Only six Latin American countries have achieved or almost achieved universal primary education, says a UNESCO report, and there are wide variations in the proportion of children dropping out.
There is a direct relationship between the availability of free schooling and pupil attendance, says the report on 19 countries, which is based on 1998 figures.
Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, Chile, Cuba and Uruguay have achieved - or almost achieved - universal schooling. But while 94 per cent of children in Argentina reach 5th grade (age 10), in Guatemala the proportion is 55 per cent and in El Salvador it is 40 per cent.
Most drop-outs are boys, with more girls finishing both primary and secondary schools in nearly all the countries. Throughout Latin America 20 million teenagers do not receive secondary schooling.
In the 12 countries where universal schooling is poor, greater efforts are needed, says the report. This is especially true of Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua where 20 to 25 per cent of seven to 15-year-olds do not attend school.
Throughout the region 20 per cent of school-leavers went on to further education. In nearly all countries there were more women than men in universities.
Sixty per cent of the region's university and tertiary students were found in the three major economies: Argentina, Mexico and Brazil. Argentina again topped the list with 47 per cent of secondary graduates going on to some form of tertiary education. Bottom placed is Nicaragua with only 12 per cent.
Teacher-student ratios vary throughout the region. The average is 1,330 teachers per 100,000 people. Argentina and Cuba have the lowest number of students per teacher: fewer than 20 in primary schools. At the other end of the scale, Guatemala has one teacher per 38 primary pupils.
Of the 6.5 million teachers in Latin America, 43 per cent work in primaries, 34 per cent in secondary, 13 per cent in tertiary education and 10 per cent in pre-school.
Almost 70 per cent of all teachers are women but the proportions vary between sectors: 95 per cent of primary teachers are women, 75 per cent of pre-school, 60 per cent of secondary and 40 per cent of university or tertiary level.
The UNESCO report noted that apart from Costa Rica and Chile, countries with the highest proportion of state schooling also have the highest rates of people seeking higher education. These are Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina and Bolivia.
In 1998 Argentina recorded the region's highest levels of educational attendance at all stages. That position is likely to be threatened by the country's economic collapse at the beginning of 2002.