The analysis in the previous sections has documented the relatively low degree of inter-generational social mobility in Latin America and the importance of parental background in determining educational success. Low access to educational services in both quantity and quality is a problem for the region’s middle sectors compared with their peers in OECD countries as well as affluent households in their own countries. The good news is that these issues are amenable to policy action, as empirical evidence for OECD countries shows (see OECD, 2010). The bad is that any deep reform of education system will take sustained effort, since success can only be measured over the period of a school career.

Early childhood development

Recent research points towards the importance of early childhood development (ECD) – comprising cognitive and emotional development as well as adequate health and nutrition – in boosting opportunities for the disadvantaged in developing countries.40 Conditional cash-transfer programmes (like Bolsa Família in Brazil, Chile Solidario or PROGRESA/Oportunidades in Mexico), which are often conditional on participation in ECD activities, have shown to be a useful tool for increasing early childhood investments and protecting these investments from adverse shocks.41 Furthermore, evidence from OECD members shows that higher enrolment rates and increased public spending on pre-school education in early childhood significantly weakens the link between parental education and child secondary education performance.42 There is no reason to suppose that an expansion of ECD programmes to cover a significant part of the population in Latin America would not bring similar benefits.43 Yet there are many countries in the region where enrolment rates of children in pre-school programmes are still low, even among the richest quintile (Figure 3.17). Of course, ECD by itself is not enough to ensure equal opportunities later on, but given its complementarity with subsequent investments in skills, it is a precondition – and an area where public policy action could be extremely powerful.

Figure 3.17. Enrolment in pre-school programmes (3 to 5 year-olds)

Figure 3.17. Enrolment in pre-school programmes (3 to 5 year-olds)

More and better secondary education

While enrolment rates in primary education have generally reached the Millennium Development Goals,44 secondary schooling is far from being universal across either the disadvantaged or the middle sectors in most countries in the region. Making secondary education universal is therefore a natural target for education policy in Latin America.

How best to achieve this will vary from country to country depending on its circumstances. For example, in several countries compulsory education covers only nine years of education (and so ends at age 15). Here an extension to a 12-year requirement is feasible – Argentina went from 10 compulsory years to 13 in 2007. There is a secondary benefit to this: even compulsory changes in educational level have transmissible consequences. Evidence from OECD countries – where extensions to compulsion typically have been at the secondary level – confirm that even increases in parental education as a result of the expansion of compulsory education have a significant positive effect on the educational outcomes of their offspring.45 Such an extension of compulsory education requirements might have the greatest impact for the middle sectors. For poorer households there may need to be a material incentive to ensure compliance.46

The complement to increasing the quantity of public education will be increasing its quality. An important aim in itself, better quality would also boost equity in education. It would narrow the gap between public and private education, reducing the differences in the skills acquired by the disadvantaged and the middle sectors with respect to the affluent. It should also reduce the drop-out rate and increase demand for education, given the greater returns that would be expected to flow from a given investment of time. Middle-sector parents, able to support their children yet with much scope to increase education, might be well placed to respond to such measures, especially at the secondary level.

How to increase quality? Although there is no unique path or instrument to achieve this goal, schools and teachers are going to be at the heart of any meaningful reform. Better administration of schools, meaning greater flexibility combined with more accountability and a modern system of evaluation and incentives for school administrators can improve the return on current expenditures. Countries need to think about effective incentive structures for teachers, while also upgrading the skills and qualifications of the teaching base. Experiences in OECD countries provide a useful guide to what has proved effective – and ineffective (OECD, 2009b).

Better social mix within schools

Social policies should seek to reduce inequalities in access to high-quality education. Within the public system, instruments should aim to limit selection to prevent schools picking only students from similar socio-economic backgrounds.47 Reserving slots for children from outside a school’s catchment area and allowing parents to choose public schools in other neighbourhoods would foster greater social diversity. Housing and urban planning policies have a role to play in this too. As academic selection – highly correlated to socio-economic background – is often the solution in the case of over-subscribed schools, some combination of residence criteria and lotteries have been used in several OECD countries to avoid a deterioration in equity.48

Given the importance of private provision of educational services in the region, policies aimed only at public schools may not be enough – though combined with an increase in the quality of public education they would help reduce the current gap. However, programmes that promote a better social mix, such as vouchers and school choice or affirmative action, are likely to be ineffective if students and their families do not identify themselves with the objectives of the school and their peers.49

Financing tertiary education

Grants and student loans are an important tool in boosting middle-sector access to tertiary education. Evidence for OECD countries shows that the probability of students from less favourable family backgrounds completing tertiary studies is higher in countries that provide universal funding, available in principle to all students.

Redistributive policies and income support

Finally, many of the policies discussed in Chapter 2 will prove complementary to those discussed here. Better access to unemployment insurance, health services and social protection would allow disadvantaged and middle-sector families to withstand the kind of liquidity shocks that currently often require teenagers to postpone or abandon their studies in order to provide supplementary income for the household.