This school in Payatas lets students make their own rules

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Shane, 9, and Obray, 13, are students and residents at the Fairplay Academy. Like the rest of their classmates, they have as much of a say in what they want to learn — and when they want to learn — as the teachers and staff do. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) In a modest two-storey building in the heart of Payatas, we sit across Obray and Shane, aged 13 and 9 respectively, who are passionately narrating the plot of the latest “Star Wars” installment with insightful critiques. They had just seen the film a few days ago at their school’s film club. Their eyes light up, as they do when asked about their other weekly activities, like math and football. In the middle of our conversation, Shane brings out a timed multiplication exercise sheet which she insists on answering right then and there, proudly calling attention to her teacher (and everyone in the immediate vicinity) when she’d completed it in time.

If we met Obray and Shane a few years ago, we probably wouldn’t have recognized them. Their teacher, whom the kids call “Kuya Mon,” says that Shane, who comes from an overcrowded home, used to be the one of the shyest in his class, while Obray used to be a “jumper,” one who hops onto dump trucks to scavenge for scraps, and whose parents abandoned him to move back to the province thinking he could already fend for himself with the little he would make.

Today, the two are students and residents of the Fairplay Academy.

The Fairplay Academy is part of a cluster of social enterprises and projects called the Fairplay for All Foundation, founded by British nationals Roy Moore and Naomi Tomlinson, who volunteered in Payatas years ago. After seeing the needs of the community — particularly of the kids living there — the pair decided to put up the foundation.

“Childhood trauma is the single greatest health problem,” he says, and the children of Payatas experience such high levels of trauma due to their situations. According to Moore, emotional, physical, and mental development need to go hand-in-hand so that children will be able to face these traumas and overcome them.

IMG_8420.JPG British national Roy Moore co-founded the Fairplay for All Foundation after seeing the needs of the children living in the Payatas community. The foundation runs a football club, a cafe employing local mothers, and the Fairplay Academy. Head teacher May Calimlim (not in photo), along with her co-teachers and teaching assistants, teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as facilitate various clubs for football, jamming, martial arts, farming, and film club. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

But due to the sheer number of children in the community, the public schools that cater to the area are overcrowded, with classes having up to 60 students each. On top of that, students are required to learn everything as mandated by the curriculum — be it consumer rights in third grade, the reproductive system in fifth grade, or “Ibong Adarna” in seventh grade.

According to Moore, the traditional school system, created as a response to massive population growth during the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, was “designed to make kids average.” It is a system that was meant to make “[people] capable of factory work; it was basically mini-work,” he says. With too many kids to compete against for their teacher’s attention, and a rigid environment where an authority figured decided everything for them, Moore says that many students are unable to keep up in this kind of setting, and end up losing interest in school, eventually dropping out.

The foundation started in 2011 with a football club and a drop-in center where the kids could eat, learn, and play. Tomlinson returned to the U.K. in 2014 to pursue her studies, while Moore, supported by an all-local staff, decided to turn the drop-in center into a full-fledged school  — The Fairplay Academy.


The Fairplay Academy was designed to provide an alternative for these kids. Here, education is democratic. Everyone has a voice: teachers, staff members, and even students. They have a say in what they want to learn, and they can decide on not just what they want to learn, but when they want to learn as well. This is based on the Summerhill School, the oldest democratic school in the United Kingdom that still makes use of this educational idea: democracy is not just a concept taught, but a concept lived.

Attendance is non-compulsory, as it shouldn’t matter for kids who are learning at their own pace. After all, academic success is not the only progress indicator: emotional intelligence is given more importance.

“‘Pag na-address mo ‘yung emotional intelligence ng bata, the academics will follow,” says Raymund Armeña or Kuya Mon.

Armeña handles the class that is the rough equivalent of elementary school, working with children aged 8 to 13, teaching them the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. He also handles the jamming club, which was the drumming club expanded to accommodate other musical interests. Other non-academic activities include martial arts, farming, and gratitude class.

Every Friday, the teachers, staff, and students like Obray and Shane come together to discuss the rules and policies that the school should have, based on the problems that they are facing at that point. The students can easily outnumber the teachers, and often, they would get their way. Of course, this meant that not all the rules that they decide on end up working well in the long run.

IMG_8387.JPG Attendance is non-compulsory yet many of the kids opt to stay behind even after class. At Fairplay, emotional intelligence is given more importance than academic success. “‘Pag na-address mo ‘yung emotional intelligence ng bata, the academics will follow,” says Raymund Armeña or Kuya Mon. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Kuya Mon tells us how there was a point that there were barely any students attending classes because they were out in the streets playing pogs, a game involving milk caps. In their discussions, they decided that the playing of pogs was disruptive. Surprisingly, it was the children who came up with the harsh rules: they voted that students should be banned from playing, and those who had pogs would have them confiscated. It is a valuable learning process for them, as they realize how difficult it is to just ban the game outright, so they make rules that compromise — students won’t be banned from playing, but they should put the pogs away during class.

Kids like Obray and Shane recognize that they made mistakes by being overly harsh with the rules they voted on, but they would be able to fix it by participating and having a say in the next meeting. “We live in a democratic country where we are not taught to live in a democracy,” says Kuya Mon. And the weekly Friday meetings are a way for the children to directly learn how it works.

Fairplay Academy is an Alternative Learning System-registered school, making students who attend classes there eligible to take the Department of Education’s accreditation and equivalency test. Passers of this test will be recognized as graduates of either the elementary or secondary level, depending on the test taken. This makes students who go to Fairplay Academy legitimate graduates once they decide to take the test.

But as with everything else and what the school stands for, children only take these tests once they feel they are ready, and only if they want to. Another option would be to sponsor children who feel ready to go back into regular schools: once they gain the necessary skills and confidence to take on the traditional classroom, they can choose to return.


Though attendance is not required, many of the kids still choose to attend class every day. The school has become a safe space for them, away from the chaos of the streets where they used to spend most of their lives. The school is housed in a spacious, two-story building which was purchased and renovated with the help of the Silver Star Century Group in 2015.

The school is also a place where they can freely express themselves and be heard. Children who used to be terrified of speaking up, like Shane, regain their confidence because now, they feel like their voices matter and are a part of what makes the place work.

After our talk with Obray and Shane, Moore takes us to the community sports center where the children play football everyday. One does not need to be a student of the school to join the football sessions, and so they get around 100 to 200 kids playing in the center every week. Football is as integral as the school is to the Fairplay foundation. The Payatas Football Club was, after all, the foundation’s first project, and has provided at least three girls with the opportunity to join national youth teams.

IMG_8413.JPG As you enter the main area of the school, a hand-painted phrase greets you on a bright yellow wall. The only permanent rule in the school: “Malaya tayong gawin anuman ang gusto natin, huwag lamang tayo makaistorbo ng iba.” Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

The space is a concrete football pitch. “Not the best facility in the world,” Moore describes it. But it’s a stark contrast to narrow streets and alleyways that make up the Payatas residential community. It’s a space intended for the kids to play and rid themselves of the stress that their environment brings, but it’s also a place where they can freely express themselves, and to learn how to communicate and cooperate with each other.

When the football program started, fights would break out almost every week. These days, Moore says he hasn’t seen a serious fight in over a year.

Back at the school, though classes are done for the day, many of the students stick around, going about their own activities. Obray and Shane play with Jenga blocks in one corner. Some of the older kids do voluntary chores like wash the clothes of their classmates and those in the lower levels, while other kids do their math exercises or play games in the temporary “relaxation room.” On the wall of the main area is a hand-painted phrase, the only permanent rule in the school: “Malaya tayong gawin anuman ang gusto natin, huwag lamang tayo makaistorbo ng iba.”


For more information, visit the Fairplay for All Foundation website and Facebook page.