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No Free Lunch

Education for all

/ 04:05 AM October 01, 2019

Years ago, a research team I was traveling with encountered a little girl selling delicacies at the passenger dock in Masbate as we awaited the ferry to Pilar, Sorsogon. We asked her if she goes to school, and she said yes. So why wasn’t she in school? She explained that she had to work on that particular day, because the family direly needed money. One can guess that this same story must be played out every day all over the country.

In my hometown of Los Baños, Laguna, children from Barangay Bagong Silang on the slopes of Mount Makiling basically have two options to go to school: They could walk two hours down the mountain to the Lopez Elementary School just outside the University of the Philippines campus, or they could spend about the same time walking up a trail further up the mountain, then down again the other side to a school in the neighboring town of Bay. Either way takes a tremendous physical toll on the children. Many simply forego schooling altogether.

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On a visit to Tawi-Tawi some 10 years ago, my group was shown around the island barangay of Malassa in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, by its former barangay chief, who proudly showed us a small schoolhouse he managed to build with the limited funds he gets. But the structure lay idle and was slowly rotting away. The Department of Education, we learned, could not find a trained schoolteacher who would agree to work in this far-flung barangay, a 30-minute boat ride away from the Bongao town proper. The only times that the schoolhouse found use was when a volunteer parent from the community would occasionally gather the local children for informal “classes” when she felt like it. But the only way these children could get to a regular school would be to pay for the needed 30-minute boat ride. Not surprisingly, hardly anyone did.

There must be countless similar stories of even more difficult circumstances elsewhere in the country, given our geography spanning steep mountain trails, wide rivers and scattered islands, all of which make schools hard to reach physically. Our government aims to have a schoolhouse in all 42,000-plus barangays around the country. But as these stories show, it would take much more than building a schoolhouse in every village to get all Filipino children in school, a goal that has proven elusive through the years. One must understand the various other hurdles that keep children out of school.

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The above stories show us three types of such hurdles (among others, I’m sure). The geographic impediment posed by difficult terrain or bodies of water is common. Bridges certainly help where streams and rivers lie in the way. School boats, school kariton or school habal-habal can make sense where it’s unrealistic to bring schools to far-flung barangays, in the same way that free school bus service is routinely provided to public school children in many countries. Government would do well to subsidize such school transport, and create additional community livelihoods in the process.

Where the problem is attracting qualified teachers to work in a far-flung area (as in Tawi-Tawi’s Barangay Malassa), appropriate “carrots” to lure them there are in order. One nongovernment initiative provided good homes or living quarters where no teacher would otherwise wish to be assigned, a strategy the DepEd could adopt for such cases. It could also be more flexible about having qualified local parents, such as that Malassa parent volunteer, to be capacitated and hired as authorized learning facilitators or para-teachers where no accredited teachers are willing to venture. Meanwhile, the conditional cash transfers (CCTs) under the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) aim to address instances where parents see sending their children to school as too costly even with free tuition—both because there are other costs they must incur, and because they could be earning the family some income. Does it work? Assessments of the CCT both here and abroad indicate so, and school enrollment rates have gone up.

Achieving basic education for all need not be a dream. We just need to think out of the box and be creative about it.

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