Wednesday, October 14, 2015

12-year schooling plan irks not just Filipino students

Aquino meets stiff resistance as he works to empower impoverished communities through education

OCTOBER 14, 2015

QUEZON CITY (Philippines) — Micaella Serrano, 16, stood in a crowd of students outside the imposing gates of Batasan Hills National High School, tossed her textbooks onto the pavement, and began to shout.

“Thieves!” she said, while punching the air with her fist. “Dictatorship!”

In the packed hallways of Batasan Hills, Micaella was known as an obedient student who turned her homework in early and spent afternoons refining her English accent.

But now she was helping to lead a political fight. She was devoting nights and weekends to a campaign to block one of the most significant changes to education in the history of the Philippines: A plan to extend the basic education system by two years, creating, for the first time, grades 11 and 12.

The policy, a pillar of President Benigno Aquino’s agenda, was imagined as a way of helping impoverished communities by giving students the skills they need to land high-paying jobs in fields such as technology and finance. But it has inspired a wave of protests and legal challenges. Students worry about a lack of classroom space.

Parents say they cannot afford to keep their children out of the workforce.

University instructors are concerned they will lose their jobs as classes are shifted to high schools.

The policy, which will go into effect next year, has prompted a fierce national debate about the government’s role in education and the extent to which it should bow to international standards.

In a broader sense, it has provoked tensions between the old, agrarian society and the demands of the modern world.

The Philippines is one of only a handful of countries in the world, and the only one in Asia, that offers fewer than 12 years of basic education.

Since World War II, Philippine officials have debated lengthening the education cycle, but their efforts have fallen flat in the face of budget shortfalls and public resistance, especially in places such as Quezon City, a suburb of Manila, where many poorer families expect their children to work at a young age.

“Education happens on the streets and on the farms and in the factories,” Mr Robin Rios, a 56-year-old construction worker, said as he played poker on a street corner here. “Why should we keep our children in school against their will?”

The central government in Manila sees the policy as a long-overdue measure that will give students the credentials they need to compete for high-paying jobs at home and abroad.

“We want to give our young citizens a better chance at a decent life,” said Mr Elvin Uy, a Philippine education official.

But in a country where the average household income in 2012 was about 235,000 pesos (S$7,140) a year, many families see two more years of schooling as a costly burden, not a benefit.

Ms Mary Jean Reyes, 34, who is unemployed and whose husband’s monthly income of about US$100 (S$140) was not enough to ward off hunger and distress, said she hoped that her four children would be able to start work as soon as they graduated from school. But she worried that the education policy, which has already made kindergarten mandatory, would result in lost wages for the family.

“It’s not necessary to add two more years,” said Ms Reyes, who would soon give birth to her fifth child. “It will just be two more years of loitering, and we can’t afford that.”

When the K to 12 Basic Education Program, known as K-12, was put in place by Mr Aquino in 2012, it won accolades from education experts and business executives. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization called it “absolutely essential”.

[Transplanted values without understanding of the circumstances and context.]

But support has dwindled in recent months amid concerns about a shortage of classrooms and teachers. According to a poll released in June by Manila newspaper The Standard, 61 per cent of Filipinos opposed adding two more years of high school.

Protests on school campuses are common. Six petitions have been filed in the Philippine Supreme Court seeking to block the plan.

Others worry that adding two years of high school will overwhelm students and exacerbate a dropout crisis. Currently, a quarter of students fail to graduate from the 10th grade.

University professors have become leading voices of opposition. Many are concerned that moving classes for 17- and 18-year-olds from universities to high schools will result in the firing of at least 25,000 university employees.

“From an academic perspective, this is a very good plan. Our incoming students will be more mature than ever,” said Ms Rosalie Arcala Hall, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines Visayas. “But from a logistics perspective, it’s a nightmare.”

Mr Aquino, who will leave office next year, considers the effort part of his legacy and has worked to counter criticism of the plan in recent months. In his state of the nation address in July, he compared graduates under the old system to mangoes “induced to ripen under artificial circumstances”.

“Now, we are ensuring that the abilities of our students are fully developed,” he said, “so that they can take hold of their futures.”

Since taking office in 2010, Mr Aquino has more than doubled the education budget. But significant challenges remain. The government must construct 30,000 classrooms and hire 43,000 teachers next year to prepare for the effort.

About a quarter of high schools do not have space to expand to Grade 11, according to government data. Students at those schools will be asked to attend nearby schools or be given vouchers to enrol in private programmes.

On the trash-strewn streets in Quezon City, some families worry that the new classrooms and teachers will never arrive.

Angelo Vergara, 17, said he thought the government should focus instead on creating jobs. “We already don’t have food to eat, and now we are supposed to trust them to give us new schools?” he said.

[Jobs should be the priority. Already Filipinos are the foreign workers to the world. Educate them to what end? So they can work overseas?]

Micaella, who will begin Grade 11 next year under the new system, has dreams of becoming an English teacher. She said she was considering finding a part-time job to help her family pay the bills. Her father is a welder, and her mother does not work.

“I feel sad for the students,” she said. “We are the guinea pigs.”


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