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The Colombian K-12 Education System

The Ministry of National Education (Ministerio de Educacion Nacional - MEN) administers the K-12 education system in Colombia.  K-12 education system in Colombia comprises of following levels:
  • Preschool education (la educacion preescolar)
  • Basic education (la educacion basica): This level encompasses primary (educacion basica primaria) and basic secondary/lower secondary education (educacion basica secundaria) 
  • Secondary education (la educacion media)
All levels of K-12 education are free of charge at public educational institutions/schools and subsidized by the Colombian government. In Colombia, there are both public and private schools. 

Understanding the Colombian K-12 Education System

Preschool Education (Educacion Pre-escolar)

Pre-school education in Colombia is for children aged 3 to 6 years, and is free of charge in public preschool institutions.  This first 2 years of K-12 educational level are not compulsory, and the final year is compulsory as it is considered to be the preparation stage for primary education.

Preschool education is divided into 3 stages:
  • Pre-kindergarten (Pre-jardin or pre-kinder): This is for children aged 3 to 4
  • Kindergarten (Jardin or Kinder): This caters to children aged 4 to 5 years
  • Transition (Transicion): This caters to children aged 5 to 6 years. Since 1991, this stage of preschool is compulsory to attend. 
The preschool level works towards the overall development of the child: social, spiritual, intellectual, creative, sensory, communicative, and biological.  

During the first 2 levels of preschool, recreational and educational activities are conducted that help children to express themselves and stimulates their creativity. 
The transition level prepares children for primary education level. Children at this level gain fundamental skills in mathematics, reading and writing. 

Basic Education (Educacion Basica)

Basic education in Colombia is compulsory for children aged 6 to 14.  
  • Duration: 9 years
  • Grades: 1 to 9
This educational level is divided into 2 stages:
  • Basic primary/elementary education
  • Basic secondary/lower secondary education

Basic Primary Education (Educacion Basica Primaria)

Basic primary education is also known as elementary education. Primary education in Colombia is compulsory to attend. Basic primary education provides general education and prepares the students for higher levels of education. This level also develops the communication skills, creative and critical thinking skills, and provides humanistic, scientific and technological knowledge. 
  • Duration: 5 years
  • Grades: 1 to 5
  • Ages: 6 to 11
Curriculum (Compulsory and fundamental areas): Mathematics, human values and ethics education, Spanish language, Social sciences (geography, history, democracy and political constitution), humanities, philosophy, cultural and artistic education, foreign languages, environmental education and natural science, political sciences and economics, physical education, computing and technology, and religious education. 

Test: In Grade 5, all the pupils must undertake the national SABER test (Pruebas SABER). This test assesses the basic knowledge and skills in mathematics, civics, language and sciences. 

Certificate awarded: Upon successful completion of the basic primary education, pupils are awarded the Certificate of Completion of the Fifth Grade of Elementary/Primary Instruction (Certificado de Finalizacion del Quinto Grado de Instruccion Primaria) which enables them to go for the lower secondary education.

Basic Secondary Education (Educacion Basica Secundaria)

Basic secondary education is also known as lower secondary education. Secondary basic education is compulsory to attend. Students who have completed primary/elementary education are eligible for the basic secondary education. 
This educational level deepens the knowledge gained at the basic primary education level. 
  • Duration: 4 years
  • Grades: 6 to 9
  • Ages: 11 to 15
Core Curriculum (Grades 6 to 9): Mathematics, social studies, physical education, arts education, Spanish language and literature, natural science, vocational instructions (Grade 8 and 9), and moral and religious education.

Certificate: Upon successful completion of the basic education, students are awarded the Certificate of Basic Secondary School Studies (Certificado de estudios de bachillerato basico).

Students who pass grade 9 have 3 options: carry on with their studies at the upper secondary education; join a technical apprenticeship programme; or enter workforce. 

Secondary Education (Educacion Media)

This level is also known as upper secondary education. Upper secondary education in Colombia is not compulsory to attend. Students must have completed Grade 9 for entry into the upper secondary educational level.  The actual programme of study at this level is known as bachillerato or baccalaureate. 
  • Duration: 2 years
  • Grades: 10 and 11
  • Ages: 15-17 years
According to the General Law of Education (1994), this level is divided into two streams/orientations:
  • Academic
  • Technical

Academic Branch (la modalidad academica)

This stream provides general education along with specialization in a particular academic field, such as foreign languages, natural sciences, arts, social sciences, and humanities. Academic secondary education broadens the knowledge in the field of humanities, sciences and arts.

Curriculum: Biology, Foreign language, mathematics, religious education, art education, physics, earth science, philosophy, biology, general chemistry,  physical education, Spanish language and literature, organic chemistry, and social science. 

Certificate awarded: Upon successful completion of this branch, students are awarded the title of academic baccalaureate (bachillerato academico).  Students who receive this certificate are eligible for higher education in Colombia.

Technical Branch (la modalidad tecnica)

This stream prepares pupils for higher education as well as for entry into the job market. The technical branch prepares pupils for employment in one of the sector of services and production.

Areas of specializations: Industry, health, commerce, ecology, computing, agriculture, mining, tourism, finances, recreation, administration, sports, and many other fields determined by the job market and regional needs.

Certificate awarded: Upon successful completion of this branch, students are awarded the title of technical baccalaureate (bachillerato tecnico).  Students who receive this certificate are eligible for higher education in Colombia.

Examination

After completion of the secondary education, students must appear for the State Examination (Examen de Estado para Ingreso a la educacion superior) in order to gain admittance to higher education institutions in Colombia.  The state exam is also known as the ICFES test. This exam comprises of a series of tests that measures the students’ expertise in the following subjects: Spanish language, mathematics, natural sciences (physics, chemistry and biology), a foreign language (German, English or French), social sciences, philosophy, and chosen interdisciplinary areas (communication and culture, environmental studies, and society).
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