The educational system in Mexico has changed drastically in the 11 years I have lived in Mexico. Our son attended kinder (kindergarten), primaria (elementary) and secundaria (middle school). I have taught at the kinder (kindergarten) and primaria (elementary) levels here in Mexico. So I’ve been able to experience the system both as a parent and as a teacher.
First, let’s talk about the guardería. This is NOT a school but rather a daycare. Children are eligible to attend starting at 45 days old and ending at 4 years of age. Literally, the day after a child is 4, he or she will no longer be permitted to attend. This has caught some parents unaware and lead to mad scrambling to find a kinder (preschool) that has space for their 4-year-old son or daughter. Although children can enter kinder at age 2, many parents prefer the guardería because of the extended hours.
There are also estancias infantiles, which are government supported guarderías designed to provide childcare for single mothers who are working or studying. Children can attend once they are one year old until one day prior to their 4th birthday. If the child has special needs or is disabled, he or she can continue to attend until one day prior to his or her 6th birthday.
Moving on to preschool. What is known as el jardín de niños (Garden of children) in Mexico is both pre-school and kindergarten. Some schools even offer guardería levels. Children between 45 days old and 2 years are considered lactantes (milk drinkers). Those between two and three years old are categorized as maternales (mothering). And beginning from age 3 years to 6 years the children are divided into three groups: primero (first grade), followed by segundo (second grade) and tercero (third grade).
The age placement has been a little troublesome to me because all children born in the year, whether on January 1 or December 31 were grouped together. This means that some children were a full year younger than their classmates. This age lumping continues through elementary, which seriously impacts the overall success rate of children born later in the year. Recently, some efforts have been made to close that developmental gap. Beginning in 2018, children entering primero must be 4 years old prior to August 1.
Third graders, mostly 5-6 years old, are taught to read and write. This may seem a little young for English speakers who typically learn to read at about age 7, however, Spanish is more of a syllabic language rather than whole word language and therefore easier to learn phonetically.
Although 3 years of kinder attendance is mandatory it seems only attending tercero (third grade) is strictly enforced in Mexico. From what I’ve seen, a child’s kinder attendance eases the transition to primaria (elementary school). After all, a kinder trained child already knows to line up, sit in a chair, work on classwork, listen to the teacher, ask to use the bathroom, do homework and so on. Most parents in our area try to send their children to a private kinder rather than one run by the government, mostly because of classroom size. Although by law, there can only be a maximum of 20 students per classroom, if there is a teacher’s aide, that number can be increased by 10. In reality, this number is often even larger.
Kinders tend to have more parent involvement than the other levels. There are usually parent/child events scheduled each month centered around the holidays. The school year runs parallel to the primaria school year which is currently 200 days. Most kinders have a school day that runs from 9 am to 1:30 pm.
Entering primero (first grade) at the primaria (elementary) level most students know how the basics of reading and writing in Spanish. Again, there is the issue of younger students who are just not at the same level as older classmates and fall behind although as of 2018, students entering first grade must have already turned 6 before August 15.
Both public and private schools follow a SEP mandated curriculum. Private schools are considered better because of the smaller classroom size. However, having taught at a private school, I can tell you there is a trade-off. Although most of my classes had less than 20 students, about 3/4 of them had some sort of behavior or learning issue. Whereas my son’s classes at the public elementary school had anywhere between 30-40 students with 3 or 4 students having behavioral or learning issues.
Grades at all levels, with the exception of kinder which uses satisfactory/unsatisfactory, follow the same protocol: 80% attendance is mandatory for grade completion. Students are evaluated on a scale of 10 with 6 being the lowest passing grade. At the primaria level, students can not be held back unless both teacher and parent get a waiver approved from SEP (board of education) so the lowest possible grade for an elementary student is 6.0 regardless of actual understanding of a subject.
Attending primaria is mandatory until age 14. School times vary. In many areas, there are matutino (morning) and vespertino (afternoon/evening) schools using the same building. The hours for the matutino run from 8 am to 12:30 and for the vespertina 2 pm to 6:30 pm. Everyone wants the morning classes it seems, although there is no reason to think students learn any better in the morning. Besides, the teachers are usually also working two shifts at different schools, so even the teachers are the same.
There is also what is known as Primaria de Tiempo Completo (full-time elementary). The school day begins at 8 am and may either finish at 2:30 or 4 pm. The extended hours are meant to provide other extra classes that the regular school day does not leave time for, like English or computer classes.
The next level is secundaria (middle school) which is 3 years. Students may be as young as 11 when they begin but the typical age grouping is as follows: Primer año de secundaria: 12 años, Segundo año de secundaria: 13 años, Tercer año de secundaria: 14 años. Remember, schooling is only mandatory up until 14 years of age in Mexico, so there is a large drop-out rate at this level. There are also matutino (7:00 am to 1:40) and vespertino (2:00 to 8:10 pm) sessions at this level since many schools share the buildings.
Classes include algebra, Spanish, English, history, and Formación Cívica y Ética (Mexican moral values) just like in elementary school. There are art, music and P.E. classes as well. The best addition to the curriculum was the elective carpentry class my son took. The students in his school were given the options of electricity, carpentry, auto mechanics, bookkeeping or clothing design for their elective and had a taller (workshop class) twice a week for the 3 years they were enrolled at the secundaria (middle school) level. The idea was to provide marketable skills for the students should they not continue their education past this level.
Some rural areas do not have middle schools but do have telesecundarias where students are in a classroom and the teacher teaches from another location and class is broadcasted to the students. Believe it or not, students who attend telesecundaries have some of the best educational outcomes. Perhaps the fortitude it takes to learn this way is a good predictor of ultimate success?
Mexico has a fairly good setup to provide opportunities for adults over the age of 15 to complete their secondary education through the Instituto Nacional para la Educación de los Adultos (INEA). Considering that 63% of 25 to 64-year-olds in Mexico haven’t obtained their diploma from the secundaria, there is a huge need in this sector. Materials and classroom instruction are provided free of charge and teachers volunteer their time in both urban areas and remote communities.
Preparatoria (high school) is the following educational rung to climb and is not mandatory. Students are usually between 15 and 18 years old and this segment is also 3 years in duration divided into 6 semesters. You may also hear the term bachillerato general used to refer to these years of study.
Considering most rural areas lack secundarias, even fewer have preparatorias. In some areas, students who are serious about their education take the bus every morning, sometimes for more than an hour, to attend prepa. Although most students still follow the traditional route, there is a relatively new online version available through SEP and other higher learning institutes. My son is enrolled in the preparatoria en línea through UVEG. He has one course per month to complete and will finish 6 months before his friends who are attending a regular prepa and with the same diploma. There are also Preparatorias Abiertas, which offer classes early mornings during the week or alternatively only on Saturdays all day to accommodate students who need to work.
Similar to the U.S., a high school diploma doesn’t prepare you much for life in the real world. So students are encouraged to continue on to the university level. Although there are ample excellent universities available to choose from in Mexico, enrollment in higher education institutes is one of the lowest percentages in the world with 53% of 15-19-year-olds currently attending school past the required levels despite having the one of the largest population of young adults between these ages. This might be ok if these potential students were working, but about 20% of 15-19-year-olds are neither employed nor enrolled in school. Additionally, higher education does not equate more job opportunities in Mexico. In fact, Mexico and Korea are the only countries where more people with advanced degrees are unemployed than those who have completed only basic education.
Be that as it may, a 4-year bachelor’s degree at the undergraduate level is called Licenciatura, which is followed by a 2-year Master’s degree known as Maestría, and a 3-year Doctorado, followed by the higher doctorate of Doctor en Ciencias. Currently, about 23% of Mexicans aged 23–35 have a college degree.
Once you have completed a program at the university level and received your Licenciatura in the field of study you completed you can add Licenciado in front of your name. For example, I have a Bachelor’s of Science in Education from a U.S. university. Therefore, I am Licenciada (Lic.) Flores. People put great store by titles here, so if you are entitled to it, use one. Instead of Licenciado, engineers use the title Ingeniero (Ing.) and architects use the title Arquitecto (Arq.) but they amount to the same thing.
I hope this brief overview of the Mexican education system helps you navigate its murky seas a little better!