The Philippines’ quest for education for all and why it’s doing it wrong

I was recently in a national review of the country’s public education, the core discussion involving national goals in EFA and the education goals in the MDGs. Listening, it seems nothing significant has moved in the basic education reform agenda and consequently national education outcomes. Of Filipino children’s right to education dialogue, child centered education is nowhere made a reality. Despite the rhetoric for child friendly and child centered schools, the public education system (no information how this is being attained in the private school system) continue to keep school children in their traditional place hence outside of the decision making process.

The consultant from the Asian Institute of Management, who is not an educator but a management consultant, has surprisingly a child-friendlier perspective compared to his audience who are the nation’s education administrators and supposedly practicing experts in child-friendly methods. Obviously, the qualification was a reason for the consultant’s presence but still one can’t help balk at the irony of it. To add to the surreal situation, the consultant kept saying “you’re the experts, you know better than us, which is why we’re asking your input”, pun to my ears. A decade now, the child friendly school agenda has been circulating throughout the public education system and each of the audience has not lacked in financial and technical assistance from national and international supporters, though whether the audience realize they’re supposed to be the real experts hence the speakers up front I couldn’t tell.

In a workshop, participants were asked to discuss and list down current school practices in their Divisions which contradict principles in child centered education. In the presentation, it was back to the oft-cited (it is almost a mantra) ‘xx cases of drop outs’ hence ‘home visitation’ as the solution. Obviously, no one got the instruction right or perhaps participants had this ready template response for these workshops regardless of instructions. Believe me, the consultant had a hard time maintaining that smiling face although I thought that sweet face mirrored a secret glee shown when he summed up the presentations: “of course all these are according to your perspective, as adults, but have you asked the children their thoughts and ideas on the issues and how might these be resolved? You don’t have to give me an answer now. I’ll leave you to reflect on that.” The hall grew still as if a UFO has suddenly descended. I imagined that most in there were kicking themselves, ‘but of course! child-centered! how did that escape me?’. Some made sure the blunder would be remembered as administrators from the national Bureaus of the Department dropped throughout the event a line or two of “we need to accept the fact that not all educators in the Department are bright.” A national officer, updating the audience on the K-12 Program, quizzed the audience about salient components of the Program but found no knowledgeable mind, prompting her to say, “This is incredible! I should pinch you! No wonder your teachers do not believe in you! You ought to have memorized the Program! I expect you to do so after this.” I would die if my boss and employer pummel me like that out there! But observing the absence of reaction from the audience, it wasn’t the first time these were uttered or heard. Same with personnel from the sponsoring agency. The audience almost was comfortable with having personnel from the sponsoring agency listen to the dressing down. On my seat, I question the effectiveness of this relationship, particularly as it impacts on the sponsoring agency’s role as facilitator of change but finding that its partner is quite dead to its pleas of ‘help! wolf!’

The turf war between DepEd and DSWD over public preschool and day care has not abated. After the DSWD presentation of its 2011 accomplishments, a field administrator pounced on the reporter, a very pregnant DSWD national officer, and accused DSWD of continuing to “steal” five year-olds who she argued ought to be in kindergarten with DepEd. I was alarmed that the exchange might turn into a catfight, scratching on each other’s faces. The DSWD officer may have thought the same because she widened the space between them. I looked at the personnel of the sponsoring agency but no one was bothered. I guessed they were witness to worse drama.

The national review included a back-to-back consultation for the research to develop an index of child centred education and the development of analytical tools for school improvement planning. The two consultancies are related, one is an input into the other but the consultants have not talked with one another. A couple of DepEd field administrators queried the sponsoring agency the added value of developing a new set of analytical tools in SIP considering the Department is not entirely lacking in those tools. The arguments from the field were backed up by someone from the national office, but with more diplomatic charm, who announced the current work in the Department on a new information system with student identification number tracking and he would need clarification for how information in the SIP analytical tools will fit in the national database. The consultant digested this new information and after a while reiterated that the tools he was developing are intended to assist the school planners in child centred analysis.

So what’s new here? Most are old issues, topics that were discussed over and over yet never seriously acted on until everyone has reached their threshold for caring. Old attitudes that don’t help. Old perspectives that didn’t work. The audience was enjoined to not include poverty in the list of education issues because “it is beyond our capacity to solve.” I thought this a gross mistake because the reason why poverty is always mentioned by field personnel is, it is the issue. True, poverty is beyond one player’s capacity to solve but not putting it out on the discussion table and seriously discussing it with other players is setting the NGO community up to fail. Provide the right questions in the discussion and the NGO community will find its capacity to address poverty at its core source. The old way is projects for the poor to solve the problem of poverty but this direct path fell short of the objective. Why?

The K-12 Program, DepEd informs, is essentially to provide students with the skills that would render them employable if they so choose to take that route. But what is the plan to transition students into employment “if they so choose”? There is no plan. Instead, what DepEd has are a string of wonderful sounding words such as “good returns on investment”, “globally competent”, etc. This is still the old way and bound to fall short of the objective. With K-12 and all other things unchanged, the labor force will be glutted with employable young people who will find an economy that cannot absorb them all or most of them. Has not designers of the Program consider the state of the national economy when they made the objective of student employability? (On the side, if I were the decision-maker I’d rather put my money in raising the level of vocational training and education, geared at both youth and adults.)

The country does not have a plan and strategy for its economic development. What it currently has is an illusion of economic development and massive poverty. I’m not very knowledgeable of the criticisms against EFA and the MDGs but these are the wrong end of the stick. To me, for international bodies to pressure developing countries to attain EFA and the MDGs on a relatively short timeframe is unjust and elitist. How long for instance did developed countries attain the same goals when they were at the same level of developing countries’ economic development now? It didn’t exactly took them 10 years to attain education for all its children. Moreover, the global context they were in when they were developing is totally different from the context of today’s global community. Now, developing countries contend with international debts, global financial crises, trade barriers and impositions, multinationals, dwindling resources especially energy, disasters on unprecedented scale (effect of industrialization by the way), and so much more. In a global community, each step forward is offset with several years backward when things go awry. The period developed countries took to attain education for all would probably double or triple or even quadruple for today’s developing countries. (I guess developing countries should cry out, please spare us the pressure, instead help us by providing an enabling global environment so that we could reach economic progress smoothly or leave us in peace.)

History shows economic development came first before families could put all their children into school or learning centers. With work from new found wealth hence disposable incomes and savings, families stopped relying on state welfare and private charity, are able to pay for their children’s schooling, pay taxes and so increase government’s capacity to further develop the nation thereby redistributing the wealth to all, (adults) put themselves to school and with improved and new knowledge and skills are better able to appreciate the value of education, receive higher wages, and render themselves marketable. It is clearly not education for all first. Within the region, look at South Korea. Having reached its current economic status, ordinary South Koreans are now able to go out of their country just to learn English and pursue higher education. While education for all is not the first objective, there has got to be a core of learned and educated individuals within the community who would lead or facilitate for the development as was the case in industrialized countries.

And so, the way I see it without a solid economy in which all citizens have equal chances to enter and achieve their dreams, the education sector could just as well turn blue from making countless lists of problems in drop outs and distance from school. EFA and the MDGs are not the reason why Filipino children are being educated or why quality in education is desired but because an educated citizenry is a matter of national security and that it is the right thing to do.

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