A Revolution in Education Part 1: The Hidden Cost of School, Why “Free” Education is Too Expensive for the Poor

Public Schools have to cram students into classrooms with no space to move. Source: http://www.development.thinkaboutit.eu/think3/post/philippine_public_schools_not_so_public_after_all/index.html
Public Schools have to cram students into classrooms. Picture source: http://www.development.thinkaboutit.eu/think3/post/ philippine_public_schools_not_so_public_after_all/index.html

With the global push for universal education over the last few decades, every country in the world now has some form of public school system. School has become “free” to the masses, based on the same model of a teacher, a classroom, a textbook, and a curriculum.

This model has conquered the world in a way no other idea or concept has. With Pre-School and University, some people spend 20 years in the formal education system before coming out into the “real world”. No Empire, no civilisation, no philosophy, and probably even no religion has reached as many people or been as widely accepted as school. This is, of course, with the understanding that school is an investment for the future. But in this first article of a three part series I want to first show how school is never “free”, that any public school is far too expensive for the country’s poor to afford, let alone succeed in.

So let’s work out how much it costs for a child to go to school.

The Hidden Cost of School

First, a child has to enroll. Officially school is supposed to be free but while public schools don’t charge a tuition fee, they do charge fees for parent-teachers associations, student government funds, tests, and other miscellaneous fees – some of which can be incredibly bizarre. Over the course of the child’s Elementary or High School education, these hidden fees for enrolling and taking tests often go beyond P5,000. And until you’ve paid that debt off, you can’t graduate.

So after negotiating your way through the miscellaneous fees of enrollment (sometimes literally), you’ll need to look the part. Around Payatas, where we live and work at the Fairplay for All Foundation, a uniform (shirt, shoes, trousers, PE uniform, etc.) comes to at least P1,000 ($22). Two sets of uniform, pretty much the minimum so you can wash one set while you wear the other one, runs up a bill of P2,000 ($44). On top of that you’ll need your school supplies, stationary, and a bag to put it all in, which adds another P1,000 ($22) a year.

But now we’ve enrolled and now we look the part, we have to get to the school. In Payatas transport is P14 per day (P7 each way for a student on a trike or jeep). With roughly 150 school days in the year that’s P2,100. But finally we’ve arrived at the destination, lessons can begin right? Well in the poorest areas school doesn’t start with lessons. It starts with all the students cleaning the school. Many public schools just can’t afford a janitor so every student becomes free labour, and they’re expected to bring cleaning supplies. Any student that doesn’t can be marked down for their ‘values’ (among other things). This is sometimes repeated each quarter and so for each kid that can add up to P500 and a few lost weeks every year as they work for the school and not for the family.

But finally you’re able to sit down for lessons. And after your lessons in school there’s homework. The materials for projects, homework, and assignments can get very expensive. Based on our experience sponsoring children in public schools we roughly estimate a minimum of P500 every month to meet every requirement well.

Next, after a hopefully successful semester, we can look forward to the end of quarter outing. There are the typical outings for the year, going to the cinema, a mall, a zoo, etc. running at a few hundred pesos each time, and then there’s special school outings. The top 10 students in a class are ‘invited’ to a special outing celebrating their achievements. Many of our sponsored kids are in the top ten of their classes. And so they came to request funds for this trip. Every student was charged P850 for the outing, as one mother put it: that’s a month’s worth of food for the entire family.And the teacher told them if they don’t go their grades will drop so they’re out of the top ten and another kid can replace them and pay the P850 instead.

Just like everything else before, if you don’t do the projects, don’t buy the right uniform, or can’t afford the school outings, your grades drop and your ‘education’ doesn’t get you a better job after all. Teachers rank their students on everything from geography, to maths, to values, honesty, and respect. What the values section roughly translates into is: does the student do exactly what the school and teacher says and do they pay for exactly what I tell them to pay for?

What you’ve hopefully noticed by now, is that not a single thing mentioned so far is about anything you learn or what would truly measure an ‘education’. In standardized testing your grade is everything. Yet no matter how much you learn, no matter how well you study and no matter what your test results are, your grade is being limited by how many of these costs you can afford. You have to buy at least part of your grade. So here’s a breakdown of the costs of “free” school:

  • Uniform (P2,000)
  • School Supplies (P1,000)
  • Cleaning supplies & other miscellaneous items (P500)
  • Transport to and from school (minimum P14 a day)
  • Projects (P500 a month for 10 months)
  • Outings (P850 per quarter)
  • Miscellaneous Fees (P1,000 per year)

Total: P15,000 per year per child

Source: http://www.development.thinkaboutit.eu/think3/post/philippine_public_schools_not_so_public_after_all/index.html
Source: http://www.development.thinkaboutit.eu/think3/post/philippine_public_schools_not_so_public_after_all/index.html

The exact figures will differ between communities, and often between families in the same communities. I’ve also left out costs for things like lunch, as the home would have had to give lunch either way (leaving aside school lunches are usually more expensive than homemade meals). In either case, I don’t intend this to be an exact amount and it will need changing for different areas and different contexts. But this is a rough estimate for the minimum amount of money a family from a poor community must pay for their child to have any chance at succeeding in a public school.

Through the Eyes of the Poor

And here’s why it’s so important: when you look at these numbers from the eyes of a family living in poverty they are truly terrifying. For a family of five living in poverty (officially that’s below P8,500 a month for a family of 5 in Manila), they must spend half of their entire income on sending their 3 kids to school. School is no longer an opportunity; it is a potentially terrifying burden on the family.

No wonder so many drop out: 1/3 of Elementary Students drop out before Grade 5, and of those who reach High School 31% more drop out before Senior Year. They simply cannot afford it. This is why many families specialize their children, with one child going to school full-time and the others working to support their families and look after the youngest (Murakami, 2011, among others). The family cannot afford to send all their kids to school, and so their hopes are put into one child whose education is hoped to get them a decent enough job in the future to effectively be the parents’ pension. In other words, school has become a gamble for the poor. Education is a game of risk, and by definition only a small percentage can succeed: if there’s 100 kids in a classroom, only 10% can be in the top ten. The other 90 spent almost as much on school and have far less to show for it.

There are, of course, many groups doing the best they can with what they have. The public schools themselves are usually doing the best they can with the money, the teachers, and the number of students they have to deal with. The teachers are faced with such difficult pressures, a classroom crammed with children and many are doing their best in what is an impossible situation. There’s no time or room to think of what effective learning is, teaching becomes more about crowd management. And many NGOS, including ourselves at FFA, sponsor children in the public school system to allay these costs and make it easier for families to send their kids to school, not least because it’s almost the only place to gain formal qualifications. This can make a great difference for the child and the family. But in the big picture, to make that happen for everyone we would need to spend a whole lot more to extend that help and assistance to every child. It’s an incredibly difficult situation for everyone involved and by design, by definition, the vast majority will fall through the cracks. So what’s the lesson here?

Lesson Number One: School is Not Free

Universal education is not free. Families in slums in Manila must pay roughly P15,000 a year for their child to have a chance at success. Beyond that, as a society we’re putting incredible amounts of money into this system. The Department of Education receives the biggest budget of any department in the government. With P292.7 billion ($6.5 billion) spent on education in 2013, that works out to P2,927 ($65) for every man, woman, and child in the Philippines. And it’s increasing every year.

But if school was effective in teaching, in doing what it’s supposedly designed to do, then surely it would be worth it? We should increase DEPED’s budget and the poor kids (and the country as a whole) would do better right? Well that’s the topic for the second part; how this system is entirely outdated, how schools were never designed to be the best place for learning, and they’re really interested in teaching.

I don’t like to criticise, however constructively, without offering a solution. We all want the best for the kids and many people truly have the heart for that – again including an array of different NGOs and groups supporting children in education. But if this carries on the way it is we’ll only be treating the symptom. What we want is a long-term solution to the problem so that every child can afford to go to school, and every school can afford to offer a quality education. So in the third part, we’ll take a look at how we can break away from the Western model of compulsory schools to build a better model to give kids here a more effective and, most importantly, a happier learning environment. And save billions in the process.


At the Fairplay for All Foundation we are developing free, open source education based on academic research and community input. You can help support revolutionary education in Payatas by donating to FFA here: http://www.justgiving.com/FairplayForAllFoundation/

If you’d like to join the revolution in education you can teach kids in Payatas one day a week or sign up to classes on offer at FFA, you can email us at ffafoundation@gmail.com for more information 


5 thoughts on “A Revolution in Education Part 1: The Hidden Cost of School, Why “Free” Education is Too Expensive for the Poor

  1. Rod Magat December 22, 2014 / 02:07

    Hi Roy! Please count me in as volunteer for teaching. Just give me a message in my email: rodmagat@gmail.com. Thanks!

    • Roy December 30, 2014 / 14:34

      Thanks Peter. Please email us at ffafoundation@gmail.com with a bit about yourself, what you’d like to teach, and when that would be (we prefer volunteers to commit to a specific day of the week each week as that means it’s regular and the kids have the routine with that, also helps with a structured class then). I won’t always see comments on this thread so much better to email us there and we can reply easier there.

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