Educational challenges in Panama

Written by Francisca Rosales

Panama is a country in Central America with a population of approximately 4.2 million people in 2020 (Puertas et al. 2023). Panama has a Human Development Index of 0.815 due to widespread socioeconomic inequality, especially among the country’s indigenous population (ibid.).

The Panamanian education system is divided into different stages: preschool; primary school; pre-secondary school and secondary school. Education is free until middle school (The Oxford Business Group 2023). Despite recent progress in children’s access to education, Panama’s educational system is still facing grave challenges, especially as the quality of the country’s education continues to lag (The Oxford Business Group 2023; UNICEF 2021). There are still great disparities in dropout rates between rural and urban areas, and the number and professional qualification of teachers remains unsatisfactory (The Oxford Business Group 2023). The state budget for education continues to be disappointing (Herrera et al. 2018). In 2020, the Panamanian government only invested 3.9 percent of its GDP in education (Trading Economics 2023). Currently 17.2% of children aged between 15 and 24 are not enrolled in education or employment, entailing that many adolescents lack access to education and to the necessary skills to find an employment (Unicef 2020).

This report highlights educational challenges that Panama is facing at the moment; namely, the lack of quality education and infrastructure, and inequalities in access to education that affect especially rural and indigenous communities. The report concludes with recommendations to improve the Panamanian educational system.

Elementary school in Boquete, Panama. Photo by Fran Hogan on Wikimedia Commons.

Quality of Education & Infrastructure

The quality of education in Panama continues to fall behind (UNESCO 2020). There are not sufficient services at schools to ensure quality education for students, especially in rural and indigenous communities (UNICEF 2021). To illustrate, approximately 30 percent of children do not have access to preschool education (UNICEF 2021). Also, educational infrastructure is deteriorating due to poor maintenance (Herrera et al. 2018). The lack of capacity to accommodate students has led to the introduction of the two-shift school day to optimize school infrastructure (The Oxford Business Group 2023). This strategy entails that one shift of students attends school during the morning, while another shift attends school in the afternoon. However, this has hampered the development of students’ basic skills. The physical infrastructure of schools in rural areas is lower than in urban schools (Unesco 2020). Rural schools face major infrastructure challenges: there is a lack of infrastructure to accommodate the local demand for school; this results in children dropping out of school or forces children to walk for long distances to access their schools. Also, compared to schools in urban centers, schools in rural areas often lack the necessary learning materials, such as textbooks and notebooks (Unesco 2020).

Moreover, the educational style remains old-fashioned, as the curriculum is still based on memorizing concepts rather than developing key competencies and developing skills important for students’ future employability (UNICEF 2021). The lack of enforcement of a bilingual curriculum and, therefore, the lack of proficiency in English has negatively affected students’ preparedness for the labor market, especially in the sector of tourism. As a response, the government implemented a Bilingual Program in 2015, to improve basic and secondary teachers’ proficiency in English (The Oxford Business Group 2023). Furthermore,  schools lack a clear approach to teaching in schools in indigenous communities, which compromises the quality of education for students with an indigenous background. In fact, many teachers teaching in schools in indigenous communities follow non-inclusive educational practices (Unesco 2020). For example, non-indigenous teachers often do not allow students to speak in indigenous languages among themselves, creating tensions in the classroom environment and the current bilingual curriculum fails to include indigenous languages (Unesco 2020). 

Inequalities in Access to Education

According to UNICEF, 3 out of 10 children are affected by multidimensional poverty in Panama (UNICEF 2022). Children living in poverty and children with an indigenous background lack access to quality services (UNICEF 2022). Although preschool education is compulsory, approximately 40 percent of children aged between 4 to 5 years do not attend preschool (UNICEF 2020). Ensuring children’s access to preschool education is essential since the level of oral language kindergarten can have a great impact on a child’s learning outcomes through primary school in reading and writing, as well as mathematics (Puertas et al. 2023). The educational system also does not reach all adolescents to the same extent: only 7 in 10 children aged between 12 and 14 years were enrolled in pre-secondary school before Covid-19, while only 5 in 10 adolescents between 15 and 17 years were enrolled in high school (UNICEF 2020). Consequently, only 35 percent of students reached the minimum proficiency levels for literacy according to the Sustainable Development Goals (UNICEF 2020). Also, 19 percent of boys and 16 percent of girls in pre-secondary schools are overaged; this fact points that unsatisfactory learning leads to school dropout, curtailing the possibility for young adults to acquire the necessary skills for future employability (UNICEF 2020). 

Inequalities greatly affect children with indigenous backgrounds, as indigenous children display lower achievement in literacy and numeracy rates. The indigenous population in Panama mostly lives in rural areas, where the supply of schools is substantially lower, compared to urban areas (Unesco 2020). To illustrate, adolescent girls from indigenous communities are more likely to be excluded from access to education and to complete secondary education and 1 in 10 children from rural areas are more likely to not be enrolled in school (UNICEF 2021; Unesco 2020).  The literacy rate for women from indigenous backgrounds between 15 and 24 years of age is 84 percent, which is lower than the national average (97 percent) (Unesco 2020). Also, schools in indigenous communities have poorer infrastructure and lower school attainment. Violence, including abandonment, or neglect, currently affects 44.5 percent of children, and indigenous girls show higher vulnerability to violence (UNICEF 2020). Children with disabilities also face exclusion in access to education as 1 in 4 children with disabilities does not attend school (UNICEF 2021).

Students’ reading performance greatly decreased after Covid especially due to inequality (Puertas et al. 2023). At the end of 2020, only 51 percent of children in primary schools and 42 percent of high school students could read proficiently (Puerta et al. 2023). A large portion of the population does not have access to internet from home or electricity. In fact, only 40 percent of households with children in public schools have internet access (Puertas et al. 2023). During the Covid lockdow, children from higher-income households could use online platforms, such as Microsoft Teams, to engage with their teachers; however, students in lower-income households often only had WhatsApp as a means of communication with their teachers. Consequently, thousands of students were at risk of dropping out of school during this period (UNICEF 2022).

Photo by Katie Chen on Unsplash.

Conclusion and Recommendations

This report highlights that the major educational challenges in Panama lie in the lack of appropriate infrastructure to ensure that students have access to quality education and social inequality that hinders students from achieving satisfactory educational outcomes. Education is an essential mechanism for development. Thus, the government of Panama must commit to expanding the current budget for education to improve schools’ physical infrastructure and quality to ensure that its population can access the necessary skills and increase its capabilities. Also, it is essential to continue investing in teachers’ capacity building to improve the quality of teaching and develop a curriculum that enables students to develop essential skills for the job market.

The government should also prioritize children from indigenous communities to close the current gap in unequal access to education. The government should invest more in schools in indigenous communities to improve learning outcomes in reading and mathematics among primary school and high school students. This is only possible through the implementation of inclusive policies that take into consideration students’ educational needs and recognize the disproportional exclusion of children with indigenous background from accessing quality education. Ensuring that students with an indigenous background have access to quality education is essential to prevent students from dropping out of school and from being further marginalized from society. 


Cubilla-Bonnetier, D., Grajales-Barrios, M., Ortega-Espinosa, A., Puertas, L. and De León Sautú, N. (2023). “Unequal literacy development and access to online education in public versus private Panamanian schools during COVID-19 pandemic”. In Frontiers in Education (Vol. 8, p. 989872). Frontiers.

Herrera M, L.C., Torres-Lista, V. and Montenegro, M. (2018). Analysis of the State Budget for Education of the Republic of Panama from 1990 to 2017. International Education Studies, 11(7), pp.71-82.

Oxford Business Group. (2023). “Panama makes progress towards sustainable education growth”.,five%2Dyear%2Dold%20children 

Trading Economics. (2023). “Panama – Public Spending on Education”.,compiled%20from%20officially%20recognized%20sources 

Unesco. (2020). “Rurality and education in Panama”. 

UNICEF. (2021). “All children learn in Palama”. 

UNICEF. (2022). “Country annual report 2022: Panama”. 

UNICEF. (2020). “Country Programme document”.