MANILA (Reuters) - School is out for Filipino children this summer and a large proportion of them won’t be coming back.
Dropout rates are climbing in the Philippines as years of underfunding and rapid population growth have left the country’s public schools — once the pride of the region — with insufficient teachers, classrooms and textbooks to go round.
The poor are most at risk, creating a vicious cycle of impoverishment that two men armed with a submachine gun, a revolver and two grenades decided to highlight last week by holding dozens of children in Manila hostage.
Although Filipinos abhorred the actions of Jun Ducat and his accomplice, the businessman’s impassioned condemnation of corruption and inequality in education, aired live on TV, struck a chord.
“I wholeheartedly agree with the message because these are the kids who are neglected,” said Dolores Espanol, chairwoman of the Philippine branch of Transparency International, which rated the country 126 out of 163 in a 2006 global survey on corruption, behind Libya and Uganda.
“Corruption is really pervasive in the education system.”
Publishers often bribe school boards and superintendents with money and foreign holidays to win lucrative textbook contracts.
Teachers, who earn as little as 165,000 pesos ($3,400) a year, sometimes over-charge their students for materials or accept payoffs for higher grades. Many have left the Philippines for better-paying work as domestic help.
The result is book shortages, inappropriate texts and bitterness among the poor. Pupils are forced either to share or fork out for extra resources, putting a big strain on families already struggling to pay for uniforms and lunches.
Although government finances are improving and the economy is growing, the benefits are not trickling down to the poor, whose ranks are expanding due to a lack of contraception and little education about birth control in the mainly Catholic nation.
Around 46 percent of the Philippine population live on less than $2 a day, and 28 percent of children under the age of five are underweight, according to the United Nations.
Extreme poverty is forcing more and more students out of the classroom and onto the streets of large cities, where they beg and hustle to survive.
“Even if education is free, the problem is the daily expenses and allowances of the children. I have had students who attend classes on empty stomachs,” said one veteran high school teacher, who declined to be named.
Drop-out rates in secondary school rose to 15.8 percent in 2005-06 from 8.5 percent in 2000-01, according to the Department of Education. In some schools the rate is as high as 30 percent.
“What you have is a very large minority of people who are condemned to poverty because they will be functionally illiterate,” said Solita Monsod, professor of economics at the University of the Philippines.
For those children that stick it out, conditions are tough.
Overcrowding and lack of space mean that classes are held in shifts. One group will start lessons at 6 a.m. and the next will take over the room at 1 p.m.
Teachers frequently have to deal with 65 children at a time and sometimes there aren’t enough chairs or desks for everyone.
While the rich can send their children to private institutions with air conditioning and computers, rural public schools often have to make do without reliable electricity and classes are sometimes held outside or in the stairwell.
Figures from the World Bank show education spending by the Philippines was equal to 3.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2004, far higher than Indonesia’s 0.9 percent but well below Malaysia’s 8 percent and Thailand’s 4.2 percent.
For decades, the Philippines was acclaimed as one of the most highly educated countries in Asia but recent test scores tell a different story.
Just one in five 12-year-olds scored the mastery level of 75 percent in maths, science, social studies and languages in the 2004/05 school year, a report by the National Statistical Coordination Board showed.
Buoyed by improving tax revenues and large foreign exchange flows from overseas workers — including former teachers — the Philippines plans to hike its education budget by 13 percent to 133 billion pesos this year.
But it’s already too late for Edraline Mataron, whose parents halted her education last year so that her older brother could go to college.
“I am saddened by it,” said the 16-year-old from a slum area of Manila. “I’m trying to get any work, even part time, but it’s hard to pass the requirements.”
Additional reporting by Karen Lema and Rosemarie Francisco