Philippine schools will use free food and grants to lure back millions of children who have dropped out due to poverty and other reasons, the education department said Friday.

And in the bid to boost pupil numbers, local officials have been asked to help locate the dropouts and convince their parents to send them back, it added.

“Despite Philippine education being free and compulsory, we still have a staggering number of school-age children and youth out in the streets who face exploitation in all forms,” Education Secretary Jesli Lapus said in a statement.

Education department data show 5.6 million children aged six to 15 are not in school.

“Community involvement is critical here in identifying school-aged children in each family and in bringing educational intervention right at the (village) level,” Lapus added.

The initiative, called “Project Reach,” will ask well-off families to sponsor a child from a poorer family through school, and also involves free meals, grants and subsidy programmes.

A recent United Nations country report said the Philippines is lagging behind in its target of achieving universal primary education.

Filipino children from the poorest families receive five years less education than those from the wealthiest families, it said.

On average, the poorest 20 percent have 6.3 years of education compared with 11 years for the richest 20 percent, it added. AFP