Timor-Leste's school system still grapples with the basics

Poor infrastructure, teacher quality and language are major problems even after independence
Timor-Leste's school system still grapples with the basics

Students attend a classroom session at a school run by the Christal Foundation in Dili. (Photo by Thomas Ora)

Almerio Alves was only 15 years old when he dropped out of school.

He came from a family of poor peasants. Much of his free time was spent helping out with the farming, collective firewood, and fetching water. It left little time for his studies.

But some of his teachers at school weren't sympathetic as Alves fell behind his class. One day, a math teacher struck him on the head with a stick because Alves hadn't finished an assignment.

"It left a huge swell on my head for several days," Alves recalled in a recent interview. "I was old enough to fight back, but I would rather quit."

Now 23, he works as a taxi driver in Timor-Leste's capital, Dili. As far as Alves is concerned, he was better off working than in school.

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Unlike Alves, Martinha da Costa Pereira Neto managed to graduate from high school. But as the oldest of seven children, she joined the workforce rather than pursue a university education because her family needed the extra cash — her father's income as an elementary school teacher wasn’t enough to provide for the family.

"Even for my school fees, my parents had to borrow money from other people," she told ucanews.com. “So I decided to work, instead of thinking about university."

It was a decision she came to regret. She joined a local nongovernmental organization. But after she was promoted to a management position, she realized she didn't have the skills to keep up with her job. She was soon fired.

The two students' experiences represent a small part of the problem in the Catholic-majority nation's school system. Thirteen years after achieving independence, Timor-Leste's education system still struggles with delivering the basics. Poverty, poor infrastructure and a shortage of quality teachers are major challenges.

An old school building in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste, is abandoned and in need of renovation. (photo by Thomas Ora)


Lagging behind

Jose de Jesus, national coordinator for the Timor-Leste Coalition for Education, said the country's education system needs improvement.

"We have a lot of problems," he said. "The most crucial ones are school infrastructure, the quality of teachers and teaching facilities."

He said the issue is solvable, but only if the government prioritizes education through its policies and funding.

The Incheon Declaration, a product of this year's World Education Forum in Korea, recommended target funding amounts that countries should spend on their education systems. Recommendations included allotting between 15 and 20 percent of a country's total public expenditure on education.

However, Timor-Leste has set aside less than 7 percent of this year's budget for education, according to the coalition.

In comparison, Indonesia spent about 18 percent on education in 2012, according to data from The World Bank. Similarly, Thailand and Singapore devoted about 20 percent; Vietnam allocated 21 percent; and Laos — like Timor-Leste, one of the least wealthy countries in the region — spent 15 percent of its budget on education last year.

While the country has struggled to raise its education budget each year, enrollment numbers have soared, putting further strain on the system.

According to World Bank, the number of students enrolled in Timor-Leste schools reached 364,000 in 2014 — a 50 percent jump in 12 years.

Eladio Faculto is a member of a parliamentary commission that oversees health and education matters. Ideally, he said, rising enrollment figures should be matched by improvements in available infrastructure and services for students.

“Thirteen years after independence, our education sector is still struggling with basic issues such as old and outworn infrastructure, teaching methods, and school facilities,” he said.

On a recent visit to some remote villages, for example, Faculto said he saw elementary students studying under trees. Some school buildings were in a clearly dilapidated state; others lacked even desks or chairs.

But these problems weren't restricted only to remote areas.

"Even in Dili, some schools are already old and need renovation," Faculto said.

Even basic communication has become an issue. For example, Timor-Leste's official languages are Tetum and Portuguese. Yet many teachers were trained under a system put in place by Indonesia, which annexed the country after invading in 1976.

"Most teachers are trained in the Indonesian language, with completely no knowledge in Portuguese," Faculto said.

And now that the country is aspiring to be part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, teachers and students are also demanding to learn English. The Timor-Leste Coalition for Education is campaigning for English to be used in schools, in addition to the official languages.

Parliamentarian Eladio Faculto says his country's education system struggles with meeting basic needs. (Photo by Thomas Ora)


Church's role in education

For some, the teaching of character-building and ethics is one of the most vital parts of a good education.

Agustinho dos Santos Goncalves, director of the Christal Foundation, one of the largest Catholic education institutions in Timor-Leste, said the education system should try to teach a sense of mutual respect and cultural values.

He believes the concordat signed in August by the government of Timor-Leste and the Vatican will have a positive effect on the country — including its education sector.

"If the government wants quality education, it will have to give more opportunities to the Church to develop and education focused on faith and moral formation," he said.

The Christal Foundation currently offers an education to nearly 8,000 students split across elementary, high school and university levels. While many Timorese people believe they have to study abroad to receive a quality education, Goncalves said Church-based organizations can help ensure that students don't have to leave the country.

However, any improvements will be too late for the former students who didn’t fully benefit from the public system.

After she lost her job, Martinha da Costa Pereira Neto went back to school and completed her university degree, thanks to a scholarship funded by a Jesuit missionary. She now works in her country's education ministry revising textbooks.

Almerio Alves, on the other hand, wants no part of the school system. The former school dropout is happy with his job as a taxi driver.

"Even if someone pays me, I will never go back to school," he said.


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