Faces of Payatas: Why Do So Many Kids Drop Out of School? Meet Sarah.

*Names are changed for child protection purposes

When asked what do kids most need to succeed, many people talk about education. Families, organisations, and even entire countries say their young students are the future of their country. The Millennium Development Goals for example stated that every child in the world should go through Primary Schooling at the very least. Pretty much everyone agrees that school is very important.

But what if that’s not always true? What if in some places the way we do school is actually part of the problem? Education is incredibly important, but from any learning and health perspective our current system of schooling does a terrible job at it.

Meet Sarah*

17792312_10209347164139765_99062490_n.jpgSarah is 13 years old. She dropped out of school many years ago. Her younger sister also dropped out in Grade 2. Together they talk about how teachers slapped them with rulers, pulled their hair, hit and kicked them during class. When students were asked to read, Sarah’s sister says, if they didn’t read correctly they would be hit.

When offered a scholarship back to school, Sarah point-blank refused. “Natakot ako” she replied (“I’m scared [to go back to school]”). Sarah and her sister dropped out in Grade 3 and Grade 2 respectively. They went through about two years of schooling each and neither could even write their name by the end of it. And here in Payatas, this is pretty normal.

Why Do Kids Drop Out of School?

Our experience has been that anytime we asked a group of dropouts here how many were hit by a teacher, almost all of them raise their hands. Corporal punishment is illegal on paper but there is little done to enforce those laws.

But the frequent corporal punishment in schools in the slums is one symptom of a much larger problem. There are many kind and caring teachers, of course, who mostly went into the profession because they wanted to help the kids. But the teachers themselves are under a huge amount of stress and they are exasperated and frustrated too. Imagine having to work long hours in a crowded classroom, expected to teach 60 to 80 mostly illiterate kids in a tiny classroom with one textbook for the whole class, in a language (English) no-one properly understands. Teachers are under constant pressure from their bosses and their boss’s boss. It’s no surprise some snap under this kind of stress.

None of that excuses those teachers who hit their pupils. But the best teachers in the world couldn’t deal with this system. The best teachers in the world couldn’t teach here. It shows us the real problem is the system.

It’s a Systemic Problem

Across the Philippines, half of Grade 1 students will eventually drop out[i]. It’s a huge number and amounts to wasted time, effort, and money. The government’s own statistics suggest there are now almost 4 million out of school youths[ii]. Four of the most comprehensive studies[iii] on why Elementary and High School aged students in the Philippines drop out of school show a lack of money and a ‘lack of personal interest’ are the two most cited reasons.

In terms of finances, the problem is pretty clear. If you add up the cost of uniforms, school projects, transport, outings (which are supposed to be optional but students who don’t pay are often threatened with having their grades lowered), and everything else it adds up to about P20,000 per year (US$400). For a family living on the poverty line in the Philippines, sending three children to school would take away half their entire household income.

The Research has it Backwards

In terms of the lack of interest from students, though, the research has it backwards. That they define a child as “lazy to go to school” or has a “lack of personal interest”iii only blames the child.

In a business, if we don’t like the product the business adjusts and figures out a better product. In politics, if voters don’t like a policy we adjust the policy to become better. In almost every area of life feedback is vital to improving. In school, however, the students are directly told their opinion and interests do not matter and they just have to tough it out. And this is perhaps why the school system hasn’t improved much since it was conceived in the 1800s. Indeed the Philippine education system was copied from America, who copied it from Europe, who invented it to create factory workers. And it hasn’t really been updated since. Ken Robinson has a couple of great TED talks about this.

The official literacy rate in the country is an unbelievably high 95.6% (PSA, 2011). To keep up the numbers you have to keep passing students. So teachers, Principals, and students are all under a huge amount of pressure to perform. And for a child’s development that kind of pressure is not conducive, not least in an environment where they are valued and judged based on their grade in a one-size-fits-all policy of standardised testing.

It’s no surprise, then, that students ‘lack personal interest’ in school. But who would want to sit down for 6 hours a day in overcrowded classrooms learning nothing while being hit for learning nothing?

In other words the problem isn’t that the child lacks interest, it’s that school here in the slums isn’t interesting. Even worse, it’s sometimes dangerous for the child physically and psychologically. And for all these reasons, and some we couldn’t get into, so many kids  from poor areas are quite understandably dropping out of school.

What’s Next for Sarah?

17821196_10209347196820582_490410524_n.jpgOf course this is Sarah’s experience, her sister’s experience, and many other children like them throughout Payatas and around the world. It’s not everyone’s. Traditional school still has a place and in some countries and cities is doing a great job. Some students prefer a classroom setting to learn and some areas continue to improve. However it doesn’t work for everyone. There is no one size fits all policy. In developing countries especially, where this way of doing school was imposed by colonial masters, it’s usually far too expensive and culturally inappropriate too.

We need alternatives.

Sarah is now a full-time student at the Fairplay School, our Alternative Learning Center here in Payatas. After learning with us at her own pace and in her own time, she passed the Functional Literacy Test and is studying for her High School Diploma with us.

In other words from being illiterate, Sarah passed Elementary Education. In about a year. If students have the time and freedom to learn, and the responsibility for themselves and their actions, this is not unusual. Kids are naturally interested in the world around them, they want to learn, and our job is to provide a safe and encouraging space for them to do so.

Nothing we do is close to perfect. We have a lot to improve on. But most of all the Fairplay School is a space where kids can feel safe, where we can build their self-esteem, emotional intelligence, and critical thinking. And from there our students drive their own learning at a much faster pace than they were at before.

For Sarah, this story has a happy ending. For many more students we can help create happy endings. So to support the Fairplay School creating a safe and fun learning space for kids like Sarah please share this feature and consider giving here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/FairplayCenter

And if you’re a parent, student, or a teacher in a poor community, then let us know your story and experiences in the comments below!

kids at school studio

[i] Nava, F. EDUCATION QUARTERLY, Vol. 67 (1), 62-78, December 2009

[ii] Philippine Statistics Office, Out of School Children and Youth in the Philippines, 2015, available at: https://psa.gov.ph/content/out-school-children-and-youth-philippines-results-2013-functional-literacy-education-and, last accessed 04:24, Feb 18, 2016

[iii] Nava (2009); PSA (2015); UNICEF, Glimpse at the School Dropout Problem, Policy Brief No. 4, 2010, available at: http://www.unicef.org/philippines/brief04_fnl.pdf, last accessed 04:07, February 18, 2016; Albert et al, Profile of Out-of-School Children in the Philippines, Philippine Institute for Development, Working Papers, 2012

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