Latin American School Systems: South America

Figure 1.-- All Peruvian children wear uniforms to school. Most public schools have a simple school uniform like a track warm up suit for both boys and girls which is inexpensive. Private schools are mostly single gender and some have elaborate school uniforms many in British styles. Here is a boy wearing a British-loooking uniform running home after school is over in Cusco. Note the finely hewn Inca stone walls.

Education was very limited in Portuguese and Spanish colonial South America and the province of the Roman Catholic Church. Here there are some differences in the Guianas. After the wars of lineration (early-19th century), liberal ideas began to circulate in South America. Progress was slow brcause of the poverty endemic in the area and the poor state of publkic fiancing. The situation was somewhat better in the Southern Cone, especially Argentina which was moving toward developing a modern economy until Col. Juan Peron and the labor unions wreked wide-spread economic damage that continues today. And without a strong, productive economy, the governments of the region cannot finance an effective educational system. Financing is not the only factor, but it is a very important one. Poor financing continues to limit education in the region. We have begun to collect some basic information about schools in South America. Here Brazil is very important because it is about half of the continent in both area and population. We have, however, not found much information on Brazil, but hopefully our readers will provide some information. We have been more successdul in finding information on the Spanish-speaking countries in South America, especially Argentina. As might be expecte, Spanish educational trends have been very influential. In Argentina, Italy seems to have been important. School children in both Argentina and Uruguay have worn white smocks and we think has also been common in Uruguay and Bolivia as well. Throughout South Anerica, public education has been underfunded and this continues to be the case today.


Argentine state schools have not required school uniforms. Primary schools required children to wear white smocks, but under the smocks the chikdren could wear their own clothes. Argentina is one of the Latin American countries with the most European look. Argentine elementary school children traditionally wore white smocks--showing the Italian influence on the country and school system. While state schools did not require uniforms, private schools often did. We also note a British influence. Boys in some private schools wore short pants and kneesocks, rather like a British school.



Brazil is very important in any assessment of Latin America. It is half of South America in area and population. Thus the country is a major part of education in the region. We know very little about Brazilian education at this time. Pre-school education (Educação Infantil) is entirely optional. Nursing school is for children up to age 3 years old and kindergarten for children from 4 to 6 years old. Primary and lower secondary education, Ensino Fundamental (Fundamental Education) is free and compulsory for children between the ages of 6-14 years of age. The state systems has been woefully underfunded. Many parents are disatisfied with the quality of the states schools.. There is an active private sector. The country's recent economic sucess may enable the country to improve the state system. Brazilian private schools generally require uniforms, but reflecting the warm climate they are generally simple uniforms with "T" shirts or polo shirts with the school logo and short pants in the school colors. Schools in the southern part of the country might have seasonal uniforms with long pants during the winter. Secondary schools might have long pants or joggers in the school colors. We have a little informstion about individual schools. A reader mentions the Seminário Imaculada Conceição (Immaculate Conception Seminary) in Paranavaí, Paraná. It was a minor seminary of the Carmelite friars. Hopefully other Brazilian readers will provide some infirmation on their schools. We note the Escola Paroquial São José, a parish school in Blumenau, Santa Catarina about 1930.


There was no public education system in Spanish colonial system. The church may have operated some schools, but we have little information on the colonial period at this time. Chile declared indepebndence (1810), but the Royalists were not finally defeated until several years later (1818). Ut us during this period that Chileans began to consider a public school system. Chile’s educational system developed in the 19th century. Educators primarily used French and German models as they built a national system. Progress was slow. Schools were most available in the cities and it was mostly the middle class that pursued education beyond the first few years of primary school. Even primary school attendance was not compulsory until 1920 and eve then there was no real enforcement of the law. The construction of new schools meant that schooling was becoming increasingly accessable during the 1920s. The Depression limited further proigress in the 1930s, but more progress was made in the 1940s. Poverty still prevented many children from pursuing education. The education of poor children was not addressed until major reforms in 1953. Another major reform has made secordary school compulsory (2003). Chilean school children wear uniforms. I am not sure when uniforms were introduced. Children duruing the 1980s and 90s commonly wore uniforms. They were traditional English styles. Almost all of the boys, even the elementary children wear long pants. Schools are now being given the option of not requiring uniforms.


Colombia has an educational model similar into that of its South American neighbors. The system is divided into the standard primary and secondary sections. The modern system establishing the Ministry of Education was created by law (1886). Education was given considerable priority with a subsequent law mandating that at least 10 percnt of the ntional budget should be used to support the education system. The language of instruction is Spanish, although there are a few private schools with instruction in English and other languages, mostly for forigners resident in the country. Textbooks are not ptovided free by the schools and must be purchased by the parents frommlocal book stores. Many schools have 'method' book) it is used for about 3 years. Books are available in local bookstores. Uniforms are required at both the primary and secondary level. As in other countries, the primary reason is so lower income children do not feel out of place with better dressed children from higher income families. The primary section (educación básica primaria) is for children age 6-12 years, meaning 6 differnt grades. Attendance at state primary schools is free of tuition charges. Goivernment statistics reveal that some 87 percent of children attebd primary school, and that nearly 90 percent of these children complete the primary progrm. The Ministry of Education intituted a new regulation that up to 5 percent of the children at a school could skip a year (2002). This appears to have been an effort to reduce costs. The secondary section (educación secundaria) is for children age 12-16 years 12-16, meaning 4 different grades. The first 2 years is a fairly standard program for all the children. The final 2 yearsis more varied with the children making course choices related to a planned career choice. Attendance lvels are more limited than primary schools. Many children do not go on to university, priumarily because of limited family income.


We do not yet have much information about Ecuadorian schools yet. Ecuador is a small Andean country along the Pacific coast of South America. The country is very poor, although there are some oil exports. The relative poor national economy has made it difficult to adeuately fund public education. There was in the 1960s a heavy focus on wrote learning amd memorization. Some classes were very large and teachers poorly paid. Peimary teachers has secondary educations, graduating from normal schools. Education was free, but sevondary students had to purchase books. Only a fraction of the primary graduates continued on the secondary school, in part because many small towns did not have seconday schools. Attendance had generally expanded in recent years, but the country still has f=difficulty financing a quality education. We notice boys wearing khaki uniforms at secondary schools in the 1960s, but the uniform was not strictly enforced at most schools. A private school in Guayaquil had a white sailor suit uniform in the 1970s. GHuayaquil is the largest coastal city. We note a Catholic school at Catachoha in the southern Sierra. We note a mission school for Native American children in the Oriente.


Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America. Along with the other two Guismas in northeast South America, it was not invloved in the early-19th century campaigns for independence, Much of the original Native America population was decimated by Europeam diseases. A few poeople European ancestry form part of the popiulation. The most important two groups are the descendents of African slaves and Asian Indians imported for endetured labor. A number of schools wre founded in urban areas. After the British ended slavery (1838), the emancipated slaves began attending schools operated by the London Missionary Society, but few advanced beyond the primary level. Planters and colonial officals generally discouraged the Asian Indians from attdnding school. Thus a comprehensive public school system promoting unversal education was not adopted until independence. The new independent government gave priority to bulding a comprehensive education system. Tuition free education from nursery school through university isnow available to Guyanese youth. As a result, Guyana now has one of the highest literacy rates in the region. Older people have generally limited levels of education, but young people have mostly completed primary school and many have some secondary schooling.


We do not yet have any detailed information about Paraguayan schools. A reader has forwarded a photograph of what we believe to be a Mennonite school during the 1930s. The children all seem to be ethnic Germans.


School uniforms are very widely worn in Peru. The uniforms have tended to be very basic, bit commonly worn. We do not have a lot of information pn the uniforms worn. There appears to have been nation-wide regulations issued by the Ministry of Education. We do not have any actual details on those regulations which have varied over time. We note some school children photographed in Cuzco during 1935 by Martin Chambi. The children are not wearing uniforms. We have no detaols on the school. We do note scholl children by the 1940s wearing uniforms. The boys wore army type khaki shirts and matching trousers. Most of the children are wearing uniforms. The teacher probably encouraged the children wear uniforms, but does not seem to have required it. Visiting Peru in the 1980s we noted many children commonly wearing school uniforms. Uniforms continue to be commonly worn in Peru in the 2000s, but there does not seem to be any one single national style. Nor were uniforms required. Peruvian Ministry of Education officials madeit clear in press statements that children could not be turned away from school for not wearing the school uniform (2008).



Uruguay has done a very good job at providing basic education to itsentire population. Schools in Uruguasy are both free and compulsory for all children aged 6 to 14 years of age. The country has for years achieved very high levels of compliance with required primary education. There is also a large number of the primary students who go on to enroll in secondary school. The result is that Uruguay holds an impressive position within Latin America for its high literacy rate of approximately 96 percent. And if functional loteracy is taken into account may outrank the United States. Uruguayan children are required by law to begin primary school wgen they are 6 years old. Primary school is a 5 year program. There are no uniforms in the public schools, but the primary school children wear white smocks with big blue bows. The bows are not very popular with the boys. We believe that private schools may have uniforms. At age 12 years the children enter the first level of secondary school. This last level like peimary school is compulsory and is a 2 year program. The curriculum deals with the basics, language, mathematics, sciences, and history. Compulsory attendances ends at age 15 years. Uruguayan students can leave school or choose several advanced secondary tracks, depending on their ideas about theur vocation and educational future. This involved secondary educational tracks lasting 304 years. Students complete the bachellerito, which is similar to an American high school diploma. At this point the graduates can find jobs or continye their education. There are three universities. There are also special institutes offering training in specific disciplines with interest the students. Class room instruction is in Spanish. Secondary schools commonly offer Englih and Portuguese foreign language classes. Universities offer other European langage courses. Unfortunately Uruguayan students rank very poorly in unternational asessments. While Uruguay is near the top of Latin America countries in scholastic achiecement, Uruguay and the rest of Lastin America is near the bottom in international comparisons.


Careful, clicking on these will exit you from the Boys' Historical Clothing web site, but several are highly recommended

  • Apertures Press New Zealand book: New book on New Zealand schools in progress
  • School Uniform Web Site: Informative review of British school uniforms with some excellent photographs
  • British Preparatory Schools: A photographic book depicting life at British preparatory schools during the 1980s. Most of the schools are English or Scottish, but schools in Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, and Ulster are also included. The pictures show the uniforms worn at many different schools.


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    Created: 12:48 AM 6/9/2014
    Last updated: 11:51 PM 4/7/2018