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26 Sep 2012

Educational Goals in Latin America: How do ‘Skills’ Enter into this Agenda?

By Claudia Jacinto, IIEP and Institute of Economic and Social Development, Argentina.

After several years of discussion, a project entitled “Metas Educativas 2021: la educación que queremos para la generación de los Bicentenarios” (Educational Goals 2021: the education we want for the generation of the Bicentennial) adopted a set of goals and indicators in 2010 that will give a major push to education in the Latin American region. The initiative was promoted by the Organization of Ibero-American States for the Education, Science and Culture and the Ibero-American General Secretary and adopted by ministries of education in the region.

The goals are conceived as a way of redoubling the efforts to achieve the EFA goals by 2015, and also to clarify and complement them in terms of the developments and demands of recent years.

It is interesting to reflect on the conception of skills and, specifically, technical skills that the initiative has.

In the English translation of the document, the word “skills” is used only once – and is used with regard to the goal to guarantee access to education for marginalized and disadvantaged young people and adults: the indicator of achievement of this goal is the percentage of population with literacy skills. The term “competencies” is the one used to refer to basic competencies for the development of democratic citizenship. The two uses reveal an enlarged approach to skills which include not only technical but basic skills for citizenship.

A more restricted approach appears in goals linked to technical skills, as shown in the following examples.

a) One of the goals is to “improve and adapt the design of technical-education
according to labor demands”. However, there is no mention of the fact that, recently,  in the field of general secondary education, several initiatives were developed aimed at improving general and specific work-related knowledge. Several policies in the region not only have general competencies highlighted in an undifferentiated way, as was the case in the 1990s, but the development of ‘general and specific employment competencies’ is also being promoted in general secondary education. Thus the idea that training for work in secondary education only concerns technical schools is gradually being superseded, as has happened in the other regions.

b) To monitor the match between technical/vocational education and labour market demands, three indicators were established: the development of competency-based curricula; the percentage of young people from technical/vocational education obtaining a job after completing their studies in positions in line with their qualifications; and, the percentage of pupils carrying out work placements in companies. We will focus our comments in the first one.

The introduction of competency-based perspectives in technical education has been difficult and controversial. This was because formal technical education functions at secondary and tertiary levels are much broader than training for work, and also because they have a long institutional tradition as well as a content-based curriculum. It has not been easily accepted in the planning, design and implementation of many training programs. The adoption, or not, of the competency-based approach in this field has mainly depended on political balances, theoretical positions, and the history of the educational structure and vocational training.

Even if some countries like Colombia, Chile and México have transformed technical secondary education in this direction, this processes conveyed multiple adaptations in terms of: developing the curricula, management arrangements, and the training of specialized staff – trainers, facilitators, teachers, and supervisors. And the expected results are only partially achieved.

The competency-based approach is questioned in technical secondary education in countries like Brazil and Argentina where recent reforms were based on more comprehensive curricular approaches. In Brazil, the competency training model supported during the nineties was hardly criticized, considering that the concept of competencies reduces a complex process of human training to one of its specific aspects—the performance of practical and useful tasks. An official document highlights that the concept didn’t influence teaching practice for two main reasons:

  • First, the resistance of the teaching sector to subscribe to a model designed to control the educational process in order to guarantee targets and results; and,
  • Second, the absence of more specific programmes to organize the training of competencies and skills according to the characteristics of students and schools.

Given this scenario, proposals were put forward to work with the concept of competencies as a necessary skill for understanding and critical action.

To sum up, the educational goals shared by the region reflect an excellent initiative to promote education as a driver of change in Ibero-American societies. The initiative has set a number of key goals shared by the countries in the region. It’s hoped that the ones related to technical skills and TVET will continue to be contextualized and discussed in the framework of the continuing debate proposed by the initiative.

>>Access the final report

Claudia Jacinto is a research coordinator of technical tertiary education in Latin America, at the IIEP; and coordinator of PREJET, CONICET at the Instituto de Desarrollo Economico y Social (Institute of Economic and Social Development), Argentina. Email:

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