By Nichola Mae Meron
When I went to primary school I had to wear a maroon-coloured woollen jumper over an equally unfashionable white shirt and matching polyester skirt. I used pens that had no buttons or extra colours, and the notebooks we wrote in were grainy and brown. We all hated it, but since our school provided these for free, we were forced to use them, albeit against our will.
When I visited my family in the Philippines that summer, I told them about my days at my new school, including my awful school uniform and equipment. To my surprise they didn’t share the same feelings of repulsion – only awe and envy.
According to figures from the Department of Education and the National Statistical Coordination Board in the Philippines, 1 in 6 Filipino kids will not attend school. Further, only 7 out of 10 kids will complete elementary school. Of those 7 kids, only 4 will complete high school, and of those 4, 1 will proceed onto university.
The main reason for this? Poverty.
Carmel Castrillo, a Filipino Londoner, took much of her secondary and further education in the Philippines. She agrees that money plays a huge part in education.
‘Kids with really poor parents are so desperate to go to school that they’re willing to travel far and go through dangerous conditions to get there, like swim under a bridge, or climb onto an open-top school bus that’s already so packed. But some kids just can’t afford to make those trips.’ And getting to school is only the first hurdle. ‘You pay for your books, paper, pens – the schools don’t provide that for you – nothing’s free.’
I asked what would happen if kids turned up with no stationery, and no money to buy any. ‘Teachers buy things for them.’
Our conversation soon turned to teachers, and I was surprised to hear the kind of roles teachers have in schools.
My aunt is a teacher there. If the kids have a project, a lot of them can’t afford to buy things for it. But my aunt, like most teachers there, will buy the materials for the kids. But it comes out of her own pocket. It’s hard because she doesn’t get paid more than 7,000 pesos a month [about £95].’
Teachers in the Philippines like Carmel’s aunt aren’t just classroom facilitators. To children, teachers are seen as heroes and leaders who are respected as much as their own parents.
‘Teachers have authority there. They’re so dedicated and will go through the same material over and over again until everyone has learned it. They’d spend hours after school teaching students. But they wouldn’t get paid extra for this.’
Poverty doesn’t just affect the children – the teachers’ livelihoods inevitably suffer. Sadly, many teachers are choosing to move abroad, after being tempted by higher salaries. Inevitably, it’s the children that suffer.
‘Students always say that they couldn’t achieve anything without their teachers. If the teachers that they rely on begin to leave, so many children will see no other hope in life.’
Late last year, the deadly typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines. The storm killed thousands and shut or destroyed over 7,000 schools.
Hundreds of organisations have worked tirelessly to rebuild schools and provide classroom supplies that were damaged or previously unavailable. For example, Save the Children built several ‘Child Friendly Spaces’ for children whose schools were torn apart, while the Red Cross began building temporary classrooms in the affected regions.
While their efforts helped to bring education back to children in those areas, there are still those who will never see the inside of a classroom. And it’s these children that feel increasingly disillusioned by the need to go to school and make something of themselves.
If any lesson came out of Haiyan, it’s the need to be proactive; we can’t wait for another disaster in order to help those most in need. Although we can’t directly solve a problem as big as poverty, we can certainly help promote the need for education.