Executive summary

Over the past two decades the Colombian education system has undergone a fundamental transformation. Access to education has been a priority, with ambitious policies to expand enrolment at every level and bring education services to every corner of the country. In just a decade, school life expectancy has increased by two years and participation in early childhood education and care (ECEC) and tertiary education has more than doubled, to 40% and 50%, respectively. An increasing focus on learning outcomes has led to major reforms of the teaching profession and the establishment of a strong evaluation system. Improved governance and funding arrangements have laid the foundations for a system that is more efficient and meets the needs of a very diverse country. Nationwide consultations on education reform have forged a strong societal commitment to improvement. Together, these policies have brought the Colombian education system to a turning point on the eve of a post-conflict era.

Colombia now faces two critical challenges: to close the remaining participation gaps and raise the quality of its education for everyone. Inequities start at a young age; many disadvantaged children never go to school, do not start on time or attend lower quality institutions. The resulting differences in attainment are stark. School life expectancy for students from the poorest backgrounds is just 6 years, compared with 12 years for the richest, and just 9% enrol in tertiary education, compared with 53% from the wealthiest families. The low quality of education is a major factor behind this progressive disengagement. Inadequate learning support from the start leaves too many children without a strong foundation so that they struggle to make adequate progress, have to repeat years or drop out altogether. Among those who remain in the system at age 15, Colombian students perform well below their peers in OECD countries in the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) (376 points, compared to 494 in 2012). Just over half (51%) do not reach the minimum standard for full socio-economic participation in adult life. Tackling these challenges will be key if the country is to fully harness the talent of its young population.

This review has been undertaken as part of the process of Colombia’s accession to the OECD. Its purpose is to evaluate Colombia’s policies and practices as compared to OECD best policies and practices in the area of education. The review also looks at where Colombia is today and how far it has to go to reach its goal of being the “most educated” country in Latin America by 2025. This comparison brings to the fore the many strengths of Colombia’s education system and highlights the areas where further progress is needed.

Improving the quality and relevance of learning outcomes

To improve its learning outcomes, Colombia first needs to set clear expectations of the values, knowledge and skills that students should acquire at every stage of the education cycle. The lack of a national curriculum framework for basic and upper secondary education makes it difficult for teachers, schools and students alike to direct their efforts towards higher standards. Defining clear learning expectations would also help strengthen education’s contribution to meeting national social and economic goals. Raising the quality of teaching will be vital to improve student learning. Important steps have already been undertaken to ensure that entry into and promotion in the teaching profession are based on merit, and to strengthen the skills of the current workforce. A shared understanding of what it means to be a good teacher would reinforce these efforts, setting high expectations and guiding teacher education, remuneration and appraisal. More proactive efforts to share and scale up local innovations and good practice would help accelerate system-wide improvements.

Promoting equity in educational opportunities

A student’s socio-economic background and location still have too great an impact on education access and achievement in Colombia. The expansion of flexible models such as the “New School”, the abolition of school fees, and conditional cash transfers have helped to bring education to disadvantaged areas and make it affordable. To complete this progress in closing the large disparities in performance, Colombia will need to take stronger steps to ensure that all students have access to high-quality education. Participation in quality ECEC would give disadvantaged children a fairer chance of success in school. Major policies, such as the full-school day and the new school performance index (ISCE), need to be designed to encourage quality improvements in the most disadvantaged and poorly performing schools. Reforms of upper secondary and tertiary education should give high priority to reducing equity gaps between regions and socio-economic groups and expanding quality provision in rural areas. With meaningful educational opportunities, disadvantaged students are more likely to stay engaged and make the most of their education.

Gathering and using data to guide improvements

Colombia has made impressive progress towards more evidence-driven policy making in education. Flagship initiatives are evaluated and the results inform further policy developments. The country has one of the strongest information systems in Latin America, and continues to invest in improving data collection and management systems. Multiple assessments, including Colombia’s pioneering external assessment in tertiary education, enable the performance of students, staff, educational institutions and the system as whole to be compared. Now the priority should be to help teachers, educational institutions and local authorities to turn this wealth of information into improvements, by using it to inform policy and practice and build societal support for reform.

Using funding instruments to steer reform

Important reforms have been made to enhance the effectiveness of resource allocation and use in Colombia. The introduction of a per-student financing formula has helped to align funding with need, though further improvements are needed to ensure all schools receive the minimum resources required to provide quality learning opportunities. A range of results-based incentive schemes have encouraged local governments, schools and teachers to focus more attention on learning outcomes. To ensure that such measures raise standards for all children, it will be important to take greater account of differing local needs, context and capacity. In the case of tertiary education, a new funding system will be indispensable for the success of the country’s ambitious reform plans. Within the education budget, allocating more resources to the initial educational cycles could improve outcomes, and reduce the inefficiencies that arise from grade repetition and students dropping out. Public education spending has been protected in the current economic slowdown. Meeting Colombia’s ambitious long-term educational goals will require at least maintaining the current levels of public spending and mobilising additional resources.

Engaging stakeholders in designing and implementing policy

A major strength of Colombia is the number and variety of actors actively involved in education. However, more could be done to harness this plurality to enrich policies and widen the technical and financial resource base for education. For instance, stronger efforts to connect schools, tertiary institutions and employers at the local level will be essential to ensuring that teaching and curricula foster the skills needed for employment and growth. Encouraging greater parental involvement in and support for education, particularly the non-compulsory years, would strengthen demand for change and help to sustain government reform efforts.