The neglect of PH education: Where do we go from here?

October 5, 2021

by IBON Foundation

The Philippines is one of two remaining countries in the world that have not reopened schools and conducted in-person classes. This is quite telling not only of the Duterte government’s poor pandemic response but also of the pre-existing problems of the Philippine education system. Its decrepit state has rendered it incapable of coping with the changes needed to deal with the pandemic and go about a ‘new normal’. This is aggravated by the Duterte government’s budget mispriorities, where it allocates more for infrastructure projects than education.

But didn’t Rodrigo Roa Duterte promise to prioritize education when he was running for president in 2016? Education got the bulk of the national budget under all post-Marcos administrations until the Duterte presidency dislodged it with its infrastructure obsession.

Messing up with ‘distance learning’

The new school year for basic education in the Philippines officially started last September 13. The mode of learning for this school year remains distance or blended learning where the instruction varies per learner, depending on his or her level of access to technology. The lessons can be conducted online, with printed and electronic modules, and radio or television broadcasts.

The Department of Education (DepEd) resorted to distance learning last school year because of the prolonged lockdowns that the Duterte government implemented as its main response to Covid-19. The launching of the academic year 2020-2021 was originally in August 2020 but, because of the additional time needed to prepare and distribute of materials and to ready teachers for conducting online learning, the opening of classes happened in October.

Just a month into distance learning, students and parents shared their experiences of learning inequalities, erroneous learning modules, academic burnout, and inefficacy of the whole educational set-up. The call of students and youth groups for an ‘academic freeze’ amplified after successive typhoons Rolly and Ulysses damaged learning materials and disrupted internet connections. But the DepEd rejected the call, saying that the suspension of classes would only result in the loss of learning, and instead implemented an ‘academic ease’.

This worrisome set-up continues this year and still subjects teachers and students to the torturous blended learning. This is despite public clamor including from some legislators and even the Department of Health (DOH) urging the DepEd to exert more effort in convincing Pres. Duterte to prioritize the resumption of face-to-face classes.

Red Light, Green Light

In December last year, the DepEd, in consultation with the DOH and the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Disease (IATF), gave its recommendation and guidelines for the pilot implementation of face-to-face classes.

Participating schools must be in areas with “low risk” classification, or those under modified general community quarantine (MGCQ). Local government units (LGUs), parents and guardians must also work with the schools in enforcing health measures in their localities. For example, the parents have to practice precautionary measures at home, while the LGUs have to ensure the safe commute of the students from their homes to the school and vice versa. The schools should follow strict physical distancing, proper hygiene and sanitization, management of large classes, and alternated class schedules.

These make it apparent why it is taking the Philippines so long to reopen schools. One, so much of the public school system is not fit for this with its oversized classes, crowded school grounds, and lack of water and sanitation facilities, clinics and other basic services. This is on top of how the teachers are overworked and underpaid. Two, it assumes that the national government has an effective action plan for COVID containment in place – which it does not, where there is not even a coherent classification of the different types of quarantines.

The original dry run was to happen in January this year but the Duterte government rejected DepEd’s proposal and waited for the vaccines to arrive and become available to the public. The second rejection was in June due to the fast reproduction of the more infectious Delta mutation. The President brought up the same vaccine argument, saying that children must be vaccinated first before they can return to the classrooms. Yet, as of now, only Pfizer and Moderna vaccines can be administered to children ages 12 to 17. After nine months, Pres. Duterte finally gave his go signal for the pilot implementation of face-to-face classes, even if the government has still not put in place a more credible COVID response.

From a list of 638 public schools, 100 compliant schools will be selected, 95 of which are elementary schools that will accommodate students in kindergarten to grade 3 levels. The five schools completing the total number are Senior High Schools that will accommodate students who are taking the technology-vocational-livelihood strand. An additional 20 schools will come from private schools, which can make their own guidelines. The time frame for the pilot implementation is two months.

The horrors of school year 2020-2021

School year 2020-2021 in the Philippines will be imprinted on the memory of pupils, teachers, parents and guardians for a long, long time. Only halfway through the school year, teachers and students were already experiencing “online burnout”. The whole learning process was reduced to a mere transaction of assigning and submitting required outputs just to conclude the school year.

Separate surveys conducted by the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) and the Movement for Safe, Equitable, Quality and Relevant Education (SEQuRE) showed that remote instruction and monitoring of students’ learning progress took its toll on the teachers, not only physically, mentally and emotionally, but also financially.  Distance learning added expenses that were borne by the teachers, draining the already inadequate salaries of public school teachers even more. The DepEd offered allowances for the school expenses but such support is hardly felt.

The teachers were practically left on their own to equip themselves with the essentials for distance learning. They had to spend their personal money or borrow to buy their own gadgets, buy prepaid loads for internet connection, and the like. Those who couldn’t afford this had to make use of the printed learning materials. The teachers also had to endure a great amount of stress in coping with the lack of learning modules, intermittent internet connections, and concerns from students and parents.

The students, especially those from low-income families, had their own share of predicaments with the sudden shift in the education system. They suffered from various issues such as lack of money to buy gadgets for the online classes, juggling household responsibilities vis-à-vis schoolwork, and inconducive learning environments.

But most horrifying is the system’s impact on learning and the children’s development. The implementation of self-learning modules made children dependent on their parents’ supervision and assistance. Parents became triply burdened with work, housework, and accomplishing their children’s modules. The system robbed children of the opportunity to learn especially outside the home and under the care of a professional teacher, in the process narrowing education and reducing the socializing component that is so essential in raising future citizens.

Still, towards the end, horror of horrors, the DepEd reported a 99% passing rate to a Senate committee hearing. “They seem to be learning,” the education department said.

The hell before this

The pandemic has only added a new layer to the basic problems plaguing Philippine education for so long. The Philippine education system was put in the spotlight, bringing upfront the years of neglect and the Duterte government’s failure to address it.

Shortages of facilities, learning materials and teachers haunt the system. Last year, a total of 22.7 million students enrolled in public schools but there were only 707,600 available classrooms for K-12 all over the country. The classroom-student ratio varies per region depending on the number of available classrooms per school and the size of enrollees. The number of students per classroom ranges from 18 to 49 for elementary, 29 to 40 for Junior High school (JHS), and 30 to 55 for Senior High School (SHS).

Strict compliance with physical distancing once other grade levels in elementary and secondary will resume face-to-face classes will be difficult under such conditions. The maximum number of allowed students in the classroom is only 20, which means that students belonging to large groups will have to take shifts. Grade levels that were already taking turns in using classrooms pre-pandemic will have to adjust again.

The number of teaching personnel is also inadequate. The DepEd reports a total of 205,850 teaching positions filled up out of 213,736 targeted from 2016 to 2020.  But the number of created positions for public school teachers has drastically gone down from 81,000 in 2018 to 10,000 in 2019, and decreasing by another thousand in 2020 and 2021. The pupil-teacher ratio at the elementary level slightly improved in 2020 with the average number of students decreasing from 32 to 28 per teacher, according to the DepEd. But more teachers are needed for the secondary levels to bring down the ratio to the ideal 25 for JHS which still recorded 1:39 for school year 2020-2021.

Another recurrent problem is the inadequacy of learning materials and equipment. Most of the learning materials that K-12 students need are still in various stages of procurement, printing, and delivery since 2017. To manage the lack of learning materials last school year, the teachers either implemented a borrowing system among the students or printed additional materials using their own resources. The Commission on Audit (COA) reported that the budget for textbooks and other instructional materials in 2019 has expired, while some Php715.8 million in the 2020 budget remains unutilized.

Moreover, the procurement and delivery of the equipment packages for Science and Mathematics, Technological-Vocational-Livelihood (TVL), and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is also delayed and incomplete. Modules have been found replete with errors. Last school year, parents and students expressed their frustration with the erroneous learning materials in social media, which prompted the DepEd to review the materials. The education department was able to gather 163 reported erroneous materials and validated 155 of these. The thing is, 25 of the 155 passed the review of the DepEd Central Office.

To a ‘new normal’?

While it’s true that distance learning has been horrible for the teachers and students, and the value of physical classes and human interaction in learning is irreplaceable, Philippine education’s basic pre-existing problems make it difficult to transition to a so-called new normal. There are a lot of things that need to be addressed to ensure the safe return of students and teachers, which add to the piles of problems that should have been addressed long before the pandemic. The old normal, in other words, was not even normal.

The guidelines for in-person classes focuses on health measures under two categories: preventive and management in case of infections or exposures. The preventive measures include individual health and school’s safety measures. Schools should conduct an orientation on health and safety methods, health screening and checking, frequent disinfections, and physical distancing in classrooms. Schools must also ensure the availability of school nurses for health services and guidance counselors for the psychosocial and mental well-being of the children. Emergency health kits with personal protective equipment (PPE) must also be provided to school personnel. In case of infections, the School’s Disaster Risk Reduction Management Team will coordinate with local authorities for contact tracing, isolation, and treatment.

The urgency of addressing the basic crisis is apparent. Construction of additional classrooms will decongest large classes, provide good ventilation, and allow strict observance of physical distancing in the classroom. Increasing the number of teaching personnel will improve the pupil-teacher ratio and teachers will be able to closely monitor their students. Teachers will have more time to assess the students’ needs and competencies. The health status of the students can also be strictly supervised. On the other hand, providing teachers living wages and socioeconomic benefits will help sustain them to be able to maintain a healthful mental and physical state.

Additional learning materials must be provided in full and on time to meet the 1:1 textbook-student ratio and to avoid exposure of students when borrowing from one another. Teachers and students should also be prioritized in vaccination to help prevent infections.

Moreover, the construction of sanitization facilities with constant supply of water must be prioritized so that proper hygiene can be practiced all the time. Schools must also have sufficient face masks, disinfectants, emergency kits, and other health-related materials for the school personnel and students. In the event of breakouts in schools, mass testing and contract tracing should be implemented to assess the extent of infection, and appropriate responses can be made to include the suspension of classes if needed. Once in-person classes are safe to resume, scheduled remedial sessions will be needed to fill in the gaps.

Neglect. Crisis. Chaos. Repeat?

But what makes this transition or adjustment to ‘new normal’ difficult is that the Duterte government is not even prioritizing education. Education gets just 16% of the total Php5.024 trillion proposed 2022 national budget. This is lower than the combined shares for economic services where infrastructure projects thrive, such as water resources development and flood control, communications, roads, and transportation. This share is also lower than the 17% share of education in 2021 and only slightly higher than the 15.8% share in 2020. By agency, the DepEd is allocated Php630.8 billion or 12.6% share, while the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) gets Php686.1 billion or 13.7% of the total national budget.

The Duterte government allots a staggering Php1.2 trillion for infrastructure in 2022 but education, specifically school buildings, gets only 0.72% of that amount. The DepEd’s public infrastructure budget actually gets a 40.7% (Php6.2-billion) cut in 2022. This is while the Department of National Defense (DND) on the other hand gets a 29.5% (Php8.4-billion) budget increase for its machinery and equipment outlay.

The largest portion of DepEd’s budget is allocated to the Support to Schools and Learners Program (SSLP) with a total of Php500.2 billion. Components with higher allocations under the SSLP include schools’ maintenance and other operating expenses (MOOE) for elementary and secondary levels (Php459.8 billion) and government assistance and subsidies for incoming Senior High School enrolling in private schools (Php16.5 billion). In short, it is status quo for the DepEd without any dramatic adjustment for pandemic conditions.

The Basic Education Inputs Program, which totals to Php44.6 billion, comes second with only Php20.1 billion allocated for the hiring of additional personnel including teachers. The Computerization Program and e-book packages get Php11.6 billion. For other components such as the textbooks and other learning materials, the budget remains at Php963.3 million with no increase in the 2020 budget.

The budget for Basic Education Facilities keeps decreasing from Php28 billion in 2020 to Php5.4 billion for 2022. The components of the Basic Education Facilities are the construction of new classrooms, repairs and rehabilitation of the old ones, purchase of school furniture, and provision of water and sanitation facilities and electrification. Out of the targeted 5,174 new classrooms to be constructed in 2020, only 187 have been completed. Only 1,168 classrooms are targeted to be built in the 2022 proposed budget. The budget for repairs and rehabilitation of school buildings has even decreased by 78.1% from Php4.7 billion in 2021 to Php1 billion in 2022. The budget for acquisition of school furniture has declined to Php1.1 billion for next year from Php1.9 billion this year.

Public ire is easily targeted towards the education department – that it is incompetent, unthinking, and only pliant specifically with regard to Malacañang’s militaristic pandemic approach. But beyond the crisis and chaos besetting education is the consistent state neglect that has reached its worst under the Duterte administration.

While it seems that it is the DepEd ignoring the cries for help of teachers, parents and students, it’s the highest levels of national government that disregard the importance of education for economic development. Isn’t it the Duterte presidency, for instance, that gives hefty salary increases to the police and military while teachers wait in vain for their meager salary adjustments? It’s also the presidency that prioritizes infrastructure, militarism, and its own confidential and intelligence funds and contingent funds for 2022.

The only way to end this cycle of neglect, crisis and chaos in the education sector is to end this kind of governance in 2022 and put in place a better one. This must be done for the sake of the next generations.