Improving quality of basic education becomes a priority national concern

President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. and Vice President Sara Duterte led the Basic Education Summit held the other day to craft appropriate strategies for achieving desired outcomes for the country’s youth. In 2021, the Department of Education (DepED) reported a total enrollment of 27.2 million from Kindergarten to Grade-12 (K to 12).  This is roughly equal to almost 25 percent of the country’s population.

For more than two years, grade school and high school students could not attend face-to-face classes and had to be taught through a combination of distance learning methods that were extremely challenging for them, as well as for their teachers and parents.

The Covid-19 pandemic wiped out the painstaking gains in improving the quality of education achieved over the previous decades. In September 2021, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) estimated that one year of shutdown would result in ₱11 trillion in productivity losses over an individual’s 40-year lifespan as a member of the labor force.

As the Marcos administration endeavors to put the educational system back on track, it must deal with the continuing lack of classrooms and basic facilities. Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, Senate education committee chair, cited the ₱430 billion budget allocated for meeting the shortage of 167,901 classrooms nationwide based on the 2019 National School Building Inventory.

An even more basic problem is ensuring universal access to basic education. Thanks to the government’s integrated development approach – as exemplified by the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program – children from the neediest families were able to enroll and sustain school attendance through a combination of nutrition, maternal health and livelihood programs augmented by direct cash grants.

The closing of private schools during the pandemic aggravated the overcrowding problem in public schools. Quality of education also affected the teacher-to-pupil ratio. In 2017, there were 29 high school students per teacher; the ratio was 26:1 in the primary grades – the highest in the region.

Vice President Duterte, who is also the DepED secretary, deplores that Filipino students are “not academically proficient,” emphasizing the need to refocus the curriculum toward raising aptitude levels in reading, writing, and mathematics. Latest surveys show that the Philippines as the tailender among ASEAN countries, behind Vietnam, Cambodian, and Myanmar based on standardized testing scores.

A good place to start would be to increase the country’s education spending to approximate the United Nations’ standard of six percent of GDP. From a peak of almost four percent in 2017, it dropped to three percent. From 16 percent of the national budget, it dropped to 14 percent.

Speaking at the summit, President Marcos said: “We have failed our children and let us not keep failing them anymore. Otherwise, we will not allow them to become the great Filipinos that we know they can be.” He vowed: “We will build infrastructure that will provide our learners, teachers, and the entire academic sector with a healthy and safe environment that is conducive to learning.”