Like most poor students in the Philippines, Mela Jane Catacho, 19, dreams of helping her family break out of poverty.
The eldest of five children of a single mother, Catacho wants to help her mother, who works as a seamstress, to raise their family. She has a bright future after graduating at the top of her class in high school and being recognized as a top performer among public schools in Mandaluyong City, a commercial and business district in the capital region of Metro Manila.

“I really want to be an accountant to help my family,” Catacho said. “I like computing and solving math problems.”

Catacho was among the first batch of more than 1.2 million graduates that the Philippines produced in 2018 under its new senior high school program, which aligns the country’s basic education system with global standards. 

Before the program, the Philippines was the last country in Asia and one of only three countries worldwide—including Angola and Djibouti—with a 10-year pre-university cycle. The program is part of the government’s wider reform efforts to strengthen the curriculum and extend the number of years of basic education, as specified under a K to 12 (Kindergarten to Grade 12) law passed in 2013.

“Senior high school helped me realize what course I wanted to take in college,” said Catacho. “The additional two years gave us time to enhance our skills.” 

Expanded curriculum, expanding opportunities with ADB's assistance

The Philippine government started offering senior high school in 2016–2017, with the assistance of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which provided a results-based $300 million loan that took effect in April 2015.

ADB’s support enabled the government to develop a senior high school curriculum including a technical-vocational-livelihood track, and to recruit more qualified teachers, particularly for science and math. The program also provided more classrooms, and developed a senior high school voucher program that is currently benefitting 1.3 million students.

But even with the gains observed in enrollment and completion rates of senior high school students in the three years that the new curriculum has been in place, there are still challenges in the secondary education system, particularly in terms of net enrollment and completion. 

Preparing Philippine youth for a competitive job market

“We need to improve the youth’s access to higher quality and more relevant secondary education, one that is attuned to rapid technological advancements,” said Undersecretary Nepomuceno Malaluan of the Philippines’ Department of Education.

“We are committed to pursue reforms in the secondary education system to ensure that we have enough resources, such as competent teachers and up-to-date learning materials, to produce graduates who are ready to tackle higher education in the university or to enter a competitive job market,” he said.

On 23 May, ADB approved an additional $300 million loan to support secondary education reforms from 2019 to 2023. The results-based Secondary Education Support Program (SESP) will help the government improve the secondary education curriculum and student assessments, as well as the quality and relevance of technical education. It will also assist in improving teacher proficiency and career advancement, and school-based management and financial management.

“Investments in human capital, especially the youth, are crucial to ensure that more Filipinos benefit from the Philippine economy’s steady climb towards achieving upper middle-income status,” said ADB Director General for Southeast Asia Ramesh Subramaniam.

“We at ADB are pleased to extend this additional support to the country’s secondary education reforms, which aim to align the skills and competencies of young graduates to the current needs of the labor market,” he said.

Developing job-ready skills of Philippine graduates

The technical and vocational specializations to be enhanced under the new program aim to provide students with job-ready skills in areas such as agri-fishery, culinary, information technology, welding, and maritime-related services.

Additional reforms in the secondary education curriculum will support improvements in the scope of math, science, and English curricula. A review of technical and vocational specializations will be undertaken to align them with student preferences, community and industry needs, and labor market demand. The reforms are expected to result in improved performance of students in the country’s national achievement test and the national certificate assessment for the technical vocational track.

The program will also support reforms to improve the career pathways of nearly 294,000 public secondary education teachers, and the additional teachers to be hired until 2023. A comprehensive professional development program will also be developed and implemented to improve teacher proficiencies in line with professional standards.

The program will support the Department of Education’s overall public financial management reforms and provide technical assistance in assessing the effectiveness of the education service contracting and the senior high school voucher programs.

One of the goals of the K to 12 Law is to equip the youth with enough skills to be either employed, be in business, or pursue higher education.

“Now that I have finished senior high school, I want to continue my studies and graduate from college. After college, I want to become a businesswoman or entrepreneur. I am excited about the prospects of having a business,” said Erolyn Cruz, 19, who graduated from senior high school in 2018 from the Andres Bonifacio Integrated School in Metro Manila.