Years of remote schooling exacerbate 'learning poverty' among Filipino children

Learning poverty means being unable to read and understand short, age-appropriate texts by the age of 10. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - After two years of distance learning and with months to go before the resumption of face-to-face classes in November, nine out of 10 Filipino children are still struggling to read simple texts by age 10.

That makes the Philippines one of the countries with the highest rates of "learning poverty" in the East Asia and Pacific region and among lower-middle income economies, the World Bank said in a report released on Friday (July 22).

Learning poverty means being unable to read and understand short, age-appropriate texts by the age of 10.

Based on World Bank estimates, as many as 91 per cent of children in the Philippines at late primary age "are not proficient in reading".

Compared with that of its neighbours in the region, the Philippine learning poverty rate was higher by 56.4 points and more than double the regional average of 34.5 per cent.

It fared even worse among lower-middle income countries, with the figures reflecting an abysmal 80.5-point gap with its peers.

The problem, according to the World Bank, is compounded by the significant number of out-of-school youth.

"In the Philippines, 5 per cent of primary school-aged children are not enrolled in schools. These children are excluded from learning in schools," it said.

As in most other countries, learning poverty is higher for boys than for girls.

The World Bank identified two reasons.

"First, the share of out-of-school children is higher for boys (5.1 per cent) than for girls (4.8 per cent). Second, boys are less likely to achieve minimum proficiency at the end of primary school (91.7 per cent) than girls (89.2 per cent) in the Philippines," it said.

The World Bank considers schoolchildren who are unable to reach minimum proficiency levels in reading tests to be "learning deprived."

"All children should be able to read by age 10," it said.

"Reading is a gateway for learning as the child progresses through school and, conversely, an inability to read constrains opportunities for further learning. Reading proficiency is also critical for foundational learning in other subjects," it said.

The country's ballooning learning poverty rate coincided with the closure of schools in 2020 and 2021, which forced educational institutions to resort to at-home classes that were either module-based or online.

Vice-President and Education Minister Sara Duterte had issued an order requiring all public and private schools in the country to switch to five-day in-person classes starting Nov 2.

But on Tuesday (July 19), President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said "blended learning" - or a mix of in-person and distance learning classes - would continue beyond Oct 31 in specific areas to be identified by the Education Ministry.

The government said Mr Marcos directed the Education Ministry to intensify preparations and planning, saying that "as much as possible, classes should really be face-to-face".

In its report, the World Bank noted that the Philippines was spending less on public education than its regional and income-level peers.

"Primary education expenditure per child of primary education age in the Philippines is US$569 (S$790), which is 83.5 per cent below the average for the East Asia and Pacific region, and 29.5 per cent below the average for lower-middle income countries," the World Bank said.

Even before the pandemic, the Philippines' underinvestment in education was reflected in its poor performance in global learning assessments, such as the South-east Asia Primary Learning Metrics and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study in 2019, and the Programme for International Student Assessment in 2018.

Earlier, Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan urged the government not only to resume face-to-face schooling but also conduct remedial classes among younger schoolchildren to make up for two years of subpar learning due to the pandemic.

In a report released on Monday (July 18), the Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB) also joined calls to extend students' learning time so they could recover from learning losses.

"Additional classroom time can give students the opportunity to cover material missed because of school closures. This can take the form of hours added to the school day, weekend classes, and reducing the breaks between academic years and terms," the ADB said.

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