Institutionalising WASH in schools in the Philippines: How better data are leading to healthier learning environments
More than 90% of public schools in the Philippines are now part of a nationwide effort to improve water, sanitation and hygiene for young learners. Data collected through regular school-based assessments show where progress is being made – and where further support is needed.
A decade ago, the Department of Education in the Philippines was more or less ‘flying blind’ when it came to improving water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in the country’s schools. The interest and the motivation to do so were there, but there were no agreed national standards to work towards and no up-to-date information about the actual WASH situation in individual schools. A lack of systematic evidence was making it difficult to take effective action.
Over the past few years, the situation has changed radically. The Department now has at its disposal one of the most comprehensive datasets about the status of WASH services in schools of any country in the world. Digital dashboards provide real-time information about the availability of safe drinking water, gender segregated toilets, group handwashing facilities, daily handwashing activities, and access to menstrual hygiene materials at more than 44,000 schools. As a result, decision-makers have the information they need to make plans, steer investments, adjust policies and set priorities in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
How did this happen and what difference is it making? This article explores how the introduction of systematic monitoring for the Department of Education’s WASH in Schools (WinS) programme – a process supported by the Fit for School Programme, commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and supported since 2016 by Unilever – has accelerated progress towards the attainment of national and global WASH standards in schools in the Philippines. And in doing so, it shows why such investments are needed everywhere to ensure that young people have thesupportive environment necessary to learn and thrive at school.
The Three Star Approach and the WinS data revolution
The data revolution for the WinS programme in the Philippines can be traced back to 2016, when the Department of Education issued national standards for basic WASH services – in line with the global target for SDG4 for inclusive and quality education – which all schools in the Philippines should strive to achieve.
To monitor progress towards these standards the Department introduced the Three Star Approach, a system based on annual self-assessments by participating schools. Developed as a joint effort between UNICEF and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, which implements the Fit for School Programme on behalf of BMZ, the Three Star Approach is a benchmarking system which helps schools to bridge the gap between currently existing WASH services and national standards.
Since the 2017/18 school year, WinS committees in schools across the Philippines have been using checklists linked to the Three Star Approach to assess their WASH services across 17 different criteria and 50 indicators. Based on the results, they calculate a ‘star level’ for their school – from zero stars (does not meet the five minimum indicators) to three stars (fully meets national standards for advanced WASH services). Schools then upload their results into an online tool of the Department of Education’s national WinS database. Digital dashboards present the data at national, regional, division and school level. In such a way, efforts and achievements are made visible.
More than nine out of ten schools in the Philippines now participate in WinS monitoring
In the 2017/18 school year 66% of schools in the Philippines participated in the WinS monitoring programme. By 2022/23 the proportion had risen to 93%. ‘Increasing the participation rate and the data generated by the online system is an achievement that we can be proud of,’ says Dr Maria Corazon Dumlao, the Chief Health Program Officer of the Bureau of Learner Support Services, School Health Division, at the Department of Education.
For education officials this snapshot view is helpful for planning and budgeting. For example, it is easy to identify where the ‘zero-star schools’ are which require additional support to attain one-star status, or to calculate the resources that are needed to set up and maintain WASH infrastructure. The monitoring data also makes it possible to calculate trends in the WinS situation over time, which is important for setting policy directions, and helps with reporting against SDG targets. Data generated via the Three Star Approach are used, alongside other national data sources, by the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (JMP) to calculate estimates on WASH services in schools in the Philippines.
According to Dr Maria Corazon Dumlao, the high participation rate is a key indicator of success, because it shows that more and more schools are engaged in assessing the state of WASH services. ‘This is the first part of providing interventions,’ she said. ‘If you know where you’re starting, it’s easier to get to the next level.’ Speaking from a global perspective, Dr Christie Chatterley, a JMP consultant, concurs that monitoring data is essential: ‘We need to know the current situation and how things are changing over time to be able to make decisions that ensure that students have the supportive environment necessary for quality learning.’
Positive trends in key indicators – and signs that WinS is becoming institutionalised
Despite the significant disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in the Philippines, the trends in WASH services in schools are clearly positive. Five consecutive years of WinS data show steady improvements in terms of compliance with key indicators, particularly in the availability of gender-segregated toilets (from 49% of all schools in 2017/18 to 72% in 2021/22), group handwashing facilities with soap (from 34% to 77%) and access to sanitary pads (from 60% to 87%).
Also striking is the steady increase in the proportion of schools with a star rating. While only 9% of schools earned one or more stars in 2017/2018, 42% did so in 2021/22. This pattern holds across almost all regions of the country, suggesting that the improvements are related to the overall approach to strengthening WinS, rather than to locally specific factors.
The monitoring data also contains signs that WinS is becoming embedded in school management processes. For example, 94% of schools have now included WinS as part of their school improvement plans; funding for soap, cleaning materials and repairs and maintenance has also increased year-on-year since the 2017/18 school year.
Massive Open Online Courses are effective in reaching people – and improve results
What did it take to orient schools to the WinS programme and to support them in monitoring progress? ‘When the WinS policy was issued, it was a challenge to be able to provide technical support to 46,000 schools,’ says Dr Maria Corazon Dumlao, at the Department of Education. In addition to printed resources and training programmes for WinS focal points, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) turned out to be an effective way to deliver uniform content on WinS implementation, including monitoring, at a huge scale.
In collaboration with the Fit for School programme and SEAMEO INNOTECH, the Department developed two online courses. The first, on WinS implementation in schools, has been completed by more than 18,000 school heads and teachers since it was launched in 2019. The second, on the management of WinS at subnational level, has been completed by more than 1,000 education officials since 2020.
The MOOCs have not only enjoyed high uptake, but have also led to significant improvements in schools’ WinS status. An analysis undertaken by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that zero-star schools with at least one teacher enrolled in the MOOC were 1.92 times more likely to achieve a star ranking compared to schools where no teachers were enrolled. This suggests that MOOCs hold great potential as a scalable and cost-effective approach to supporting the institutionalisation of WinS.
A group handwashing activity © Fit for School Programme
‘The MOOCs served as an effective mechanism, especially during the pandemic when movement was limited,’ says Dr Maria Corazon Dumlao. In fact, the success of the first MOOCs and the concern around the safe re-opening of schools led the Department of Education to support the development of a third course, in cooperation with GIZ and the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), focused on Infection Prevention and Control.
‘The uptake for this course has been really remarkable,’ says Henning Göransson Sandberg, a Programme Manager at SIWI, adding that more than 56,000 people have completed the MOOC since it launched in August 2022. The course provides checklist-based guidance for schools to work with to ensure safe and hygienic learning environments (‘pandemic-proofing’) and in this way builds upon the local-level monitoring that is already embedded via the Three Star Approach. ‘This course is likely to be more useful and successful in the Philippines because it already has this culture of monitoring in place,’ he notes.
Monitoring has triggered sector-wide changes – and shows the way forward
‘Monitoring and evaluation systems are an effective capacity development tool,’ says Dr Bella Monse, an advisor with the Fit for School Programme who has worked closely with the Department of Education on school health and WASH initiatives for over a decade. ‘For school communities, checklist-based systems provide instant feedback. You see immediately where you comply with standards and where you don’t – and what you need to do to improve.’
Dashboards which aggregate data across schools are also powerful, she adds, because they give officials at various levels of the education system insight into the strengths and weaknesses of schools in each locality, and make clear which improvements can be made easily and which require more investment.
‘When you track the same set of indicators over time, as the Philippines has done, it can unleash a kind of institutional behaviour change within the sector,’ Dr Bella Monse adds. At a time when there is a clear need to accelerate progress on WASH in schools in many countries if SDG targets are to be met by 2030, this experience from the Philippines is instructive. The International Learning Exchange (ILE) events organised by GIZ and UNICEF are an important forum where countries inspire one another – and learn from each other’s experiences.
No more flying blind. The Philippines is now focused on ‘closing the gap’
In the coming years the Department of Education in the Philippines hopes to see continued growth in the number of schools with a star rating. ‘We hope to close the gap in the next few years and to advocate for more support for WinS programme,’ says Dr Maria Corazon Dumlao, mentioning the threat which climate change and stronger storm systems pose for WASH services in schools. ‘Water, sanitation and hygiene is a basic right. We have to invest more in it.’