Focus on the Philippines

Recently, Contributing Editor Paul Chua spoke with Dr. Vicente Reyes on current issues affecting education in the Phillipines. In the following post, Dr. Reyes responds to questions about the current issues in the Philippine education system, about the historical background of these issues, and about the current situation and efforts to address these issues today.

Key issues – Access, bureaucracy, and mismanagement of resources:

In relation to education, the most pertinent issue that faces the Philippines today is access to education. With a population of about 21 million students in basic education (i.e. primary and secondary) (Flores, 2014) the latest figures from the Philippine Department of Education (DepEd) as compiled by the World Bank state that for primary school, participation rates hover around 95%, while for secondary school, the participation rates are around 65% (The World Bank., 2014)

Now access to education is a complex issue. At the very crux of the problem are two interrelated issues: (1) a dysfunctional bureaucracy as represented by the DepEd and (2) the mismanagement of resources that are made available to the DepEd.

In terms of bureaucracy, the DepEd is the biggest bureaucracy in the Philippines – its size and coverage greatly hinder effective policy implementation. One particular branch of the DepEd is the Operations Division. There are more than 500,000 people (comprising Division superintendents, District supervisors, School Principals and teachers) under this particular division, spread across 16 different regions (Reyes, 2009). All of these regions and all these half a million people are under the administrative purview of one Undersecretary of Operations assisted by six staff members. What would have been more reasonable would be to devolve the functions of this office, however; due to the historical growth (i.e. unanticipated phenomenal growth) of the DepEd and the unwillingness of some entrenched offices to be devolved, the DepEd continues to be highly-centralised, with an unrealistically lean senior management tasked to handle a diverse and regionally disparate bureaucracy. What results therefore is uneven communication, unresponsive decision-making, and “one-size-fits-all” policies that continue to hamper smooth operations of the bureaucracy. Hence, the continued dysfunction of the DepEd.

In terms of management of resources, the truth is there are resources available for the very real needs of the DepEd. The resources come from the Executive branch of the central government and are funnelled through the DepEd. Another source of funding comes from Local Government Units (LGUs) in the form of Special Education Funds (SEF) that can be disbursed by the Local School Boards (LSBs).  Another really good source is the Development Assistance Funds —pejoratively known currently in the Philippines as “pork barrel” from local and national legislators. However, because of rampant and systemic corruption, the resources that should be going to schools and school children are—unfortunately—diverted by unscrupulous elements into other places.

Historical background:

These issues reflect the troubled genesis of the Philippine education system that continue to haunt current day education in the country. From the centralised Spanish colonial education framework that was skewed towards the illustrados (i.e. a group of Philippine society elites referred to as the ‘enlightened ones’) who totally neglected the educational needs of the Philippine masses and, followed by the American colonial educational system which was plagued by two serious diseases of (i) a highly-politicised American government at the turn of the 20th century that greatly affected the creation of a solid foundation of a political system and (ii) the absence of a Philippine colonial service – again due to the vacillation of a highly politicised America – that compromised the creation and maintenance of a sound Philippine education bureaucracy.

Actually, the US government commissioned Paul Monroe of Teachers College in the 1920s to conduct what is now known as a landmark Educational Survey. The Monroe Educational Survey warned that the current level of resources and expertise could not sustain the education-for-all initiative and also warned against the increasing politicisation of Philippine education. Powerful groups that championed the populist education-for-all (versus the efficient allocation of education) as well as politicians who had felt slighted about the claim that they had interfered in the running of education in the country lambasted the report.  As such, the suggestions contained in the report were never implemented in the Philippines.

The current situation:

The Philippines is a signatory of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), which aspires to accomplish the goals of Education For All (EFA) for all young Filipino people by 2015. By this, it means that in the Philippines, politicians, academia, the media, as well as many other stakeholders, have fully embraced the goals of EFA. The reality though is that without addressing the two aforementioned major issues that trouble the DepEd, accomplishing EFA remains a daunting challenge. Current estimates indicate that the Philippines will miss out on the EFA targets for 2015.  In addition, the country has also been described as one of the low performers in relation to the MDG.

Current reform efforts in the Philippines have been devised to try and address the twin issues of a dysfunctional bureaucracy and a flawed resource allocation system for the DepEd and its schools.  The most central of all these is the Basic Education Sector Reform Agenda (BESRA), with one of the pillars of BESRA being the controversial K-12 programme. K-12 has been implemented starting 2013 — on paper, the initiative sounds promising (i.e. promising a 12 year Basic Education for all young people), in practice however, the dysfunctional bureaucracy (i.e. most of the educational institutions were ill-prepared in rolling out the reform programme) and the resources needed are either unavailable or if they were, they are either delayed or never get to their destination.

Overall, I would describe the situation in the Philippines as optimistic — with caveats. The economy is steadily improving in terms of the general indicators. However, income inequality remains a problem and has in fact worsened. Corruption also needs to be tackled.  Such problems do not bode well for political stability.  One potent approach that the government has taken to address income inequality is to alleviate poverty alongside with continued economic growth.  In addition, the government is plugging the leaks (i.e. identifying corruption flash points and addressing these) by pursuing the current administration’s centerpiece of “Tuwid na Daan” or “Pursuing the Straight Path.”  The business sector is happy that corruption has somehow abated and opinion polls continue to register moderate to high satisfactory ratings in favour of the current administration. A politically stable nation may eventually pave the way for genuine reforms of the Education sector to be carried out. However, if political stability is eroded, then one might not be mistaken in saying that the current state of Philippine education would turn out to be “more of the same.”


Flores, Helen. (2014, June 2). 21M students return to schools. Philstar. Retrieved from

Reyes, Vicente. (2010). The Philippine Department of Education: Challenges of Policy Implementation amidst Corruption. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 30(4), 381-400.

The World Bank. (2014). Philippines: National Program Support for Basic Education Ensuring universal access to basic education and improving learning outcomes (pp. 1-152). Washington, DC: World Bank.

For more information:

For a critique of the Philippine education system see “When Reforms Don’t Transform” (Bautista, Bernardo, Ocampo, 2009)

For a discussion on the bureaucracy and the mismanagement of resources at the DepEd, also see a “Case study of implementation amidst corruption linkages” (Reyes, 2009)

This post was written by International Education News and was originally posted on Home page photo by Marc Reil Gepaya/ Flickr Commons.


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