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Official Country Name: Belize
Region: North & Central America
Population: 249,183
Language(s): English, Spanish, Mayan, Garifuna (Carib), Creole
Literacy Rate: 75%

Belize, formerly British Honduras, is a central American country on the Caribbean Sea bordered by Mexico and Guatemala. A British colony for more than a century, Belize is now a parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. The official head of state, Queen Elizabeth, is represented by a governor general. The head of government is a prime minister. Belize occupies 22,965 square kilometers (8867 square miles), 92 percent of which is forest and swampland. In 2000 the population was estimated at 249,183 people, making Belize the least densely populated nation in Central America. English is the official language of Belize, though approximately half the inhabitants also speak Spanish. Most of the population is of mixed mestizo, Creole, Maya, and African descent. Approximately 60 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. The literacy rate, variously estimated at 75 to 90 percent, is the highest in Latin America. Poverty and unemployment remain pervasive, though the economy has benefited from an increase in tourism and foreign investment in the 1980s and 1990s. The majority of the labor force work in the service sector. Belize has greater trade and cultural links with the United States and Europe than its Central American neighbors. In 1997 the United States purchased 45 percent of Belize's exports, while Mexico accounted for less than 4 percent. Belize receives American television broadcasts via satellite and relies greatly on American news sources.

In Belize education is provided by a loose confederation of school subsystems, most following the British model. The Belizean school system is divided into five sectors: preschool, primary school, secondary school, tertiary (junior colleges/sixth forms), and adult and continuing education. Higher education is available in colleges in Belize City and Corozal. The University College of Belize is the largest institution of higher education in the country. Belize contributes to the University of the West Indies, which operates a small extramural department in Belize City. Other postsecondary institutions include the Belize School of Nursing, the Belize School of Agriculture, and the Belize Teachers' College. Only a small percentage of Belizeans receive any kind of postsecondary education.

Education is compulsory for children aged 5 to 14. Religious denominations operate the majority of primary schools, which enrolled 47,200 students in the early 1990s. Religious institutions managed the majority of secondary schools until the 1980s, when expanded public schools began to enroll more than 50 percent of the students. Approximately 8,900 students attended secondary schools in the 1990s.

The Ministry of Education and Sports is responsible for the school system in Belize. The Ministry cooperates with volunteer agencies and church schools to ensure that all Belizeans are given "the opportunity to acquire the knowledge, skills, and attitudes required for full and active participation in the development of the nation."

Educational philosophies and practices in Belize were greatly influenced by the British system and Jesuit institutions from the United States. Since the 1960s the Peace Corps and other U.S. volunteer programs have introduced American pedagogical methods.

Belizean nationalists long wished to decolonize the educational system and rely less on foreign academic institutions. In 1979 the ruling People's United Party (PUP) established the Belize College of Arts, Science, and Technology (BELCAST) as a state institution free of church involvement. The government secured funds from the European Economic community for construction, but the campus was never built. The rival United Democratic Party (UDP) assumed power in December 1984 and established an alternative college, created and maintained by Ferris State College of Big Rapids, Michigan. Nationalists were dismayed that the new University College of Belize would be administered by non-Belizeans. Intense political controversy arose in 1991 when it was discovered that the university had not been properly accredited, calling into question the value of its degrees. A new PUP government severed its agreement with Ferris State College, and the state of Belize assumed full control over the university.

In the 1980s studies conducted by Belizean government and outside observers revealed that up to one-third of primary school students dropped out before they turned 14. Dropout rates and absenteeism were notably higher in rural areas where the seasonal demand for agricultural labor led many students to opt for work rather than school. The studies indicated that many poor parents did not regard education as a priority for their children, seeing few benefits from secondary or tertiary schooling. The children of illegal aliens, farm workers, and subsistence farmers are increasingly ill-equipped to find employment in an economy where secondary school credentials are considered minimum requirements for employment. In the late 1980s, only 60 percent of students completing primary school attended a secondary school.

Secondary schools in Belize are not free, and government attempts at providing financial aid have proven inadequate to assist the vast majority of low income families. It is estimated that 50 percent of secondary school students drop out before completing their studies. In some city schools, the drop out rate has reached 70 percent, caused mainly by lack of funds, poor discipline, and teenage pregnancy. Fewer than 15 percent of secondary school graduates continue their education by entering the sixth form, which would prepare them for university studies.

Higher education opportunities in Belize are extremely limited. Few scholarships to foreign universities are available, though in the 1980s a number of Belizeans were given scholarships to Cuban universities. In the mid-1980s Central American Peace Scholarships were awarded to Belizeans, giving them opportunities to enroll in U.S. colleges and universities.

In 2000 the Ministry of Education and Sports called for a series of school reforms. The ministry called for designing a national curriculum, administering national testing, devising criteria for teacher training and licensing, and establishing higher standards in all levels of education.

As a country increasingly dependent on international trade and tourism, Belize recognizes the importance of education to both improve its national prospects in a global economy and alleviate the chronic poverty of many of its citizens.


Belize, February 2001. Available from http:/www.countrywatch.altavista.com.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The World Factbook 2000. Directorate of Intelligence, 1 January 2000. Available from http://www.cia.gov.

—Mark Connelly

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