Education is a fundamental right and plays a decisive role in development by bringing about greater equality of opportunity and social inclusion by promoting the skills needed for technological progress and development. Education has direct positive effects on economic and social welfare, productivity, income, employment and competitiveness. It is therefore essential that the State carry out the reforms necessary for education systems to play this transformative role.

The aim of this chapter is to present a panorama of the current state of education in Latin America and highlight the principal challenges for the design and implementation of education reform. We will present the trends in coverage, performance, equity and spending on education in Latin America (section 4.2). This will be followed by a description of recent reforms in different spheres of the education systems in the region, analysing four fundamental aspects: decentralisation, national evaluation systems, higher education, and management of teaching staff (section 4.3). The chapter concludes with various recommendations for education policy (section 4.4). Some priority areas are: increasing secondary education coverage for young people from low-income families; reducing the gaps in knowledge and facilitating access to tertiary education; implementing decentralisation policies that avoid increasing inequality and transfer financial, human and management resources to the local level; strengthen mechanisms and institutions to assure the quality of education, particularly at the tertiary level; and finally, implement adequate evaluation systems and ensure accountability regarding educational achievement as well as management and teaching practices.

Educational coverage and spending has increased in recent decades in the region, now benefitting the most vulnerable sectors of the population who did not have access to these services in the past. However, there are still major challenges ahead. There have been significant advances in primary school coverage (where the region is close to achieving the millennium Development Goals), but major gaps remain in secondary and higher education. The challenges for Latin American education systems not only include expanding coverage, but also improving quality, efficiency and performance. In terms of educational results, the performance of Latin American students on tests such as the PISA (Program for international Student assessment, see Box 4.1) continues to be low compared to students in the rest of the world despite improvements in recent years.

The region remains one of the most unequal in the world, not only in terms of income but also in terms of access to education and quality of education services. Differences in access to education and in educational performance due to socio-economic factors are still significant and in some cases (for example, at secondary and tertiary levels) have increased. Income is a significant factor in the segmentation of access to good-quality education services. The current education system often reinforces inequalities in income and opportunities, perpetuating social inequality. The State has an essential instrument to compensate inequalities of origin, providing new generations with better opportunities for occupational mobility, thereby reversing the reproduction of inter-generational social gaps: to build a high-quality education system that is accessible to all at all levels.1

Education reforms in Latin America seek to strengthen the social and inclusive role of education. Such reforms have spurred improvements in the management and administration of education systems, integrating new teaching methodologies in school curriculums and generating closer ties with the labour market. Tertiary education has also been the object of important reforms in recent years, which have tried to respond to some of the traditional problems the region faces (such as coverage and funding). Today, universities face new challenges based on changes in the productive paradigm and the demand for scientific and technical knowledge. Strengthening the capacity for applied research and co-ordination with the real sector is now required.