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‘Scattered Flickers of Light’: The Education Outlook of the Megacity of Metro Manila


‘Scattered Flickers of Light’: The Education Outlook of the Megacity of Metro Manila

Secondary school teacher, Ms. Gemma Soneja, with her students at Parang High School, Marikina City, Metro Manila

How might we imagine a livable Manila in the next few decades? How can we build an inclusive, sustainable, and competitive megacity that embraces sustainable urbanism to support a high quality of life and holistic development?

According to a 2018 report by the Philippine Statistical Authority (PSA), Manila is the most densely-populated city in the world, with over 42,000 inhabitants per square kilometer. And Metro Manila’s population alone is estimated at 21.3 million. This leads to several other issues such as the widening inequity between the rich and the poor and the contrast in their living conditions, the rise of peri-urban communities that added up to the worsening traffic crisis in the city, and the recurring human settlements issue, among many others.

Education in the ‘Most Densely Populated City of the World’

Education is one of the often forgotten issues in the megacity of Metro Manila. Composed of 16 cities and 1 municipality, Metro Manila is home to a string of challenges that are common to any rising city with its fair share of urban planning challenges. Large class sizes that impede the quality of learning, low salaries of teachers driving the exodus of workers to other countries, and lack of modern education facilities or even basic infrastructure such as toilets, among many others, leading up to a boiling point of challenges in what others describe as ‘bloody’, to say the least.

To fully understand the complete educational panorama of Metro Manila, we need to run down the issues that plagued the sector before the pandemic. In 2019, the Department of Education (DepEd) has to cope with a staggering classroom shortage of 34,000 nationwide. In the previous years, the entire country also lacked elementary and high school teachers in what was described as ‘even larger when teacher credentials are factored in’. These are similar issues that Metro Manila was facing even before the pandemic.

With the onset of COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown, these problems have only worsened as Metro Manila’s educational institutions struggle with a lack of resources and strained support systems. The pandemic further highlighted these pre-existing problems as classrooms closed nationwide and schools had to transition to online learning. The sudden closure of schools also resulted in a huge number of out-of-school youth (OSY) who were unable to pursue their education due to social, economic, and geographic reasons.

As a consequence, a World Bank study in 2021 revealed that about 9 of 10 children in the Philippines were suffering from ‘learning poverty’, or the inability of children by age 10 to read and understand a simple story. The Philippines is also one of the last countries in the world to resume face-to-face classes, sparking further concerns about the education crisis in the country. With Manila being the pilot implementor of any education program that gets rolled out nationwide, education leaders believe that the COVID-19 pandemic presented a whole new level of educational fiasco for the metro.

The ‘Jigsaw Puzzle’ 

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a road map for achieving a more sustainable future for all. Goal 4 on quality education ensures inclusive and equitable quality education and promotes lifelong learning opportunities. But what does “quality education” mean in the context of sustainable development? How are schools achieving sustainable learning in a megacity such as Metro Manila? What is the current state of education in the country’s largest metropolis?

According to AECOM’s Asia-Pacific president Sean Chiao in a 2018 interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI), solving the issues of Metro Manila requires coming up with a plan where each area is interlocked and connected with each other, like a jigsaw puzzle. Since Metro Manila is composed of 16 highly-urbanized cities and 1 municipality, each of these constituent local government units (LGUs) has different approaches to addressing their education problems.

Education advocate Christian Gino Florendo, who just recently topped the recent Fisheries Professionals Licensure Examination, stressed the importance of collaboration and good governance.  He believes that progressive cities like Pasig should talk to low-income cities like Malabon. He further added that all of the cities of Metro Manila should be discussing within themselves how to improve the educational system of all cities, should know that it’s not a competition, and should adopt best practices that complement one another. He cited a scenario that a Pasigueño who studied in Pasig to complete his basic education might eventually work in Makati City, so the local government of Makati will eventually stand to benefit. This interconnectedness of the situation should be a strong case for shared approaches to policy-level interventions. He also said that avenues for the merging of ideas should be opened in order to facilitate these policy-level conversations and that organizations such as the Metro Manila Council are perfect grounds for these conversations to happen. 

Innovations for Remote Learning during COVID-19 Lockdown

With school buildings closed and public gatherings prohibited during the pandemic, education in the megacity has shifted to a completely different level. 

New learning paths were adopted by the Department of Education (DepEd) as early as October 2020. These include continuous learning initiatives and action plans, such as using special funds to help provide modules, worksheets, and study guides approved by the Department of Education (DepEd) for use by learners. Flexibility and access to digital tools are some advantages of remote learning. It also lessens physical contact, which is essential during this time of social distancing. Local government units (LGUs) in Metro Manila have worked hand-in-hand with DepEd to implement strategies that ensure quality education delivery despite the timeline of the pandemic. 

To strengthen support for distance and blended learning programs, LGUs provided more access to internet connectivity through free Wi-Fi installation in public areas while also giving out gadgets such as tablets or laptops for students to use at home. LGUs then partnered with private companies and organizations for additional resources such as webinars, online tutorials, and training for teachers so they could better manage virtual classrooms.

Development worker Abad Enriquez taught digital literacy for adult learners in a covered court in Mandaluyong City (©️ Limitless Lab)

A Secondary Teacher at Parang High School in the Philippines, Ms. Gemma Soneja, has taught for over twenty years and has seen first-hand how technology has revolutionized her profession. Soneja understands that it is difficult for some teachers who may not have had adequate experience with technology before the pandemic outbreak. She said, “Aside from laptops and smart TVs, internet allowance, our local LGUs and respective Schools Division Offices of DepEd conducted workshops and seminars focusing on teaching methods suitable for remote learning.” While these interventions are greatly appreciated by teachers like Gemma Soneja, she believes that more can still be done.

Impact of COVID-19 on Education in Metro Manila

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, the state of education in Metro Manila remains unclear. With 89% of the student population, or 1.52 billion children and youth, out of school due to closures, among them are close to 4 million students from the Philippines alone (DepEd). This unprecedented situation has left Metro Manila pushing for sustainable learning amidst this global health crisis.

In response, government authorities had to implement rapid changes in learning approaches, such as shifting from face-to-face instruction to remote learning through online platforms and alternative educational media tools provided by DepEd.In order for students and schools to adapt swiftly, special funds were made available for them to create modules, worksheets, and study guides that have been approved by the Department of Education (DepEd). 

Despite the numerous challenges they faced while transitioning into a new normal, many local communities have risen to support each other through various initiatives driven by civic organizations and private sector partners. For example, free internet access is provided by some private organizations like Smart Communications Inc., Globe Telecom, and PLDT, while some DepEd-approved educational apps are being used as supplementary tools for teaching and learning, such as Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams.

Achieving sustainable learning in a megacity is no easy feat; however, this can be made possible with the right resources and support from both the public and private sectors. 

Educating Urban Poor Communities

Access to quality education is a distant dream for students living in Metro Manila’s urban poor communities. The challenge of gaining entry into healthy learning institutions (HLIs) in Metro Manila has become an increasingly difficult task for many impoverished families. From outdated teaching modules and an insufficient teacher-student ratio to unfulfilled K-12 implementations, the reality of providing quality education in these areas often falls painfully short of expectations.

The president of Youth for Mental Health PH, Alyannah Lagasca, has spoken out about these issues and believes that providing quality education in urban poor communities should be prioritized by policymakers. She believes that social protection through free education, like Canada’s model, should be given precedence, with politicians visiting “laylayan” (urban poor” areas and communities and LGUs having local scholarship funds that nurture both academic and life skills. 

Such initiatives include allocating more funds towards improving the curriculum by updating modules and providing additional resources such as computers, reducing overcrowding in classrooms, and properly implementing K–12 to ensure that the children receive an adequate education regardless of their socio-economic status.

Shining a Light on Stories of Hope 

The pandemic might have made the whole world stop, but that did not stop Metro Manila from working toward a better future of learning and education. Hopeful stories emerged amidst struggles to keep schools afloat in an ever-changing environment. 

The government’s efforts to maintain quality tertiary education while addressing poverty issues were an inspiring feat for many Filipinos, particularly those living in urban poor communities.

For instance, the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act (UAQTEA) institutionalized free tuition. It exempted other fees at state universities and colleges (SUCs) as well as local universities and colleges (LUCs). This program is part of a larger initiative towards creating healthy learning institutions (HLIs), which seek to provide an ideal student–teacher ratio through policies like teacher capacity-building initiatives and financial aid programs for students.

Despite economic hardships, many local governments in Metro Manila are pushing for education reform and sustainable development in their communities. One of the initiatives is providing scholarship programs for urban low-income families so that their children may have access to quality education. For example, the Pasig City government allotted  5 million pesos worth of scholarships in 2022.

At the same time, HLIs also strive to build relationships between private institutions and public school districts. This kind of collaboration goes beyond just having classes: it involves resource sharing between stakeholders, such as free textbooks, e-learning courses, and even shared facilities like libraries or computer laboratories. This way, not only can everyone benefit from the advantages of technology, but they can also acquire relevant knowledge for their respective fields of study.

The success stories don’t end here: LGUs have partnered with local businesses and organizations to provide more employment opportunities for out-of-school youth (OSYs). Through this initiative, OSYs can receive free job training and mentorship programs that will help them build their skill set and gain meaningful employment once they finish their studies.

All these efforts are just a few examples of how Metropolitan Manila strives to become an ideal location for sustainable development through quality education opportunities and initiatives prioritizing access over privilege. Though much more work is needed for these goals to be fully realized, it’s reassuring that despite facing unprecedented times, hope remains alive through innovative solutions such as those implemented by our local government units.

Reimagining Quality Education for Sustainable Development 

The dream of a livable Metro Manila is here to stay. As we slowly transition out of the pandemic, the megacity of Metro Manila is back on its feet in opening its urban learning environments. Students have seen redesigned classrooms, urban poor communities are slowly receiving free training in training centers and other areas where education drives are possible, and policymakers are slowly rolling out consortiums and strategic planning for more targeted education policies and programs that support equitable education in the megacity.

Leading-edge thinkers have also crafted plans for investing more resources into improving existing remote learning solutions as well as introducing new technologies and platforms that are accessible and affordable for all citizens, regardless of their socio-economic background or ability level. Additionally, more inclusive programs for marginalized populations, such as those with disabilities, are also being explored to ensure that everyone has equal access to quality education.

Joie Cruz, an education champion in the country who has helped educate 10,000 beneficiaries of a digital literacy program, believes that for Metro Manila to keep up with the educational challenges brought about by the metropolis’ rising population, digitization should be at the core of the education department’s mandate, modern learning centers must be dispersed, the curriculum must be updated to improve competitiveness in the job, transportation infrastructures must be improved to facilitate ease of access to schools, and most importantly, teachers must have a good quality of life, are paid enough, and are not bombarded with clerical work. Joie also highlighted that a megacity doesn’t stand by itself and that its issues are interconnected to the issues that other parts of the country are facing. 

Digital Literacy Training for the Public in Mandaluyong City (©️ Limitless Lab)

Hence, she believes that while the government is addressing issues on outdated curriculum, job mismatch, and underemployment in the metropolis, it also needs to decentralize and develop more digital cities, invest more in other future cities, and ‘de-imperialize’ outside Metro Manila to redistribute opportunities. According to her, looking at the problem on a macro-level that way can help improve the quality of education in Metro Manila in the future.

For Alyannah Lagasca, who herself champions education for the youth in the megacity, sustainable development requires a holistic approach that considers both social and economic elements. She believes that a sustainable education system in Metro Manila can help address other issues such as income inequality and promote a culture of inclusion, acceptance, and collaboration between different sectors within the city, eventually leading to economic growth while also improving the overall quality of life. 

And that’s her hope for Metro Manila, an inclusive, sustainable, and competitive megacity striving towards greater sustainability and equality in its educational systems. As how Alyannah puts it, the dream is not over. Notwithstanding the several challenges, as a whole, the state of education in the megacity is slowly moving forward. 

One step at a time, but always onward. 


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