Chile’s Education System: Structure and Challenges

Written by Rutka Ramirez: Educate For, Share your passion coordinator

Translated by Educate For Volunteer, Catherine Smith

To begin with, it is necessary to specify that education in Chile is divided into four key phases: preschool, basic, middle and further education.

Imagina: Kaho Miyamoto, Equipo Educate For

The Chilean education system is governed by the ‘Ley General de Educación (LGE)’ (The General Law of Education), successor of the ‘Ley Orgánica Constitucional de Enseñanza (LOCE)’ (Constitutional Organic Law of Education), which was introduced during the military dictatorship.   

Chile’s school system is organized by eight years of obligatory primary education for the 6-13 age group, and a four year secondary education for students between 14 and 17. The latter is divided into two subgroups: one defined by its academic nature and general curriculum (humanities and sciences), that prepares students to continue studies at a higher level; and the second a vocational school (technical-professional), that prepares students for the working world. The preschool education system has both public and private institutions, for children between 0 and 5 years old, although most students are ages 4-5.

The preschool and primary school systems saw 3.1 million students in 1992: almost four-hundred thousand children between 2 and 5 years in preschool; slightly more than two million in basic education and a little less than seven-hundred thousand young people in middle school education. Whilst basic education is almost universal, with numbers fluctuating between 91 and 96% in the 1970s, secondary education saw a huge influx over a decade, growing from 65% in 1982 to 80% in 1990, and lowering slightly in 1992 (78.8%). Preschool education attendance level meanwhile raised by 28.4% in the 2-5 age group in 1990, and saw a significant raise over the last three years, raising to 33% in 1992.

In terms of organization, the school system is derived from a highly centralized state provision of education, that dates back to the middle of the 19th century, ended by a decentralising reform and profound privatisation applied by the military regime throughout the 1980s and not questioned by the democratic government that took over in 1990.

The reform of the eighties – coinciding with structural changes in the superior education system – manifested itself in three main ways. To begin with, the administration of of the educational institutions was transferred from the Ministry of Education, to the 325 communes of the country (now 334), allowing them to have more autonomy in the employment and dismissal of staff, their infrastructure and support systems (libraries, teaching materials), whilst the Ministry of Education maintained functional rules, such as the curriculum, and textbooks, supervision and evaluation. Secondly, the distribution of resources was changed, from a method based on historical presuppositions of the spending of establishments, to a model based on the cost of subsidy per student. Additionally, the pay per pupil was calculated in a  way that operated as an economic incentive for new private management, put in place to establish new educational establishments at basic and middle level. Finally, the reform passed over the administration of a number of public establishments at middle vocational entry level from the Ministry of Education to corporations precisely for company associations.

From the analysis of the policies applied in Chile with respect to the school system and the system of further education, we can see a commonality; that is, the shift from the use of bureaucratic-administrative regulations of the systems, to forms of regulation by incentive, information and evaluation. Said shift jeopardises almost all the efforts of the respective systems and diverse aspects of the policies employed.

A well-known classification of the government instruments takes as a criteria the degree of restriction inflicted on the behavior of the regulated agents or agencies, and on this basis distinguishes been: a) instruments of information, b) treasury instruments (contracts, incentives, transfers, benefits); c) instruments of authority (certificates, approvals, authorisations, restrictions, etc.); and finally, d) instruments of action (activities, from defense to productive activities and traffic control). (Hood 1983)

From the perspective of the instruments employed by the state policies, it seems reasonable to suppose that the 90s will be characterised in Chile by a focus on the treasury instruments, that on one hand, refer to incentive and on the other, mechanisms of information and evaluation. Effectively, amongst the policies analysed throughout this work, there is a substantial redefinition of the central concept of the action of the state: from the traditional and centralised automatic assignment of public capital and the use of administrative commands and controls of the bureaucratic management of the State; to a new arrangement that combines the use of incentives, competitive funds and assignment linked to performance with the use of evaluation and information mechanisms.

Having said that, in spite of the implements on Education, there still maintains in force the rule from the Ley Orgánica de Educación, which establishes that every person is free to choose the educational system – be it public or private –which most “adapts itself to the needs of the student”. This speaks of the current problem for itself: that is, the choice which comes with the free market in Education, can be reduced to an economic question, and not one of needs. That is to say, the Chilean education system from the Ley Orgánica de Educación is structured in such a way that puts focus on education as a market model in which those who have the necessary resources will be able to study with a better quality of education. Thus, apply to the educational establishments with the best resources. It is our biggest challenge to combat this inequality, so that those children who are not currently able to access the highest quality education, are able to access the best that they can get.

In this way, quality becomes a negotiation that benefits only a part of the population, maintaining levels of inequality not only in education, but throughout the entire country.


Amongst the countries belonging to the OCDE, Chile is one of the countries with the greatest levels of inequality, both at an educational level, as well as generally. This is worrying, since it is evident that not all social groups are able to gain access to a quality education, and only those parts of the population who have the most resources are able to do so. As such, this perpetuates an unequal system, a vicious circle which does not permit all of the population to escape poverty or access dignified jobs and living conditions.


According to information from the OCDE in 2015, educational inequality is particularly striking. “As unequal income rose in the 90s, social mobility became stagnant; this means that less people in the lower part of the social hierarchy have been able to climb higher, whilst the most well off have maintained their great fortunes. This has serious social, economical, and political consequences”, according to a new report of the Organisation for Cooperation and Development (OCDE).


In order that the recovery of inequality should be most effective, Chile needs to restructure investment in Education, considering what is the cost per pupil and create new ways of financing education that aim for more equality and equity. It is necessary to look after politics that take charge of redistributing the income in Chile and the economy as a totality in order that Education improves for all of the population.

In this way, the new policies will need to secure equal opportunities with respect to educational processes and results. In an increasingly differing society, this ensures a new concept of equity. One ought not to rest on the notion of a homogenous nation in terms of provisions – as has been the case until now – but on the idea of moving towards a system in which input and processes amongst educational institutions differs in accordance with the particular social group it serves, in order to achieve similar output.

In summary, equality means: differing levels of provisions to obtain similar results; special attention paid to the requirements of groups which are socially and culturally distanced from the school culture; and a focus and positive discrimination on the provision of supplies and technical support. In contrast, in terms of further education, this has meant the introduction of the covering of tuition fees in the case of public institutions, as a way of reducing inequality that generates favour towards free education – or education financed by taxpayers – amongst those who are in position to pay for the benefits that come with gaining a professional or technical degree.

Therefore, it is of great important to continue working on a more inclusive and equal educational model with the purpose of moving away from the education system from the 80s and adjusting to new education models that focus on equality. Just as José Joquín Brunner points out,

The challenges faced by the Chilean education system exist demand an active ‘centre’; that is to say, a Ministry of Education with new functions, working towards the generation of conditions in which the system can improve in quality, equity, and efficiency. Such functions are principally the formation of policies and strategies of development of a mid-term system, the technical support lent to  operating units, the targeting and positive discrimination in the use of resources in order to achieve equal objectives, information and evaluation to monitor development of policies and the system as a whole. These new functions set out the need of an Active state and a Ministry of Education with efficient formulation of policies, of technical management and of sophisticated use of information (30)


  • Brunner, José Joaquín. 1986. Informe sobre la educación superior en Chile. Santiago de Chile: FLACSO.
  • _____. 1992b. “La formulación de una nueva política de educación superior en Chile”. Estado, mercado y conocimiento: Políticas y resultados de la educación superior chilena 1960-1990. Eds. Brunner, Courard y Cox. Santiago de Chile: Colección Foro de la Educación Superior 1992.
  • Brunner, José Joaquín, y Guillermo Briones. 1992. “Higher Education in Chile: Effects of the 1980 Reform.” Ed. Wolff and Albrecht. Washington: The World Bank.