Sunday, June 18, 2006

Better spend P500M on English proficiency for all schoolchildren

For decades, the troubled Philippine economy has been able to bank on one key asset in attracting foreign investors—the Filipino people’s being generally proficient in English. This has helped the country win BPO (business processes outsourcing) contracts.

But BPO contracts are now at risk as foreign buisinessmen find out that there has been a sharp decline in English proficiency here compounded by failing school standards and a mass exodus of linguistically skilled professionals.

Business leaders are starting to question just how long the country can go on touting its people’s English skills. Some local and foreign business groups are so concerned that they have started their own language centers to fill the gaps left by a deteriorating school system.

Individuals applying for call-center jobs endure stringent screening, go through strict training and even have to execute specialized tasks required by the company. The call center industry seek agents who possess all the necessary qualifications.

P500 million is a large amount of money. It isn’t wise at all to pour half a billion pesos in support of call centers.

Root of the problem

Let’s look at the root of the problem. Not just the call center industry but the entire BPO industry is forecast to suffer a shortage of English-speaking Filipinos. English-language proficiency is a major requirement not only in call centers, but in the entirety of the contemporary employment environment. English is the global language of success in the worlds of business, banking, aviation, manufacturing, the academe, science, technology, the arts, the film, TV, radio and print media.

This issue of the Filipinos’ poor English-speaking and comprehension skills is not new. Various Philippine presidential administrations have carried out programs after programs to rescue English proficiency from total disappearance here. But the decline has gone unremittingly on.

It is commonplace to hear of verified testimonies by teachers themselves that most of the elementary school graduates who enter high school are not qualified at all and that most of those who finish high school and are supposed to be qualified to enter a college have the educational level of Sixth Graders or just a little better.

The emphasis on vocational education without reemphasi­zing the need to excel in English fluency and comprehension is a wrong policy.

A recent Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey found that the “self-assessed proficiency in the English language” of Filipinos, especially on the ability to speak it, has “dropped over the past 12 years.” This and the fact that only 6.59 percent of senior high-school students have mastery of English (seen in the recent tests conducted by DepEd) only show the alarming state of English-teaching in our country today.

Start in schools

Industry leaders believe that upgrading the language skills of Filipinos should start in school. They say the country’s education system should improve by starting with the reinstatement of the English language as its medium of instruction. “English-language proficiency training should be given in school as early as the primary grades,” is universally heard from lawmakers and educators—except the leftists.

For sure, the government is aware of these statistics. Why then, is it implementing a call center training program when the root of the problem is the poor English-language skills of Filipinos?

“The P500 million is misallo­cated,” a DepEd official who refused to be named told a Manila Times senior editor. Senators and congressmen leading the education committees of their chambers says the same.

With the huge amount of money the President has released for her Tesda Training for Work scholarships program, she should have told DepEd to implement an English-language skills training program for teachers and specially qualified students. Then she should have made sure the job was then properly and zealously. That should have struck at the root of the problem. It would have benefited not only 100,000 aspiring call-center agents but millions more Filipinos.
--Sherryl Quito - Sunday Times

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