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President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 25 zoomed in on his administration’s health and education agenda through the lens of the coronavirus pandemic, but there was a stark difference on how he unpacked steps to address the needs of the two sectors. 

Improving healthcare went “beyond the issues that the pandemic has brought” to building a stronger system post-Covid. His education priorities on the other hand started with reopening schools for face-to-face classes to technology-driven programs such as “refresher courses and re-trainings” for teachers and provision of devices to students. 

He did not elaborate on measures the government would take to address the education sector’s long standing problems such as keeping children in school and improving the welfare of teachers.

“The Department of Education (DepEd), led by our highly able Vice President Sara Duterte, is now preparing for its implementation in the upcoming school year, with utmost consideration for the safety of students, as we are still in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Marcos said.

To ensure the safety of classrooms, Marcos directed the Department of Health and the Department of the Interior and Local Government to conduct another rollout of Covid-19 booster shots. He also directed the Department of Public Works and Highways and local government units to improve the condition of classrooms.

Apart from providing training for teachers, the president also sought to end the poor quality of educational materials and supplies provided in public schools. He said children need devices to allow them to participate fully in the digital community. 

In an interview before the SONA, E-Net Philippines President Olie Lucas identified three key areas that should be among the new administration’s priorities in addressing problems in the education sector.

Lucas first explains a key premise: The education problem is not a concern of people working in the education sector only.

“It will take the whole of government. Education does not exist in limbo… I think we have to move away from that -- that the education problem is only a problem of the education sector. It isn’t. Those problems arise and are linked to problems in a lot of other areas," she said.

Established in 1999, E-Net Philippines or the Civil Society Network for Education Reforms is a network of 90 organizations working together to advance the right to education of Filipinos. The network seeks to strengthen public participation in pushing for education reforms and developing alternative learning systems especially for the marginalized, excluded and vulnerable groups.

Having the president himself as agriculture secretary and Vice President Sara Duterte as head of the Education department serve as good indicators that education is being prioritized, she said.

Seeing agriculture as a priority is crucial because hunger is one of the biggest problems of Filipino children, Lucas said.

In September 2020, a Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey showed that 30.7% of FIlipinos or 7.6 million families experienced hunger. This was the highest level recorded in 22 years. The numbers have gone down since. According to the latest SWS survey, a total of 12.2% of Filipinos or some 3.1 million families experienced hunger in the first quarter of 2022.

Still, these figures mean that millions of children are going to school hungry.

“We know that it is very difficult to learn, even absorb what you are being taught, when you are hungry, Lucas said.

While exclusive breastfeeding rates have continuously gone up in the last 10 years, there is still room for improvement especially when confusion over the Milk Code has crippled local government response for infants. The indiscriminate distribution and use of breastmilk substitutes, especially during emergencies, can likewise change feeding practices. According to data from the Food and Nutrition Research Institute, exclusive breastfeeding reached 57.9%in 2019.

“So you have children attending kindergarten who are hungry… (or whose) brain development may not have caught up with their age,” she added.

To address education problems is to address food insecurity, among others.

“The hunger issue especially in the case of children has to be addressed because that impacts brain development, physical development, and their readiness to go to school,” Lucas said.

According to the DepEd’s Basic Education Development Plan 2030, the shift to distance learning and the uncertainty of the pandemic led to a decline in total basic education enrollment. Enrollment fell by 4% across all grade levels, including the Alternative Learning System (ALS), data show. 

While public-school enrollment for the 2020-2021 school year surpassed that of the 2019-2020 school year, private school enrollment fell by 22%. 

In November 2020, DepEd reported that 398,981 students had transferred from private schools to public schools. Given that total enrollment in public schools was only slightly less than the year before, this meant that private-school students had taken up the seats of public-school enrollees that had dropped out of the system or did not enroll this school year, according to the BEDP.

Issued in May 2022, the BEDP is the DepEd’s medium-term plan from kindergarten to senior high school, including ALS.

Moreover, Lucas said the network would like to see a better articulation of how the government is going to achieve and improve the level of competency among students. From the civil society standpoint, a great deal of attention should be placed on teachers – on their development and compensation, she added.

“There’s a lot of discussion now about the curriculum, right? You have to improve it. You have to manage it. But at the end of the day, you have to realize that the curriculum is only as good as the people who will deliver what has to be taught,” she said. 

In April 2022, Duterte signed into law the Excellence in Teacher Education Act, which seeks to strengthen teacher education in the Philippines. The measure mandates the creation of Teacher Education Centers of Excellence and a scholarship program for aspiring teachers.

“We call them heroes but we have to make them feel that they are truly heroes, not just notional heroes because they do all these nice things. They have to be treated a lot more fairly; and treating them fairly and treating them well actually will be (for) the benefit of the students that they teach,” Lucas said.

Job insecurity also impacts education because when families do not have the ability to support their children, the result is dropout.

According to the BEDP, data show that dropouts are highest in Grade 7 and Grade 8.

“Transition is also affected by the learners’ backgrounds and situations. The guidance and support skills of schools and teachers to help Grade 7 and Grade 8 learners adjust to their new situation will also facilitate the bridging process,” the BEDP reads.

The BEDB also noted that learners in Junior High School are in the adolescent years and are undergoing physical, social, and mental changes. “Creating a conducive social school environment improves retention and may help improve the mental health of learners,” it said.

To make this all work, Lucas said budget issues will need to be addressed given talks about how the government is not collecting enough revenues.

She said the budget allotted for other agencies like the Department of Agriculture could also help address education problems such as hunger or the feeding of schoolchildren in need.

“We would also like to see improvement in the handling of the Schools Based Management Program… We believe it has not been implemented in a way that is truly satisfactory… It is the School Investment Program that will drive… the prioritization of expenditures for the school coming from the Special Education Fund."

The Special Education Fund (SEF), she added, can also be used for anti-poverty programs in the local government, anti-hunger programs, and transportation system for children.

The SEF comes from the local government’s collection of an additional one-percent tax on real property. The fund is intended to support the supplementary needs of public schools in the locality, such as maintenance of schools, construction and repair of school buildings and facilities, educational research, purchase of books, and sports development.

Top photograph: Winona Sadia

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