Transforming Education

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At a glance the Philippine educational system appears healthy, robust and efficient. The reputation of Filipino nurses, teachers, engineers, accountants and other service-related workers is well established. Global demand for skilled English-speaking Filipino workers often masks the fact that the country’s educational system faces a number of challenges – not least of which is a shortage of teachers caused by the exodus of many of the Philippines’ brightest in search of more lucrative opportunities abroad.

Education in the Philippines is based on the American system, as instituted in 1901 by US President William McKinley and the 1000-plus American teachers who established an English-based system across the country. The development of English as the medium of instruction has shaped the educational system of the country over the last century.

Although education is constitutionally mandated to receive the largest portion of the national budget (which it does), resources are still spread too thin. Many classrooms in the capital city of Manila have student-teacher ratios that could soon approach triple digits. The Department of Education, or DepEd, was redefined in 2001 under Republic Act 9155, providing a new framework empowering and strengthening school-based management in an effort to increase local accountability and transparency. Nevertheless, with spending per pupil in 2005 (according to local media) reaching only a meagre $138 in comparison with $852 in Thailand or $1582 in Singapore, the system is limited by funding.

International aid, while certainly useful, still has not been able to bridge the gap between the country’s stretched federal budget and the requirements of the public educational system. The most recent international aid came in the form of $86m in assistance in January 2009 when the DepEd signed a memorandum of agreement with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) – most of which was to be used in the southern region of Mindanao.

The DepEd secretary, Jesli Lapus, remains defiant in the face of the challenges in the educational system, recently declaring to local press that, “education is not for some, it is for all. All means 100%. Anything less than 100% by 2015 constitutes a failure in reaching our “Education For All” commitment.”

The DepEd has set goals for next year of achieving a 94% participation rate and a 79% completion rate in primary or elementary education, as well as a 72% participation rate and 85% completion in secondary or high school education.

The primary education system in the Philippines consists of six years of elementary education, while the secondary system consists of four years of high school education. Generally speaking, children start attending elementary school at the age of six, enter high school at 13 and start their first year of university at 16. Thus, the majority of Filipino students complete their various degrees of education a full two years before the majority of the world.

As a consequence, the combined 10 years of pre-university education has sparked vigorous debate between teachers, politicians, businessmen and citizens alike. Those against the addition of one or two years to the education system argue that until the current primary and secondary systems are reformed, there is no use in even attempting to divide the already severely limited budget even further by adding two years.

The other side of the argument stems from the fact that the country is one of only a handful of generally impoverished nations that still has to implement an 11- or 12-year system. There is a middle road that appears to be gaining an upper hand that requires students with the intention of continuing on to university to take an additional two years. With only one in five high school students currently pursuing some sort of tertiary education, this option appears more realistic.

However, while the public education system remains constrained by the national budget, the private system has for the most part already instituted an 11- or 12-year pre-university system. Thus, children from middle- and high-class families, along with children of expatriates, generally attend private institutions.

The tertiary or university education system in the Philippines is somewhat more developed than both primary and secondary, though there are still some complaints of a sustained decline in quality. This notion is illustrated by a continuing fall in foreign students in the Philippines.

However, with private funding greatly contributing to the country’s universities and colleges, and a recent increase in cooperation and assistance from the business community, the tertiary educational system is in a much stronger position than its younger brethren. In fact, local media reports of wide-ranging reforms being implemented in 2009-10 by the Commission on Higher Education in order to elevate the status of the country’s tertiary education to that of its South-east Asian neighbours. Faculty and facilities development, scholarships for poor and deserving students, and strengthening the research capabilities of higher educational institutions will be the focus of reforms.

Despite the abundance of skilled Filipinos abroad, a bolstering of the country’s educational system is in order. However, given the diverging views in politics, business and mainstream society on exactly how and where to allocate funds to improve the system, a drastic change from the current approach may not come in the near future. Next year’s presidential election will likely fuel the debate further, prompting politicians into adopting an improved education policy agenda.

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