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Poverty, hunger prevent Filipino kids from getting basic education

MANILA, Philippines - Despite the annual increase in the budget for basic education, fewer children are enrolling in schools. The reason: poverty. Twelve-year-old Marian (not her real name) is one of the millions of Filipino children whose education has taken a backseat due to poverty. The fifth of eight children, she fled her home when she was 10 because she said her jobless parents hurt her. Marian is supposed to be in the sixth grade this year, but she’s currently enrolled as a Grade 1 pupil, learning basic language lessons and math skills in a public elementary school in Cainta, Rizal. A certain “Ate Rowena" took her in and convinced her to go back to school. Marian has to face challenges in school. “Marami pong nanlalait sa ‘kin dahil Grade 1 ako pero malaki ako…hindi ko pinapakinggan yun kasi ito na po yung simula para maipagpatuloy ko po yung pag-aaral ko at makatapos po ako (Other children tease me because I’m still in Grade 1…but I don’t mind them because this is my chance to continue and finish my studies)," she said. Despite the challenges, Marian is lucky compare to thousands of other Filipino children. 1 out of 6 kids not in school One out of six school-age Filipino children is not enrolled, figures from the Department of Education (DepEd) and the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) revealed. The net enrollment ratio (NER) or participation rate at the elementary level for school year 2006-2007 was 83.2 percent, down by 1.2 percentage points from the previous school year and a far cry from school year 1999-2000’s 96.95 percent. The NER is the ratio between the enrollment in the school-age range and the total population of that age range. That means that out of all Filipino children aged 6-11—which is the official age range for elementary pupils—17.8 percent or almost one-fifth are out of school. DepEd figures also show that from 1999 to 2007 participation in elementary education decreased, save for a 0.19-percentage point increase in 2002. The rate of participation in secondary education is even worse. From 2002 to 2007, almost half or 43.7 of all Filipinos aged 12-15—the official age range for high school—failed to enroll. This is lower than the participation rate of 65.43 percent in 1999-2000. With these figures the country is still far from achieving the Millennium Development Goal of providing basic education to all, the NSCB said in its report. The Philippines is also far from achieving its own Education for All 2015 Plan, which serves as the blueprint for the country’s basic education. Disparity among regions It is not just the overall figures that reflect that the country is unable to meet international and national goals for education. Government data show that there is a wide disparity in education figures among regions, with most of conflict-ridden Mindanao trailing behind urban centers. The National Economic and Development Authority in its 2006 Socioeconomic Report observed that despite a 0.38 percent increase in the enrollment of children in 2006 compared to 2005, the figure is lower than expected. NEDA’s figures show that 12.91 million of the 19.25 million children enrolled in 2006 are elementary pupils while 6.33 million were in high school. The overall figure is slightly higher than that of the previous year by only 72,969 children. “An assessment of the situation points to poverty as the main cause of this lower-than-expected increase. This is further exacerbated by the high cost of schooling-related expenditures. High school students seeking employment to augment family income also contributed to the low increase in enrollment," the NEDA report stated. The Department of Education admitted that the country’s “volatile economic situation" is preventing children from going to school. Even with the “zero tuition" offer of the government, poor families are hindered by lack of employment, hunger and malnutrition, among other problems. “Time and again parents have complained of financial obstacles," said Kenneth Tirado, communications officer of DepEd. Poverty to blame Poverty is one of the main causes of the country’s poor education record and has affected participation in education in more ways than one, according to “Education Watch Preliminary Report: Education Deprivation in the Philippines," a study done by five advocacy groups including E-Net Philippines, Asian South Pacific Bureau of Adult Education, Action for Economic Reforms, Popular Education for People’s Empowerment, and Oxfam. Citing data from the National Statistics Office 2003 Functional Literacy, Education, and Mass Media Survey, the study said the top reason of people aged 6-24 for not attending school is employment or “looking for work," with almost one-third or 30.5 percent citing that reason. Lack of personal interest came in second at 22 percent, while the high cost of education came in a close third at 19.9 percent. Other reasons include, among others, housekeeping, illness or disability, failure to cope with school work, and distance from school. “The lack of interest among school children indicates a weakness on the part of the school system to make education interesting for the students. This may be due to poor teaching quality, inadequate facilities and supplies and poor infrastructure. Poverty, social exclusion, school distance and poor health are, likewise, factors that weigh heavily on children and dampen their interest to pursue schooling," said the report. “The challenge, therefore, is how to make the school interesting and encouraging rather than intimidating; how to make it inclusive, non-discriminatory and poor-sensitive rather than exclusive and elite-oriented; and how to make it accommodating rather than restricting. Finally, the education content, process and experience should be made more meaningful to the children’s life experiences by ensuring appropriate, culture-sensitive and values-based interventions," it added. Increase in budget does not help Government figures show that the budget for education has increased over a 10-year period – from P90 billion in 1999 to P149 billion in 2008. It does not include the P4 billion acquired in 2007 from the private sector, a dramatic increase from 2003’s P400 million after Education Secretary Jesli Lapus re-launched the Adopt-A-School program in 2006. Despite the budget increase, government agencies observed a gradual decline in the net participation rate of students in the past nine years, especially in the regions. Luzon has the highest NER, followed by Visayas, with NERs on the opposite side of the spectrum, and Mindanao with the lowest percentage of school-age children going to school. The National Capital Region and Region IV alternately topped the NERs for elementary education, with the provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, and Quezon, having the highest NER from 2004 to 2006. Even NCR’s relatively high figures—at least 92.6 percent since 2002—have declined by about 0.6 to 2.2 percentage points, except in school year 2006-2007 when it increased by a meager .03 percent. Region IX or Western Mindanao posted the biggest NER decrease of 12.1 percent, from 89.7 percent in 2002 to 77.6 percent in 2006. Surprisingly, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao placed 4th out of the 17 regions, with no less than 85.8 percent net enrollment rate. Unfortunately the trend didn’t continue until high school, where ARMM ranks lowest, consistently placing 17th with only 23.7 percent to 35.6 percent when it peaked in school year 2005-2006. The figures went down by three percentage points the next year. In school year 2006-2007 alone 13 out of the 20 provinces with the lowest elementary NER were from Mindanao, while in secondary education 17 were from the area. “Various programs have been created to cater to the lagging provinces in Mindanao. DepEd has been implementing these projects with assistance from the private sector and Official Development Assistance from the US Agency for International Development and the Australian Aid for International Development," said DepEd’s Tirado. Tirado said AusAID’s Basic Education Assistance for Mindanao is seeking to improve the quality of and access to basic education, while USAID’s Education Quality and Access for Learning and Livelihood Skills focuses on targeting high illiteracy and drop-out rates. “These two projects have contributed to the success of DepEd’s education interventions in Mindanao," Tirado said. Another project, the Strong Republic Distance Learning School, was established in 2003 “to provide disadvantaged, impoverished sectors access to formal and non-formal school systems." Tirado said the 2008 General Appropriations Act has a special provision for the construction of classrooms and school furniture and the hiring of teachers in the ARMM. Peace in Mindanao needed Education advocacy group E-Net Philippines pointed out that since poor education in Mindanao can be attributed to poverty and armed conflict, a long-term solution to address its declining enrollment would be to bring peace to the area. “During armed conflicts, schools are used as refugee centers, thus disrupting classes. At the same time, children and teachers suffer from trauma which prevents them from effectively learning – or teaching, as in the case of teachers," said E-Net’s national coordinator, Cecilia Soriano, in an email interview with GMANews.TV. She also said that since there is a concentration of Muslim students in Mindanao, the curriculum “should be founded on the Muslim wisdom while incorporating the core competencies that will provide children and youth the necessary knowledge to ‘compete’ in the labor market." The group is also calling for a budget allotment of P70 million for Learning Centers in indigenous communities in Davao del Sur, Agusan, and South Cotabato, where education is virtually inaccessible, as well as an allotment of P800 million for alternative learning services targeting out-of-school youth. The DepEd provided P420 million to ALS in 2006, according to its March 2008 Performance Report from July 1998 to March 2008. Hunger, malnutrition In a March 2008 report, the Education department said hunger and malnutrition are also barriers to participation in education. In 2007, DepEd improved its school feeding program, with 300 percent more beneficiaries compared to the previous year. Tirado said that to make the distribution more effective, the DepEd-Health and Nutrition Council implemented a “targeted scheme" that categorizes “priority provinces" according to the severity of lack of food and vulnerability to hunger. DepEd started implementing the Food for School Program under the Accelerated Hunger Mitigation Plan during the last quarter of 2005. It was done with the Health, Social Welfare departments, the National Food Authority and local government units. A daily ration of a kilogram of fortified rice is given as subsidy to families through preschool and Grade 1 pupils. The program, which covered 6,304 public schools nationwide and benefited 111,584 preschool and Grade 1 children, distributed a total of 25,338 bags of rice. E-Net Philippines said the strategy is flawed. “As a motivation to go to school, it sends the wrong message to poor children: go to school to get one kilo of rice instead of the value of learning; it is also an added burden for children as poor parents encourage their children to attend classes to be able to avail of the daily ration," said Soriano. Strategy for patronage Soriano said the scheme has become a strategy for patronage as local government units select the beneficiaries of the program. “In fact in 2007, in April, when there were no classes, and just before the elections, the DepEd released rice to preschool and elementary and high school students," said Soriano. “There were also problems in implementing the [strategy] which were exposed during the 2007 budget deliberations, such as alleged overpricing of rice, deficiency in deliveries and low quality of rice," she added. E-Net believes there are other strategies to keep poor children in school instead of giving rice. Addressing health and poverty situations that prevent access to education are among the group’s proposals. Aside from the Food for School program, DepEd has also proposed increased funding for interventions aimed at children aged 5-11. (DepEd claimed that there were significant boosts in budget allotment to certain programs in 2006. These include the Preschool Education Program, which went up to P2 billion from P250 million, the settlement of unpaid prior years of teachers’ benefits, PhilHealth and GSIS premiums, which were given P1.94 billion from nothing, and a P345 million boost in Alternative Learning Services.) E-Net’s Soriano, however, said there should be “more targeted education programs for child laborers, indigenous people, children and youth with disabilities and adult illiterates and other marginalized groups." Despite the odds, Education Secretary Jesli Lapus is optimistic. “The key reforms and well-focused policy directions to improve basic education are slowly but surely bearing fruit," he said, adding that the Education department “has been concentrating its human and financial resources on key performance indicators aimed at improving classroom instruction." If it’s up to DepEd, the result of the National Achievement Results this year, where the mean percentage score increased from 59.94 percent in 2007 to 64.81 this year, the government’s Education project is a success. Whether this indicates that the country can inch its way toward achieving the 75 percent target MPS by 2010, or if the Education for All plan and the Millennium Development Goal can be met by 2015 is still to be seen. One thing is certain though, efforts at boosting education will only be futile if the poverty situation is not significantly, immediately improved. – GMANews.TV