanish colonized it in 1499, this country had been inhabited by indigenous people such as the Quimbaya, Muisca, and Tairona (the former two spoke Chibcha, an extinct language of Colombia). The school system in Colombia consists of six stages – elementary level, basic secondary and mid secondary level, vocational school, and undergraduate and graduate level. When children become six years old, they start their primary education which lasts for six years. Secondary school includes 4 years of compulsory education and 2 years of non-compulsory vocational education (grades 10 and 11). Colombian higher education includes four stages. First, students get their Bachelor’s degree; the program lasts for four years. It takes one more year to obtain a specialization. After that, students spend two more years at school to earn their Master’s degree. To become a Ph.D. it takes from 2 to 8 years of studying.

There are a number of issues that might cause problems in the Colombian higher education. Since there is no room for for-profit institutions in this country, and the government if fully responsible for making higher education more accessible for young people, the OECD finds it problematic that it is unclear how national plans for tertiary education will be achieved. Next, only children from wealthy families can afford to study in the university; for children from poorer households it is much more complicated. Another point is that higher education institutions there are very autonomous, but they do not make much contribution in order to help achieve national goals, which also causes a big problem.

  • Bolivia
Bolivia is one of the central countries in South America, and before 1499 the Andean area belonged to the Inca Empire. Just like the education system in Colombia, in Bolivia there are primary, middle, secondary, vocational, and tertiary education levels. Children begin to study in school when they turn six and have six years of free compulsory education. Then they have four years of non-compulsory secondary education, and less than 25% of children attend classes at this stage.

The literacy rate of the population in Bolivia is 91,2 %, which means that almost a million of people of the age of 15 and older cannot read and write. Brazil, Dominican Republic, Peru, and Ecuador have approximately the same indicators of literacy in 2015. The situation in rural areas is significantly worse than in bigger cities: whereas urban children spend on average 9.4 years in school, children from rural regions attend classes for around 4.2 years.

  • Haiti
Haiti, as well as Dominican Republic, is situated on the island if Hispaniola in the Caribbean.

Haiti offers primary, middle, secondary, and tertiary education. However, literacy rate in Haiti is much below the average 90% rate of other Latin American countries – it is only 61%. Education in Haiti is considered to be one of the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. According to USAID, most Haitian schools have minimal government support and are rather expensive. Almost 90% f children study in international schools run by France, the US, or Canada or in church-run schools. A young generation of Haitian people tends to lack the necessary skills which will make them a part of the labor force and help them contribute to the development of Haiti. It is also crucial that Haiti lacks qualified teachers because 80% of instructors did not get any pre-service training.

Although we have mentioned only three Latin American countries, we managed to show how many issues there are in their education systems and how huge the role of socioeconomic status is in this region. It is extremely hard to cross the border between the upper and lower class in these countries, and it is obvious why countries like Canada or France try to participate in the development of their school system.