School drop-out rates highlight lost decade of education in Philippines

Last week 23 million Filipino children went back to school but by the end of the year over two million will have dropped out.

An elementary school in Payatas. David Greedy / Getty Images
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MANILA // In a dimly lit, windowless room in one of Manila's sprawling slums, Susan Cumal, 46, spends her day hunched over a sewing machine, working to earn enough money to send her children to school. In a good week, the mother of three can earn around 1,500 pesos (Dh118). Like many Filipinos, Mrs Cumal moved from the northern province of Pampanga in 1984 to Manila in the hope of finding a better life. Instead she found herself in 758E Rodriguez in Pasay City, Manila, a slum housing more than 3,000 families.

Mrs Cumal considers herself fortunate. She has managed to build up a reasonable sewing business and has to put one son, who is now a teacher, through college. She has two more children at school and hopes they too will go to college. "Education is the only way out of this," she says looking around her modest home. "Many of the kids here don't go to school. Their families are either too poor or just want their children to work and earn money to live.

"I want my kids to have a better life ? this is not life this is just survival," she said. Last week 23 million Filipino children went back to school but by the end of the year over two million will have dropped out. The outgoing president Gloria Arroyo's task force on education reported in May that 700,000 children will not complete elementary school and 1.36 million will not finish secondary school. According to the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), the Philippine education system has a shortage of 54,060 teachers; 4,538 principals; 6,473 head teachers; 61,343 classrooms; 816,291 seats and 113,051 water and sanitation facilities.

"After nine years in office, the Arroyo government has utterly failed to eliminate shortages of teachers, classrooms, textbooks, sanitation facilities, and other critical resources in our public schools," the ACT national chairperson Antonio Tinio said during a media briefing last week. "It's true that the Arroyo government has been hiring 10,000 teachers and constructing 3,000 or so classrooms annually. However, these efforts are not enough compared to the sheer size of our enrolment," Mr Tinio said.

"As a result, public school education in the Arroyo years is characterised by oversized classes with 60 or more students, contributing to a further decline in the quality of education," he added. The Philippines spends around 2.5 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on education compared with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco's) recommended 4-5 per cent.

Most major Southeast Asian countries spend 5-6 per cent of GDP on education. The Philippines also spends less on education than most of its Southeast Asian neighbours at US$318 (Dh1,168) per child compared with Thailand, for example, which spends $1,048. According to the ACT, the Philippines has the largest student-teacher ratio at elementary level in Southeast Asia, next to Cambodia, at roughly 60 to 80 children per class.

Unesco says in its National Education Support Strategy (Uness) that the quality of elementary education in the Philippines has deteriorated over the years as indicated by the low achievement rates for students. In the 2007-2008 school year (2008-2009 figures have not been released) the pass rate was 64.81per cent in mathematics, 63.89 per cent in science, 57.90 per cent in English, 61.62 per cent in social sciences and 73.18 per cent in Filipino. All scores were low compared to the desired 75 per cent cut-off score, Unesco said.

For the same year the Philippines ranked 41st in science and 42nd in mathematics from among 45 countries in the Trends in International Math and Science Survey, according to Unesco. As for secondary education, the Uness says that the quality "is not far from that of the elementary level as indicated by the poor performance of fourth-year students in the National Achievement Test. The Uness blames the deteriorating quality of basic education in the Philippines to under investment in education that has resulted in shortages of main educational resources such as teachers, textbooks and classrooms.

The Manila Times in an editorial on June 10 said: "For every 100 pupils who enter Grade 1, only 86 will continue till Grade 2. Over the last 30 years, this has been the highest dropout rate (14 per cent) in the basic school cycle. "By Grade 4, only 76 will still be in school. By Grade 6, only 67 of the original 100 would still be enrolled - and only 65 will finish elementary school. Of the 65 children who graduate from Grade 6, only 58 will move on to high school. And of the 58 who enter high school, only 42 will graduate.

"This completion rate of 42 per cent is too low for the middle-income country we're supposed to be. Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Malaysia - which started at the same level, or lower, in the 1950s - have left our country far behind." For Mrs Cumal, life in the Pasay City slum area is not easy. "Education is the only way out" she said. "This is no place for a young person. If they drop out of school they quickly turn to crime and drugs and that is no life".