Back to basics: tackling PH education challenges


Sonny Coloma

At the Basic Education Summit convened by the Department of Education (DepED) this week, both President Marcos and Vice President Duterte, who is also education secretary, emphasized the government’s determination to do what is needed to ensure that the country’s youth reap the benefits of quality education that would make them globally competitive.

On Jan. 30, 2013 – or exactly 10 years ago – Congress passed Republic Act 10533, entitled “An Act Enhancing the Philippine Basic Education System by Strengthening Its Curriculum and Increasing the Number of Years for Basic Education, Appropriating Funds Therefor and for Other Purposes.

Prior to its enactment, the Philippines was one of the last three countries in the world – the other two were Angola and Djibouti – with only a 10-year pre-university requirement. The universally recognized norm is a 12-year basic education program that provides the best preparation for students and professionals.

Before World War II, the country’s basic education program consisted of grades one to seven plus four years of high school or a total of 11 years.

After the war, the American colonial government recommended a shift to the American system: six years (instead of seven) for elementary, three years of junior high school, and three more years of senior high school, for a total of 12 years of basic education.

The transition began with the removal of Grade 7 from elementary, but the addition of two years in high school was never completed. Hence, there was a 70-year postponement of this transition from the end of World War II in 1945 to 2015, the last year before Grades 11 and 12 – or senior high school – was finally implemented in the country in accordance with RA 10533.

Every new pathfinding endeavor is fraught with challenges and difficulties. Due to the country’s highly skewed income distribution profile, those in the lowest economic classes have encountered serious difficulties in sending and keeping their children in school. According to the Department of Social Welfare and Development’s 2022 survey, some 5.6 million Filipino families are living in poverty; this translates to roughly 22.4 million or about a fifth of the country’s population.

Due to the series of Covid-19 lockdowns, joblessness spiraled and brought on involuntary hunger and other serious difficulties to poor families. The Philippines had one of the longest forced periods of no face-to-face classes for primary and high school students. This compounded the essential difficulty of putting children through two more years of basic education on a shoestring family budget.

Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, who chairs the Senate committee on education, has made it his advocacy to alleviate the financial difficulties of needy families in enabling their children to hurdle the K to 12 program and become gainfully employed.

From 34 percent in 2010, the country’s poverty rate had been reduced to 21.1 percent in 2018. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the poverty rate rose to 23.7 percent in the first half of 2021. According to NEDA estimates, around 3.9 million more Filipinos were pushed down the poverty line.

The enactment in 2017 of Republic Act No. 11310 institutionalizing the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) extended the grant of cash benefits to the poorest families. This galvanized the initiative piloted in 2007 during the Arroyo administration and implemented nationwide by the Aquino III administration, giving cash benefits to the poorest families that were conditioned on the following: 85 percent school attendance, participation in nutrition and maternal health programs, as well as in employment and livelihood assistance programs. Its beneficial outcome was to drastically cut the erstwhile high dropout rates in primary education.

In a paper delivered in September 2022, Dr. Victor S. Limlingan pointed out that the Philippines has made significant progress in expanding access to education. It has outperformed other ASEAN countries in terms of primary and secondary enrolment rates. While he points out: “The upward trajectory in access to secondary schooling may be attributed to the K to 12 laws,” as could be gleaned in the shift in trajectory after 2013.  The positive impact of the 4Ps is also undeniable.

However, according to Dr. Limlingan’s paper, Covid-19 virtually wiped out the gains achieved during the past two decades. Based on the 2020 update of Global Database on Education Quality (Padrinos and Angrist, 2018) the Philippines’ rating (362) is the worst among all Southeast Asian countries. Other lower middle-income countries such as Vietnam (519) Cambodia (452) and Myanmar (425) performed better than the Philippines.

Already, the country has the highest pupil to teacher ratio at 29:1 and 24:1, respectively, for primary and secondary education among ASEAN countries. A smaller number of students per teacher is more conducive to quality learning.

Compounding the quality of education concern is the lack of basic infrastructure. Sen. Gatchalian has cited the need to raise some ₱420 billion to address the shortage of classrooms. According to the 2019 National School Building Inventory, the current backlog is 167,901 classrooms nationwide.

What could be done to augment the financial resources needed to raise the quality of education will be tackled in next week’s column.