The Philippine education system has evolved over hundreds of years of colonial occupation, first by Spain and then by the US, through martial law and the people’s power revolution that brought democracy to the sprawling archipelago. The education sector’s development has mirrored the changes in the country’s administration. Today the focus is on expanding access and ensuring more Filipinos receive a decent basic education, as a means of reducing poverty and improving national competitiveness. The World Bank notes that in other countries such initiatives have brought “large economic benefits”. The K-12 reform was introduced in 2016 and funding was increased, easing concerns that its implementation would be hindered by limited resources and winning over new President Rodrigo Duterte, who was initially sceptical about the plan.

Despite these successes and President Duterte’s commitment to socio-economic issues as his policy priorities, the education system continues to struggle with deep inequalities. Quality also remains a concern. Addressing these problems will require a continued commitment to increased funding for education, and an efficient mechanism to ensure the money is spent in the most effective manner.


The Philippines has a vibrant and diverse education system, with the government, assisted by the private sector, providing a wide range of education from early years up to college and university across the archipelago. The Department of Education (DepEd) oversees the provision of basic education. The private sector includes kindergartens, international schools and religious schools. In 2015/16 there were 14.9m children enrolled at primary school and 6.01m at secondary level.


Today’s system has been shaped by the Philippines’ colonial and post-war history. Under the Spanish, education was largely provided by missionaries and the study of religion was compulsory, but most Filipinos were not included. It was only in the 19th century that they were able to attend the universities that had been established two centuries earlier, and it was only when the US took control of the Philippines in 1898 that consideration was given to non-religious education, English-language teaching and free primary school education for all.

The country was ill-prepared for the sudden expansion of education and did not have enough teachers to meet the new demand, so the colonial authorities established a teacher-training school and brought in 1000 teachers from the US to provide training. An emphasis on vocational and adult education was introduced in the early 20th century, while bilingual teaching – with maths, science and literature taught in English – was introduced under Ferdinand Marcos in 1974. The commitment to a bilingual education and universal access was enshrined in the 1987 constitution.

K-12 Implementation

Three years since the Enhanced Basic Education Act (EBEA, known as the K-12 law) was signed, the Philippines has finally embarked on its most ground-breaking change to the schooling system in decades, the K-12 reform.

K-12 extends compulsory schooling to grades 11 and 12, adding two years to secondary school, and makes secondary education compulsory. Prior to its implementation, the Philippines was the only country in Asia, and one of only a few in the world, to have a basic education system of just 10 years. The EBEA also mandated kindergarten as the start of compulsory formal education, while the Kindergarten Act of 2012 made pre-school free. In August 2016, 1.5m Filipino children attended 11th grade, with senior school students choosing between four tracks through the system: academic, technical-vocational, sports or the arts. Much of the opposition to the initiative, which triggered five separate petitions to the Supreme Court, centred on whether the country’s teachers, schools and administration were in a position to implement the reform. President Duterte expressed scepticism about the programme before he was elected, but changed his mind in May 2016 after a delegation from DepEd told him that the change was necessary, as Filipino students were falling behind their neighbours.

Indeed, increased spending on basic education – including an expanded Alternative Learning System (ALS) – is a centrepiece of the new president’s 10-point socio-economic agenda. President Duterte insists that the development of the Philippines’ human capital is a priority of his administration. Building on existing programmes, the education secretary, Leonor Briones, said that the Duterte administration’s education policy intends to ensure that the country provides a quality education that is accessible to all and relevant to the needs of the nation. Filipinos should also find education “truly liberating” through the development of critical thinking skills and an appreciation of culture and the arts.

10-Point Plan

The shift to K-12 began under President Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, who approached education as an investment in Filipinos, and offered a 10-point plan for improving education as part of his election campaign. As well as K-12, the 10 fixes included pre-schooling for all, technical-vocational training as an alternative in senior high school, working with local governments to build new schools, proficiency in science and maths, and working with private schools as “essential partners” in basic education. The plan is to expand the Government Assistance to Students and Teachers in Private Education, supporting as many as 1m students at private high schools through the Education Service Contracting Scheme.

Education For All

In 2015 the Education for All (EFA) initiative included provisions to ensure all Filipinos were able to achieve what UNESCO calls “functional literacy”, the ability to read, write and do calculations at a level that is sufficient for the country in which a particular person lives. Further supporting the K-12 reform, the government set four key objectives for the EFA initiative: providing education options for all out-of-school adults and young people; eliminating drop-outs and repetition during the first three years of school; encouraging the completion of a full cycle of basic schooling to a satisfactory level at every grade by all Filipino children; and committing to the attainment of basic education competencies for everyone.

In fact, recognition of the need to move towards K-12 was evident much earlier. In 2005 the government promised, under the Basic Education Reform Agenda, to remove all hurdles limiting access to and delivery of basic education, whether regulatory, structural, financial or institutional. The policy involved five key thrusts: school-based management; the development of teacher education; national learning strategies; quality assurance and accountability; and changes to the administration of DepEd, using the latest technology to ensure more effective use of resources, whether staff or funds.

World Bank Assessment

In June 2016 the World Bank published its assessment on the Philippines reform of basic education, “Assessing Basic Education Service Delivery”, noting that reforms were now backed with a substantial increase in funding, after years of underinvestment exacerbated by average population growth in excess of 2%.

The World Bank estimates that public spending increased by 60% in real terms between 2010 and 2015, helping finance infrastructure improvements and provide the means to hire more teachers. As a result, between 2010 and 2013 the student-to-teacher ratio in public high schools fell from 38:1 to 29:1, while the student-to-classroom ratio dropped from 64:1 to 47:1. However, “despite impressive recent increases, the Philippines still spends less on education than many neighbouring and middle-income countries,” the study noted. “Recent analysis has confirmed the need for more spending to meet national education norms and standards.”

The World Bank study was commissioned by DepEd to assess how the public budget was being used, in order for funds to be allocated more efficiently and effectively. It tracked 80% of the government’s national education budget, as well as spending by local authorities, in the last quarter of 2014.

In a separate report looking at the EFA initiative, UNESCO noted that even though the largest portion of the Philippine budget had consistently been devoted to education, in percentage terms this fell short of international standards, with the state spending only 2.6% of GDP on the sector in 2011.

That figure has risen over the past few years to an expected 3.5% in 2017, but the Philippines continues to spend far less on education as a proportion of GDP than many of its neighbours. Both Vietnam and South Korea, which have some of the world’s best-performing schools according to international benchmarks, spend 5% of GDP on education.

Early Encouragement

DepEd itself assessed the implementation of K-12 at a January 2017 conference with stakeholders including government officials, school administrators and teachers.

Among the encouraging news, it found that the situation in kindergartens had improved, with a more localised curriculum, the construction of clean, safe and child-friendly classrooms, and closer cooperation with the community. Children were developing a love of reading, while teachers’ skills had been enhanced via use of technology and the adoption of more effective teaching strategies.

For grades one to six, best practice included a curriculum more suited to the needs of Christian and Muslim pupils, closer cooperation with indigenous communities, the provision of self-paced learning materials, catch-up programmes at all levels and the introduction of Learning Action Cell sessions for teachers’ professional development. DepEd noted that in schools that had adopted these practices enrolment rose and the drop-out rate fell. Minority groups were also more confident, with Muslim children having the opportunity to learn Arabic.

Junior high schools also focused on programmes to reduce the drop-out rate and nurture continued learning, including the use of ALS through a virtual classroom, a basic literacy programme for adults, and scholarships for adult learners and students with special needs. Schools reported increased enrolment and participation, along with rising community awareness. Teacher competency also improved with training in new learning strategies focused on real-world application.

In senior high schools, where the full roll-out of grade 12 is now taking place, DepEd said that the policy has been largely successful, noting the transfer of junior high school teachers to fill vacancies, and improved cooperation both between local and national government, and with the private sector on the provision of facilities, including classrooms and dormitories for pupils living in remote areas. A large percentage of those enrolled in private schools received vouchers, with scholarships also available.

Raising Standards

Much of the official discussion on K-12 centres on the need to raise standards, improve teacher quality and encourage completion of basic schooling. The drop-out rate has remained high, and data from the “Functional Literacy, Education and Mass Media Survey” produced by the Philippine Statistics Authority, shows that around 4m children and young people were out of school in 2013, while as of April 2016, 16.6m Filipinos – or 39% of the workforce – had not completed basic education. The World Bank noted continuing problems with access and inequality. The report found that only 53% of the poorest 20% of households sent their children to high school, while 81% of the wealthiest families did so. To address the problem, the government aims to incentivise attendance, extend school feeding programmes and expand programmes under the ALS, a “second chance” designed to ensure more Filipinos complete their basic education. President Duterte has indicated that an enhanced ALS – better targeted with wider coverage, more partnerships and approaches that meet learners’ needs – will be one of his administration’s major legacies.

Regional Inequalities

The World Bank also found differences in allocations to education in different regions at the level of both national and local government. While both have responsibility for funding education, the World Bank estimates the local contribution, which is funded by property taxes, has been declining since 2006. Currently, more than 90% of school funding originates from the national government, with the proposed allocation to DepEd at P569.1bn ($12bn) in 2017, compared with P431.5bn ($9.1bn) in 2016. Most goes towards teachers’ salaries, but a significant amount funds financial assistance programmes for children from low-income families. Regional disparities in funding levels do not necessarily correspond directly with outcomes. The report found that although city schools received higher funding, their pupils tended to do less well in national tests than their rural peers. The report cited insufficient infrastructure to cope with the larger student bodies at urban schools and higher rates of teacher absences as reasons for this.

“Many schools, particularly in urban areas, have insufficient and poor quality facilities and a shortage of teachers,” the report said. “Operational funding still falls short of the amounts that schools need to pay bills, undertake basic repairs, and provide the day-to-day materials their students need. And there is rarely anything left over to fund school-level initiatives to improve student learning achievement.”

Allocation Of Funds

More effective targeting of funds to the areas of greatest need is therefore a priority alongside an overall increase in budget allocations. Briones told the Education Summit in November 2016 there is “a need for a drastic improvement in absorptive capacity”. The Duterte administration is planning to introduce a series of financial management reforms to improve education outcomes, including: enhanced leadership supervision and oversight over finance, administration and procurement; the creation of an education programme delivery unit to monitor budget execution and intervene to ensure funds move smoothly to where they are needed; a financial management information system to track budget spending in real time; and a more proactive approach to spending.

Teaching Standards

In recent years DepEd has introduced a number of measures to improve the standard of teaching, revising professional benchmarks and providing more on-the-job training. It has also made a concerted effort to attract the brightest and the best by raising compensation and making the selection process more competitive. In the past, teaching was poorly paid and often seen as the fall-back course for university applicants who did not get onto their preferred course. Studies found teacher knowledge in both elementary and high school was low, and that the professional development programmes were insufficient.

Civil society is also helping. Non-profit organisation Philippine Business for Education launched the Scholarships in Teacher Education Programme to Upgrade Teacher Quality in the Philippines (STEPUP), which is funded by Australian Aid, in 2015. The idea is to encourage the country’s best-performing college graduates and professionals to join the profession, with the aim of producing 1000 high-quality teachers for the public school system by 2019. Accepting candidates up to the age of 45, STEPUP covers full tuition fees and offers a range of benefits for participants. In return, successful applicants must work with DepEd for three years. The organisation offers a similar scheme to encourage the best high school seniors to pursue degrees in education, majoring in subjects including maths and English. The Philippines has not participated in an international survey of school performance since a 2003 study showed only one-third of children in elementary and secondary school were able to reach the lowest international benchmark in maths. It also revealed stark differences in performance between children from low-and high-income families. While that makes it hard to get a sense of how well the country’s children are doing relative to their peers in region, results in national tests remain patchy. At elementary school, the average score rose to 69.97% in 2013/14, but slipped back to 69.1% in 2014/15. The government targeted a score of 77% in 2016. A similar trend is evident at the secondary level, where the average score edged up to 53.77% in 2013/14 before dropping back to 49.48% in 2014/15. In 2016 the target was 65%. National results also show that pupils in urban schools do not perform as well as those in rural areas, according to the World Bank. The average score in the 2014 grade six exam was 66% in city schools and 75% in those outside urban areas, even though the former tended to have larger revenues.

Meeting National Needs

The government insists that the education system must be more appropriate to the needs of the country, including its economy. The aim is to improve students’ abilities in science and technology, and nurture critical thinking, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit, as well as to encourage them to support the wider community, especially those on the margins. Sex education, along with awareness of the issues surrounding teenage pregnancy and the dangers of drugs (from grade four), will be strengthened, and there will be a special emphasis on the environment, climate change and disaster preparedness in a country that has frequently endured earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and severe weather. To achieve these goals, the government is overhauling the curriculum to establish a “spiral” approach, which is designed to challenge and stimulate pupils so that they develop critical thinking skills. DepEd consulted industry during the development of the new curriculum, although the final design was the work of DepEd alone. Those learning science under the spiral approach, for example, learn general science, biology, chemistry and physics on a per quarter basis. The basics are taught in grade seven, with more complicated theories added as pupils progress through subsequent grades.

Higher Education

The Philippines is one of the few countries where the number of private higher education institutions and students enrolled there is greater than in the state sector. Leading private universities, such as the University of Santo Tomas, were established hundreds of years before their public sector counterparts – although Filipinos were not allowed to attend until the 19th century – while the University of the Philippines, the archipelago’s leading state university, was set up in 1908, when the country was under US control.

National government spending on the tertiary education segment has risen in recent years, but at 12.2% of the sector budget, spending remains below the international benchmark of 15-20%. The 2017 allocation reflects a government decision to scrap tuition fees at all state universities and colleges. However, students will still need to pay their living expenses with grants and other forms of aid available to those from low-income families.

“In the short term, this will incrementally improve enrolment rates, and will help free up financial resources for other college expenses and needs of the students,” Patricia Licuanan, chair of the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), said in a statement after the budget was passed in December. “From a wider perspective, this amount will eventually increase the available income of families.”

The Philippine higher education system is managed by CHED and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA). The country’s 228 state universities and colleges, which had 1.88m students in the 2015/16 academic year, are operated and subsidised by the government, with each university run by a board of regents and a board of trustees supervised by the chair of CHED. Local government units can also establish local universities. The state universities and colleges have a total of 454 satellite campuses, according to CHED.

The 1706 private universities and colleges, which have a total of 2.22m students, are generally much smaller, are governed under the Corporation Code and can be non-profit religious institutions or for-profit secular colleges. The greatest density of higher education institutions is in the south of the largest island of Luzon, including Manila. In 2015/16, 26% of students (1.07m) were enrolled in business-related courses, followed by 19% (791,000) studying education and teaching, and 13% (517,000) on courses in engineering and technology.

Quality Of Instruction

Despite the size of the higher education sector, the quality of instruction remains low, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB). In professional board examinations, for instance, median pass rates between 2005 and 2015 ranged from 34% to 43%. The ADB also noted a “worrisome preponderance” within both the state and private sector of institutions with a pass rate of zero, “indicative of a large number of low-quality higher education institutions.”

“CHED has instituted a vertical/horizontal typology approach to assess the quality of higher educational institutions,” Caroline Marian Enriquez, president of Our Lady of Fatima University, told OBG. “However, given that the current university landscape is composed of over 2000 institutions of very uneven quality, some of the standards may be too stringent or not applicable to the core competencies of certain institutions.”

The government has been trying to rationalise the state sector by putting a halt to the establishment of new course programmes by state universities and local colleges that do not meet the standards set by CHED, by encouraging rationalisation and hopefully reducing course duplication. It is also trying to raise standards through the introduction of quality institutional sustainability assessment.

“For the government to truly improve the quality assurance system of education, it should provide strong data on the performance of schools. Once analysis is provided on the 10 best- or worst-performing schools, the market will be able to decide based on this information,” Chito Salazar, president and CEO of Phinma Education, told OBG PHILIPPINE QUALIFICATIONS FRAMEWORK: In addition, the government has enhanced the Philippine Qualifications Framework (PQF) to put it in line with the ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework and ensure academic programmes meet international standards. “The PQF can significantly reduce jobs-skills mismatch. It can also boost international confidence among Filipino workers by making them more competitive and employable,” Senator Joel Villanueva, a former TESDA director-general, said in August 2016 (see analysis). The government is committed to creating a system that is more aligned to 21st century needs, positioning higher education as an accelerator for innovation and inclusive development. It is encouraging cooperation between academia and industry, supporting the professional development of teaching and research staff who want to complete their doctorate, and promoting research cooperation between institutions and across borders. Already, courses in subjects including meteorology, business analytics and naval architecture have been developed with industry, and a degree in health informatics is under development.

Research Partnerships

Research and development (R&D) has also been a focus in areas such as food security, the environment and natural disasters, biodiversity and health systems in order to support the Duterte administration’s socio-economic objectives. As part of the push for reform, the government is keen to encourage increased private investment and internationalisation in higher education.

Some institutions already partner with overseas universities on select courses, while the Philippine-California Advanced Research Institute (PCARI) was initiated in 2013 by the scientific community and academics to boost the country’s research capacity by supporting post-doctoral scholars and R&D proposals with the potential to address the Philippines’ developmental issues.

The PCARI’s R&D projects involve 15 private institutions working with partners at the University of California, and include work on traffic management in urban areas, the development of affordable solar energy systems for remote areas, and improving local capacity to design and develop medical devices.


The Philippines has embarked on education reforms that it considers crucial to its economic development, bringing its school system into line with international standards and seeking to open up its higher education sector to more people, while supporting R&D that will raise its academic profile and bring lasting benefits to the country.

The government had to overcome substantial opposition to introduce K-12, a sign of its determination to bring lasting change, but sustained funding to support the increased demand on resources will be crucial if these bold reforms are to be a success.