Educating Indonesia: Schools in Crisis – 101 East

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Participants in Indonesia Mengajar, a programme funded by private corporations and run by prominent university educator Anies Baswedan, are given army survival training before being deployed. But they are not soldiers; they are educated professionals sent to remote corners of the archipelago to teach as volunteers in some of Indonesia’s most impoverished schools.

The volunteer teachers must deal with one of the worst education systems in the world. Indonesia recently ranked last in a landmark education report that measured literacy, test results, graduation rates and other key benchmarks in 50 nations. Only a third of Indonesian students – in a country where 57 million attend school – complete basic schooling and the education system is plagued by poor teaching and corruption.

Indonesian educators and commentators have slammed the country’s school system for placing more emphasis on rote learning than creative thinking. A culture of teaching anchored in obedience as well as a rigid approach to religious studies and assigned reading have been described as major problems.

Education experts say less than half of the country’s teachers possess even the minimum qualifications to teach properly and teacher absenteeism hovers at around 20 percent. Many teachers in the public school system work outside of the classroom to improve their incomes.

Corruption is also rife within schools and universities – with parents often having to pay bribes for their children to pass examinations or pay for services that should be provided by the state.

Indonesian Corruption Watch claims there are very few schools in the country that are clean of graft, bribery or embezzlement – with 40 percent of their budget siphoned off before it reaches the classroom.

Meanwhile, millions of dollars in foreign aid is poured into the country’s education system despite the government spending only a very small proportion of its GDP on schooling. And some international observers are asking why Indonesia still relies on external funding for school construction given that it has been listed as a middle income country by the World Bank.

Responding to its critics, the Indonesian government is introducing a new curriculum in an effort to simplify education, slash drop-out rates and produce more PhDs. One of the government’s most controversial proposals has been to abolish or postpone the teaching of science, geography and English in elementary schools and to instead introduce compulsory subjects that promote national identity and patriotic values.

Many educators are concerned that this could push Indonesia back to the Stone Age in a rapidly globalising world. They argue that a child’s early years are the time to provide them with a more formative education using critical thinking, especially considering the high drop-out rates after primary school.

But the government has defended the changes to the curriculum by arguing that they are trying to simplify a school system that has been criticised for overwhelming elementary students with too many subjects.

101 East investigates the world’s fourth largest education system and asks what can be done to improve schooling in one of the fastest-growing economies where a third of the population is school-aged.

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