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FOCAL Views: Regional challenges in education

In Latin America, great progress has been made in education over the past 15 years. In general, major education policy reforms have substantially increased enrolment, narrowed gender gaps and improved completion rates. However, many children are still left out. To efficiently address this problem, mere access to school is not enough; the quality of education must be improved. Otherwise, the huge investments that governments and households make in education will not pay off.

Education is key to overcoming poverty and the huge income inequalities facing the region. It provides people with the tools to gain access to knowledge and employment, and to participate in social, economic and political life. This is why Latin American governments worked to get more children into primary school. Their aim was to reach universal primary access to ensure children enter school at an appropriate age, making their way through the education system and completing the full cycle. But despite remarkable improvements, many children still enter school late, drop out too early and never complete the full cycle.

Attending primary and secondary school is not an end in itself; it is a means to equip youth with the skills they will need later in life. It is alarming that many students do not acquire the skills they will need to enter the workforce and become informed citizens.

While gaps in access are narrowing, inequalities linked to the quality of education are persisting. Evidence from learning achievement tests suggests that within many countries of the region and particularly in rural areas, average students are performing close to or below minimum competency levels. Hence, attention needs to be paid to the children who complete primary school each year without having acquired basic literacy and numeracy skills. Unable to formulate or read a simple sentence, these children are poorly equipped to make a successful transition to secondary school. These problems are replicated in secondary schools, where many children do not reach even a minimal level of competence.

It is of capital importance that children in early grades master the basic skills necessary for further learning. Unfortunately, many countries of Latin America are failing this task, which means that returns on the huge investments that governments and households make in education are sub-optimal.

It is well recognized that children do not start their schooling on an equal footing. Circumstances beyond children’s control, such as the income and education of their parents, the language they speak or living situation often impact their school achievements. Thus, Latin American countries need to move beyond the issue of access to guarantee quality education for all so that all pupils, regardless of their background, achieve basic levels of learning.

This would go a long way to equalize opportunity. Giving children the chance to receive a quality education not only increases their chances of having a better life, but also enhances the likelihood that they will become drivers of economic growth and poverty reduction.

Education systems can play a central role in overcoming marginalization by giving disadvantaged children access to good quality learning environments, including properly-financed schools, motivated and well-trained teachers, and instruction in their language. But strategies in education must be backed by wider interventions, including investment in social protection, legal provisions to counteract discrimination and wider empowerment measures. The challenge is to ensure that education policies and broader anti-marginalization policies operate within a coherent framework.blue square

This new section reflects our institutional position on current issues in the Americas. It presents collaborative opinion articles originating from staff, board members, non-resident fellows or colleagues at sister institutions.


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