Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Papua's education malaise

Papua's education malaise

This is part 3 of former Fairfax Media Indonesia correspondent Michael Bachelard's series on Papua. Here is the introduction, part 1 and part 2

One sunny November school day at a school in Tagime, hundreds of primary and secondary students are outside having a whale of a time. They're playing soccer – a game that ranges over acres and lasts for hours because there's nothing else to do.

Otniel Elopere, principal at the Ob Anggen school at Eragayam, (November 2014/Michael Bachelard.)

The school is well furnished with buildings – a brand new brick one is under construction – but inside, the classrooms are derelict and have no electricity. There are few books and, on the day I visit, only two teachers for 600 students.

'Many new buildings, too few teachers,' observes Nus Gombo, one of the two.

Politicians in the Indonesian province of Papua – most of them local Papuans – can make good money out of 'projects' such as new school buildings. They let contracts to clan or family members and receive a fat bribe in return. But the hard work of making sure the teachers turn up to instruct students in literacy and numeracy is, apparently, beyond them.

All over the highlands, it's the teachers who wag school. Buildings pop up in every tiny village, but the teachers' salaries are paid in the capital.

Rather than flying to and from to collect their pay, many teachers simply stay in the capital. [fold]

Operational funds are rorted by officials. What remains finds its way through to the schools, but 'These funds are, in the majority of cases, used for personal use and not for equipping schools,' according to a 2009 report from a local non-government organisation, Yasumat. The report continues, 'This also results in families that cannot afford books and pencils not sending their children to school or only sending one. In these cases it is generally the girls that get left behind.'

Teachers can be relied upon, however, to turn up once a year to administer the exam. 'At the exam, the student has to bring a pig or chicken to give to the teachers so they will graduate you,' says Ones Wenda, who is now a teacher himself at a highland school called Ob Anggen.

Exams also involve industrial-scale cheating.

Wenda and his fellow teachers recently took the Ob Anggen students to the three-day national exams. Ob Anggen founder Benjamin Wisely, an American former development worker, said that repeatedly during the three days, administrators, principals and teachers from other schools tried to convince his teachers to 'help' the kids by filling in the answers for them, or writing the answers on the chalk board at the front of the room. 'If kids fail it reflects poorly on the rayon (district), and the parents will be angry and come burn something down or threaten,' Wisely said.

Pieter van der Wilt, a Dutch missionary, works at a teacher training college in the highlands capital of Wamena called STKIP. He thinks he gets the best high school graduates from the area, but when they arrive: 'On a skills test ranked from zero to 100, they score 30 to 35. 

'They have only basic maths and basic language. They are 18, 19 years old...These students are not necessarily lazy or stupid, they are just victims of a broken system.' The result of all this, in Indonesia's poorest province, is an epidemic of illiteracy and innumeracy – and the numbers are actually worsening over time. 

Otniel Elopere, the head of the Ob Anggen campus at tiny highlands town of Eragayam, is scathing: 'Our system (of) education and our system (of) government, every system doesn't work. I think we are killing ourselves'.

Teaching students sing with Roy Kombian at STKIP teacher college in Wamena (November 2014/Michael Bachelard)

The problem is not just with the administrators. Ob Anggen is funded not by government but by fees and donations, and the school is fighting an uphill battle against some parents, and the culturally important uncles, who can't understand why children need to spend so much time in classrooms to attain certificates which, at other schools, can simply be bought or cheated.

'We lose five or six students per year because the uncles and the mothers pull them out,' says Ob Anggen teacher Adit Zakharia Primaditya. 'Parents want them to get a certificate ASAP because it represents status, and because then the students can do the civil service test'.

Despite the fierce desire for political independence from Jakarta, the greatest possible attainment in the highlands is to join the civil service (including becoming a teacher) and pick up a government salary, whether or not that means actually turning up to work. 

Wenda, the principal at Ob Anggen's Dogobak Campus in Bokondini, says the situation is getting 'worse, much worse'. As the school system disintegrates, government officials and tribal leaders with money have abandoned it, sending their own children, from the age of five, to boarding schools near the coast. 

At STKIP, the teacher's college, the message has got through to the prospective educators. 'Education is freedom,' says STKIP trainee Roy Kombian. 'Freedom from Indonesia is our dream. But not right now.'

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