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Colombia 2016 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | REVIEW: EDUCATION

In recent decades, Colombia made changes to nearly every level and aspect of its education system and has been exceeding the expected results, putting the country on the right track to achieve the president's goal of becoming the best educated country in the region.

Colombia's education system has made several astonishing transformations over the past 20 years. Attributed to serious focuses on expanding access to education, learning outcomes, and increased enrollment across all levels, the country has seen a promising increase in school life expectancy alongside increasing numbers in post-secondary education as well as early childhood care and education. Though the country still has work to make the necessary improvements, honest efforts to reform the Colombian education system have so far proven effective.

Following reforms aimed at increasing the quality and coverage of education, the Colombian Constitutional Court mandated in 2010 that public primary education be free, and in 2015 President Juan Manuel Santos increased the education budget by 5.75%, bringing it to some $14.5 billion. The move followed Santos' pledge to turn Colombia into the region's best educated country by 2025, and followed the country's Development Plan for 2014-2018.

There are 10 years of compulsory education in the country, with students in school from age five to 15. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the government wants to increase this number by 2030, with aims to include upper secondary education in compulsory education. Basic education provides students with five years of primary education, followed by four years of lower secondary education. A transition year, known as grade 0, occurs after childcare and before primary education, but is still considered a part of the education system. After secondary school, students can continue on to upper secondary school, which lasts for two years, but which is not compulsory.

According to the latest OECD figures, Colombia has approximately 7.5 million students enrolled in basic education, which consists of grades 1-9. The country is reportedly working to implement a full day of schooling, adding at least another hour to the current estimated 5-6 hour school day. There are over 50,000 school branches in the country, some offering all stages of compulsory education. The OECD reports that close to 1.1 million students are enrolled in an upper secondary education program, with over three-quarters receiving schooling for general academic programs, with the remainder enrolled in vocational education and training programs.

According to the OECD, Colombia contains some 288 tertiary education programs. There are four primary types of tertiary institutions: universities, which represent 28% and offer undergraduate and graduate degrees; other university institutions, which provide professional and specialization programs below a master's degree but above a bachelor's and account for 42% of institutions; technological institutions that provide high-level skills and knowledge and that make up 18% of tertiary instructions; and professional technical institutions that offer training programs for a particular professional job or career and constitute 13% of such institutions.
Among the government's education initiatives is increasing opportunities for students to learn the English language. There is a stark disparity between students from wealthy families who can afford to attend private, bilingual schools, and those that cannot. The government recently brought the English Teaching Fellowship Program to the country, with the goal of providing underprivileged children with access to English language learning. The program is digital based and couples some 600 native English-speaking fellows in more than 50 different countries with teachers in Colombia. The program is boasted as one that promotes the idea of global citizenship among students participating, and gives them the opportunity to learn about different cultures from around the world through interacting with the native speaker. Currently, the program reaches more than 175,000 students in 46 cities throughout the country.

In an exclusive interview with TBY, Gina Parody, the country's Minister of Education, said that between 2010 and 2015, the government successfully constructed over 12,000 classrooms, which are now used by nearly 475,000 students. According to a new scheme in the Development Plan, a special fund created by the Ministry of Education will be used to finance education infrastructure and should, by 2018, cover 60% of the current classroom deficit. Under the scheme, the federal government will provide 70% of investments, leaving the remaining 30% to local governments. So far, more than 80 agreements have been signed and, in total, the fund has financed more than 19,000 classrooms, spending almost $1.2 million. The government expects that, by YE2018, nearly 10,000 more classrooms will be built through a variety of financing plans.

The government's multifaceted education plan is starting to show its worth and bear results that are better than expected. To evaluate progress in education, the government uses the Índice Sintético de Calidad Educativa (ISCE), or the Education Quality Synthetic Index, which is an annual measure of progress in education, repetition rate, and school environment. In 2015, the country ISCE rating for primary education was 5.07; the goal for 2016 was to reach 5.24, but the country instead saw the number rise to 5.42, surpassing even the target for 2017. Results were similar across all levels: The ISCE rating for high schools stood at 4.93 in 2015 and rose to 5.27 in 2016, significant progress past the goal of 5.12; and for middle schools, the 2015 rating of 5.56 rose to 5.89 the following year, above the initial target of 5.86. Parody highlighted how promising these results are and the fact that it is possible to overcome the trends the country has experienced for so many years

The progress the country has made is undeniable, but there is still ground to be covered. Increasing access to education and a falling drop rate are promising motivators, but Parody would like to see an improvement in the quality of education as well as a reduction in the gap between privileged and underprivileged students.