Philippines: Education that Knows No Boundaries


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Filipino pride and boxing champion Manny Pacquiao completed highschool
under the Alternative Learning System, after taking the required exam in 2007
Photo by the DepEd

My relationship with the Philippine Department of Education’s (DepdEd) Alternative Learning System is one of ignorance, humiliation and inspiration.

As a young economist joining DepEd back in 2002, I was full of ideas on how to improve the country’s education system. I was coming in as a junior staff for a World Bank-funded project focusing on elementary education in poor provinces.

At around the same time, I had been hearing about this ALS program, which was providing basic education to out of school youth and adults, but I really paid no mind to it. All I knew about it was that it was largely non-formal, that it was conducted periodically through modules and that it was too small to make any significant statistical impact on globally-accepted education performance indicators.

However, over the years, attending all those meetings, reading all those documents and visiting all those schools eventually taught me one simple truth that other Alternative Learning System  advocates seemed to have already figured out: for a country like the Philippines, the formal school system cannot provide education for all by itself.

The realization started out slow: school staff saying they couldn’t prevent dropouts no matter what they did; more local governments building learning centers and giving allowances to both mobile teachers and district coordinators; private entities investing in mobile libraries and computer laboratories.

At the same time, the Bureau of Alternative Learning System was starting to get more mobile teachers and literacy volunteers, and was starting to report increasing numbers of enrollees and highschool passers. Even Manny Pacquiao, the pride of Filipino boxing, graduated high school through ALS and was reported to be heading off to college. After that, he went on to be a congressman with a very bright political future.

But the real tipping point in terms of my personal appreciation of ALS happened during my final year in DepEd. While attending a planning session, all participants realized that there have been significant gains in enrolment rates over the years and that there were low dropout rates as well.

While everybody was congratulating each other, I looked at the data and realized that reaching the rest of the population was going to be more difficult moving forward. More importantly, while others said that low dropout rates in formal schools meant that DepEd no longer needed the ALS program, I thought that the exact opposite was true.

Even if dropout rates fall to zero starting today, some form of ALS is still needed over the next 70-80 years to provide relevant education to illiterate, neo-literate and non-certified adults. This is because all the dropouts until yesterday have been accumulating in society year after year after year.

Armed with limited education, these dropouts have been carving a living out of whatever they can and have been building a life wherever they find most convenient. But they may also want to get some form of education --be it for work, for further study or just to be able to read a text message-- but find it difficult to do so. Unfortunately, aside from a few missionary programs for adult learners, ALS is the only systematic nationwide program that offers a second chance to anybody who wants to learn.

Philippines: Education Within Reach

It was when I joined the Bank in 2011 that my eyes were finally forced open. Increasing focus not just on disadvantaged areas but also on disadvantaged groups is at the crux of Learning for All. Throughout the Bank, I saw the sustained focus and concrete investments being made for inclusion and social safeguards, not just for education projects but for projects in other sectors as well.

In the Philippines, our main support for ALS begins with a systematic review of the program. I have been in contact with a large number of Alternative Learning System implementers and learners, both from the Central Office and the field, and they have been sharing more insight on the program: its benefits, its potential and of course, its problems.

So far, I found that there is no shortage of feel-good stories of ALS learners’ lives improving because of simply becoming literate or because of the opportunities afforded by a high school diploma. However, it is the commitment and dedication of ALS implementers that inspire me the most. I owe it to them to make sure that we measure the impact of the program accurately and that the program will be even more effective and efficient in the future. I also owe it to them to help change the perspective of traditional education thinkers and policy-makers regarding ALS. Lastly, I owe it to them to work at least half as hard as they do everyday, for the sake of our country.

Have you or somebody you know benefitted from out of school learning? I’d be interested to hear.


Join the Conversation

Erik SandiEmbacang
June 27, 2014

Yapp, i'm very agree. Coz in my village the problem happen too. And now i hope any someone can some do for my village. Embacang village many people cut school.

Nicholas Tenazas
July 03, 2014

Hi Erik,
I share your concern about cutting school or voluntarily dropping out, especially at the high school level. We would like to know more about your specific situation. If I am not mistaken, you are in Indonesia, right?

agnes isti harjanti
June 28, 2014

We have same performance in education,,,Indonesia also have trouble to reach many pleace to get formal edication. I think that very good approach to find the way out for education.

Nicholas Tenazas
July 03, 2014

Hi Agnes,
Like I said in an earlier comment, we would love to know more about similar programs in Indonesia. Your thoughts are very welcome.

roger chao jr
June 23, 2014

I believe in a holistic approach to education. Education or more appropriately learning happens everyday and everywhere consciously and subconsciously. The core issue is the quality of learning, relevance and how it is certified and accepted by society and key stakeholders. Pathways bridging those who dropped out of the formal system and those who have even been in the formal system should be developed and real recognition of prior leaning need to be advocated not only for adult learning but throughout the education system. Lastly, quality benchmarks need to be set practically in relation to real world needs and not only as a percentage of student population or a nationally determined standard. What use is a certificate, diploma or even post graduate education if one doesn't learn the skills and competencies required in real life, the world of work and ones responsibility as a citizen of the nation, region and the world.

Nicholas Tenazas
July 02, 2014

Hi Roger,
I fully agree with your comments and suggestions. In the Philippines, our systematic review of ALS aims to do most of what you said. I would just like to add that there is also another dimension to the program: self-actualization. A significant number of learners who signed up for the program do not plan to get certified anymore. They join because they have specific needs and are fully content with themselves once they achieve these goals. I alluded to these kinds of goals in the blog post as "being able to read a text message". What needs to be understood also is that these goals are in no way inferior to the goals of other individuals who desire to get certified and move on to higher learning or better quality of work. Indeed, much of the challenge in evaluating the program lies in this fundamental concept and the flexibility such a concept requires from the implementation of the program.

Roger Chao Jr
July 18, 2014

Hi Nicholas,
i do agree with your point on individual learning needs and desires which are in no way inferior to those granted some sort of certification or qualification. In the Philippines ALS, there are issues on quality and sustainability related to the teaching and learning practices. I guess its true anywhere in the world anyway given limited resources (Human resources, financing, infrastructure). I actually am interested in pushing for recognition of prior learning within a systematic frameworks of assessment, validation and ensuring pathways to qualifications. So far, such a process is still very expensive, and in most cases the quality of the assessment and validation processes questionable.
i somehow feel that alternative learning systems tend to end up as a literacy and/or functional literacy program. i believe with more creativity and innovation such a platform may be linked to the formal certification and qualification system. To date, however, it still remains waiting given the current state of ALS and the question of its sustainability should external funding be cut off.

Adrian Thirkell
June 25, 2014

Please see what a group of IB students (at The British International School Jakarta) have created in a ALS context, in Indonesia - a school built for Indonesian children previously without or having dropped out of school. - and the Sekolah BISA Facebook page.

Nicholas Tenazas
July 03, 2014

Hi Adrian,
I am very impressed with the work SB! has been doing. Hopefully the organization grows even more so that it can reach more kids. In the Philippines, ALS aims to serve individuals who are past the ideal school-going age. However, children of school age are sometimes admitted into the program for very special reasons. For example, in areas where there is no accessible formal school (due to many reasons: distance, culture, etc) and a lot of adult learners, parents often bring their children during ALS learning sessions. Another example is when an individual is at least two years overage for his or her ideal grade level. Kids in this situation are often uncomfortable attending regular classes so they turn to ALS. The fact that ALS can come in and address special cases where the ideal situation does not happen should be deeply understood and widely appreciated, in my opinion.

June 24, 2014

this not only happen in phillipines, weindonesian has the same thing..this is so common in developing countries by the way

Nicholas Tenazas
July 02, 2014

Hi Anangdwicandra,
We would love to learn more about similar programs in your country!

August 22, 2014

Hi Nicholas,
Your write-up on the Alternative Learning System had been both inspiring and at the same time an eye-opener for me about commendable programs that are being implemented to address the literacy program in the country. Seeing the impact of work done by Charlo Galay is really heartwarming and encouraging that it makes me ask myself what ordinary citizens like us can we do to get involved in programs like this. All too often people in the corporate world like us are so engrossed with work that we often forget and neglect to give back something to society by way of voluntary involvements on worthwhile social programs.
This is where I suggest that a more active stakeholder engagement should be done when launching programs such as the ALS. Massive campaigns and information dissemination should include all sectors of society including church and the corporate world so that we can be informed and oriented of great programs and can give volunteer support in any capacity and way we can.
I hope the Alternative Learning System shall continue to be implemented and to broaden its scope and integrate Values Formation in its program. My heartfelt congratulations and commendation to the heroes of the ALS Program: Funding Agency, Dep Ed and volunteers!