School Congestion in the Philippines: A Breakthrough Solution
April 5, 2017
Each June, over 21 million elementary and high school students start a new school year in the Philippines, and almost 4 million of them, or 18 percent of the entire student population, will be forced to attend extremely overcrowded public schools. In urban areas, some classes hold over 100 students—well beyond the Department of Education’s (DepEd) prescribed 45 students per class. While the contentious K-12 education reform efforts led by former President Aquino are taking shape, the long-running issue of congestion has largely been dismissed, until recently.
Studies show that overcrowded classroom conditions not only make it difficult for students to concentrate on their lessons, but inevitably limit the amount of time teachers can spend on innovative teaching methods such as cooperative learning and group work or on teaching anything beyond the bare minimum required by the curriculum. On top of this, teachers in congested classrooms are generally over-stretched, more likely to suffer from burnout, or have a more strained relationship with their pupils.
Despite the shortage of space for many students at public schools in the Philippines, the DepEd had never attempted to purchase land for new school sites for several reasons. Up until our intervention in 2014, there was a long-held belief by some in the DepEd that school properties should not be purchased, but rather donated by either the local government or private individuals and organizations. Instead, the DepEd focused on constructing additional classrooms at existing school sites. To counteract the widening student-classroom ratio, the DepEd developed and implemented a wide range of strategies that were often seen as controversial, including: splitting classrooms in two using wall dividers; dividing the classes—even at the elementary level—into morning, afternoon, and evening sessions; and encouraging students to take distance-learning classes.
Unfortunately, these stopgap solutions did not solve the problem, and the learning environment in congested public schools continued to deteriorate. To make matters worse, land donations to the DepEd have gradually decreased over the years with the steady rise of land value. Without new land to expand existing sites or establish new schools, there has been no place to build additional classrooms. In fact, it was only after the budget for classrooms increased significantly in 2011 (under President Aquino) did the scarcity of land become more apparent.
In 2014, The Australian Embassy in Manila and The Asia Foundation, through its Coalitions for Change (CfC) program, began an initiative to find a more long-term solution to school congestion in the Philippines. It became clear that land shortage was the most critical and prevalent issue for schools in urban areas, particularly in Metro Manila. The solution seemed straightforward, but initial investigations were met by the complex realities of bureaucratic reform. Some officials strongly believed it was the role of local governments to provide land for new schools. There were also worries of potential legal risks if the land being purchased had questionable ownership or adverse claims—a common occurrence in the Philippines.
Coalitions for Change is predicated on advancing reforms that are technically sound as well as politically feasible, so the team met with a broad range of stakeholders to better understand the problem and identify potential reform champions. The team then assembled an informal coalition within the DepEd, civil society, and Congress and began briefing key legislators on the nature of the problem and garnering support for the reform.
These efforts eventually paid off. In 2015, the national budget included a special provision for the DepEd to acquire land for new schools, raising the budget for land-related issues from a modest $1.3 million in 2014 to $8.2 million in 2015. In January 2016, the DepEd was able to successfully acquire a 2,500-sqm property in Novaliches, Quezon City. Based on DepEd estimates, the new school site can hold 60 new classrooms to accommodate 2,700 students from overcrowded schools—an average of 45 students per classroom, the recommended number.
According to existing records, the acquisition of the Novaliches property was the first purchase of its kind in Philippine history. One of CfC’s primary goals is to introduce reforms that can be sustained and institutionalized. Armed with the experience of purchasing the first parcel and clear procedural guidelines, the DepEd managed to acquire seven new parcels in 2016 that can accommodate over 20,000 students from nearby crowded schools.
While there is a long way to go in addressing school congestion nationwide, the DepEd is now equipped with the policy, knowledge, and financial resources to expand existing schools or build new schools, thus improving the learning environment for elementary and high school students in urban areas of the Philippines.
Nicholas Jones is an assistant program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Economic Reform and Development Entrepreneurship unit in the Philippines. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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