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Alternative Learning System: The Other Side of Basic Education

The Alternative Learning System (ALS) is a kind of learning that knows no boundaries. The mobile teachers pass through squatters areas or deprived barangays, walk through rough and muddy roads, trek uncharted mountains for 10 kilometers more or less, or traverse rivers and swamps to bring basic education to the marginalized sectors of our society. On the other hand, the learners, as they are referred to in the system, convene in a shabby bahay-kubo, gather underneath a tree, or, if luck finds them, set up in a borrowed barangay hall, a basketball court, a jailhouse, a sports complex, or an abandoned office space—as if to approximate a classroom setting, all for the love of learning.

To date, the Philippines has 1,681 mobile teachers serving under the Bureau of Alternative Learning System (BALS). According to BALS Office of the Bureau Chief, from 2000 to 2009, there were 1,055,379 completers out of 1,351,146 enrollees in the ALS programs around the country.

BALS is one of the three bureaus under the Department of Education (DepEd), which also include the Bureau of Elementary Education and the Bureau of Secondary Education. Formerly known as the Bureau of Nonformal Education, it had been renamed to BALS through Executive Order No. 356 issued by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on September 13, 2004, in order to serve a “more systematic and flexible approach in reaching all types of learners outside the school system.”

An ALS Frequently Asked Question handout given at a media forum conducted by BALS in August 2010 in Tagaytay says there are four dominant reasons for the creation of ALS:

  • an internal inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the formal basic education;
  • a need for transforming existing nonformal and informal education learning options into viable ALS for Education for All;
  • a social bias for formal education;
  • and the constitutional mandate for free and mandatory elementary and secondary education is difficult to implement.

The ALS provides a feasible alternative to the formal basic education structure in the country. It covers both the informal and nonformal subsystems of education. Informal education seeks to offer a learning experience that is based on the common needs or interests of an individual or group, whether on civic, spiritual, socio-economic, cultural, recreational, or wellness aspects. Nonformal education, on the one hand, is a methodical or structured form of learning that is outside the formal school system.

In comparison to the formal or conventional school system, ALS offers more flexible learning when it comes to time, module selection, sequence, place, content, and method of learning. Instead of a classroom-based teaching, ALS holds classes in what they refer to as a Community Learning Center (CLC) which can just be about any space available—jail, barangay hall, sports center, and chapel, among others.

ALS programs are administered in many different ways, such as face-to-face, study groups, peer learning, modular, self-learning, radio-based learning, tutorial, interactive learning, and so forth. Three primary programs are carried out under the ALS Nonformal Education, namely, Basic Literacy Program (BLP), Accreditation and Equivalency (A & E) Program, and Informal Education (InfED). Other ALS programs and projects include Indigenous People Education, ALIVE in ALS, ALS for Differently-Abled Persons, Adolescent Reproductive Health, Parent Education, Family Basic Literacy Program, and Informal Education for Disadvantage Children.

If the formal school system delivers education to students through standard subjects such as Science, Mathematics, Social Studies, etc.,  the ALS has what are called the learning strands. There are five learning strands in the ALS: Communication Skills, Problem-Solving and Critical Thinking, Sustainable Use of Resources and Productivity, Development of Self and a Sense of Community, and Expanding One’s World Vision.

ALS also permits multiple entry and exit points. It does not require rigid entry-learner requirements; however, a screening process is compulsory for those who want to enroll that seeks to identify and acknowledge prior learning.

Target learners of ALS are the non-literates, functional illiterates, out-of-school-youths and adults, elementary and secondary school dropouts, students who choose not to go back to the formal system, those who are qualified under the Philippine Educational Placement Test (PEPT), and others who want to pursue learning.

The teacher of ALS is referred to as a mobile teacher (MT), district ALS coordinator (DALSC), basic literacy facilitator, and instructional manager. But ALS has other implementers, such as volunteers, non-government organizations, local government units, academe, and other government agencies.

While ALS seems to be a flexible approach in teaching and learning than the prevailing structured formal school system, the mobile teachers and the learners have their own share of difficulties on the ground.

Seven years after the bureau’s renaming and restructuring, issues and concerns still remain today, as expressed by a number of mobile teachers, which they say should be given attention and priority by the department. By large measure, the appropriate assistance should be given to BALS in order to truly address its primary purpose, that of providing free and accessible basic education to the poorest of the poor.

Equitable Funding. Anabel Ungcad, an MT from Davao Del Sur, in an interview says that while BALS provides a transportation allowance of Php2,000 monthly, or Php24,000 a year, this amount is not enough to help them move around, especially that they travel a lot going to the places of learning. “[Renting] a motorcycle is very expensive. We [get ] it [through what is called the] pakyawan basis. The driver will be the one to decide the [amount of] fare, because aside from [the places are] very far, the road is not easy to access,” she explains. Ungcad has been awarded as the 2010 Most Outstanding Mobile Teacher by BALS last December 2010 in Baguio City.

In fact, MT Daisy (not her real name) shares Ungcad’s lament, saying, “The transportation allowance that BALS [gives] us is a big help for us but I think it is not enough because most of the time we hire a vehicle to go to our area for a fast and safe travel.”

Ungcad also says there is insufficient money for school supplies. While BALS provides a teaching aid allowance of Php 5,000 year for these supplies, she says this amount is likewise not enough.“Php5,000 [for] school supply allowance can only supply two learning centers with three groups of classes, Basic Literacy, A&E Elementary and Secondary classes in only one barangay. In our case, we handle more than two barangays having more learners. As a result, we use our own money to buy school supplies, especially [for] our elderly basic literacy learners who can’t afford to buy [them],” she elaborates.

Mobile teachers also lament over the delay these allowances are released. “To get our allowance, we must submit first our Daily Time Record (DTR) for 12 months starting January to December, Certificate of Appearance from January to December, Year-End Accomplishments Reports required by the COA in our division. We receive it in a scheduled date of release. It takes two weeks before we receive it,” elaborates Ungcad, explaining the process of securing her yearly allowance.

Leslie (not her real name), an MT from Oriental Mindoro who takes tricycle and jeepney rides daily to reach her learners, relates, “[For] 2009 we received the Php29,000 (transportation and teaching aid allowances) in Dec. 2009, and [for] last year (2010) we [got] in September the 1st-3rd quarter [allowance], and last Dec. the 4th quarter [allowance]. We are required to present itinerary of travel and certificate of appearance upon claiming the travel allowance. By the end of the year we are asked to submit a financial report for the Php5,000 teaching aid [allowance].”

An MT from CAR-Benguet, ESD (not her real name) explains she either walks, if the area is accessible by foot, or takes a jeepney ride to get to her areas of assignment, which makes her spend about Php100 a day. “We receive our transportation allowance every December, but before that, we are required to submit bus tickets, DTR and Accomplishment Report. But now we just submit our accomplishment report,” she says.

Jessica (not her real name), another MT who experiences delayed release of allowances, shares how sometimes she receives them only at the end of the year. “So far sa division namin wala naman akong problema maliban lang sa delayed ang pagbigay sa amin ng transpo allowance.” For 2010, she received Php 20,000 in October, then the remaining amount in December. “Minsan nagbibigay kami ng konting pa-merienda, kusa na rin namin… para mas madaliin nila,” she reveals.

In effect, some MTs receive their yearly allowances only after the year has elapsed, like a reimbursement.

Since they submit their reports on a quarterly basis, Jessica hopes the funds are released in the same schedule. “If pwede ideritso na ng DBM ang pera sa aming account number para hindi na ma-delayed kasi kailangan po namin sa araw araw na buhay.”

Carlo Obrero, an MT from Camarines Sur, shares the same experience: “Kung on time, hindi e. Kasi nakalagay dun sa guidelines, quarterly ang release ng funds namin. May Deped Memo No.313 nga si Undersecretary Bacani na pinirmahan…around 2008 iyon. Ang problema is late na dumadating, like December na, last month na ng taon.” The said memorandum, released on July 2, 2008 and signed by then Undersecretary Ramon Bacani, states that “the amount allocated in 2.2 of this document must be disbursed directly to the ALS Mobile Teachers and District ALS Coordinators on a quarterly basis or depending on the release of funds by DBM following the conditions below… ”

Obrero relates that he tried to ask their accounting office the cause of delay. “Hindi daw maasikaso ng accounting… priority is formal school system daw.” Currently on his 11th year as an MT, Obrero is the auditor of the Pambansang Samahan ng Mobile Teachers, Inc. (PASAMO, Inc.).

The case of MT Nelia (not her real name) may be even worse, as she takes a tri-bike ride to reach her target areas, which costs Php60 per ride. Unfortunately, as of this writing, her transportation allowance for 2010 has not been given.

According to MT Daisy, mobile teachers in some areas are having doubts about the handling of their funds. “The finance office [released] our funds as soon as we comply to [the] requirements, so no problem for us. But in other divisions, I hear from my co-mobile teachers complaining that they receive less than Php24,000 because their ES-1 (Education Supervisor 1) requires them to deposit money for their “savings”. There is also a case that the MT will sign a payroll with no exact amount.” According to Daisy, said “savings” is a savings account of the division used for activities or events like Christmas parties. Daisy says her co-mobile teachers doubt if that money is being spent well.

The story of MT Angelita D. Sarmiento of Santa Rosa City, Laguna, may be a little different from the others, because in their division, they receive their funds on time. Sarmiento says that all her superiors in the division are very supportive and attentive to their needs. In fact, she discloses that a district ALS coordinator has informed them that the Php29,0000 yearly transportation and teaching aid allowance of MTs will soon be increased to Php35,000.

Despite limited funding, mobile teachers do more than what is expected of them. “We also attend to the personal needs of [our] learners, [for] example if they are sick, they beg for medicines,” reveals Ungcad. MT Daisy tells an extra effort she does:“We bring some foods/snacks for our learners.”

On Personal Safety and Security. The challenges faced by a mobile teacher do not only concern allowances. There are factors that make their job dangerous and risky. One such issue is safety.

The single motor, or habal-habal in Visayan term, is the common transportation mode of several mobile teachers. The chances of accidents are not remote.

“I had [a] miscarriage in 2009 because I had to drive a motorcycle just to reach my learners,” recalls Jenelyn Baylon, an MT from the Municipality of Naujan in Oriental Mindoro. She tells of a motor accident she suffered while on the job. “Kasama ko pa naman po noon ang anak ko, nawalan kami ng preno kaya sa puno ko po awa po ng Diyos hindi nasakatan ang anak ko at yung learner na kasama ko. Sugat at pasa po ang nakuha ko noon. Kalimitan po nasisiraan ng motor, medyo luma na po kasi ang motor ko.. flat tire, natatanggal ang kadena.” Baylon was the 2009 Most Outstanding Mobile Teacher and was the 2008 Honoree of the Many Faces of a Teacher given by the Bato Balani Foundation and the Diwa Learning System Inc.

Leslie suffered the same fate as Baylon’s twice. “I [had] two miscarriages and that for me [was] the biggest hazard I have encountered in this job.” Leslie does long walks to and from her target areas, carrying heavy learning materials, which she says must have given her the strain. She speaks of the fate of a fellow MT, saying, “My co-teacher who has a motorcycle always encounters accidents.”

ESD, on the other hand, says: “Some areas are mining sites, roads have landslides. In barrios you will be passing areas with tall grasses and [unpaved] pathways which scare you, especially if you are alone in the middle of that pathway.”

Ungcad recalls her own encounter with poisonous snakes, flash floods, off and muddy roads, and worst, being caught in a clash between military soldiers and the New Peoples Army (NPA).

Baylon also recounts one such similar encounter. “I was also accused of spying for the government forces and my husband—napagtripan na rin ang asawa ko noon habang pauwi kami mula sa area…May kaunting alam po ako sa martial arts. Nag-aral po ako before maging community organizer in 2003.”

Recognizing the dangers of their job as MTs, Obrero thinks the government should also consider permitting selected MTs to carry firearms to be able to defend themselves, especially in rebel-infested areas and other dangerous places they cover.

Despite all the hazards they face almost on a daily basis, these MTs say they are still grateful. “We are thankful to BALS because they provide us the Fear Factor Training that helps us to face the dangers along the way,” Ungcad reveals. The Fear Factor training is a survival skills training given to MTs. Aside from this training, they say they have Philhealth (health insurance) and GSIS (Government Services Insurance System) coverage.

When asked if they have medical assistance coverage, they say they have not heard of such, but they say they do not blame BALS for this. Baylon and her fellow MTs in her division explain, “Nagko-contribution po ang mga kasama naming ALS implementers para matulungan ang naaksidente o may sakit.” Jessica, however, expresses, “Sana mayroon din kaming accident insurance para sa mga mobile at DALSC dahil dilikado yong trabaho namin kahit saan kami pumupunta.”  Other than those mentioned, a few of them admit to receiving a hardship allowance or hazard pay as well.

Hardship or Hazard? Apparently, MTs have different understandings of what a hardship allowance or a hazard pay is, saying these could be two different benefits.

For Leslie, she sees the hazard pay as a benefit to MTs who tread far-flung areas; the hardship allowance as a benefit to MTs who teach several levels. “Luckily, our division gives us a hardship allowance which is 25% of the basic monthly salary. We don’t have [a] hazard pay,” she says.

In Baylon’s case, she says there is a hazard fee, which, she figures, is 25% of the monthly salary multiplied by 10 months, equivalent to a year’s fee. Jessica, on the other hand, says: “Yes we have a hardship post but matagal ding makuha aabot ng 5 hanggang 6 buwan bago makuha if mag-file kami.

ESD speaks of her case: “No hardship or hazard allowance, according to a district level employee.” She has been informed that if entitlement is based on the criteria, they are not qualified for such an allowance—but the criteria have not been explained to them.

As for Daisy, she receives no hardship or hazard allowance. She believes this allowance is only given to MTs based on the number of CLC and learners handled.

Obrero, however, received a one-year hardship allowance of about Php23,000-Php24,000, the exact figure he could not recall, but laments that he received only once yet, “2007 palang ang nakukuha ko, so starting from 2008-2010, wala pa.” As far as he knows, all MTs are entitled to the hardship allowance, district ALS coordinators, and certain classifications of formal schoolteachers, but depending on a set of criteria. When asked if he knows about the hazard pay, “Ay hindi ko alam ‘yan, kung meron ‘yan,” he answers.

Poor Budget Allocation as Root Cause. Baylon and other MTs trace the root cause of all these problems to the meager budget allocation for BALS. . Baylon expresses her yearning to know and understand why the education department allocates only 0.17% of its total budget to BALS, when they are, in fact, trying to serve 45% of Filipinos, close to half of the total Philippine population.

Baylon says, “Hindi talaga sapat ang pondo na nakalaan sa BALS…subalit kung titigil tayo sa pagkilos dahil sa kakulangan na ito…mas malaking problema ang dulot nito. Think positively, napakaganda ng ginawang pagbuo ng programa ng DepEd para sa OSYAs sa pamamagitan ng BALS. Bagamat kulang ang budget, hindi naman ito nagiging hadlang sa amin – ALS Implementers upang kahit papaano unti-unti ay nababawasan ang mga illiterates at walang trabaho dahil sa undergraduate sila.

Daisy agrees that the budget allocation to BALS should be increased: “I think they should increase the budget because the ALS program now is spreading widely, as the clientele continue to increase and the needs also are increasing. Budget is very important to run the program. It is not easy to conduct some ALS activities without enough budget.”

Baylon further suggests, “Marahil po ay panahon na para bigyan ng pantay na prioridad ang mga mga mag-aaral sa loob ng paaralan (ALS at Formal School) sa pamamagitan ng pagbibigay ng sapat na pondo sa BALS. Dapat lang na maging pantay ang allocation ng budget…ang Basic Education ay binubuo ng Elementary, Secondary at Alternative Learning System. At kung titingnan natin sa mga data ng census, mas marami ang OSYAs.. marami ang nangangailangan ng serbisyo mula sa ALS.” She says, on a positive note, “Naniniwala naman ako na may ginagawang aksyon, mabagal lang siguro. Baka po puwede na pakibilisan. Bawat taon po kasi ay lumulobo ang bilang ng OSYAs, kapag tumagal pa ng tumagal ang paglutas dito tiyak na mahihirapan na tayong bumangon.”

Obrero, too, believes that BALS is doing everything it can to maximize whatever resources they have and to seek help from other private and non-government organizations willing to support their advocacies. But above all, he believes that the budget allocation for BALS should be increased to address the needs of ALS efficiently.

Career Pathing. Career pathing is another concern of MTs, according to Baylon, who finished a salutatorian in elementary school and a valedictorian in high school; a graduate of Masters in Education, and currently studying to get a Doctor of Philosophy.  She believes, however, that she will never advance in her teaching career despite her academic accomplishments.

To Leslie, career pathing is about giving professional advancement for MTs and DALSCs. To Ungcad, it is “a sequence of jobs along which one may be promoted within an organization, or progresses in one’s career.” Despite varying definitions, one thing is clear: career pathing is equivalent to promotion.

Ang alam ko may ALS Omnibus drafted na in Tagaytay, mga two years ago na,” Obrero says. The ALS Omnibus, he says, is like a book of guidelines for all ALS implementers, which includes information on career pathing. But nothing has been released yet till this date, as far as he knows.

Ungcad expresses her sadness over the lack of career pathing for MTs. “I am now a Teacher 1 having a salary grade of 10. And I am planning to apply for Teacher 2 but sad to say ALS has no career pathing as of now,” she says. Leslie feels the same way. “It is really unfair if we cannot have the promotion benefits enjoyed by the formal school teachers. We do hope that BALS could realize this dream of ours,”  Leslie adds. To which Desierto concludes: “We deserve what they deserve as well,” referring to the career advancement program enjoyed by the formal education sector.

In every story, almost always there is another side to it. But could this other side completely provide the answers to these questions raised by our mobile teachers? Find out in the next part of this series.

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