Education - Patterns of Access and Performance

Education - Patterns of Access and Performance

Studies conducted by the Belizean government and outside observers in the late 1980s indicated that between one-quarter and one-third of students enrolled in primary education left school before they reached fourteen, the minimum age at which a student could legally drop out. Dropout rates and absenteeism were higher in rural areas, largely because of the seasonal demand for agricultural labor and the perception that schooling beyond the basic level offered no increased opportunities.

In both rural and urban areas, students who dropped out of primary school (or, indeed, failed to attend) generally belonged to the poorest and least-empowered segments of Belizean society: the children of subsistence farmers, agricultural laborers, illegal aliens, and the inhabitants of the urban slums. Without primary school credentials, these individuals faced the continued prospect of lifelong underemployment or unemployment.

Selectivity in the education system intensified at the secondary level. No more than 60 percent of the students who graduated from primary school, or less than 40 percent of all children in that age-group, made the transition to secondary institutions. Again, the percentage of students entering secondary schools was even lower in rural areas, where less than one-third of eligible youth pursued education beyond the primary level as of the early 1980s. Although the construction of new schools in the districts had helped to alleviate this problem, the majority of rural youth still lacked a secondary education.

Primary education was both free and compulsory; secondary schooling was neither. The combined burden of financial and academic requirements excluded not only the poorest, but also the offspring of many working-class parents and even some middle-class families. Government programs and private scholarships failed adequately to address the financial barrier to educational opportunity. Exclusion from secondary schooling had serious consequences for the lives of these youth. A generation ago, a primary education was sufficient for many skilled and semiskilled jobs in the public and private sectors. But by the late 1980s, the value of these credentials had plummeted.

Secondary school credentials, in the form of diplomas and passing grades on exams, have become the minimum criteria for most types of skilled employment. These credentials, too, decreased in value as increasing numbers of students received them. Education in Belize, as elsewhere in the world, was largely synonymous with the earning of credentials.

Attrition, as well as access, was a more serious problem in secondary education than in primary education. Nationwide, only about one-half of the students who entered secondary school completed the course. During the early 1980s, the attrition rate reached higher than 70 percent in a number of city and district schools. The causes of attrition, or wastage, as it was known among administrators, varied but were largely related to socioeconomic factors, such as lack of money, discipline problems, or teenage pregnancy.

Fewer than 15 percent of secondary school graduates made the transition to sixth form. Most graduates of the secondary schools came from only a handful of institutions. Two new secondary institutions opened in the late 1980s, but the number of prospective applicants for the sixth form far exceeded available places. Observers believed that the gap would only grow as secondary schools continued to produce increasing numbers of graduates hungry for more educational credentials.

A university education was a rare opportunity for Belizean youth in the 1980s. Scholarships to foreign universities were extremely limited, although many Belizeans have benefitted from scholarships to Cuban universities. The full costs of university study abroad were beyond the means of all but elite families. Even after the opening of UCB, Belizean students overwhelmingly preferred the prospects of studying at universities in the United States to studying in Belize or at British, West Indian, Canadian, or Latin American institutions. Since 1983, the availability of scholarships to United States universities has increased considerably. Many of these scholarships were the result of United States government programs, such as the Central American Peace Scholarships (CAPS).

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