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La Educación
Número: (123-125) I,III
Año: 1996

Secondary Education

Curriculum and Assessment

Secondary schools in Belize are normally four-year institutions that admit students from all-age primary schools. Since 1982, admission to secondary schools is determined by students’ performance on the BNSE described earlier, the results of which are reported by percentile ranking. Since secondary schools vary in the minimum level required for admission, the type of secondary school students attend is therefore determined by their BNSE percentile ranking and the ability of parents to pay the costs. The introduction of the BNSE in 1982 brought a change from the former system where students had to sit three examinations at the end of primary school. One was a Primary School Leaving Certificate exam, the other an exam to determine scholarship awards to secondary school, and the third a common entrance exam set by the secondary schools to determine suitability for admission.


The decision to have only one exam at the end of primary school eliminated the pressure on the students and provided a standard criteria for selection for scholarships and for admission to secondary school. However, to a large extent, the BNSE has helped to shape the curriculum and teaching practices of the upper primary classes, and has had resulting impact on the performance of students at the lower secondary level. Secondary schools claim that because of the “drilling” for the BNSE, enough attention is not given to the development of skills so the performance of students in the lower secondary forms is below expected levels. This fact, along with the fact that there was no unit specifically responsible for secondary curriculum development, and that many teachers in the lower forms were untrained, led to wide variations in standards among schools (Clark 1988).

To address the problems at the lower secondary levels a “Lower Secondary Curriculum Initiative” was introduced in 1988 with funding from the United Kingdom Overseas Development Agency. The main purpose of the initiative was to “help to improve teaching/learning standards in the lower forms of the secondary system” (Clark ibid). A consultant was employed and a secondary curriculum officer (SCO) was appointed into the curriculum unit to head this initiative and to give support to the upper forms of the secondary schools, most of which followed the CXC syllabuses. To reduce the risk of having the initiative viewed as an “add on,” the SCO worked closely with the Belize Association of Principals of Secondary Schools (BAPSS) in the development of a secondary curriculum policy, the formation of teacher panels, and in the preparation of schemes of work. In a proposal for reform in assessment submitted as a document to support the BPED project, a secondary school leaving examination was recommended for administration at the fourth form level (Bethell 1990). The composition and purpose of this examination has been discussed by BAPSS at length. It is now left for the Ministry of Education to finalize the discussions and implement the plan.

The efforts made to ensure that the “lower curriculum initiative” was institutionalized obviously paid off since the SCO has continued to work with BAPSS and other agencies on ongoing secondary education projects even though funding has ceased. However, many of the efforts have been stifled by finance or lack of a firm commitment and action on the part of central administration to see “projects” to completion. A draft policy for secondary education was developed almost four years ago and submitted to the Ministry of Education for ratification. This policy is still “on the table.”

In response to the call for a more diversified curriculum at the secondary level (1964-70 Development Plan), a number of schools with vocational/technical or agricultural bias were established. Two Junior Secondary schools were established in Belize City between 1969 and 1972. These were three-year institutions with strong focus on the crafts. Students who wanted to pursue an education beyond this level went on to Belize Technical College for an additional two years where they followed a vocational/technical, secretarial, or academic tract. Those who opted for the academic tract followed CXC syllabuses.

Others schools that were established in the next two decades kept the vocational/technical bias, but were mainly four-year institutions in rural areas. Because these schools are fully funded by government, the expense to parents is significantly reduced so many parents who can not afford denominational secondary schooling opt to send their children to these schools.

By 1990, the two Junior Secondary schools in Belize City were converted to four-year secondary schools with greater emphasis placed on following the CXC syllabuses—a result of Belize’s strong penchant for the academics and strong focus on external examinations.

Access to Secondary Schooling

The number of secondary schools have grown from 9 schools with 1,029 pupils in 1953 to 31 schools and 8,901 students enrolled in 1991-92. The transition rate from primary to secondary rose from 52% in 1972 to 76% in 1991-92.

The increase in the transition rate can be attributed in part to the increase in the number of secondary schools established since self government. The call for greater government involvement in secondary education and for a more diversified curriculum was strong in the government’s development plan of 1964-70. There were recommendations for the establishment of more secondary schools with technical and agricultural bias and for greater financing of secondary education by government. The plan stated that “secondary schools are starved of funds” and the time had come for government to assume a greater share of the responsibility and the burden of financing secondary education.

The government responded with the establishment of several schools across the country in the following two decades. The number of secondary schools in the country now includes a significant number of government and community managed schools (15 out of 31), with an increase in the number of schools in rural areas. This is a dramatic change from 1962, when there were 14 secondary schools run by the churches, 1 run by the government, and 1 agriculture school in rural Stann Creek.5 The government’s assistance to secondary schools has also increased considerably since the 1950s. The Commonwealth Development and Welfare (C.D & W) scheme introduced in 1958 gave schools assistance by paying the salary of the principal plus one graduate teacher. This was increased to 50% of the salaries of all posts approved by government plus assistance with the cost of non-salary expenditures and building construction. The allowance for teachers’ salaries has now risen to 70%.

To make secondary schooling more accessible, the government, prior to 1993, offered scholarships to primary school graduates based on their performance on the BNSE and on the financial means of their parents. The policy of “free education,” which was introduced in the 1993 school year to fulfill one of the main campaign promises of the present government, sought to change the “inequities in the system” and make secondary schooling “affordable.” This policy can be considered one of the most significant for secondary and tertiary education in this decade. However, this “free education” policy is not entirely free, as some are now just discovering. The government has made the clarification that it had instituted a policy of “free tuition“ and assistance with textbooks, not “free education.” Parents are still expected to bear the cost of other fees required by the schools and to purchase books. Some of the other effects and/or implications of the “free tuition” policy are still being discussed one year after it was implemented at the secondary level and recently at the sixth form level. Some of these are outlined below.

1) Schools continue to maintain their minimum levels for admission based on the BNSE. As a result, the policy does not make secondary schooling any more accessible than it was before. It simply gives a break to most of the parents who could afford the tuition. Many poor parents are still unable to meet the additional charges that schools levy.

2) Schools that kept fees low to accommodate parents who otherwise could not afford a secondary education for their children, now stand to loose. Government pays the schools the amounts that would normally have been collected for tuition. It is possible that this amount can remain at this point until government can afford an increase. Many schools will find it difficult to operate and may have to close down.

3) The government makes payments to schools on a monthly basis. Some principals complain that they are unable to purchase in bulk or at reduced rates because the volume of funds required is not available at the time.

4) Secondary schools are reported to be rather inefficient with wastage; only 60% of students actually complete their education (Cayetano 1992). Will the wastage increase with the introduction of this new policy? Will schools allow students who have failed a form another chance to repeat? This issue will have to be clarified, since some schools (with parents’ support) may allow students to repeat a form simply because “government is paying.”

5) Expenditure on education has not increased dramatically with the introduction of the “free tuition” policy as would have been expected. The result is that recurrent expenditure has had to be cut in various sectors of the system. If this trend continues with the expansion of the policy to include sixth forms and UCB, then the 15% of the education budget that is spent on operating expenses will be lowered even further.

There have not been many initiatives or major reforms in the secondary sector; however, the government has made greater input and is now managing more secondary schools. Several secondary schools opened up in rural areas and there have been attempts to diversify the curriculum. While these efforts are laudable, other issues still remain unresolved, the most significant being the low percentage of teachers with professional training and the completion rate of students in high schools.6 If the desired effects of the BPED Project are realized, a similar initiative will have to be done at the secondary level to meet the demands.