Cablegate: Lifting English Proficiency to Raise Economic Growth

DE RUEHML #3561/01 2370804
O 250804Z AUG 06





E.O. 12958: N/A


1. English language proficiency has steadily declined in the
Philippines over Qe past 30 years, mostly due to decreased use of
English by teachers, the exodus of qualified English teachers to
overseas jobs, and the lack of education infrastructure, including
classrooms and supplies. The GRP recognizes the harmful effect on
economic growth and development and has implemented programs to
improve English language skills. However, to reverse a 20-year
trend, the GRP will need to produce long-term improvements in the
educational system. End Summary.

Industry Concerns about English

2. Low labor costs, English fluency, and cultural affinity provide
the Philippines advantages over other Southeast Asian countries in
attracting U.S. investment. However, U.S. businesses are concerned
about declining English proficiency, claiming that current
manufacturing, banking and seafaring job applicants do not meet the
same standards as their colleagues did a few years ago. This may
potentially hinder Philippine industry growth and expansion. Poor
English skills in the e-services sector, encompassing call centers
and business process outsourcing (BPO) operations, are causing a
bottleneck in the establishment of new call centers and hiring of
applicants. According to the Business Processing Association, an
advocacy organization for the e-services industry, only 5% of job
applicants are hired; the rest often lack the required level of
English proficiency.

--------------------------------------------- -----
Factors Contributing to Decline of English Ability
--------------------------------------------- -----

3. English was the medium of instruction in the Philippine public
schools until 1974, when a system of "bilingual education" was
introduced, in which certain subjects were taught in Tagalog
Filipino and others in English. The primacy of Tagalog was cemented
in 1987, when then-President Aquino established Tagalog and English
as the official languages of communication and instruction in the
new constitution. Since then there has been a steady decline in
English ability. A survey by Social Weather Stations found a
general decline in English use since 1993, with only 40% of
respondents claiming mastery of the English language in 2006.
Contributing to this decline is the increasing use of Tagalog and
"Taglish" in the broadcast media. While most newspapers and
magazines are in English, prime-time television is dominated by
Tagalog programming. The decline of English mastery among school
teachers has also hurt proficiency levels. An English assessment
showed only 19% of teachers scored at 75% or higher. Complicating
the issue is the exodus of the best-qualified teachers to lucrative
jobs in the U.S. School infrastructure is also a problem, as
Filipino classrooms are seriously overcrowded, with student-teacher
ratios at 50:1 and schools running on double shifts.

--------------------------------------------- ---
Initiatives to Promote English Language Learning
--------------------------------------------- ---

4. To reverse the decline in English ability, President Arroyo
released Executive Order 210 in 2003 re-establishing English as the
official medium of instruction for most students in math, science,
and English as a second language. Teachers often lack adequate
English language skills, however, and continue to rely on Taglish
for instruction. To address this problem, the GRP Department of
Education launched the National English Proficiency Program in 2003
to bring English proficiency testing of math, science, and English
teachers, and a mentor training program. In addition, the GRP, in
conjunction with the Technical Education Skills Development
Authority (Tesda) pledged $9.6 million for a "Training for Work
Scholarships" program granting scholarships to 100,000 "near hires"
(job applicants turned away from call centers due to lack of English
language proficiency) to study English.

5. Business associations and corporations have developed their own
programs to boost English language proficiency amongst potential job
applicants. The American Chamber of Commerce joined with the
Philippines-U.S. Business Council to inaugurate the PEP (Promoting
English Proficiency) Project in 2003. The project uses classroom
teaching and computer-based software to teach English at the
secondary and college levels. PEP expects to open 20 computer
English language centers by the end of 2006. To counteract the
degradation of English in the media, the European Chamber of
Commerce designed the "English is Cool" public relations campaign in
2006 to promote bilingualism and discourage young people from using

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6. The USG, through USAID and Peace Corps, is sponsoring programs
in poor, remote areas, including Mindanao, to improve the Philippine
education system. The programs include providing television, radio,
and computers for teaching science, math, and English; supplying
textbooks to schools; implementing skills training for students
seeking employment; and introducing audiotapes and books to improve
language teaching and learning. Altogether, the U.S. is investing
over $4 million to support English language instruction in Mindanao.
Since 2003, a series of State Department-funded English Language
Fellows has assisted the Philippine Department of Education with the
implementation of the National English Proficiency Program, with
special emphasis on Mindanao.

Appointment of a New Education Secretary

7. In July 2006, President Arroyo appointed a three-term
congressman, Jesli Lapus, as the new Education Secretary. In
announcing her selection, Arroyo credited Lapus for spearheading a
successful package of tax reforms while serving as chairman of the
House Ways and Means committee. According to news reports,
Department of Education employees vehemently opposed his
appointment, preferring an educator rather than a politician at the
helm. Shortly after his appointment, Lapus publicly stated his
desire to restore English as the medium of instruction and announced
his commitment to institute education reforms, such as training
teachers in managerial and administrative skills and increasing the
education budget. He noted, for example, that the education,
culture and manpower development budget has steadily declined from
4% of GDP in 1998 to 2.5% of GDP in 2005. Lapus may have support
from his former Congressional colleagues for expanding the education
budget. In proposed legislation to revise fiscal incentives for
investors, Senator Ralph Recto proposed that 50% of the revenue
gains from the act be devoted to education.

COMMENT: How to Improve English Fluency

8. To resurrect English proficiency in the Philippines, the GRP
must adopt long-term strategies to improve the overall educational
infrastructure, such as building and equipping new classrooms and
providing school furniture and supplies. The government also must
hire additional teachers and provide intensive English language
training, with incentives to employ and retain those with better
English mastery. The private sector should be encouraged to
continue its positive role promoting English skills.
USAID-sponsored education programs in Mindanao have been
particularly successful, and could serve as models for what the GRP
can accomplish in the rest of the country.


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