Policy Brief 3 Access and Opportunity in Education

October 19, 2010


Executive Summary

Since the re-establishment of Timorese independence, the Ministry of Education, along with its development partners, has worked to build a functioning education system within a very challenging context. Numbers of qualified teachers in Timor-Leste remain critically limited, school facilities have been repeatedly damaged and looted, and significant policy changes have had to be implemented regarding curriculum content and language of instruction.

EWER conflict monitoring has revealed growing concern about the quality of education and the equity of its provision; concerns which may, in turn, fuel perceptions of disenfranchisement. Further research shows that frustration at navigating a system that suffers many deficiencies and inconsistencies is not only discouraging students from pursuing further education but a large proportion of students are struggling to meet the minimum standards required to complete their basic schooling.

Although there has been some progress, particularly in the area of rehabilitation of school buildings, obstacles remain. Perhaps the greatest of these is in the realm of curriculum development. While there have been attempts to finalize a coherent curriculum, it remains the case that many schools are left to fashion their own, using texts and manuals remaining from the period of Indonesian administration or subsequent, incomplete, Government efforts.

Additionally, it remains the case that teachers are relatively untrained, many receiving only short, in- service courses. Many are effectively volunteers, and those contracted by the Ministry are often paid irregularly. With levels of Portuguese fluency generally low, and varying across the country, language of instruction is also a source of frustration, slowing uptake of primary teaching and so making testing and retention in upper grades challenging. Moreover, teachers are rarely trained in the skills needed to undertake teaching of languages.

Education past the nationally guaranteed pre-secondary level is extremely difficult for the majority of Timorese students to obtain and fund. Many apply to universities and technical colleges in Indonesia, but even those able to secure a place face obstacles. Some are forced to return without graduating as their families are unable to continue bearing the cost. Others find themselves poorly prepared for the expected level of scholarship. Declining use of Bahasa Indonesia in Timorese education will also, over time, make this option even less tenable.

Competition for the limited number of scholarships is understandably fierce. Students who have been taught within the state education system rarely meet the required standards of linguistic and academic proficiency. With such opportunities advertized predominantly in urban areas and using media broadly inaccessible to more socioeconomically disadvantaged members of the community, many feel isolated from the application processes. This has led to perceptions of a systemic bias in favor of the children of Dili-based elites.

Practices already in use among some private schools in Timor-Leste, if introduced more widely, may improve learning outcomes and begin to address misgivings about the system. These include more extensive teacher training, retaining Indonesian as an optional taught language, and initial primary teaching in local languages. It is hoped that current processes to agree and implement a national curriculum at both primary and secondary levels and to produce contextually relevant teaching materials will also render substantial benefits. The efficiency of such efforts will, however, depend on coordination across Government and on reliable procurement and distribution networks. With the potential of a new generation of Timorese youth at stake, such educational measures must be considered no less than imperative.