The Philippines is a unique country. Only slightly larger than the U.S. state of Arizona in land mass, it is the world’s second-largest archipelago after Indonesia, consisting of more than 7,000 islands. It is also the world’s 12th most-populous country with just over 103 million people as of 2016.
Notably, the Philippines is the only pre-dominantly Christian country in Asia (roughly 80 percent of the population is Roman Catholic). Equally notable, English is a national language in the Philippines next to Filipino (Tagalog) and spoken by about two-thirds of the population, although there are still some 170 additional Malayo-Polynesian languages in use throughout the archipelago.
Both the country’s religious makeup and its anglophony are the result of colonialism. The Philippines was a Spanish colony for more than three centuries, a fact that shaped religious belief systems, before the U.S. occupied it in 1898 and ruled the country for nearly five decades, until independence in 1946. U.S. colonialism had a formative impact on the development of the modern Philippine education system and various other aspects of Philippine society. With the imposition of English in sectors like education, news media, and trade, the Spanish language became marginalized and faded. In 1987, Spanish was dropped as an official language and is today only spoken by a small minority of Filipinos.
Problems in Education and Education Reforms: An Overview
In 2017, the National Economic and Development Authority of the Philippines published the Philippine Development Plan, 2017-2022, detailing the country’s aspirations for the next five years. The plan envisions the Philippines becoming an upper-middle income country by 2022, based on more inclusive economic growth that will reduce inequalities and poverty, particularly in rural areas. Human capital development is a key element in this strategy and has been the impetus behind various political reforms over the past years. Recent education reforms have sought to boost enrollment levels, graduation rates and mean years of schooling in elementary and secondary education, and to improve the quality of higher education.
Problems in the School Sector
Many of these reforms were adopted against a backdrop of declining educational standards in the Philippine education system during the first decade of the 21st century. A UNESCO mid-decade assessment report of Southeast Asian education systems, published in 2008, for example, found that participation and achievement rates in basic education in the Philippines had fallen dramatically, owed to chronic underfunding. After rising strongly from 85.1 percent in 1991 to 96.8 percent in 2000, net enrollment rates at the elementary level, for instance, had dropped back down to 84.4 percent by 2005. Also by mid-decade, elementary school dropout rates had regressed back to levels last seen in the late 1990s. The completion rate in elementary school was estimated to be below 70 percent in 2005.
At the secondary level, problems were omnipresent as well: the net enrollment rate in secondary education, for example, had by 2005 dropped down to 58.5 percent, after increasing from 55.4 percent to around 66 percent between 1991 and 2000. Tellingly perhaps, the country’s youth literacy rate, while still being high by regional standards, fell from 96.6 percent in 1990 to 95.1 percent in 2003, making the Philippines the only country in South-East Asia with declining youth literacy rates.
Such deficiencies were reflected in the poor performance of Filipino students in international assessment tests, such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). In 2003, the last year the Philippines participated in the study, the country ranked only 34th out of 38 countries in high school mathematics and 43rd out of 46 countries in high school science. Education spending as a percentage of overall government expenditures, meanwhile, declined from 18.2 percent in 1998 to 12.4 percent in 2005. Between 2003 and 2005 alone, average annual spending per public elementary and secondary school student fell from PHP 9,500 (USD $182.7) to PHP 8,700 (USD $167.3) in real terms.