With a birthrate of 2.2 percent and 40 percent of the population below the age of 15, Nicaragua views education as a critical force to determine the future stability and prosperity of the nation. Nicaraguan education during the years since 1950 has been shaped by the same two major events that shaped the nation politically: the beginning and the end of the Sandinista government's tenure. Under the Somoza government, education levels, especially in the rural portion of the country were very low, with estimates of illiteracy ranging from 75 to 90 percent in the outlying areas and nearing 50 percent nationwide. In the years prior to the 1979 Sandinista emergence, Nicaraguan education functioned as two separate systems, the primary and secondary systems administered by the Ministry of Education and the higher education system, which consisted of the nation's two independent universities: National Autonomous University and the Central American University. In 1980, the Sandinistas integrated the autonomous higher education institutions into a single, centrally administered education system based in Managua. While some might criticize the Sandinistas for their political use of the education system, their emphasis on educational opportunity and literacy did bring about a renaissance in Nicaraguan schools.
In the first five years of their rule, enrollment in the nation's schools doubled from 500,000 to one million, despite the threats of violence from the contras. In 1982, UNESCO recognized the Sandinista Literacy Crusade for dropping illiteracy from 53 percent to 12 percent. After their electoral defeat in 1990, but before relinquishing power to the United National Opposition (UNO), the Sandinistas split the education system into four parts, a move criticized as being politically rather than educationally motivated. These parts are the Ministry of Education, with responsibility for preprimary through secondary-level schools; the National Technological Institute, which provides vocational training; the Institute of Culture, which administers the museums and other cultural institutions; and the higher education institutions.
Post-Sandinista education has continued to build upon the successes of the previous regime. While maintaining and expanding the Sandinista emphases on universal educational opportunity and literacy, the UNO government has reinstituted one aspect of education that lay largely dormant through the 1980s: religion. Humberto Belli, a former education minister, described his educational approach as "a Christian policy, dialectical in life, so the student can develop his critical consciousness." Predictably, this and related changes have drawn criticism from various quarters, but in a nation that is 90 percent Catholic, religion would prove hard to separate permanently from education.
"Access to education is free and equal for all Nicaraguans," reads the nation's constitution. Despite progress since 1980, this promise remains far from being met. Education is legally compulsory only through the primary grades, although even there the level of participation is rather low. In 1999, the nation's schools expected to enroll a total of 1,366,357 students but exceeded that number by nearly one percent for a total enrollment of 1,377,697. These students included 160,398 in preschool programs, 816,701 in primary schools, 304,169 in secondary schools, 5,250 in teacher training programs, 88,117 in adult education, and 3,065 in special education programs. Matriculation rates in preprimary through secondary schools have risen in recent years, but they still fall well below standards for universal coverage. In 1999, 26 percent of eligible preschool students were enrolled. Of eligible primary students, 75 percent were enrolled, with 32.6 percent of eligible secondary students in school. Mostly as a result of the relatively high enrollment rates in primary schools and as the aftermath of the Literacy Crusade, literacy stands at 65.7 percent for all citizens over the age of 15.
Enrollment by gender in all levels of education through secondary is fairly equal. The numbers at the preschool level are virtually identical. In the primary schools, the student population is approximately 50.6 percent male, while in the secondary schools 46.7 percent of students are male. This slight disparity helps to explain the higher level of literacy among women (66.6 percent) than among men (64.6 percent). Enrollment levels in both the adult education and literacy programs are virtually 50 percent for each gender. The academic year, as in much of Latin America, runs from March to December. Instruction is performed exclusively in Spanish. Given the very small number of citizens who speak primarily a Native American language, monolingual instruction remains a non-controversial issue.
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