Chapter 4. Upper secondary education in Colombia

This chapter reviews Colombia’s upper secondary education (USE) system, which lasts two years and targets students aged 15 and 16 (Grades 10 and 11). After examining the key features and trends at this level, it puts the spotlight on policy solutions to ensure Colombian students acquire the skills they need for work or further learning. The chapter highlights the importance of a comprehensive approach to USE, which consolidates core skills while providing greater access to work-based learning and more effective career guidance as a means to smooth students’ transition to the labour market. It urges the need to address students’ learning gaps before they reach USE, reduce the opportunity costs of education and develop a positive school climate. The chapter also examines how Colombia can reinforce national leadership and local capacity to steer reforms and enhance the relevance of USE to the local economy.


Completion of upper secondary education (ISCED 3)1 is increasingly regarded, both in OECD countries and more widely, as the minimum required for full socio-economic participation (OECD, 2015a). Upper secondary school enables students to consolidate and deepen the core skills needed to continue to tertiary education or enter the labour market. It also contributes to a virtuous circle of higher employment rates, income generation, tax collection and investment, and of better health conditions, less crime and stronger civic engagement. Improving the quality and coverage of upper secondary education (USE) in Colombia could yield high dividends for individuals, the economy and society at large.

Upper secondary education (USE) lasts two years in Colombia and in theory serves students aged 15 and 16 (Grades 10 and 11). This places Colombia at the lower end of the spectrum; in most OECD countries the duration of USE is between three and four years and usually accommodates students until the age of 17 or 18. Enrolment is expanding steadily, although access levels and quality remain well below most OECD countries. Around 40% of young adults (25-34 year-olds) have attained an USE qualification, compared with just 16% of those aged 55-64 years old (UNESCO-UIS, 2015a; OECD, 2015b). Between 2002 and 2012, total net enrolment increased by 10 percentage points and access to USE in all public institutions was made free of charge in 2012 in a bid to further expand participation. Yet, at just 41%, net enrolment is low compared to most OECD countries, and national and international assessments suggest that students are not acquiring the skills they need for work or further learning. About 36% of 15-19 year-olds in Colombia are not in any form of formal education, more than double the OECD average of 13% (OECD, 2015b). No country can afford to exclude so many young people from its talent pool.

While the National Ministry of Education (Ministerio de Educación Nacional, MEN) has proposed reforms to USE, there is a lack of consensus on the direction of change and limited resources to support improvement. The challenge Colombia faces is how to transform a system that was created to provide access to tertiary education for a small number of students into a learning experience that meets the diverse needs of all students in a rapidly changing society and economy.

Context and main features

Policy objectives and recent developments

Colombia has significant gaps in the legislation and norms covering upper secondary education (Gómez et al., 2009; MEN, 2013a). The 1991 constitution guarantees education as a right for all Colombians and provides the legal framework for upper secondary education, as it does for all educational levels. However, USE is not yet part of compulsory education which ends with completion of lower secondary school. The constitution, and the 2001 legislation that decentralised the education system, give the state at central, departmental and municipal levels responsibility for education in all public institutions, including upper secondary schools, but do not clearly define the roles of the various actors involved, in particular the private sector. The 1994 General Education Law defined USE as the third level of formal education which should last two years and represent the consolidation and development of what has been achieved in basic education (CRECE, 2012). It lacks clarity on what distinguishes USE from basic education, in particular its role as a bridge into work, further learning and productive adult life, and has not been amended in the last 20 years to reflect new demands on USE created by rising enrolment and socio-economic developments. As a result, the majority of students, parents and teachers regard USE as an optional stage of lower secondary education, with limited distinct value and use.

Recent years have witnessed few major policy developments in the sub-sector, although many changes to basic education have also had implications for USE. Under the National Development Plan 2010-2014 (Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 2010-2014) the MEN sponsored multiple studies and consultations to understand and respond to the challenges facing USE and create a “strategic line of thought for strengthening this level of education” in collaboration with social actors (MEN, 2013a, 2014a; Box 4.1). The process, however, seems to have lost momentum. The current National Development Plan 2014-2018 (Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 2014-2018, PND) suggests a renewed, though cautious, attempt to modernise USE. Most notably, the PND proposes gradual progress towards compulsory USE by 2030. This process prioritises access to USE in rural areas. Other initiatives for the school system will affect USE, such as the extension of full-day schooling (jornada única), teacher reforms and the promotion of bilingual education (see Chapters 3 and 5). All schools that participate in the full-day school initiative are required to include Grades 10 and 11.

Box 4.1. Modernising upper secondary education in Colombia

Under the National Development Plan 2010-2014: “Prosperity for All”, the government sought to develop a new policy agenda for upper secondary education (USE), understanding its importance both for individuals’ educational careers and for national development. The government sponsored multiple studies and consultations with key social actors, such as local secretaries of education, national and international experts, the private sector, tertiary education institutions, the National Training Service, the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare, teachers, school leaders and youth. Discussions focused on a number of subjects including the curriculum, vocational orientation, funding and rural education.

As a result, the Modernisation of Upper Secondary Education (Modernización de la Educación Media) proposal was put forward, with the overarching purpose of improving the educational and social opportunities of youth. One of the most significant aspects of the proposal was the recommendation that this level of education be made compulsory and that a 12th year be added, given that students in Colombia leave formal education system at a young age and with fewer years of schooling than their peers in Latin American and OECD countries. The initiative also aimed to: 1) improve conditions to guarantee student’s access, retention and success in upper secondary school, such as through better infrastructure, teaching and learning environments and targeting specific student population groups; 2) ensure quality in upper secondary programmes by redefining learning and teaching content with a focus on four key pillars (basic competencies and social-emotional skills, practical and applied studies, civic service, and career guidance); 3) strengthen the upper secondary teaching profession through better qualifications and professional development; and 4) improve the management of this level through better co-ordination between the ministry, secretaries of education and institutions by changing the norms and legislation governing this level of education. Only some aspects of the proposal are reflected in the current National Development Plan 2014-2018, such as progressing towards making Grades 10 and 11 compulsory by 2030 and expanding access to USE in rural areas through improvements in infrastructure.

Source: MEN (2014), “Modernización de la educación media: Establece los propósitos, estrategias y orientaciones para el mejoramiento de la educación media”, unpublished document, Ministerio de Educación Nacional (Ministry of National Education), Bogotá; MEN (2015a), “OECD-Colombia education and skills accession policy review: Country background report”, Ministerio de Educación Nacional (Ministry of National Education), Bogotá.

To steer progress under the PND, the government has set targets to increase the percentage of top-performing public schools on the SABER 11 national assessments (defined as high, superior and very superior according to the SABER scale) from 33% in 2014 to 45% in 2018 and to increase gross enrolment in USE from 77% to 83% over the same period (DNP, 2015). The PND also includes initiatives to change the overall architecture of USE and improve monitoring and evaluation. However, it remains unclear how this will be done and during the review visit and subsequently, very little information has been made available on these points. Moreover, the PND is only valid until 2018 when a new government will be elected, and does not envisage the constitutional changes that would enable the far-reaching reforms that most stakeholders, including this review team, regard as necessary.

Governance and funding

While most aspects of USE governance and funding are similar to basic education, and fall under the same legislations and norms covered in Chapters 1 and 3, some distinct features require highlighting. First, the roles and responsibilities of local and school-level actors are particularly important in USE. Local secretaries of education have the legal responsibility to create USE institutions based on demand in the community and the availability of school infrastructure. While this is the case at all levels, the discretion to establish or expand schools is particularly important for a sub-sector that is still being developed and not yet compulsory. Schools, too, have additional responsibilities, notably in terms of building relations with tertiary education institutions and the productive sector. Their capacity to do this, and the ability of secretaries of education to support them, significantly affects the quality of provision and varies considerably across the country (CRECE, 2012).

Second, a wider range of stakeholders are engaged in the governance, funding and provision of USE than at the basic level. Since the 1990s, the National Training Service (Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje, SENA) has played an increasingly important role in USE, especially in rural areas, sending teachers to deliver courses in schools. SENA is part of the Ministry of Labour, and the largest provider of vocational education and training in Colombia, including tertiary-level technical and technological programmes and non-formal education known as education for work and human development (EWHD). With the introduction in 2006 of the Programme for Strengthening Technical and Technological Education (Programa de Fortalecimiento de la Educación Técnica y Tecnológica), tertiary education institutions (TEIs) have also taken on a growing role in USE, especially in delivering more vocationally oriented courses. Both SENA and tertiary education institutions have considerable autonomy in relation to national and local government and there is, as yet, no national qualification system that would help align standards and ensure mutual recognition of the skills and credits acquired by students across different institutions (see Chapter 5). The MEN has sought to create a more systematic approach to co-operation between upper secondary schools, SENA and TEIs. However, it remains largely down to each school to manage relations with the different providers, and ensure the quality, relevance and recognition of the skills taught (MEN, 2014). While increasing the diversity of providers can improve access and learning, in the absence of strategic planning and clear standards it can risk causing fragmentation, uneven quality of education, and mixed signals to students and employers.

Third, there is no national target or earmarking of allocations for USE. As with basic education, the bulk of expenditures on USE comes from the national government and is distributed through the General Participation System (Sistema General de Participaciones, SGP), a complex formula which is designed to take into account the additional costs of educating students at different levels and with different needs (see Chapter 1). According to government sources, of the COP 34.2 trillion (approximately USD 11.25 billion)2 in public spending on education in 2014/15, 10% was allocated to USE. The fact that USE is not compulsory can make it more challenging for local authorities to prioritise funds for this sub-sector, especially when the demand for investment in basic education remains considerable.

Almost all SGP funding (89% in 2009) is devoted to covering staff salaries and administrative costs (MEN, 2010). Investment in quality improvements, such as professional development for teachers, libraries and laboratories, depends largely on the availability of additional resources raised by secretaries of education and schools. The shortage of funds for quality improvement is a challenge at all levels, but it has particular implications for USE, where access to adequate equipment and opportunities for teachers to upgrade their knowledge are essential for students to reach higher standards of learning. The MEN has used national matching funds to provide incentives for local Certified Territorial Entities (Entidades Territoriales Certificadas, ETCs) (see Chapter 1) to invest in specific objectives, for example, prioritising the creation of rural USE schools. The engagement of SENA and TEIs in the provision of USE has also brought valuable additional resources to a sub-sector that by international standards appears deeply underfunded. However, evidence suggests that education infrastructure, equipment and materials in upper secondary institutions in Colombia are out of date and do not provide students with quality learning experiences, particularly in disadvantaged areas and those vulnerable to conflict (CRECE, 2012; OECD, 2013a).

Overall and per-student expenditure on USE in Colombia is far below that of most OECD countries and many other countries in Latin America. Total spending on USE from both public and private sources reached 0.6% of GDP, which is half the OECD average of 1.2% (OECD, 2014). Annual expenditure per student is 23% of GDP per capita, compared with 27% on average in OECD countries (OECD, 2014). However, in absolute terms, spending per student in Colombia was just USD 2 326 (from both public and private sources), which is much lower than the OECD average (USD 9 506), and also below Mexico which has a similar level of per capita income to Colombia but spends close to twice as much per USE student (OECD, 2014).

Private institutions are an important feature of the upper secondary landscape in Colombia, although accurate data on the level of private spending is lacking. Private enrolment accounts for about 17% of total participation (179 554 students out of 1.1 million students in 2014), and over one-quarter of upper secondary schools are private (2 802 out of 10 334 upper secondary institutions). On average, private schools have better results in SABER 11 than public schools, although their performance is more varied. These results are strongly influenced by the socio-economic profile of students in private schools, the majority of whom come from middle or high-income families. In recent years, the government has encouraged public-private partnerships to enable greater participation by disadvantaged students in private institutions. As in basic education, public funds flow to private schools through two main channels: 1) concession (concesionadas) schools, which are operated by a non-profit private organisation with autonomy to use resources, such as teachers, under the supervision of local government (127 upper secondary schools with 9 775 students); and 2) public-private contracts providing students who do not have a place in public school with a access to private institutions free of charge (641 upper secondary schools with 47 318 students). In recent years, the government has also sought to regulate tuition fees in private education based on an evaluation of the quality of the institution (MEN, 2010). However, information on fees, like other aspects of private funding, is limited.

Colombia has introduced additional measures to address the costs of access to USE for poor students. As mentioned above, in 2012, Colombia abolished school fees for USE. Since 2001, Colombia has implemented a conditional cash transfer programme, More Families in Action (Más Familias en Acción), which provides payments to the poorest families3 on the condition that families meet health and educational criteria including participation in USE. The MEN and the Colombian Institute for Student Loans and Study Abroad (Instituto Colombiano de Crédito Educativo y Estudios Técnicos en el Exterior, ICETEX) introduced the Incentive to Upper Secondary Education Fund (Fondo de Fomento de la Educación Media, FEM) in 2008 to provide disadvantaged schools (with a student population in levels SISBEN 1 and 2) with subsidies to enable disadvantaged students to access courses in tertiary institutions (MEN/ICETEX, 2011). The partnership with SENA, whose vocational courses are free of charge, has also expanded the capacity of schools to provide tuition to families that cannot cover access costs.

Learning options, curricula and certification

Upper secondary education marks the end of compulsory education and in most countries offers students their first opportunity to begin a more personalised learning trajectory and the chance to pursue new and more varied areas of interest. Colombia offers two main learning “options”: an academic (académico) option and a vocational (técnico) option. In most cases, both options are pursued in the same type of institution and students follow most of the same subjects, making the distinction more one of emphasis than separate tracks. For the majority of students dependent on the public school system, however, the actual choice available is limited. Data received from the MEN show that in 2014, around two-thirds of schools offered only general academic courses, and just 113 out of more than 7 500 offered both academic and vocational options. The schools that offer only vocational options are heavily concentrated in rural areas, where local government capacity is weak and SENA might be the only institution with the resources to provide courses at upper secondary level (CRECE, 2012; Econometría, 2012a).

Of the 1.1 million Colombia students enrolled in USE, more than three-quarters (76%) follow general programmes (OECD, 2014). The general academic programme (Bachillerato académico) lasts two years and focuses on deepening knowledge in the main areas of the arts, humanities and sciences covered by basic education. Students are also required to study economics, politics and philosophy. As in basic education, schools have the autonomy to design their own curricula under these broad areas. They can also provide additional courses, for example to meet the needs of the local community and labour market. Like many other countries, Colombia also encourages students to participate in community activities and social service in an attempt to build an understanding of ethical values and prepare students for civic participation (National Congress, 1994).

While there is no national curriculum, as for basic education the MEN has sought to provide more guidance to schools on what students should be learning during this important stage of their education career. Since 1998, the MEN has published 12 volumes of curricular guidelines for a number of subjects, including social sciences, natural sciences, mathematics and physics, which schools are not required to follow but are influential in external evaluations (MEN, 2015c). In 2003 the MEN issued competence standards for USE in literacy, mathematics, sciences, English and citizenship (MEN, 2006). These guidelines and standards provide schools with some direction on the concepts and topics students should learn in USE, though their sheer volume and number, combined with the lack of an overall curriculum framework, has contributed to a fragmented and overloaded learning agenda in many schools (see Policy Issue 1).

The 24% of students in Colombia enrolled in vocational programmes (bachillerato técnico) follow the same core subjects as those in general academic courses, while in addition taking theoretical and practical courses in more specific vocational fields (OECD, 2014). Most students choose to focus on commerce (28% of students) followed by agriculture (20%), industry (18%), pedagogy (6%) or social services (2%) (CRECE, 2012). Agriculture tends to predominate in rural regions while in urban areas students follow a wider range of courses. SENA is the largest provider of vocational courses, and is present in around half of all upper secondary schools (Econometría, 2012a). As mentioned, SENA courses are particularly important in rural areas and in specific vocations (e.g. agriculture and cattle raising, mining, industry, ecology, environment, informatics, health, recreation, tourism, and sports). Tertiary institutions offer vocational courses in around one-fifth of all upper secondary schools and are growing in importance (Econometría, 2012a).

Information on the labour market outcomes of vocational programmes is limited. However, evidence from various studies suggests that the quality of vocational courses varies considerably across schools and regions (CRECE, 2012). While individual programmes may prepare some students well for specific jobs, overall the vocational education and training (VET) option tends to cater for students with lower skills and socio-economic status. With weak employer engagement in the design and delivery of most VET programmes, and in the absence of a national qualifications framework that would facilitate a common understanding of the skills acquired during such courses, there are indications that many vocational students face considerable challenges in transitioning to formal employment or further education and training (CRECE, 2012; MEN, 2014; see Policy Issue 1).

Colombia also has some 137 Higher Teaching Schools (Escuelas Normales Superiores, ENS), 129 public and 8 private, which train future pre-primary and primary teachers. These schools offer two years of upper secondary education and two additional years, sometimes known as Grade 12 and 13, at the tertiary level. The ENS upper secondary curriculum offers the same core subjects as general and vocational programmes do, but also provide additional courses which are specific to pedagogy. Students completing the first two years of the ENS obtain an upper secondary certification with a mention of their focus on education and can continue on to the additional two years to receive the certificate of normalista superior to teach in pre-primary or primary education.

Upon successful completion of USE, students obtain a certificate of completion (bachiller), with a mention of the programme in which they specialised. Schools have the freedom to determine their own graduation requirements, and some might make additional demands, such as participation in social service/volunteering or, for students in vocational programmes, an apprenticeship or other form of labour-market experience (CRECE, 2012). Students following programmes offered by SENA and TEIs must obtain the necessary academic credits as determined by the partner USE school to graduate, but both SENA and TEIs award the final certificate. For training received through SENA, students can receive an additional certification of professional aptitude (certificado de aptitud profesional, CAP).

In theory, a certificate of completion is enough to allow a student in Colombia access to tertiary education and the labour market. However, in practice the passport to a future career in education and formal employment is the national exit exam, SABER 11. This is the main means of certifying the skills acquired by students at the end of their school life. Its results are important to policy makers, secretaries of education, employers, tertiary educational institutions and, not least, students themselves. A student’s score on SABER 11 is a critical determinant of entry to tertiary education and access to tertiary education loans, although many TEIs have additional entry requirements and some may have their own exam (see Chapter 5). In 2014, the structure of SABER 11 was changed so that its results could be comparable with other national evaluations (SABER 3, 5, 9, 11 and SABER PRO). The number of subjects was reduced from eight to five – critical reading, mathematics, natural sciences, social and civic sciences, and English – and it included open questions for the first time. In the absence of a national curriculum, and given its high stakes for students, the structure and focus of the SABER 11 has an important influence on what is taught in upper secondary schools in Colombia.

Organisation of upper secondary schools

Most public USE institutions in Colombia are part of a cluster of basic education establishments, under the authority of a single principal and co-ordinator (see Chapter 3). About 56% of upper secondary schools are in urban areas, enrolling the vast majority of students (84%). Their size varies considerably, anywhere between 16 and 550 students depending on the region. On average, rural schools tend to be significantly smaller than urban ones, with limited capacity to offer different programmes (CRECE, 2012). Under the General Education Law, completion of basic education is sufficient for entry to USE, but some schools have additional entry requirements. For example, institutions may impose a minimum or maximum age for entry or review students’ academic and disciplinary performance in basic education.

As in basic education, Colombia has developed a number of flexible education models to expand access to USE for students in rural areas or from disadvantaged groups. Among those programmes recognised by the MEN are the Rural Upper Secondary Academic Education model (Educación Media Académica Rural) which has the largest number of students (13 579 in 2014), the Continuing Education Programme (Programa de Educación Continuada, CAFAM), the Rural Education Service (Servicio de Educación Rural) and the Tutorial Learning System (Sistema de Aprendizaje Tutorial, SAT). While using different pedagogical approaches, these programmes share a common emphasis on engaging students with their local context and often use tutors from the local community. They also provide a more flexible schedule and learning environment than most traditional schools. Colombia has introduced a number of distance learning programmes, including the tele-secondary (telesecundaria), a model developed by Mexico for lower secondary education that uses television to complement classroom instruction, Let Us Change (Transformemos), and Virtual Model (modalidad virtual). While enabling greater access, evaluations have shown that flexible models tend to be of lower quality than formal schooling (CRECE, 2012). The PND proposes to promote flexible education models as an important part of national efforts to expand access and increase student retention in rural areas, alongside measures to build new infrastructure, strengthen alliances with SENA and TEIs, and expand nutrition and school transport programmes.

Given the high number of individuals who do not enter USE after lower secondary school, or who drop out before completion, Colombia has developed a range of second-chance opportunities for individuals to re-enter upper secondary school or follow courses in other institutions at an equivalent level. Many of the flexible models mentioned above are adapted to facilitate entry throughout the school year and are available to students of different ages and attainment levels. There are also dedicated initiatives, such as the Programme for Overage Youth and Adults (Programa para Jóvenes en Extraedad y Adultos), which provides a flexible timetable, including distance options, to enable young people and adults to consolidate their basic skills. Depending on students’ educational level, successful participation in the programme can validate their basic or upper secondary education, the latter enabling them to access tertiary education.

Teachers and school leaders

Upper secondary teachers account for about 20% of the total school workforce, and between 2002 and 2013 their number increased from 46 007 to 59 309 (UNESCO-UIS, 2015b). Student enrolment (39%) has risen more than the increase in teachers (30%), and class sizes have, on average, grown, from 20.5 to 22.7 in 2013 (UNESCO-UIS, 2015b). Rural areas have a lower student-teacher ratio on average (18.7) than urban areas (23.7), while vocational upper secondary programmes have a higher ratio (23.4) than the general academic pathway (14.9) (CRECE, 2012). On average across OECD countries, public upper secondary schools have a student teacher ratio of 13 (OECD, 2014).

Colombia’s upper secondary teaching profession is subject to the same policies as the basic education workforce (see Chapter 3) and faces similar challenges, although in some respects they are more pronounced. As in lower secondary education, upper secondary teachers are required to hold a bachelor’s degree (ISCED 6), and in 2013 98% of upper secondary teachers were considered qualified. Across OECD countries, most upper secondary teachers are required to have a master’s degree, although both Chile and Mexico require only a bachelor’s degree. Many OECD countries, such as England (United Kingdom) and Korea, also offer specific courses and a teaching practicum to prepare teachers for this level (OECD, 2014). However, in Colombia there are no requirements for upper secondary teachers to have specific training or professional development activities that would prepare them to engage with the particular needs and learning goals of students at this age. In terms of preparedness and skills, upper secondary teachers are interchangeable with those in lower secondary education and in many schools they switch between the various grades of secondary education, though specialised subjects are usually taught by an upper secondary teacher. In many countries across the OECD, upper secondary teachers are paid more than those in basic education; this is not the case in Colombia, where they have the same status in legislation as lower secondary teachers.

In Colombia there are no specific requirements on the skills or experience teachers and trainers need in order to provide vocational courses, although some institutions might set their own standards. Evidence suggests that in the absence of clear qualification requirements many vocational teachers and trainers lack core pedagogical skills and vocational knowledge (CRECE, 2012). SENA institutions set clearer standards. SENA trainers are required to have a higher level of knowledge and skills than those of the course they will teach, in addition to possessing pedagogical skills. All must have participated in at least 140 hours of teacher education. They also need to have a minimum of six months to one year of experience in their occupational area, as well as six months of experience as a teacher. SENA has a national school for preparing and updating the knowledge of its instructors, which partly uses distance learning. It also maintains a bank of instructors comprising SENA graduates who were outstanding in their field. Instructors’ performance is appraised and their skills and competencies are duly certified. The MEN does not regulate SENA in any of these respects.

A key person in any school is the school leader. Given the system of school clusters, it is common for the same school leader to oversee both basic and upper secondary education in Colombia, with the support of co-ordinators (CRECE, 2012). School leaders are responsible for developing the upper secondary learning options and curriculum. They are selected by merit contests and receive very limited training once selected, which is mostly theoretical and concentrates on legislation and formal matters. There is no regulation to define the profile and skills required by a school leader in either USE or basic education, and the training they receive does not foster pedagogical leadership or the type of skills that upper secondary school principals require, such as how to build relationships with tertiary and training institutions and the local labour market (Weinstein, Hernández and Muñoz, 2014; see Chapter 3).

Career guidance officers and counsellors are also important in USE, providing support to students navigating the many questions that arise during these transitional years. Such staff and services appear limited in most upper secondary schools in Colombia, although reliable national data are lacking, and there is no clear framework or standards for guidance counselling, as exist in many countries (CRECE, 2012). During the review visit, it was reported that there is approximately 1 counsellor per 10 000 students, which suggests a significant need in schools for trained staff to guide students during USE and towards future opportunities. In 2006, Colombia launched the Looking for a Profession? (Buscando Carrera?) initiative as part of the broader campaign, Mobilising Demand in Tertiary Education (Movilización de la Demanda), to improve transition to and participation in tertiary education. The initiative provides students with access to a website that offers guidance on four key stages: looking for a career, in a career, starting work and looking for a post-secondary education.

Trends in key education indicators

Access and participation

The share of Colombian students entering USE has steadily increased since 2000, yet enrolment rates remain low and a large share of students are over age. Between 2002 and 2012, the net enrolment rate4 rose from 30% to 41% (UNESCO-UIS, 2015b and Figure 4.1). A series of measures, from the provision of free public schooling to major investments in infrastructure and education resources, have enabled this increase in secondary education coverage. Most students in USE are between 15 and 16 years-old (54%) although 7% are under 15 and 38% are 17 or older (MEN, 2014). Colombia’s gross upper secondary education enrolment rate in 2012 (76%) was higher than Mexico’s (62%), close to Costa Rica’s (79%) and lower than the OECD average (106%), the United States (90%), Germany (105%), and France (114%) (UNESCO-UIS, 2015b). Late entry to education and high rates of grade repetition are major factors behind the difference between net and gross enrolment, contributing to a large number of over-age students in Colombia and a challenging teaching and learning environment.

Figure 4.1. Upper secondary enrolment in Colombia (2002-12)

Note: Net enrolment rate refers to students who are of the expected school age in upper secondary education while gross enrolment rate refers to all students who are in upper secondary education regardless of age.

Source: MEN (2015b), “Estadísticas sectoriales de educación básica y media”, Ministerio de Educación Nacional (Ministry of National Education) website,

There are stark differences in enrolment rates across regions, socio-economic levels and genders in Colombia. While the net enrolment gap between urban and rural areas has decreased by 7 percentage points between 2010 and 2013, just 26% of rural students were enrolled in upper secondary education in 2013 compared to 48% in urban areas (DNP, 2015). In 2012 net enrolment rates ranged from 52% in Bogotá and 48% in Boyacá, to just 9% in Vaupés and 8% in Guainía (MEN, 2015b). These differences in enrolment reflect major differences in the pace of expansion across different departments in the past decade: while net enrolment in Casanare rose by 28 percentage points, in Guainía participation grew by just under 3 percentage points (MEN, 2015b). Across socio-economic status, enrolment in USE is dominated by students from higher economic levels. In Colombia, as in many Latin American countries, gender disparities in USE favour female students (UNESCO-UIS, 2015b). Girls accounted for 54% of total gross enrolment in 2012, compared to 46% for males (UNESCO-UIS, 2015b).

In Colombia, a significant proportion of students combine work and study. Despite labour legislation limiting employment for those under the age of 18, 12% of 15-19 year-olds were studying and working in 2013 (OECD, 2015b). The opportunity costs of USE are high for students from low-income families, and the informal labour market a constant attraction. The government has introduced a range of policies to facilitate enrolment for students from disadvantaged families, improve the relevance of USE and, where necessary, help students continue their education whilst working. However, the 2010 National Dropout Survey identified financial pressures and the low perceived value of USE among the major factors behind students dropping out (MEN, 2013a).

Dropping out is a chronic problem in Colombia after primary school. The weakest point in the education system is the transition from primary to lower secondary education, when a large number of students, particularly in rural areas, start to leave the education system, but it continues until the end of USE (MEN, n.d.; UNC, 2010 and Figure 4.2). In 2013 approximately 437 782 youth who should have been in USE were not (MEN, 2014). In rural areas, the share of students falling out of the education system is significant, with only 57% making it to Grade 10 and less than half (48%) completing USE. In urban areas, about 82% of students complete USE (MEN, n.d.). The forces drawing students out of the classroom are multiple and complex, and vary across regions and between rural and urban areas. Alongside high opportunity costs, factors that play a particularly important role at the upper secondary level include teenage pregnancy, violence (inside and outside the classroom) and distance to school.

Figure 4.2. Survival rates of a cohort of Colombian students, by age and location

Source: MEN (n.d.), “La deserción escolar”, unpublished document, Ministerio de Educación Nacional (Ministry of National Education), Bogotá,

Student performance

The majority of students entering USE in Colombia have weak basic skills, and despite progress in raising achievement levels there are signs that the majority of students leave secondary school poorly prepared for either work or tertiary education. Results from the national SABER 9 exam suggest that one-quarter of students in Grade 9, the last year of lower secondary, were performing poorly in 2014 and had not acquired basic competencies in mathematics, literacy and citizenship (MEN, data provided by authorities). Results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2012 show that by international standards, 74% of 15-year-old students in Colombia (which includes students across Grades 8 to 11) achieved below level 2 in mathematics – the baseline level of skills required for productive participation in society (see Annex 1.A1 in Chapter 1). This demonstrates the challenges upper secondary schools face to make up for the weak learning foundations provided by basic education.

National learning outcomes mask significant disparities across regions, socio-economic groups and school type – factors that often overlap. Figure 1.6 in Chapter 1 gives the breakdown of SABER 11 results by region. The results of SABER 11 indicate that students in private schools, who for the most part come from upper-income families, perform much better than their peers in public schools, who tend to come from lower socio-economic levels. In 2013, 68% of students in private schools performed above average (levels high, superior and very superior), compared to 32% of students in public schools; 32% of students in public schools performed below standard (levels low and inferior) compared with 16% in private schools. An analysis of SABER 11 results showed that, in urban areas, students who participate in SENA or TEI partnerships perform significantly more poorly than their peers in the general academic option or a vocational school without partnerships, while the differences are either not significant or slightly favourable to those under a partnership in rural areas (Econometría, 2012a). The smaller differences observed in rural areas, where students are likely to come from poorer backgrounds, might be explained by the high incentives SENA programmes offer to students through access to free tertiary education.

Despite poor learning outcomes, USE provides an important gateway to tertiary education and formal employment. According to government data about one in three public school students (29%) transitioned from USE to tertiary education in 2014. A survey of students in partnership schools with SENA or TEI programmes found that some 45% of urban and 43% of rural graduates from these programmes continued to technical institutes, which was more than their peers in the control group (39% and 37%, respectively). Rural graduates from SENA or TEI programmes were also more likely to continue to universities (21%) compared to the control group (13%), although urban graduates from these programmes continued to universities at a lower rate (28%) than the control group (32%) (Econometría, 2012a). Data on the labour market outcomes of USE are limited. Results from the 2011 Large Integrated Household Survey (Gran Encuesta Integrada de Hogares, GEIH) indicate that individuals whose highest level of educational attainment is USE earned 45% more than those with only basic education. This gap falls to 18% when only individuals in formal employment are taken into account, however, and the wage premium of USE is lower in rural areas (Econometría, 2012b).

Key policy issues

Upper secondary schooling in Colombia faces the double challenge of significantly expanding access while transforming the quality and relevance of education provided. A series of comprehensive diagnostic studies carried out in recent years at the request of the government have urged major reform to meet the aspirations of Colombia’s students and the needs of the country. The three main reform priorities identified by the MEN are: 1) improving the quality of upper secondary education to make it more relevant to students, society and the labour market; 2) moving progressively, and equitably, towards universal access and completion; and 3) building capacity at all levels to deliver this transformation (MEN, 2014). The OECD endorses these priorities. The overarching challenge is how to shift a system built to prepare a minority of students for university towards an inclusive system that responds to diverse student aspirations and capabilities and offers every young person in Colombia the chance of success in his or her chosen path in school and beyond.

Policy issue 1: Improving quality and relevance

The definition of the role of upper secondary education in Colombia, as stated in the General Law of Education and its subsequent revisions, is widely considered to be both vague and not distinct enough from basic education to guide learning in these formative years (Nieto et al., 2013). As a result, students and their parents lack a clear understanding of why they should enrol; teachers and principals are given little direction as to what sort of knowledge, skills and values should be fostered; and it is hard for tertiary education institutions and employers to know what they can or should expect of upper secondary graduates. This section analyses some of the principal considerations that should be taken into account as Colombia moves forward to clarify the purpose and structure of USE. The expansion of vocational and technical courses at upper secondary level provides students with more options but a comprehensive upper secondary system will still be needed to enable all students to consolidate their core skills, including strong levels of literacy and numeracy. This section examines how more practical and work-related courses can be offered to improve employability, without risking the development of a technical track that is seen as second best or a dead end. It also examines the additional factors – certification, career guidance and labour-market demand, training and legislation – that enable upper secondary school to provide an effective bridge for students to pass smoothly either into the world of work or into tertiary education.

Setting expectations for teaching and learning

This review has identified the lack of clear national learning standards as an obstacle to improving schools in Colombia and highlights the benefits a national curriculum framework could bring in terms of enhancing the equity and quality of student outcomes (see Chapter 3). These findings apply to every level of the school system, but have specific implications for USE, which faces several distinct challenges with respect to the effectiveness of teaching and learning practices.

First, successive attempts to modernise the content of USE have resulted in a great number of requirements that schools are now expected to fulfil when formulating their own curricula (ten compulsory subjects, five transversal projects, a range of key competences, entrepreneurial skills…). These requirements are often vaguely defined and poorly linked, leaving teachers with little structured guidance over how to steer a very diverse group of students towards higher levels of attainment within the space of two years (Qualificar, 2012). As a consequence, students often face a package of disconnected courses that are not really different from basic education and have little depth or applied focus (Qualificar, 2012). Any future reform to USE will need to ensure that the curriculum is not overloaded with subjects and that it provides adequate time and guidance to develop the core cognitive and non-cognitive skills that best prepare students for success in education and employment. This includes foundational skills like literacy and numeracy, which are often weakly developed among students entering USE in Colombia, as well as those skills that are recognised as important in 21st century economies, such as self-directed learning, problem solving and critical thinking.

Second, in the absence of a national curriculum framework, the central standardised examination to enter higher education (SABER 11) is very influential on school curricula. While this is also the case with national assessments in basic education (SABER 3, 5 and 9), the influence of SABER 11 is greater because the stakes are much higher for both students and schools. International evidence shows that high-stakes examinations are likely to focus teaching and learning on the skills assessed and narrow the curricula offered by schools (OECD, 2013a). In Colombia, SABER 11 may have had a positive influence in focusing teaching on a common set of learning standards and reducing curricular fragmentation by assessing core competencies across five core domains. However, the risk is that students are not being encouraged to develop other important skills and values that are needed for life and work, particularly given SABER 11’s primary role as gatekeeper to higher education. A national curriculum framework could help to ensure that students complete school with the range of skills and values needed for full social and economic participation, and also guide the future development of SABER 11 so that what is assessed at the end of USE reflects national learning goals.

The third issue is the extent to which the curriculum and teaching practices engage with adolescents’ interests and the ways in which they learn. The evidence highlights the importance of student-centred approaches that enable learners to feel autonomous and engages them actively in problem-solving exercises with real-life applications (Dumont, Istance and Benavides, 2010). What is taught in Colombia is far removed from students’ everyday lives, with issues that matter to them seldom discussed or integrated into the teaching of core subjects (Qualificar, 2012). This disconnect is compounded by the limited training that teachers receive on how to address the specific needs of adolescents or to manage their behaviour in the classroom. Teaching in USE continues to focus on the transmission of knowledge through rote memorisation. Teacher-centred instruction prevails and few schools in Colombia work on projects, have practical assignments or field trips, or promote activities connected to students’ interests or those of the local community (Qualificar, 2012; CRECE, 2012). This is partly due to a lack of financial and material resources in schools, but also because teaching policies have failed to give sufficient attention to student-centred instruction styles (see Policy Issue 1 in Chapter 3). Upper secondary teachers generally follow the same initial and in-service training as those in lower secondary; they have few opportunities to acquire the rather different skills needed to teach teenagers. Addressing these weaknesses in teacher education and training will be central in implementing an upper secondary curriculum that sets high standards for learning, engages adolescents in school and is relevant to Colombian students and the society in which they live.

Consolidating core skills and developing employability

One central question countries face when organising upper secondary schooling is the degree of differentiation between general and vocational education. Practice varies considerably across OECD countries over when students have to choose between programmes, how this choice is made, and whether this choice is offered by one comprehensive school providing a variety of tracks, or by separate general and vocational schools, each with quite distinct programmes (OECD, 2010; Sahlberg, 2007). The nature of such differentiation is often shaped as much by historical tradition as intentional design. What matters most, regardless of organisational structure, is that all students acquire the range of skills required for full social and economic participation; that vocational programmes are not a low-quality choice for low achievers linked to poor-quality jobs, but provide access to continued learning and decent work; and that, recognising that students change and develop, all tracks are as permeable as possible, allowing students to shift to more suitable tracks, and avoiding dead ends that cut off opportunities for further education and training.

At present, the majority of USE students in Colombia follow general academic programmes. However, in recent years the expansion of vocational programmes has been emphasised, through partnerships with SENA and tertiary education institutions. While this has provided a diverse student population with more options, there is a risk that, without a common curriculum and a national qualifications framework, students pursuing more vocational options will not acquire the core skills they need to continue learning. This could be a barrier both to career development and entry into tertiary education. As the expansion of vocational options seems likely to continue, it will be important to make sure that this is part of a comprehensive approach and does not evolve into a parallel, poor-quality system.

A comprehensive approach to consolidating core skills

In a comprehensive upper secondary school system students generally receive a common core curriculum but have opportunities to deepen their knowledge in elective academic or vocational subjects. In such a system, pathways are not strongly differentiated and students retain the option to access either more academic forms of post-secondary education or vocational post-secondary programmes. Students’ lack of basic skills on entering USE in Colombia, their age, the changing needs of the labour market and the resource constraints facing the education sector, all suggest that Colombia would benefit from pursuing such a comprehensive approach.

When students in Colombia enter USE, they have normally spent less time in school and have much lower levels of skills than their counterparts in OECD countries (see Figure 1.4 in Chapter 1). As covered above, PISA 2012 found that 74% of 15-year-olds in Colombia performed below the level often regarded as the minimum needed for full socio-economic participation. For most of these students, USE will be the last chance they have to consolidate the core academic skills that are key not only to their progress into tertiary education but also to their immediate job prospects and career advancement. According to the World Bank Enterprise Survey, about 45% of Colombian firms believed that an inadequately educated workforce was a major constraint on their operations in 2010, a greater share than in Chile (41%) and Mexico (31%) (World Bank, 2015). Employer surveys show that the skills most in demand in the Colombian workplace are strong basic cognitive skills, coupled with essential non-cognitive skills (critical thinking, problem solving and communication) and social and emotional skills (persistence, self-control and the ability to interact well with others) (Cunningham and Villaseñor, 2014). Such core skills, rather than narrow technical ones, are not only valued in the current labour market, they will also help students adapt better to the significant structural and technological changes that Colombia will undergo during its economic emergence and provide better job opportunities over the longer term (Smits, 2007).

In Colombia, there are no formal mechanisms to assess the talents, aptitudes and vocations of students prior to enrolment in USE and students receive no or only limited guidance on the options available (Nieto et al., 2013). Instead, the programme a student eventually attends is heavily shaped by their location, background and financial means. Countries with clearly separated general and vocational education options have to pay particular attention to ensuring that the latter is not seen as second best and a dead end that does not lead to further education and training. In Colombia, the local authorities often have limited resources and the region may have only a weak business, or productive, sector. Local authorities may therefore struggle to develop two separate strong general and vocational options whilst also ensuring that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are not being tracked away from a path that may lead to better prospects. A recent review of Indonesia, which faces many similar constraints to Colombia in terms of poor basic skills, weak local capacity and low employer support for training, highlights the challenges of trying to develop a dual-track system, in particular the difficulties of recruiting well-qualified trainers and improving the status of vocational programmes (OECD/ADB, 2015). A comprehensive approach in Colombia could avoid further exacerbating socio-economic differences, while still providing an introduction to the world of work and preparing students for further vocational or technical education programmes.

A comprehensive approach to USE does not mean that there is no space for practical courses that offer an introduction to the workplace and working life. In Colombia, where general academic courses are often weakly defined and have little applied focus, vocational courses can offer a valuable means of keeping students engaged in the school system, improving their performance and helping them make the transition into employment (Econometría, 2012a). Vocational courses might cover practical matters – such as business management, the use of hand tools or computing skills – or have a sectoral focus (agriculture, health) but can be provided as modular elements in a broadly comprehensive curriculum, rather than as separate full-time programmes designed to provide an in-depth vocational specialisation. Within such a comprehensive approach, occupationally-targeted vocational education and training would be postponed to the post-secondary level, recognising that in Colombia that level may begin as early as the age of 16. This is a broadly similar approach to that used in the United States, with most (upper secondary) high schools offering comprehensive education but with some modular provision of practical training, while occupationally-targeted training is undertaken in community colleges, private providers and universities.

Expanding work-based learning opportunities to improve employability

The majority of vocational courses offered to upper secondary students in Colombia are provided by tertiary institutions and SENA. This has enabled Colombia to diversify the programmes offered by schools which previously had struggled to provide vocational options because of the lack of specialised teachers and other resource constraints (Nieto et al., 2013). However, there are indications that such partnerships could be better designed to strengthen student employability. As discussed in Chapter 5, tertiary education institutions, in particular, have only weak links to businesses and employers and the labour-market value of many tertiary vocational programmes has been shown to be limited. Staff and courses for tertiary students are trained and designed with little to no involvement of employers. Moreover, both SENA and tertiary institutions have considerable autonomy, and the mechanisms for ensuring the quality of technical and vocational programmes are weak. This is a concern given the limited capacity of local governments and schools in Colombia to assess the quality of programme providers and the absence of any information on the labour-market outcomes of secondary-level vocational courses. The risk that tertiary institutions and SENA might use their presence in schools to secure enrolment in their programmes has also been noted (Qualificar, 2012).

A review of upper secondary vocational programmes in OECD programmes points to measures Colombia could take to improve the quality and relevance of vocational courses (OECD, 2010). One effective means of enhancing USE is through workplace experience, which may or may not be linked to vocational courses, and is also valuable for those choosing more academic options. In the context of the proposed comprehensive system, such experience could take many forms, but might include visits to workplaces, work shadowing of a week or so or more substantive internships, and summer work placements, particularly for those pursuing particular vocational courses who have a clear career in mind. Such experiences can serve multiple functions, but in most cases their role within a comprehensive system is to educate students about the world of work and how it operates, and provide them with practical knowledge and experience that may guide their ultimate career choices.

At present, the provision of work placements in Colombia is left to the initiative of schools and there is evidence that few of them actually provide students with such opportunities (Qualificar, 2012). Given the large informal economy, there are likely to be fewer opportunities for more substantial apprenticeships and internships than in many OECD countries. However more could be done to encourage and enable local employers, including small and medium-sized companies, to offer students experience in the workplace. The National Federation of Coffee Growers is one successful example of an important industry in Colombia helping to build partnerships between schools and small local producers to develop vocational courses that both deepen core skills and provide opportunities to apply this knowledge in real work situations. Any move towards a greater use of apprenticeships would require a stronger regulatory framework including the establishment of quality standards, and care is needed to ensure that any more substantial unpaid work placements are not exploitative – trainees’ contributions to the workplace must be balanced by learning opportunities. Regulation of work-based learning needs to balance the need for placements that will be useful to students with the need to offer visible benefits to the employer concerned (OECD, 2010).

Smoothing the transition to further education and the labour market

The quality and relevance of USE is closely related to what students can make of it afterwards. If USE is to provide an effective bridge to further education and the labour market then the right mechanisms need to be in place to help students make this transition. In Colombia, improvements in assessment and certification would help to ensure that what students learn in USE is recognised by tertiary institutions and employers. Adequate career guidance, buttressed by more practical experience of the word of work, could raise students’ aspirations and help them make the right choices. Many Colombian USE students are as young as 15 or 16 years old when they graduate. As they are often the first in their family to progress beyond basic schooling, they may lack guidance at home, and/or experience home pressures (including financial pressures) that limit their career choices. The Colombian labour market also presents obstacles to employment, with high levels of informality and limited training opportunities. Addressing these labour-market challenges would help to make USE more meaningful to students and more valuable to the economy.

Assessing and certifying learning

Colombian students are not required to take a central external examination to graduate from USE. But in practice many undertake the well-established SABER 11 examination, used since 1968 and currently employed by more than 70% of higher education institutions to facilitate admission (ICFES, 2013). Given the high stakes associated with the examination, it needs to be well-designed and fair. From a technical standpoint, SABER 11 has continuously been improved to increase its reliability and validity and to align the examination with international good practice (ICFES, 2013). But, as noted above, national learning standards are needed to provide a counterweight to its inevitable influence on the upper secondary curriculum. Measures are also required to ensure that students in Colombia approach this examination on a more equal footing, as the inequity in education quality observed from the early years and throughout basic schooling continues in USE. Students who can afford to attend preparatory courses, practise sitting exams or attend schools that offer an additional year to prepare for SABER 11, clearly stand a better chance of success. While addressing these inequities requires system-wide reform, there are measures that could be taken at the upper secondary level to mitigate their influence on performance in SABER 11. For example, prioritising the full-school day and remedial after-school programmes for disadvantaged students would help them make up for lost ground. In addition, in view of the market for tutoring that has, inevitably, grown up around SABER 11, the ICFES could realise more transparency and fairness by providing full information on the content to be assessed, the structure of the exam and types of questions asked, and previous exams and answers. These steps would help to ensure that all students are equally familiar with the examination. While publishing previous exams might make test development more costly and affect comparisons across years, it would benefit the primary objective of SABER 11 which is to assess student learning outcomes.

Better ways are also needed to assess and certify skills acquired by students who pursue vocational courses. At present, this is decided by the individual partner institutions providing them and there are no mechanisms to establish consistency in assessment methods and thereby to ensure that all those with a qualification have the same mix of competences at a similar level. This puts students at risk of poor-quality provision and makes it difficult for employers and tertiary institutions to judge their skills. Colombia also lacks a system for credit recognition and transfer, which would allow skills acquired in upper secondary vocational courses to be recognised by other training or tertiary institutions. For instance, students who follow a course at a school linked with SENA might only have their learning recognised if they pursue related studies in the latter.

The government is in the process of developing a national qualifications and credit transfer system (see Chapter 5), and some local governments have already taken steps in this direction. Bogotá, for example, has established agreements to ensure that all tertiary institutions that participate in partnerships with secondary schools have their credits recognised by all other institutions, not just the one delivering the training. A well-designed qualifications and credit transfer system, with adequate engagement by employers, can raise standards, help students progress to higher levels of learning, and improve transition to the labour market (OECD, 2010). Such systems could also help to facilitate the re-entry into upper secondary of the large number of students who drop out of the education system and enable the recognition of skills they may have acquired in the workplace.

Providing effective guidance and counselling

The availability of career guidance is a central component of quality USE. Colombia does not have a clear policy on how to guide students on further educational and labour-market opportunities (Nieto et al., 2013). The education system offers limited mechanisms to help students better understand their interests, aptitudes and objectives and provide advice on the prospects and learning opportunities available. The review team was informed that there might be as few as 1 counsellor for every 10 000 students and these individuals might be responsible for a wide range of issues including the very different exercise of psychological counselling. There is greater access to online support in navigating post-secondary education, with the recent development of a series of nationwide information sources (e.g. Buscando Carrera, OLE, MIDE, and see Chapter 5). However, their value to students is limited by their inaccessibility, lack of user-friendliness and the fact that they require students to already have a good understanding of the options available to them. The application process for tertiary education is particularly difficult for students to navigate (see Chapter 5).

It will be important for Colombia to provide more guidance to students on what jobs, training or tertiary courses could match their skills and interests, how they can maximise their chances of being accepted to the programmes of their choice, and what options are available to them to overcome financial constraints. Without guidance and complete information, students tend to rely on informal sources of guidance such as relatives or friends and thus confine their choices to familiar experiences. Career guidance can open up new horizons, which can be particularly beneficial for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and help those on the verge of dropping out to find meaningful reasons for staying in school. The costs of wrong choices can prove very high, both financially and in terms of unmet potential and thwarted aspirations.

Career guidance and counselling is considered an essential part of secondary education in OECD countries (OECD, 2004). As providing individual guidance can be costly, most OECD countries include mandatory career education programmes in the curriculum. The content of such programmes can vary, from providing an introduction to the world of work to developing self-awareness and the ability to manage transitions. There is also variation in delivery, from a stand-alone course to content that is integrated within a broader personal development course or across all subjects. Several authorities, such as those in Germany and Scotland (United Kingdom), have established specialised career guidance agencies outside schools to provide more reliable and objective access to information on labour-market opportunities and to counter the potential bias towards academic options from school teachers and psychologists (OECD, 2010). There is also an increasing use of innovative platforms to widen access to career guidance on a more cost-effective basis, such as the development of self-assessment tools and the creation of open access resource centres.

Bridging the gap between schools and the world of work is essential to help students make the right choices. There is much that Colombia can do at the school, municipal and departmental level to facilitate direct contact between students and employers, either through work placements by students or through employer visits to schools, so that students can see with their own eyes, and hear from those directly involved, about different jobs and career choices. In addition, labour-market information systems, which play an important role in most OECD countries to ensure that career guidance is well supported by evidence, need to be strengthened. There is limited information on local training and employment options and on the labour-market outcomes of those who opt to go straight into work upon graduating from USE. The information is spread across different surveys and aggregated at a level which does not provide students with easily accessible and usable information.

Enhancing employment opportunities

Several obstacles outside the education system in Colombia need to be addressed if upper secondary graduates are to transition successfully from school to the labour market. These include the high level of labour-market informality, gaps in legislation between the labour and education sectors, and limited access to post-secondary training and second-chance opportunities. While beyond the main scope of this study, these challenges need to be highlighted as they will influence efforts to increase participation and completion of USE.

Labour-market data, though limited, suggest that there are only a small number of vacancies for upper secondary graduates in the formal economy compared to those with more qualifications. Upper secondary graduates typically end up in low-paid low-skill positions (MEN, 2014). This underscores the importance of engaging employers not only in the design of vocational courses, but more broadly in shaping the overall strategy for the expansion of USE. It also points to the need to connect plans for the roll out of compulsory education with measures to reduce levels of informality and strengthen economic activity. This is particularly important in rural and post-conflict areas where participation in USE can be less than 10% and is unlikely to increase significantly unless combined with better labour-market opportunities.

A second challenge is the mismatch between labour and education legislation that makes it harder for upper secondary graduates to enter the formal economy. Students who have not repeated a grade complete USE at 16 or 17 years-old in Colombia but labour legislation delays entry into the labour market until 18, or 16 with written parental permission (Nieto et al., 2013). Unless students can access training opportunities, or attend a school that offers an additional year of education – which several studies have recommended to smooth the transition to further education and work (Gómez et al., 2009) – they will have limited opportunities to enter the formal economy, and face strong pressures to join the informal economy.

High dropout rates as well as uncertain and uneven quality in basic and USE hamper transition from school to work and point to the importance of second-chance opportunities for those who have dropped out. Post-secondary Vocational Education Training could act as a means of bridging the gap between comprehensive education and specific jobs and careers. Flexible modes of study, with part-time, evening and modular provision, that allow students to combine work and study and provide them with holistic support (e.g. psychological, financial and career guidance) could be strengthened to encourage young people to remain in some form of education or training even if they are also working in the informal economy, and promote the return of others. These programmes are of particular importance for the many youth who are engaged in the conflict and need to be reintegrated into society as the country transitions towards peace.

Improvements in post-secondary VET are also needed to allow those emerging from comprehensive USE at the age of 16 or 17 to receive specialised training preparing them for particular occupations or careers from age 18. The government has recognised that the Education for Work and Human Development (EWHD) sector faces many challenges, including lack of employer engagement, limited status and recognition, a proliferation of programmes, weak quality assurance, and inadequate links to the formal education system (MEN, 2015a). Tackling these challenges will be important to ensure that investment in additional schooling leads to improvements in productivity and economic growth.

Policy issue 2: Making progress towards universal access and completion

The commitment to make USE compulsory by 2030 is an important step towards expanding participation. Yet, as many OECD countries that have enacted similar measures have found, raising the compulsory age of schooling does not in itself guarantee universal attendance and completion (OECD, 2012). Additional measures will be required to encourage and enable more students in Colombia to attain an USE. These policies will need to address the demand and supply-side factors that currently prevent many students from continuing beyond basic education or mean they drop out of USE before graduation. They must pay particular attention to rural areas, where the obstacles to participation are especially high, and place the quality of learning front and centre if students are to remain engaged and see the benefits of completing. Colombia faces a steep path to universal upper secondary attainment. However, the experience of OECD countries such as Finland and Korea shows that with the right policies it is possible to rapidly increase participation while building high-performing school systems. In a more global knowledge-based economy, Colombia faces strong imperatives to move in this direction but would also potentially benefit from high returns.

Removing the barriers to student enrolment and completion

Many factors influence a young person’s decision to enrol in USE. In Colombia, surveys show that questions of access, cost and perceived value are central and closely related (Sarmiento, 2015). The steps that Colombia is taking to make participation in USE compulsory and free, and to introduce targeted financial incentives for students from very poor families, are therefore welcome. It will be equally important to address learning gaps early on, smooth the transition from lower to upper secondary education, support students at risk of dropping out and foster a positive school climate in order to increase student engagement.

Addressing learning gaps early on and supporting those at risk of dropping out

Progress towards universal access and completion of USE in Colombia will significantly depend on improvements in pre-school and basic education. As shown in Figure 4.2, high grade-repetition and dropout rates represent a significant bottleneck to higher attainment rates in Colombia, particularly in rural areas. If all students were in the grades corresponding to their age, about 80% of Colombians would be enrolled in USE but 46% of students aged 15 and 16 are still enrolled in lower secondary education (Econometría, 2012b). This not only increases costs, it also makes effective learning more difficult, and prevents students from progressively acquiring higher skills.

Academic failure and dropping out do not happen overnight. They tend to be the result of a long process of disengagement that can be prevented through early interventions to support students who are falling behind or at particular risk of leaving school. Previous chapters of this report have suggested ways to facilitate learning progression and transition throughout the school system (see Policy Issue 1 in Chapter 3). In addition, there needs to be more contact between teachers across education levels to anticipate and address student needs. The cluster system is supposed to facilitate such collaboration, but not enough use is made of it in this way. Second, teachers need information on individual students’ performance to better track and support their progress throughout the school system. This can also provide the basis for constructive dialogue on students’ learning options as they enter USE, and the modules that may best suit their interests and abilities. In many OECD countries, teachers meet with students and their parents towards the end of lower secondary education to discuss their future learning pathway. Finally, increased efforts should be made to enrol students in school on time and avoid grade repetition to ensure the majority of learners are in an age-appropriate grade. This is particularly important in Grade 10, where low performance might be related to difficulties in adjusting to the new upper secondary environment and any need to repeat a grade might lead to students dropping out. These are all measures that would bring significant benefits in terms of student participation and achievement in USE.

Making attendance affordable and reducing opportunity costs

The high costs of attending USE can deter students from low income families. The abolition of school fees for USE in 2012 has been recognised as a positive step towards reducing some of the costs of participation. Prior to their abolition, school fees were common and much higher than for basic education, creating an obstacle to enrolment for those from low income groups (Gómez et al., 2009). However, the abolition of fees alone is unlikely to be sufficient to ensure access for the poorest students. An evaluation of an earlier initiative to reduce school fees in Bogotá shows that enrolment did not increase significantly for students from the lowest-income families (SISBEN 1), though it did improve (by 6%) for students from the second poorest group (SISBEN 2) (Barrera-Osorio et al., 2007). This suggests that additional measures will be required to address the financial barriers the most disadvantaged students still face, in particular the high opportunity costs of lost income, and other indirect expenses such as school supplies, uniforms and transport costs.

The cash transfer programme Más Familias en Acción (More Families in Action), which is conditional on school attendance, has proved to be an important instrument to reduce poverty and encourage access to education and other social services for poor families with children between 5 and 18 years old (OECD, 2015e; see Box 1.3 in Chapter 1). Evaluations of the programme have shown some positive results in increasing school attendance and have informed further refinements over the years, including the increase in 2013 of allocations for those in Grade 11 in the poorest regions. Further differentiation could enhance the positive impact of the programme on upper secondary enrolment and completion. The OECD Labour Market, Social and Migrant Policy Accession Review of Colombia recommended raising the amount for those with higher opportunity costs of staying in education and differentiating payment rates by income groups or other living standards (OECD, 2015e). A more differentiated approach could account for the fact that the effects of the programme in urban areas are lower than in rural areas as young people have access to better-paid jobs. Another potential improvement could be to make some payment conditional on indicators of student achievement. Más Familias en Acción already requires school attendance and has a two-year limit on grade repetition, but incentives to promote student performance or completion could be introduced. The potential effects of these changes, however, need to be balanced against the main policy objective of the programme, which is to alleviate poverty.

Fostering a positive school climate

Adolescence is a period in which students experience important biological, physiological and social changes and are more exposed to factors that can lead to anti-social and risky behaviour. Gangs, drugs, bullying and adolescent pregnancy are prevalent in many Colombian schools and have been well documented (Alzate, 2014). A particular concern is the relatively high levels of violence students experience inside and outside schools. This is a common phenomenon in Latin American countries and has a negative effect on student engagement and performance (Roman and Murillo, 2011). School violence fuels a vicious circle with a far-reaching impact (Chaux, 2013). Victims are more likely to become disengaged from education, with long-lasting effects of higher levels of anxiety and depression. Aggressors tend to be poorer performers who are more likely to drop out early from school and engage in crime and anti-social behaviour. More broadly, schools where violence is present experience greater levels of classroom disruption and perform at lower levels, with the perception of insecurity hampering the recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers and leading to further school segregation.

Tackling the roots of school violence is a complex challenge that extends well beyond the education system. Yet, there are important steps that schools themselves can take to reduce violence and other antisocial factors. In recent years Colombia has made significant efforts to foster a more positive learning environment. It has adopted measures including the assessment of civic competences in SABER assessments; the introduction of guidelines and curricular projects that foster holistic development (e.g. self-awareness, justice and peace, respect for the environment, sexuality education); and the development of national legislation on the school environment (MEN, 2015a). One important goal of the initiative to extend the school day is to reduce the exposure of students to negative influences outside the classroom.

An analysis of international practices to foster social and emotional skills suggests ways in which such efforts could be strengthened (OECD, 2015g). In particular, students and schools in Colombia would benefit if teachers had more training on how to engage with adolescents and strengthen their socio-emotional skills; the introduction of more psychologists and other specialists and greater co-ordination with social services; and efforts to engage students proactively in governing and creating a safe and inclusive environment in their schools. It will be important that such measures are targeted on those schools with the toughest climate and combined with measures to reduce Colombia’s pervasive school segregation which creates a barrier for students seeking to overcome their socio-economic background and improve their life prospects.

Expanding the school system

The pressures on Colombia to expand its USE system are significant and will continue to grow. Participation rates are low compared to OECD and emerging world standards, hampering economic competitiveness. As Colombia’s demographic window closes, and the share of the working-age population starts to decline, higher skills will become increasingly important to sustain growth. Expanding upper secondary opportunities for disadvantaged regions and groups will also be central to progress towards peace and greater equity. In stating that USE will become compulsory, and that participation in public schools shall be provided free of charge, Colombia has committed to a considerable expansion of its public school network. It will be important to target this expansion on the population groups that at present cannot access USE in order to reduce current disparities and encourage development in disadvantaged parts of the country, particularly rural areas. Given the high costs of expansion, and the multiple demands on the education budgets, Colombia will also have to improve the efficiency of its education system if it is to meet its coverage and quality targets.

Ensuring resources are used effectively and efficiently

Overall public expenditure on USE will need to increase significantly to accommodate larger student numbers and fund much-needed quality improvements. In 2012, it was estimated that achieving full coverage for 15 and 16 year-olds would require an investment of COP 3 trillion (Colombian pesos, equivalent to USD 1 billion at October 2015 exchange rates) on infrastructure and recurrent expenditures, which together amount to approximately 10% of the MEN’s total budget in 2015 (Econometría, 2012b). This estimate does not include the significant investment required to raise quality, such as meeting the need for better-qualified and more specialised teachers, developing learning materials that encourage higher standards, and overcoming the acute shortage of libraries, information and communications technology infrastructure, laboratories and other classroom infrastructure.

The scale of funding required underlines the importance of ensuring resources are used effectively and efficiently. The first investment priority must be to narrow the stark differences in enrolment, completion and performance observed across the country. In some departments in Colombia, net enrolment in USE is as low as 10% (MEN, 2015b). Redressing this balance will require improvements in the redistributional impact of the various funding mechanisms (i.e. SGP, royalties, earmarked transfers and matching funds). Resources need to be targeted better on departments and municipalities with the lowest enrolment rates, coupled with additional technical support and stronger accountability mechanisms to ensure that increased finds are well spent. At the same time, ETCs with stronger fiscal capacity should be encouraged to make greater use of their own resources to finance the expansion of USE enrolment. Brazil’s experience provides an example of how greater financial co-responsibility between national and local governments can help to improve coverage and reduce equity gaps (Di Gropello, 2006). In Brazil, each level of government is required to set aside a share of revenue to finance spending on education (18% for the federal government and 25% for state and municipal governments) and contribute to a common fund to ensure that all local governments have at least the specified minimum levels of per-student expenditure.

Better information and information systems will be essential to ensure resources are targeted to address current and projected need. Currently, there are no accurate data on the number of teachers who work in USE – the single largest expense – or on the availability and state of school infrastructure and learning resources (Econometría, 2012b). Evidence collected during the review visit suggests that education information systems, set up to meet national reporting requirements, do not address the planning and operational needs of departments, municipalities and schools. As has been seen at the basic education level, expanding USE without adequate information and needs assessment and can create considerable sunk expenditure and institutional inertia that will be difficult and costly to shift.

Designing a cost-effective approach to delivering quality upper secondary education in rural areas

The expansion of USE is likely to be particularly challenging in the many rural and remote areas of the country, where there is currently a shortage of places and the cost of provision can be particularly high. A major trade-off that countries face in rural areas is whether to opt for smaller and more scattered schools to facilitate access to education, or bigger schools that might increase quality and decrease the cost per student. In Colombia, the current trend is to favour bigger schools over smaller ones in rural areas to accommodate the growing upper secondary student population. Larger schools can facilitate the provision of a more diversified curriculum and offer more choice for students. However, it is important to establish transparent criteria for deciding the location of new schools or whether to merge existing ones. The effects of moving towards fewer but larger schools in a particular region need to be thoroughly considered, including the risks of deterring attendance or hampering student well-being and that of the local community. This is particularly important in a country where transport infrastructure is not well developed and the time as well as the cost of travel can be significant.

Flexible education models have proved an alternative way to bring education closer to students at a lower cost than conventional schools in isolated and remote areas. Colombia could draw on its long history of experimenting with a range of modalities to adapt education to local and student needs to expand enrolment in USE. In such settings, the availability and quality of key inputs for the learning process, such as facilitators and instructional materials, needs to be prioritised. Flexible education models based on new technologies could open up new opportunities for learning and reduce the isolation of rural schools. However, the costs can prove relatively high in countries such as Colombia where labour costs are low and infrastructure and connectivity are limited, and there is no evidence that new technologies can raise student learning outcomes as teachers often lack training on how to use technology.

A valuable means to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of rural education is by creating strong school networks. In Colombia, “schools” are often a cluster of several entities that were amalgamated in the early 2000s but are still perceived as separate units with limited exchanges between them. Greater collaboration between schools can not only result in cost savings through sharing resources but also overcome the isolation of teachers and students (Ares Abalde, 2014). In England (United Kingdom), where the creation of school clusters has also been promoted, teachers and staff meet regularly to plan future activities, discuss matters of local relevance and develop specific local materials for teaching. In Québec (Canada), where particular efforts have been made to sustain the last schools of small villages, specific networking mechanisms for rural schools have been created to revitalise and professionalise staff. Some countries, such as Korea, have created “excellent” schools in rural areas where teachers of nearby schools can observe demonstration lessons and share good practice. There is considerable potential to strengthen networking across the different branches of schools in Colombia as an efficient way to improve quality.

Managing private providers

Colombia has often used public-private partnerships, such as privately operated but publicly funded schools and the provision of vouchers, to increase access where the capacity of the public school network is limited. Such partnerships are likely to remain important as USE expands so it is vital to ensure that they provide high-quality education and do not lead to further socio-economic segregation. There are indications that the quality provided by the private sector as a whole is very variable and that some schools might have reduced the cost of provision at the expense of quality. The large range of results across private schools participating in PISA suggests significant variety in terms of quality and equity, highlighting the importance of strengthening governance mechanisms to ensure more equal standards and access across the private sector (OECD, 2013a).

In managing private provision, what matters is that regulations are in place to guarantee quality, that there is a strong oversight and capacity to act when standards are not met, and that measures are put in place to prevent strong socio-economic segregation. Such mechanisms appear weak in Colombia. There are legal safeguards (such as performance contracts and tuition fee caps) but very little information on how they actually operate and whether they are enforced. There is also scope to strengthen the regulations to prevent private schools in receipt of public funding from selecting students by either ability or income (Bonilla, 2011). In the Netherlands, where the majority of schools are privately operated, stringent oversight mechanisms are in place to intensively monitor schools, provide recommendations for improvement and closely follow those institutions which are considered weak (Van Twist et al., 2013). Mexico has also taken steps to establish a common set of minimum quality standards across the large number of USE providers through the introduction of the National System of Upper Secondary Education (Sistema Nacional de Bachillerato).

Policy issue 3: Building synergies for improvement

Improvements in the coverage, quality and relevance of USE in Colombia will only happen if there is strong leadership at every level of government and the full engagement of all stakeholders. Effective national leadership is needed to set a clear direction for reform, align efforts and put in place the mechanisms needed to steer reform – legislation, standards and monitoring – and ensure they are well-adapted to support equity and quality. Strong local engagement – and strong local capacity to engage – is important to ensure that USE is relevant to students and the socio-economic context in which they live, and to support improvement at the school level. Outreach to stakeholders beyond government will be needed to build momentum behind reform and mobilise the range of resources that will be required for creating a good-quality USE system.

Strengthening national leadership

A series of evaluation reports and consultations have provided a comprehensive view of the main strengths and challenges facing USE in Colombia. These laid the foundations for a national proposal for reform, which was released in the summer of 2014 (see Box 4.1). This proposal informs the commitment in the current National Development Plan to create a new architecture for USE and improve coverage and quality. The overall ambition laid down by the plan is to move progressively towards universal compulsory USE by 2030. Reaching this goal, and fundamentally transforming a sub-sector that has long been neglected and under-resourced, will require strong national leadership in the following domains:

  • The development of a new vision for USE, which clarifies its position and purpose within the education system and addresses the fundamental socio-economic changes that have occurred over the last two decades and are likely to take place in the coming years. This vision will need to be translated into legislation and widely disseminated to ensure that all stakeholders are aware of what it implies for the goals, structure, governance and provision requirements of USE.

  • A constitutional amendment granting full legal recognition that USE will be compulsory by 2030. This would compel national and local authorities to take the necessary steps to provide USE and offer a long-term planning horizon. It would signal to adolescents and their families that they have a right – and the obligation when provision is available – to attend USE. It would also send an important message to employers and society as a whole that the attainment of at least USE is imperative for the future of the country and so change perceptions and mobilise all actors in support of this objective. Other Latin America countries that have made USE compulsory, such as Chile (2003), Argentina (2006) and Mexico (2011), have reflected this commitment in their constitutions.

  • The establishment of clear and realistic milestones at the national and local level to ensure the 2030 coverage target is met and equity gaps reduced. Expansion needs to be phased progressively; an overambitious reform agenda is likely to be less effective in raising learning and attainment levels than a strategy that builds on reforms in early years and basic education. Interim targets on the path to 2030 could help to push forward expansion efforts, and should include goals to rapidly narrow disparities in access and achievement across regions and income groups.

  • Collective engagement. Universal participation in quality secondary education will only happen if the country is mobilised behind this goal. The MEN has a central role to play in ensuring equity in expansion and in setting and monitoring standards. While national standards have cost implications, they can be valuable in ensuring minimum quality in all schools and in preventing schools in poor areas from being under-resourced. The MEN also has an important responsibility in devising funding policy, in particular in exploring efficiency-enhancing measures and ways to leverage additional resources. Implementation of reform, however, will depend primarily on strengthened local leadership. The PND states that implementation plans should be devised jointly by the MEN and ETCs; other stakeholders, including employers and tertiary institutions, must also be engaged. This is essential to ensure USE expansion meets social and economic goals and addresses Colombia’s pronounced diversity. Parents, students and civil society have a central role to play in creating the demand that can drive reform. The experience of OECD countries, like Korea (Box 4.2), which significantly expanded USE within a generation, show that when all actors come together, rapid progress is possible.

Box 4.2. Lessons from the expansion of upper secondary education in Korea

Korea’s expansion of upper secondary education started in the early 1950s with a vision to build a strong education sector as an important part of its economic development strategies. Prompted by the high stakes associated with expanding education, dynamic and motivated institutions implemented the education policies. Simultaneously, the government focused on both access and quality to bring skilled, educated workers into the workforce. Korean society also played a key role in the expansion of upper secondary education as it places a high value on education and helped push forward the expansion efforts by assuming part of the costs. Consequently, Korean education policies, which focused mostly on supply-side constraints at the secondary level, delivered considerably more successful results than many other countries following similar paths. The country also progressively expanded the education cycles, starting with basic education.

Source: Di Gropello, E. (ed.) (2006), Meeting the Challenges of Secondary Education in Latin America and East Asia: Improving Efficiency and Resource Mobilisation, World Bank, Washington DC.

Building capacity at the local level and fostering effective partnerships with key stakeholders

The large variation in upper secondary enrolment rates and performance in SABER 11 reflect the wide disparities in levels of development and need that exist across Colombia (see Figure 1.6 in Chapter 1). In this context, a uniform approach to expansion is likely to fail or be far less effective than one where local departments and municipalities are able to shape their own policies. Yet, local governments have given USE lower political and financial priority than compulsory education. Local capacity to steer expansion is also highly variable, and often weakest in those areas of the country where the challenges are greatest (Nieto, Acuña and Casas, 2013). In the absence of a national strategy, and adequate support and accountability structures, local initiatives have tended to be discontinuous and fragmented due to political changes and unpredictable funding, often not allowing enough time for reforms to take effect (CRECE, 2012).

Addressing local capacity and accountability gaps will be central to USE expansion. The need for stronger local capacity to collect, analyse and use data applies not just to education data but also to information on population, migration and other factors that will influence the development of USE. Many local governments require considerable support in policy making and planning, but capacity and leadership remains largely concentrated at the national level. Local governments will also need to play a much more proactive role in facilitating co-operation among upper secondary schools, both to create efficiencies (e.g. sharing equipment and counsellors) and build networks of principals and teachers who can raise the quality of teaching. At present, most departments and municipalities have very few personnel available to assist schools, being mainly focused on inspection and supervision. Little attention is paid to helping schools improve the quality of education services (CRECE, 2012). The MEN is working to strengthen ETCs’ technical capacity through training, planning tools and information systems; it is important that these are designed to support local as well as national policy making (CRECE, 2012). There is also much greater scope for policy dialogue between local governments as a means to strengthen capacity and encourage local leadership. One advantage of a decentralised system is the potential for local innovation; more needs to be done to harness this potential in Colombia.

One important challenge – and opportunity – confronting departments and municipalities is how to build strategic local alliances with key stakeholders. These include SENA, a large number of tertiary institutions, a rapidly expanding productive sector, a range of very active foundations and civil society organisations, and also a number of international bodies and donors. At present, there are few platforms to bring these stakeholders together to co-ordinate the provision of USE. Where they do exist, they tend to be ad hoc and limited to specific schools, missing a valuable opportunity to expand the delivery of USE and improve its relevance to local development needs (Qualificar, 2012). Mexico, for example, has promoted the creation of local platforms to enable all stakeholders to discuss and collaborate in policies to expand USE (Box 4.3). Such platforms can help to improve the tertiary and labour-market outcomes of USE, bring additional financial, technical and material resources to schools, and also open up new horizons to students. Antioquia is an example of a department with well-established platforms to connect tertiary institutions, businesses and public authorities (see Chapter 5). Colombia might consider developing such platforms in all departments, and using them to develop local partnerships to support the modernisation of USE.

Box 4.3. Fostering the involvement of key stakeholders in Mexico

Since 2008, Mexico has undertaken ambitious reforms to make upper secondary education compulsory and improve its quality and relevance. To ensure national coherence in the expansion of upper secondary services, an important aspect of the reforms has been the promotion of dialogue between the federal government, state governments, universities and providers of upper secondary schools through the creation of specific bodies at the state level. In the state of Puebla, for example, this body also included local employers and researchers and, under the leadership of the local government, discussed common issues of interest such as the capacity of the school network, strategies to tackle dropout rates, professional development for teachers, implementation of national reforms, and mechanisms to facilitate transfers between systems, to develop common strategies, projects, programmes and policies.

Source: OECD (2013b), Improving Education in Mexico: A State-level Perspective from Puebla, OECD Publishing, Paris,


Colombia has set itself the objective of achieving universal compulsory upper secondary education by 2030. While progressively expanding participation, Colombia also plans to transform the provision of upper secondary schooling to make it more fit for purpose for an emerging economy. Achieving this reform agenda will require changes on three levels: improving its quality and relevance, increasing enrolment and completion, and building synergies for improvement.

Improving the quality and relevance of upper secondary education

Recommendation 1.1: Refocus teaching and learning on core skills and real-life applications

Colombia recognises the need to significantly improve the quality and relevance of USE. Stronger guidance to students, teachers and schools on what knowledge, skills and values should be acquired at this level will be central to this effort. Colombia has already taken steps to reduce the fragmentation of the upper secondary school curriculum, and emphasise the consolidation and deepening of core cognitive and non-cognitive skills. These efforts would benefit from a common curriculum framework that sets clear expectations of what students should learn at this level and provides guidance to teachers on how they can improve outcomes among learners with widely varying needs and degrees of preparedness. Upper secondary school teachers in Colombia required tailored pre-service and in-service training on how to teach at this level and effectively engage adolescents in learning. In particular, they require much better preparation on how to encourage self-directed learning and guide students to apply knowledge in solving real-life problems. Teaching standards should recognise the specific skills required of upper secondary teachers.

Recommendation 1.2: Retain a comprehensive approach

In redesigning the architecture of USE, Colombia should consolidate its current comprehensive approach and avoid creating strongly differentiated academic and vocational tracks. A comprehensive USE system will provide more equal opportunities to students, reduce the risk of segregation and create a broader, more flexible skills base for a fast-growing economy. Employers need to be much more engaged in the design of programmes, curricula and certification, particularly – but not exclusively – with respect to vocational courses. With the involvement of more stakeholders in the provision of USE, quality assurance needs to be strengthened and information systems improved. Greater transparency at the departmental and municipal level about the learning, tertiary and labour-market outcomes of schools could help to raise the quality of programmes offered.

Recommendation 1.3: Strengthen mechanisms to smooth the transition into further education and the labour market

All students should approach the SABER 11 examination on an equal footing. In Colombia, this will require targeted remedial programmes to give disadvantaged students a fair chance of success and measures to ensure equal access to information about the exam, which has a significant influence on future learning and employment opportunities. Colombia should also strengthen and harmonise the assessment of skills acquired in vocational courses and involve the productive sector in this process. Tertiary and labour-market information systems should be strengthened and made more accessible to help students make the right choices about their future. Specific efforts should be made to connect disadvantaged students and schools with employers and tertiary institutions, for example through school and on-site visits and consolidated information on local opportunities. Given the large number of students in Colombia who are over-age, drop out or combine study with work, it will be essential to improve the quality of flexible models which offer these students greater flexibility, as well as post-secondary vocational education and training to support young people’s transition into the formal economy.

Increasing enrolment and completion, particularly for disadvantaged students

Recommendation 2.1: Adopt an integrated approach to removing barriers to enrolment and completion

Having committed to making USE universal and compulsory, Colombia will need to address the overlapping factors that prevent the majority of young people in the country from completing upper secondary school. The conditional cash transfer programme Más Familias en Acción could be improved to give students incentives to continue and perform better at school, and to address the varying opportunity costs faced by students of different ages, income groups and locations. If increased enrolment is to lead to higher completion rates and better learning outcomes, teachers and schools in Colombia will need greater help to address learning gaps early on and develop support strategies for those at risk of dropping out. The introduction of a unique student number that enables learners to be monitored throughout their education career could be a useful instrument in this regard. Support services (e.g. psychologists and counsellors) and extracurricular activities should be made more widely available in disadvantaged schools, and teachers and principals given more guidance on how to manage adolescent behaviour and foster a positive school climate.

Recommendation 2.2: Improve the equity and efficiency of resource allocation

While the expansion of USE is likely to require an overall increase in education expenditure, there are ways in which current resources could be redeployed to achieve better results. Local governments could be encouraged to increase co-financing if they have the fiscal capacity, in conjunction with more flexibility in the local allocation of resources. Investment in improving the quality of local information on education capacity, demand and resource use from the start would support long-term efficiency gains. This should be prioritised in rural areas and less-developed departments and municipalities, and can then guide the allocation of increased funds to the regions with the greatest need. In rural areas, larger schools are likely to enable the provision of better quality education to more students at lower cost. However, small schools will continue to occupy an important place in the rural school system, and their quality and viability could be improved through greater networking and sharing of resources. Where flexible educational approaches are required, ensuring that teachers and facilitators are well trained and students have appropriate instructional materials is key to ensuring that improved access brings better learning outcomes. More stringent oversight measures are needed to guarantee standards in private schools.

Building synergies for improvement

Recommendation 3.1: Strengthen national leadership for reform

The national commitment to make USE compulsory by 2030 needs to be reflected in strong legislation and translated into national and local plans that specify the roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders in reaching this goal. Interim milestones will be needed to steer this expansion, including clear targets for reducing equity gaps between and within regions and socio-economic groups.

Recommendation 3.2: Reinforce local capacity and partnerships

Local governments have primary responsibility for the expansion of USE and, in consultation with key stakeholders, should develop plans on how they will move progressively towards universal participation by 2030. The MEN should provide training, planning tools and information systems to facilitate local planning and implementation, in particular where capacity is weak. More should also be done to strengthen policy dialogue and peer learning between local governments. Likewise, local governments need to play a proactive role in supporting schools in their territories, facilitating co-operation and resource sharing between them, and building networks of school leaders to raise performance. Both local governments and schools will need more support to build and manage partnerships, in particular with employers. The creation of dedicated local platforms where key stakeholders can discuss and co-ordinate planned reforms of USE could help to mobilise additional resources and ensure that all partners are working together towards the same goals.


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← 1. ISCED level 3 refers to UNESCO’s International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED-11) which is the framework for the classification of education programmes and related qualifications by education levels and fields. Specifically, for upper secondary education, level 3 refers to upper secondary education programmes which aim to prepare individuals who complete this educational level for tertiary education (higher ISCED levels) or for employment. ISCED level 3 programmes have two categories: general and vocational. Programmes within these categories differ by their duration, completion and access to higher ISCED levels.

← 2. Using the exchange rate on 13 September 2015.

← 3. Level 1 in the Identification System of Potential Beneficiaries of Social Programmes (Sistema de Identificacion de Potenciales Beneficiarios de Programas Sociales, SISBEN), a proxy means-based test tool used by the government to identify the most disadvantaged Colombian families so that they may access social programmes (SISBEN, 2015).

← 4. Enrolment rates can be expressed in net enrolment rates or gross enrolment rates. The net enrolment rate refers to the percentage of students in the theoretical age group for a given level of education enrolled in that level as a percentage of the total population in that group. The gross enrolment rate refers to the general level of participation in a given level of education. Because of students repeating grades, the gross enrolment rate can be larger than 100%. The net enrolment rate is equal to the number of students of the expected school-age divided by the school-age population, and hence it is always lower than 100%.