My colleague Vivien Stewart recently returned from the Philippines National Education Conference, where 2,500 people came together to build a new education system for the Philippines. Here is her report.
by Vivien Stewart
This is an important moment in Philippines' history—a time of opportunity as well as challenge. As the country rebuilds after Typhoon Yolanda, it is also rebuilding its education system after different sort of disaster: that of corruption and ineffective systems.
"There was a time when Philippines universities were among the best in Asia, attracting students from all over the region", said Senator Edgardo Angara, former president of the Philippines Senate and of the University of the Philippines. But a long period of political mismanagement and underinvestment, at a time when other countries in Asia were driving their education systems ahead, has left the Philippines far behind.
Consider this: Schooling ends at tenth grade and, in reality, much earlier for students in rural areas, where 45% of the population live on $2 a day and a large proportion of students drop out before the end of elementary school. Basic education is highly centralized and corruption in the large national education bureaucracy has meant that many schools did not even receive their allotted textbooks. Class sizes in public schools are huge—more than 65 children per class in some areas. Educational leadership positions have been determined by patronage rather than as professional appointments. And there are too many weakly regulated institutions of higher education, some of dubious value. Although the Philippines has many fine elite secondary schools, overall standards in education are low.
All this may be about to change as in May 2013, the Philippines Congress passed and President Benigno Aquino signed into law the Enhanced Basic Education Act (RA 10533). This Act will extend basic education by two years to 12th grade, make kindergarten universal, update the national curriculum to infuse 21st century skills and measure learning outcomes at key stages—3rd, 6th, 10th and 12th grades, and broaden the goals of high school education to include preparation for college but also vocational and technical fields as well as creative arts, sports, and entrepreneurial careers.
While education advocates in the Philippines have been pushing for improvements in basic education for many years, the catalyst for these far-reaching changes is the development of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN ) economic community, a free trade zone of ten nations: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. This zone, set to take effect in 2015, will create a market of more than 600 million people with free movement of goods, services, investments, skilled labor and capital, and will be integrated into the larger global economy. So the Philippine government has set itself the goal of creating schools that will enable Filipino children to compete in this new global context.
"To be competitive within this new context, the Philippines must level up its education to be on a par with other nations in the region, create a national qualifications framework that aligns to ASEAN, and improve the governance and quality assurance of its higher education institutions," said Armindo Luistro, Philippines Secretary of Education. To accomplish this, the Department of Education, the Commission on Higher Education and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESLA ) will need to work closely together.
Such a large-scale improvement effort faces a host of seemingly insurmountable challenges in its initial implementation. The government does not have enough school facilities and faces a tremendous shortage of teachers. Many different approaches are being taken to building the needed capacity, including government subsidies for students to attend private and Catholic schools that have enough space to expand; encouragement to higher education institutions to reach down to include basic education; and private foundations establishing schools. Still, Catholic schools worry about losing experienced teachers to public schools where salaries are higher. Higher educational institutions worry about a major loss of students when grades 11 and 12 are implemented. The vocational and technical track in grades 11 – 12 pose difficulties for schools which lack specialized facilities and developed connections to industry. And some small mission schools will probably have to close down once public schools have expanded.
Beyond the complexities of rapidly expanding the number of years of schooling for the more than 20 million students in elementary and secondary education, the new national curriculum is behind schedule. Coordination between the three government departments is also often problematic . However, perhaps the biggest challenge lies outside education. Can the economy, which has been growing more rapidly since economic liberalization in the 1990s, and especially since 2004, generate enough jobs to employ the graduates of the newly expanded education system so that Filipinos do not have to continue large-scale international migration because of lack of economic opportunities at home?
The Philippines has a number of significant advantages within the ASEAN economic zone. Since English is the medium of instruction in schools after the early grades, it has a large English-speaking workforce. And from 2015 - 2070, the majority of Filipinos will be in the labor force at a time when other countries are experiencing aging populations. And the country is gradually improving its rankings on international measures of competiveness and corruption. Still just as other ASEAN countries have built up their human capital system over the past decades, so the Philippines needs urgently to improve the quality and relevance of its education system. "The Philippines can do no less. It's about time," said Senator Angara.
Vivien Stewart, Senior Education Advisor to Asia Society, reports from Philippines National Education Conference held in Manila, December 2 - 3, 2013. The conference was organized by the Fund for Assistance to Private Education (FAPE), the Catholic Education Association of the Philippines (CEAP), the three government agencies, representatives of Philippines higher education, teacher education, curriculum and assessment organizations, and ASCD. The conference brought together more than 2,500 people from different parts of education to prepare for this change. In addition to government spokespeople, the participants heard keynote presentations by Stewart on how other countries have successfully raised the quality of their education systems, and from Andrew Sng from DPI International on strategic thinking for schools. Workshops focused on teaching and assessing 21st century skills, models of vocational and technical education, and strengthening basic education. For more details on the new law, go to www.gov.ph/k-12/.