Dropouts 'our immense and invisible failure'

6 June 2010
The Manila Times

The school crisis is on us once again. Everyone’s agitated about crowded classrooms; the lack of teachers; not enough textbooks. All tough problems, certainly, but not even the key ones. The more intractable problem we don’t talk about: it concerns the children who never even get to school—or who drop out before they’ve received enough formal learning to function in a modern society.

Out of every 100 Filipino children of the right age, roughly 10 never enter a classroom at all. And out of every 100 children who do, 14 drop out before they reach Grade 2. (In early 2009 Pulse Asia reported 26 percent of all Filipinos having no formal education or no more than an elementary education.)

Almost unavoidably, these children will grow up to join the ranks of our hard-core poor.

In 2009-10 the primary-school participation rate was 86.5 percent. For high school, it was 65.8 percent.

The Jesuit educator Bienvenido Nebres calls our inability to provide adequate elementary education to the great majority of our people “our immense and largely invisible failure.”

Our shameful neglect
And it’s true we’ve shamefully neglected providing the universal basic education to which government is committed—by both the 1987 Charter and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (Unesco) “Education for All” framework.

What is worse is that even our policymakers don’t seem to realize the enormity of that policy failure.

This early, National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) has said it is unlikely the Philippines would meet its Millennium Development Goal of universal school participation by 2015.

Falling out of school
To compound this problem, children who do enter school begin to drop out early. In the poorest regions, parents still tend to pull their children out of school at the planting and harvest seasons.

For every 100 pupils who enter Grade 1, only 86 will go on to Grade 2. For the last 30 years, says the Philippine Development Report, the highest dropout rate in the basic school cycle has occurred this early.

By Grade 4, only 76 of the original 100 will still be in school. By Grade 6, only 67 would still be enrolled—and only 65 will graduate from elementary school.

Of the 65 who finish grade school, only 58 will move on to high school. And of the 58 who enter high school, only 42 will graduate.

The figures cited above are national averages. In the Western Visayas, 25 percent of children ages 6 to 11 are out of school. (In the National Capital Region, the participation rate is 92.9 percent.) The young people ages 12 to 15 who are not in high school make up 41.4 percent of that population group.

This completion rate of 42 percent is far too low for the middle-income country we’re supposed to be. Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Malaysia—which started at the same level, or lower, in the 1950s—have all left our country far behind.

One reason is that government spends far less on our school children than comparable neighboring states do. Thailand spends six times more, and Malaysia 10 times more, on every schoolchild. Singapore spends 13 times more.

Generational poverty
As elsewhere, our poorest families are those whose heads have the barest formal education—or none at all. And these family heads pass down their poverty to their children and grandchildren.

Parents who drop out of school raise children who drop out in turn, and children who drop out raise grandchildren who drop out too.

Despite our enduring myth of the dropout who makes good, only 3 percent of farmers’ children ever become modern professionals, according to the sociologist Gelia Castillo.

Inequality starts early
Among us social inequality starts early. The children of parents who could afford the expense receive 14 to 15 years of basic education—starting with “play” and then “prep” school. But the great majority gets only 10 years: six of elementary and four of high school.

We’re one of only three countries among 155 Unesco-member states with a 10-year pre-university education system. The other two are Djibouti and Angola, both in Africa. Even Laos and Mongolia have elected the 12-year basic system: seven of elementary and five of high school.)

Since the correlation between the lack of schooling and the degree of poverty is so strong, ensuring that no child is left out of school should be a key objective of any anti-poverty program.

The cycle of generational poverty we should break by ensuring the children of the very poor stay in school.

Mexico shows how
What are we to do? We can learn from what other nations at roughly our stage of economic growth and with roughly our level of income-inequality are doing.

There are two stages in basic schooling during which children are most likely to drop out. We’ve noted that 14 out of every 100 Filipino children leave school just after finishing Grade 1. The second is middle high school, when the child in a poor family becomes old enough to start working, or to help around the farm.

Since 1997, Mexico has been managing an anti-dropout program that has been adopted by some 30 countries—including Brazil, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Both China and New York City are observing the program—New York desirous of adapting it for its ethnic and migrant ghettoes.

One Mexican family in four receives an average $150 monthly stipend—provided it keeps its children in school and presents them for regular health checks.

To keep young children in school, Mexico offers them free school meals. More recently, it has also started giving pupils small amounts of cereals and other basic foods to take home—the quantity pegged to the number of days they’re in school.

For older potential dropouts, Mexico has “wages for learning” schemes. Older children are “paid” to stay in school, in amounts approximating what they would earn as “start-up” workers with no skills.

Program managers claim that as much as 97 percent of all Oportunidades funds go directly to beneficiaries. Bimonthly payments to enrolled families are made via bank ATMs.

The program costs Mexico $3.8 billion yearly, but it has had a tremendous impact on school attendance, especially by girls, and on poverty incidence as a whole.

In Brazil, Bolsa Familia—also a conditional-cash-transfer scheme—benefits 11 million poor families.

Our food-for-school program
Since November 2005, the Social Welfare and Education Departments have apparently been trying out a
“Food-for-School Program.” It gives every food-poor family in selected areas of the archipelago a kilo of rice for every a day that it has a child attending either a day-care, pre-school center or a Grade 1 class in a public school.

The program has apparently been encouraging enough for the Arroyo Administration to agree to finance it on a larger scale.

The World Bank notes that as much as 40 percent of program funds go astray. Nevertheless, it has encouraged government and assisted it to venture on a full-scale CCTs program—as the tool for eradicating hard-core Filipino poverty. The Bank estimates that three million families qualify for conditional cash transfers.

Government can afford the expense
The World Bank also says there’s no need to increase public indebtedness to raise the money for a serious CCTs program large enough to begin easing mass poverty. Government can simply rechannel high-cost, wrongheaded and easily subverted schemes such as the National Food Authority’s rice subsidies.

Realignment of the education budget will also help. Right now government is dissipating its money for public education in a mistaken—and futile—effort to do more than it can. Too large a portion goes to maintaining state universities and colleges.

The NEDA think tank, PIDS, notes that not just money but governance issues hamper the modernization of public education. Frequent changes in political leadership of the education department compounds the problems inherent in its “highly centralized structure.”

Where innovative principals have been empowered to reach out to their surrounding communities and engage them in school affairs, specific districts have done well.

What local governments can do
Local governments too can make a difference. They may have neither the money nor the administrative capability to carry out social programs of the magnitude of the Mexican CCTs concept, but they can make a start—without waiting for a laggard and often-confused Manila to make a move.

Among the provinces with the greatest poverty incidence, Negros Occidental apparently has set up a fairly large school-feeding program. As for the quality of governance systems in the education sector, Albay, Benguet, Biliran and Camarines Sur are apparently outstanding.

In these provinces, more intensive collection of provincial and municipal taxes (such as the real-estate levy)—with the promise that the proceeds would be earmarked for CCTs programs—might speed up local CCTs programs attacking the dropout problem where it is most acute.

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