Timor-Leste: Rebuilding the education system to reach the hardest-to-reach

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LACLUBAR, TIMOR-LESTE, 13 May 2011 – High along the mountainous spine of Timor-Leste, nestled under the canopy of tall trees, classes at Batara school are back in session. It is a sign of normalcy masking a darker chapter of history that is only beginning to fade.

©UNICEF/NYHQ2010/Sonia Yeo
The hard-to-reach town of Laclubar, where the Batara school is located

The fact that 13-year-old Madalena Soares can come to this school represents a success story of local and international cooperation. She is not only a student, but a leader, serving as president of her school’s student council.

“I like mathematics and when the teacher gives us homework, I can do it,” Soares said. “I also like Portuguese because knowing this language will help me improve my communication.”

Twelve years have passed, but people still remember how the country suffered heavily following Timor-Leste’s referendum to become independent from Indonesia in 1999. Then, pro-Indonesian militias retaliated with a wave of torching and killing, forcing hundreds of thousands of Timorese to flee their homes. The Batara school – and the community here in the remote, hard-to-reach town of Laclubar, five hours away from the capital, Dili, were not spared.

“In 1999, all the people, and including children, were scattered,” said former Batara principal Fernanda de Almeida. “We were in the mountains – students, parents. When we came back, many students did not go back to school.”

Communities take action

A group of local school and community leaders took matters in their own hands, launching an effort to restore the school. They sought out other former teachers to return to class, and mobilized the community to pitch in however they could.

“The schools were in bad condition,” said Raimundo Soares, a village leader who also previously served as the president of the school’s parent-teacher association. “The parents also contributed by supplying chairs, tables and other small things that are needed for the school to function. The community showed their greatest interest and willingness to re-establish the schools because they wanted something good for their children.”

©UNICEF/NYHQ2010/Sonia Yeo
Students from Batara school, in a child-friendly school classroom

Rebuilding systems through partnership

Across the new nation, the education situation was dire. In Dili, much of the population had fled, and many school buildings were burned.

“As a consequence of the referendum, the majority, 80 percent of the infrastructure was burned and destroyed,” said Timor-Leste Education Minister João Câncio Freitas. “In terms of the teachers, 80 percent of the teachers at that time were Indonesian or Timorese who decided to join Indonesia. The students left abruptly. So we had to start from scratch.”

Facing this enormous challenge, the government of Timor-Leste teamed with UNICEF for this unique opportunity to rebuild its entire education system from the ground up. In collaboration with UNICEF and partners, it has developed a new curriculum, continues to rehabilitate schools and train thousands of teachers.

Peace education

Part of its strategy in Timor-Leste involves making schools a place that teach not only basic knowledge, but skills such as tolerance, mutual respect and the ability to live peacefully with others.

“One element of the curriculum includes peace education, civic education and human rights,” said Annette Nyquist, UNICEF education specialist in Timor-Leste. “So the next generation will have the basic principles of human rights and how to work together and provide support to each other, and maintaining peace for a better future.”

The umbrella approach to deliver high quality education is UNICEF’s model on child-friendly schooling. Among other aspects, it encourages both children and the community to become more involved in the education process.

Equity in education for development

©UNICEF/NYHQ2010/Sonia Yeo
Thirteen year old Madalena Soares with her younger sister at home

For children, parents and community leaders, efforts to rebuild Timor-Leste’s education system provide an opportunity to reach more marginalized communities such as Laclubar’s.

Madalena Soares has dreams of one day becoming the nation’s education minister

“If I become a minister, I will be focusing on helping the schools in order to have them running properly,” she said.

It is a sentiment echoed by those overseeing Timor-Leste’s fledgling education system.

“Education is not only for educating people but also to provide skills for them to better actualize themselves, to prepare themselves to be part of the development process,” said Education Minister Freitas. “So education is a must for a country like us.”


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