What my 8-year-old learnt at a Philippine school

What my 8-year-old learnt at a Philippine school
Deborah Toh (centre, facing camera) getting a goodbye group hug from her classmates. Her three days at the Philippine school left such a huge impression that she has already asked to go back.

Like many parents, I sent my eight-year-old daughter Deborah for extra lessons during the June school holidays which end today.

But she didn't attend an enrichment centre in Singapore; she spent three days at an elementary school in Cauayan city, a nine-hour drive north of the Philippine capital Manila.

It came about after my daughter came home from school in early January asking why she did not get to go overseas during the December school holidays. "My classmates went skiing and to Disneyland," she protested.

Our family did not go away on holiday last December, but we have taken our children to Malaysia, Thailand and Japan previously. My wife and I were taken aback that children as young as eight were already comparing where they went for vacations.

Worried about where this might lead, we wondered how to give our daughter a bit more perspective about life and holidays. Which was how we came up with the idea for a visit to the Philippines.

Our resourceful Filipino maid Maricel, who lived in Cauayan before she came to work for our family eight years ago, arranged for Deborah to join her nine-year-old daughter Charelle at her school.

Cauayan city has a population of just 122,000, according to the 2010 census, and is set in the midst of rice and corn farms, with few buildings taller than the three-storey city hall.

But Cauayan South Central School, the largest public elementary school there, is huge. It has about 4,000 pupils aged from five to 14 in 87 classes from kindergarten to Grade 6, the equivalent of Primary 6. It provides free education for the children of working-class parents including farmers, labourers and women working overseas as maids, like our family's Maricel.

We arrived at Cauayan on a Sunday, stayed at a $45-a-night hotel in the city, and knew that Deborah would attend school from Monday to Wednesday.

To blend in, she wore the uniform white blouse and long blue skirt donned by girls in Philippine public elementary schools. Maricel's husband Norman provided transport to school on the motorised tricycle taxi that he plies for a living.

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