Philippine Education Among Asia's First, But Lags In Quality

Boys’ Normal High School,1900s.
Boys’ Normal High School,1900s.

Before the Philippines attained complete independence, the country's education system was patterned on the systems of Spain and the United States. In Asia, The Philippines was among the first to access free modern public education. However, after independence, its quality lagged behind and was overtaken by its neighboring countries.

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Main courtyard of Santo Tomás College in 1887 / Biblioteca Nacional de España

In 1857, Modern public school education was introduced in Spain through Queen Isabela's Decreto de Educación. It was a progressive project, and was one of the first of its kind in Europe. It was years ahead of France (1882) and Great Britain (1870).

Ateneo Municipal De Manila Study Hall 1887
Ateneo Municipal De Manila Study Hall c1887

The Spanish Philippines gained access to Spain's provision of free modern public education in 1863 making it the first of its kind in Asia. Under the pioneering framework of the Decreto de Educación primary instruction was made free and the teaching of Spanish was compulsory. Additionally, the creation of free teacher training institutions such as the Escuela Normal Superior de Maestros de Manila (The Normal School) was also made.

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Contrary to the reports made by the Philippine Commission to the US War Department in the 1900s and to anti-Spanish propaganda which was rampant throughout the latter part of the 1800s and early 1900s, the Spanish public system of education was open to all the natives, regardless of gender or financial resources.

students of San Juan de Letran College in 1887
Students of San Juan de Letran College in 1887 /  Biblioteca Nacional de España


Group of students with faculty
Group of students with faculty, 1887 / Biblioteca Nacional de España

This observation is confirmed by various observers including President Manuel L. Quezon who narrated on his speech for the Philippine Assembly at the US Congress in October 1914 stated that;

...there were public schools in the Philippines long before the American occupation, and, in fact, I have been educated in one of these schools, even though my hometown is such a small town, isolated in the mountains of the Northeastern part of the island of Luzon.

...as long ago as 1866 when the total population of the Philippine Islands was only 4,411,261 souls, and when the total number of municipalities in the archipelago was 900, the total public schools was 841 for boys and 833 for girls and the total number of children attending these schools was 135,098 for boys and 95,260 for girls. And these schools were real buildings and the pupils alert, intelligent, living human beings. In 1892, the number of schools had increased to 2,137, of which 1,087 were for boys and 1,050 for girls. I have seen with my own eyes many of these schools and thousands of these pupils. They were not religious schools, but schools created, supported and maintained by the Government (Spanish).
Likewise foreign observers further attest to the quality of education the Philippines have had where according to renowned Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal; Japan and the Spanish Philippines had exceptional free public education in 19th-century Asia.

American teacher and Filipino students, Manila c1901
A Thomasite and Filipino students, Manila c1901


Another observation was also made by Fr. John N. Schumacher this time in the Philippines' higher education where he pointed out that

the Philippines was not far behind, or, under certain aspects, was even superior to the general level of higher education in Spain, at least outside Madrid. Perhaps the best testimony for this is the fact that such larger numbers of Filipino students were able to move without apparent difficulty from educational institutions at home to those in the Peninsula and establish honorable records for themselves there.

In recent decades however, starting in post war Philippines, much of the progress made in almost all levels of the educational sector seems to have been lost except for a few elite schools. This is then reflected in various world education rankings and surveys where the Philippines trail behind neighboring countries in terms of average research output, reading comprehension levels, and science-mathematical skills.


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