Orlando Oxales, Fellow of the Stratbase ADR Institute and Lead Convenor of CitizenWatch Philippines
Despite the shift in the academic calendar for some colleges and universities, June for many is still synonymous with the opening of classes. This year, some 27.8 million learners, or almost 3 percent more than last year, are set to either enter or return to almost 62,000 schools, including 47,205 that are state-run, the yearly challenge that only becomes more and more challenging for the Department of Education (DepEd).
“Given the continuously increasing population of our schoolchildren and the increasing number of challenges that we have to hurdle, we are also increasing and expanding our existing efforts to deliver quality, accessibility, relevant, and liberating, basic education,” said DepEd Secretary Leonor Briones.
While certainly one of the biggest, the education sector is also especially saddled with perennial problems, from insufficient classrooms and low wages for teachers to bigger-than-ideal class sizes.
Even so, Briones insisted DepEd is committed to addressing all such gaps. This includes beefing up its Alternative Learning System (ALS), an alternative path to formal education for out-of-school youth and adults. It is also intent on continuing its school-based feeding and so-called last mile schools program, in which it tries to establish schools in barangays without elementary schools and in areas with limited secondary schools.
One of the more recent and fundamental reforms injected into the system was the addition of two years of basic education. Begun in 2012, the K-12 system was envisioned to make the graduates of the program more ready to enter the labor force and already equipped with job-specific specializations that they would not have had in the old 10-year system. K-12 after all aims to boost the Filipino learner’s mathematical, scientific, and linguistic competence via his or her chosen track.
The change also aligns the country’s education system with international education standards. Prior to implementation, the Philippines was the only country in Asia with a ten-year basic education cycle. There was also a need to align domestic qualification standards with the international qualifications framework in order to boost mobility for Filipino students and would-be workers.
With K-12, graduates of senior high school (SHS) have a choice to immediately join the workforce, go into entrepreneurship, or pursue university education. This also means Filipino graduates can be automatically recognized as professionals abroad with no additional units or years necessary. This gives them better options for overseas employment, which can also mean an easier route potentially out of poverty for their families.
The labor-education mismatch is another enduring challenge for the country. The DepEd has even gone out of its way to strengthen the necessary pipeline between education and industry. It has initiated programs to enhance the employment opportunities of SHS graduates with job fairs and campaigns encouraging the different industry sectors to re-evaluate their hiring guidelines.
In 2018, or two years after the SHS roll-out, DepEd also nixed reports of a rumored repeal of the K-12 program while reiterating the headways it has made, foremost the SHS program surpassing expectations in terms of enrolment and transition rates as well as in providing free or highly subsidized SHS education to more than 2.7 million learners in public and private schools.
Another gain is the impact of the reform on an important segment of learners. More K-12 enrolment data revealed “the attraction of school dropouts to come back to school,” DepED Undersecretary Nepomuceno A. Malaluan said. This is contrary to fears that the additional of two more years of SHS will accelerate the drop-out rate.
“Since we started senior high school in 2016, there has been a doubling of those who have returned to school, from the 2015 figure of 158,000 learners to 370,000 learners in 2016,” he said.
Even so, the senate committee on education, arts, and culture, which reviewed the implementation of the K to 12 curriculum, found that the quality of the basic education remains low based on National Achievement Test (NAT) average scores of Grade 6 and 10 students.
“What the hearing showed is that the curriculum that is supposed to be taught under K to 12 is not being taught well,” said Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, vice chair of the committee. “The student cannot process the curriculum the right way … And what I’m fearing is a student cannot enter college, cannot get a decent job, and cannot have a good future because of the low NAT scores.
To improve the quality of education across the sprawling public education system, DepEd had vowed to conduct a review of the curriculum, upgrade the professional development of teachers and school leaders through the transformation of the National Educators Academy of the Philippines (NEAP), institutionalize Government-Industry-Education (GIE) sector coordination and partnership, and continuously improve the teaching-learning environment.
“DepEd is looking to pivot from focusing on access to education to quality education,” said Malaluan. “Like other countries in the region, we are now looking to entrench quality learning through three important steps: by aligning competencies and curriculum standards, instruction, and assessment; by developing outstanding teachers and school leaders; and by ensuring that students come to school ready to learn.”
Considering the absolute scale of the education sector, it is understandable for DepEd to be a bit overwhelmed. We can expect enrolment figures to continue to increase in light of the country’s growing population and migration from private schools. And more learners mean more demand for higher allocations.
But clearly, an educated society translates to a strong workforce that can fuel the economic engines of growth and which in turn becomes the foundation of a prosperous population. The impact of a well-educated population goes beyond boosting labor productivity and competitiveness. A smarter population will push profound changes on how we should be governed and how we choose our political leadership and how we should behave as citizens.
It may take years before we feel the tangible benefits of the investments in basic education reforms, but this should not deter government from committing more resources and harnessing new technologies to further raise the standard skillset of our learners.
This article was originally published in Manila Standard.