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About the Author

Iris Cecilia Gonzales
journalist (Quezon City, Philippines)

I work as a reporter for the Philippine Star, a Manila daily. At present, I cover the Department of Finance beat but I also write other stories here and there. I'm also a coffee and scotch drinker, a barefoot traveller and a collector of memories. I live in a parallel universe.


Philippine public schools: not so free after all.

Published 07th July 2010 - 17 comments - 22037 views -

Students attend their first day of school in Quezon city. Photo by Jes Aznar

METRO MANILA, Philippines - It is 10 pm in Manila. There is a bright yellow moon glistening above the almost empty roads of the metropolis.  It is Sunday, the only day in the week when there are no classes and no work. 

Little boys and girls are usually sleeping soundly by this time, tucked under cottony sheets or simply in the arms of their mommies and daddies, preparing for another big day in school the next day.

But there is no reprieve for Christine and Ferlin, 11 and 13 years old, from sorting out trash outside restaurants, massage parlors and other establishments that are usually filled to the brim on Sundays. 

In this late hour, the two girls are wading through heaps of trash to find whatever stuff they can recycle and sell to junk shops for up to $2 on good days. The meager amount, they would still have to divide between them.

On not-so-good days, they get only $1, which they would still need to half in two.

“We’re looking for anything we can sell – cardboard, cans, plastic containers or paper,” said Christine, her thin hands smudged with dirt and soot. 

Like most children whose parents have no jobs, Christine and Ferlin both need to earn extra money so they can spend for the numerous miscellaneous fees that public schools in the Philippines charge their students.

In principle, students should be able to study for free in public schools in the Philippines, numbering to 37,607 elementary schools and 5,359 secondary schools as of end-2009.

However, parents of students who send their children to public schools usually end up deferring the enrollment because of the various miscellaneous fees slapped by the schools. 

Christine and Ferlin are neighbors in Krus-na-Ligas, a small lower-to-middle income community in Quezon City. 

On this particular night, I chanced upon them in a dark corner filled with trash, outside a commercial establishment, 30 minutes away from where they live.

They spend three to four nights a week scouting nearby streets and villages for recyclable crap they can sell to junk shops. 

This is necessary, they said, because their parents have no incomes to fund the miscellaneous fees that their schools charge. 

The miscellaneous fees usually collected by public schools consist of PTA (Parents-Teachers Association) fee, school paper contribution and student government fund. The fees can go as high as roughly $20 a year.

The fees can cost a little less than $3 per single requirement.

It is no wonder that some students are dropping out of school. 

A recent study of the Department of Education shows that for every 100 students who enroll in the 1st grade, 33 drop out before reaching Grade 5 and 31 out of 100 high school freshmen drop out before reaching their senior year, according to Congressman Raymond Palatino of the Kabataan Party-list group, a sectoral group. 

He said that the trend for the past ten years show that for every 10 pupils who enroll in grade school, only 7 graduate.

“Government statistics show that for the past years there was a steady increase in total school enrollment. True. But there were also an increasing proportion of elementary school-age children who remained out of school, based on the most recent Philippine assessment report on the Millennium Development Goals,” Palatino said in his first privileged speech in Congress in May 2009. 

Furthermore, he said, in school year 2005-2006, almost 65 percent of six-year old children did not begin their primary education on time. The cohort survival rate was placed at 76 percent in 2001 but it went down to 70 percent in 2006. The completion rate was 75 percent in 2001 but it also went down to 68 percent in the same period. The drop-out rate and repetition rate also deteriorated in the same report.

Elementary students occupy a small classroom of a public school in Quezon city. Photo by Jes AznarWith this stark reality, it is no wonder that the Philippines is likely to miss MDG 2 which is to achieve universal primary education.

As I noted in my previous post, the goal is to bring the net enrollment ratio in primary education to a full 100 percent by 2015 from 84.8 percent in 2007. 

“Similarly, the proportion of pupils starting from grade 1 who reached grade 6 is still at 75.3 percent as of 2007 when the goal is to bring this to a full 100 percent of the population by 2015.  Furthermore, the country's primary completion rate is still 73.1 percent as of 2007 when the goal is to bring this to 100 percent by 2015,” according to my previous post

It is a quiet Sunday evening. Christine and Ferlin should both be in bed. But they can’t just yet. Instead, they will have to wait until their sacks are filled with recyclable trash which they will try to sell to junk shops the next day, just before they leave for school.

Somewhere, buried underneath these heaps of garbage are their dreams of a better future. Christine hopes to become a nurse someday. Ferlin wants to be a teacher.


  • Iwona Frydryszak on 07th July 2010:

    i’m the fan of your reportage and articles smile in fact quite the same thing i was investigating in tanzania. the primary education is free, but the level of drop off is so high because families cannot afford to pay those “small” fees or afford to buy new shoes if the old one are thrown off.

  • Luan Galani on 07th July 2010:

    An incredible read! Marvellous post again wink

    On the other hand, the whole situation is so depressing. I’ve noticed some similarities with Brazil’s education system. Well, I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 08th July 2010:


    Thanks for your comment. And thanks for reading. The part about the shoes reminds me of the Iranian film Children of Heaven.

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 08th July 2010:


    Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment. Could you share a bit on the similarity with Brazil’s education system? I’m keeping my fingers crossed, too.

  • Maria Kuecken on 08th July 2010:

    Wonderful writing, Iris!  To go off of what Iwona mentioned, high dropout rates are very much a problem in Rwanda as well.  Though schools are capturing more children at the lower levels of primary school, they lose many of these students at upper levels.  Not enough information gathering has been done to determine why exactly this is so, but it is probably a combination of factors like fees as well as decreased incentives to continue schooling since secondary schools are selective and expensive.

    From your post, it looks like the number of secondary schools is quite small compared to primary.  So I was wondering—do most students who complete primary school have a decent chance to continue their education or is it pretty difficult due selection, fees, and so forth?

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 08th July 2010:


    Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment. Yes, they are fighters, indeed.

  • Luan Galani on 11th July 2010:

    @Iris, I’m preparing a post to share with you all the Brazil’s education system.

    Thanks again for this marvellous post.

  • Guy Degen on 12th July 2010:

    Iris, great post. These children need to have their voices heard, their stories told.

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 13th July 2010:


    Thanks for reading and for the encouragement. Yes, so many people need to have their voices heard. There’s so much stories crying out to be written.

  • Andrea Arzaba on 14th July 2010:

    Iris! I love your articles but this one is one of the best! I can actually see it and feel it with your words…

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 14th July 2010:


    Thanks for reading! and thanks for the comment! Glad you liked the article. There are a lot of stories crying out to be written especially here in the Philippines.

  • Hanna Clarys on 15th July 2010:

    I like the fact that you use personal stories to sketch the main picture in your country.

    And to think that fellow students here are sometimes complaining about having to find a job to pay for their studies… They should read this story.

  • Hussam Hussein on 15th July 2010:

    Thanks for your post.. I think that it must be a very current issue not only in Philippine though… :(

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 21st July 2010:

    Thanks for your comment Hanna. Yeah, I try to use personal sketches as much as possible, putting faces to the stories. It’s sad, indeed. And there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 21st July 2010:


    Yes. I totally agree. I am certain, it is an issue not just in the Philippines but all over.

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