Colombia has long struggled with globally known problems like the war on drugs and the internal conflict that has bled the country for years, yet an improved situation has allowed the government to focus on other pressing issues, such as the nation’s schools.
According to Ignacio Mantilla, the dean of the Universidad Nacional, “After peace, education should be the main priority of the Colombian people,” and as all that started to change in the last decade, Colombians began to pay attention to the basic needs of their people. In the State’s effort to ensure all Colombians a better future, education has become one of the most important issues at hand.
María Fernanda Campo, Education Minister, understands the responsibility her ministry has. “Education has been given the highest priority during the government of President Santos, because we are convinced that only through education can we aspire to have more social mobility, reduce poverty levels in the country, have more social equality, and improve the well-being of all Colombians.”
The Education Minister also understands the difficulties that come with such a responsibility. “One of our greatest challenges is to improve the quality of education on all levels, from preschool to college, and to close the gaps that exist in this sector: from one region to the other, from one institution to the other,” she says, adding that to achieve this, her ministry has created several plans of action that will help the country come closer to its goal each year.
Some of the goals have already been accomplished. One of them was to provide free education for all Colombians. For years it was economically impossible to achieve this objective, but in January 2012 universal gratuity was declared.
The measure benefits 8.6 million students from grades 0-11 who go to official education institutions. But, how was such a difficult change finally made possible? “We made a budget adjustment: by increasing our budget we were able to guarantee gratuity. Access to the institutions is just as important, so we also help students with school texts and we put computers in the schools. Most importantly, we train our teachers as best we can,” explains Dr. Campo.
The training and, particularly, the monitoring of teachers have proved to be very reliable ways to improve their quality. In Dr. Campo's words: “For 13 years now Colombia has had a new teacher statute based on meritocracy.
Today, if you want access to the official education sector as a teacher, you must enter a competition. Once in the field you can only upgrade your status by entering another set of competitions. Every year teachers take competence tests and are evaluated by their superiors. This way, we keep track of our teachers and their knowledge, their abilities and their expertise.”
Private schools in Colombia enjoy great reputations worldwide; in fact, the Universidad de los Andes is on the list of the top 10 universities in Latin America. It is fourth on the list, after the Universidade de Sao Paulo, Pontificia Universidad Católica of Chile and the Universidade Estadual de Campinas in Brazil. But in Colombia, success in education isn’t limited to private schools only.
The Universidad Nacional, a pubic institution, is one of the most respected colleges in the country and in the region. This university demonstrates that public education doesn’t have to be any worse than private education. In fact, it is proof that it can be better.
But Dr. Campo understands that to improve the quality of higher education the process must begin in the first levels. “You have to start with the youngest ones. That is why, thanks to the results from the obligatory knowledge tests that students have to take before they graduate, one of our programs has focalized the 22,000 education centers in Colombia that have the lowest knowledge achievements.
Most of them – a total of 77% – are in rural areas. By locating them we are now reaching 2,365,000 children that attend primary school with a holistic care program that strives to develop their language and math abilities.”