While still facing numerous challenges, the education system in Belize has improved tremendously in the past few decades. Literacy is at its highest level ever, about 77 percent, and schools are becoming increasingly well-funded and accessible. However, there are still some hurdles to overcome, such as reducing dropout rates, training more teachers and maintaining affordability to those living in extreme poverty. For expatriates, home schooling is popular, though limited access to curriculum can sometimes be an obstacle.
Schooling is divided into twelve years, with most schools modeled on the British system. The first two years are infant classes, followed by six "standards" in primary school and four "forms" in secondary. A few schools follow the North American system of twelve "grades" over twelve years, with grades 9, 10, 11 and 12 in secondary school. The school year runs from early September to late June.
School is mandatory to the age of 14, though this is loosely enforced and dropout rates are high. The vast majority of schools are public and are funded by both the government and the Roman Catholic Church. Private schools generally give a better education, though they are fewer in numbers and much more expensive. Postsecondary education includes several junior colleges — although these are mostly just secondary schools — and two universities. The major university is the University of Belize, which has numerous campuses around the country.
Due to the strong Catholic influence in schools, most children wear uniforms and Catholic holidays are observed within the school system. Both private and public primary schools teach over three hours of Catholic instruction each week. As the constitution guarantees religious freedom, receiving religious instruction is optional and requires parental consent.
English is the primary language used in schools in Belize, though other languages like Spanish may be occasionally employed for younger students. This can be a great benefit to foreign students who only speak English but learning Spanish for social purposes is an asset.
Primary public school is open to both Belizeans and non-nationals. Tuition is USD$15 a month, though the government covers it for citizens and permanent residents. While public education is "free" for most children, parents still have to pay for school supplies, books and uniforms. These costs are occasionally too high for Belizean parents, which forces some students to drop out early. Nearly every child is enrolled in the first year, yet only about 75 percent finish primary school. Recently, the government has begun programs to cut costs for parents, such as lending textbooks to all students for free. The programs, though still imperfect, should help to reduce dropout rates.
The availability and quality of public education varies greatly throughout Belize. Schools are generally better in major cities and towns, with the best selection in Belize City. Slightly less than 40 percent of Belizean teachers have formal training and class sizes hover between 17 and 23 students per teacher. The poorest school conditions are in Toledo, with the highest dropout rates in the country and the fewest trained teachers. Schools range from modern two story buildings with science and computer labs to single room shacks with thatched roofs. The Ministry of Education provides school buses for children with long distances between school and home, mostly in rural areas.
Private schooling is a bit of a gray area in Belize as the definition of "private" varies greatly. Statistically speaking, roughly 80 percent of all education in Belize is private, though not in the sense some people might think. Public schools that are mostly funded and governed by the Catholic Church are sometimes classified as private schools. There are also a few semi-private schools, with the occasional cost covered or subsidized by the government. Traditional private schools with no government involvement can be mostly found in Belize City and Ambergris Caye, with a small handful in other major towns.
Class sizes are generally smaller and the quality of education is better at private institutions. The majority of preschools are privately run, however public schools at the primary and secondary levels outnumber private schools six to one. Some institutions get funding through churches, fundraisers or from private donors to reduce costs for students, while others rely heavily on student fees. Monthly tuition ranges from USD$5 to USD$250 a month.
Children from poorer families sometimes attend private school through the help of scholarships, bursaries and parents working multiple jobs. As a result, the students in private schools come from a variety of backgrounds, so there is rarely any judgment based on race or class.
Secondary schools are sometimes called colleges, as they may also teach a few post-secondary courses and night courses for those wishing to upgrade or complete their education. Secondary schools often include a vocational component and students sometimes have the option to specialize in certain subject streams.
There are nearly fifty secondary schools in Belize. Belize City, with over a dozen to choose from, has the best schools and the greatest selection. Students must take competitive entrance exams to determine which schools they may attend, if any.
Tuition is still sometimes covered by the government, but for non-nationals it can reach up to USD$300 per year. School supplies and textbooks are more expensive in secondary school, often several hundred dollars, so it soon becomes clear why many Belizean families can't afford to educate their children past primary school, or why students drop out before graduation. A little over 70 percent of Belizean children start secondary school, though attendance is less than 40 percent and only 25 percent actually graduate. While the numbers may seem low, they are much higher than a decade ago and are improving every year.
Sixth form diplomas from schools in Belize are recognized for credit by American institutions. At the end of sixth form, or Grade 12, students write exams prepared by the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC). Grades from CXC exams are recognized internationally and allow students their choice of university in Europe or North America.
Universities and Colleges
Belize has a small selection of junior colleges which sometimes double as secondary schools, teaching fifth and sixth form — or Grade 11 and 12 — courses to pre-university students. Sixth form, or junior college, diplomas from Belize are recognized in most American and Caribbean postsecondary institutions. Adults who wish to return to school to upgrade or complete their education have the option of night courses, which are available in many junior colleges and secondary schools.
Belize has two universities: the University of Belize and Galen University. The University of Belize (UB) is the heavyweight in tertiary education and the only national institution, offering dozens of different bachelor and associate degrees from agriculture to engineering to physics, as well as health care and education certificates. UB's main campus is in Belmopan and there are five other satellite campuses around the country.
Degrees from the University of Belize aren't recognized worldwide. However, UB does offer post-graduate programs in partnership with various universities throughout the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. To establish UB's international recognition and quality assurance, the Ministry of Education has been trying to create an Accreditation Council since 2004.
Galen University is a small private institution in San Ignacio that offers undergraduate and graduate programs. With only a few dozen students attending, it doesn't match up to UB in size. However, through a partnership with the University of Indianapolis, Galen University offers several dual degree programs. Students can receive a degree from each university in several subjects, such as Anthropology, Archaeology, Economics and Environmental Science. Galen University is internationally recognized and is currently Belize's only tertiary institution on UNESCO's listing of universities.
Tuition at the University of Belize varies depending on the student's nationality. Belizean students and permanent residents pay USD$45 per credit hour, foreign students from undeveloped countries pay USD$90 per credit hour, and foreign students from developed countries pay USD$135 per credit hour. There are general fees of about USD$200 for every student as well. Galen University has a tuition of USD$120 per credit hour for all students.
There are several accommodation options for students attending university. The University of Belize has dormitories ranging in price from USD$60 to USD$175 a month. Another popular option is to stay with host families in houses near campus, which usually costs around USD$200 - USD$300 a month, including meals and utilities.
The dress code is casual — no uniforms here. Most lessons are taught in lecture fashion and letter grades are used. Due to the high costs, tertiary education is financially out of reach for most Belizeans so only about three percent are enrolled, two thirds of which are women. Many Belizeans who attend post-secondary education seek it abroad, namely in the U.S. and elsewhere in the Caribbean.
The government has made an effort to develop a few vocational institutions for people who were unable to complete primary or secondary school and find themselves without bankable skills. Mostly geared towards single mothers and unemployed youth, the Centers for Employment Training (CETs) and a few Vocational Training Centers operate in various locations around the country, offering programs to develop specialized skills like woodworking, mechanics, tourism and computer training.
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