On the road to intercultural education systems in Latin America

03 June 2021



Driven by the demands of organized civil society, the notion of interculturality first entered the public policy agenda in Latin America through the field of education. Furthermore, education policy agendas were and continue to be the ones that most developed the issue throughout the region.

Integrating interculturality within public policy first began in Peru when the 1972 Education Reform implemented the first bilingual education policy and later made Quechua an official language in 1975. Today, there are intercultural education initiatives in at least 18 Latin American countries, which seek to recognize the myriad of cultures and ethnic groups that coexist on the continent.

After 50 years of progress – in terms of countries' legal regulations and academic production –there is now more and more talk of intercultural education for all, which goes beyond bilingual intercultural education initiatives for indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, and migrants, and includes all sectors of society.

However, an in-depth analysis of the policies currently implemented reveals that Latin American countries still face the challenge of mainstreaming the notions of pluriculturalism and pluri-ethnicity throughout the education system and all public policies.

Promoting inclusion and undoing structural racism

In terms of education, intercultural education policies for all would be one of the necessary components to offer truly inclusive education and dismantle the structural racism that persists in their systems.

Silvina Corbetta, a professor and researcher at the National University of Santiago del Estero in Argentina and IIEP consultant, says a “functional interculturality” is currently applied in the region's education systems, which is expressed in the form of “tolerance policies” or policies aimed at specific groups. According to Corbetta, intercultural society is not yet a reality, but a construction in conflict, and therefore a rather "critical" interculturality would imply deactivating asymmetries under other socio-economic, political, philosophical, and epistemic conditions.

Corbetta is the author of a recent IIEP publication, which systematizes the main thematic and problematic nuclei that currently affect state actions in education and interculturality in Latin America.

Among the findings, the study stresses the need to generate initiatives in two ways. First, through "relevant and quality education for indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants, in terms of modality, modes, rules, orientations, and institutional formats that education systems provide to guarantee education for these sectors (Intercultural Bilingual Education, its variants and/or Ethno-education).” Second, it also calls for "effective measures to interculturalize all education systems (Intercultural Education for All).”

Where do intercultural education policies fall short today?

Research produced in the last five years in the region shows that the vast majority of actions associated with intercultural education have children and adolescents belonging to indigenous peoples and/or Afro-descendants as their pedagogical subjects. There are few interventions aimed at interculturalizing non-indigenous or non-Afro-descendant people.

Moreover, the planning of these policies often fails to involve indigenous and Afro-descendant people in their design and implementation.

"Is it policy for, policy with, or policy by indigenous peoples?"
- Silvina Corbetta, a professor and researcher at the National University of Santiago del Estero in Argentina and IIEP consultant

Likewise, there are challenges related to the scope of these policies, in terms of geography, but also in terms of content and educational level. In terms of geographical scope, research indicates that the indigenous population continues to be assumed rural, when in fact there is a trend towards urbanization among these groups.

With regard to content, it is observed that interculturalism and bilingualism are often managed exclusively through language teaching. In this way, it ignores, for example, that the teaching of Mapudungun is inseparable from the teaching of Mapuche culture, given that "the central elements of the language are precisely aspects of the culture that are difficult to transmit without it.” In other words, the (segmented) form of teaching continues to obey Western rationality.

Extending intercultural policies to teachers

In terms of coverage of educational levels, intercultural bilingual education is implemented at the primary level, but is scarce at secondary and higher education levels. This last fact leads us to reflect on another deficit, which is the low presence of indigenous people in universities and higher education institutions and, consequently, the scarce training of indigenous teachers. At the same time, the low number of specific intercultural training courses offered in these institutions is also relevant.

Even so, the efforts of the countries in the region to develop a great diversity of intercultural education plans and programmes at all levels in each territory should be acknowledged. According to Corbetta, there are basically four types of initiatives:

  • programmes to preserve and use languages;
  • programmes to train bilingual professionals and increase teachers specialized in interculturality;
  • curricular adaptation programmes aimed at strengthening education policies with an intercultural perspective;
  • and programmes to promote the incorporation of communication and assessment technologies, aimed at reducing the existing gap between indigenous and non-indigenous populations.

"The implementation of education policies aimed at including and sustaining students belonging to indigenous and Afro-descendant populations marks an intergenerational improvement in the educational situation," says Corbetta.

All the indicators considered in the IIEP study show improvements in access, literacy, and attendance rates for indigenous and Afro-descendant populations. This is coupled with significant policy progress in almost all countries. However, inequality persists. Both indigenous and Afro-descendant populations have the greatest difficulties in all the indicators analyzed.

Watch an interview with Silvina Corbetta in Spanish.

In order to overcome the asymmetries in educational inclusion, the study suggests 25 valuable recommendations for states to achieve the interculturalization of their education systems. Among them, it highlights:

  • the massive and compulsory retraining of political authorities and career civil servants in the education systems from a critical intercultural approach;
  • the production of content consistent with the historical processes of struggle of communities and collective rights to land and territory;
  • and the budgetary monitoring within countries in relation to the initiatives carried out in the field of interculturality.