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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Education development in Timor-Leste

Steve Duggan
Director - Education, Overseas Projects Corporation of Victoria Ltd

The violence that gripped East Timor in 1999 virtually destroyed an already weak education system. Since the restoration of civil order, UNTAET (the UN Transitional Administration for East Timor) and the new government of independent East Timor have been struggling to build an education system to meet the country's needs.

For just on 25 years the education system of East Timor was built, staffed and run by Indonesia. Physically, school buildings were built to a very poor standard. Cyclic maintenance was non-existent. As with Indonesia, the curriculum was overloaded with too many subjects, and textbooks were difficult to use. School administration was non-participatory, centralised, and plagued by corruption. Often School Heads were retired civil servants or former military officers. After the independence vote in the second half of 1999, rampant militia destroyed most public buildings, including schools and clinics. Many schools were razed and completely destroyed. Those still standing were looted, stripped of all furniture, roofs, doors and window frames, and largely dismantled.

Since the restoration of civil order, the school system has been slowly reconstructed. Schools in many districts still function on an ad hoc basis with many classes held outside. Under the period administered by UNTAET, significant efforts were put into restoring some normality to the school system. Indonesian was replaced as the language of instruction by Tetum, or local dialects, and the school day assumed a level of normality; but most schools were still classified as destroyed, unsafe or inadequate. By means of a World Bank managed trust fund, many donors were able to fund the reconstruction of school buildings. Initially, this fund was used to rebuild those damaged schools that could be safely renovated.

Also under this fund, a new type of school was developed. Known as an escola basica, each district centre received trust account funds to build a joint primary-junior secondary school on the one campus. During this period of reconstruction, thousands of volunteers, both Timorese and international, brought children together, restored school campuses, refitted classrooms and served as teachers. An Emergency Primary School Readiness project has successfully:

  • rebuilt school infrastructure
  • provided teaching and learning materials including textbooks
  • provided technical assistance for social mobilisation and communication
  • provided support for education policy development, and
  • installed school management support.
By the end of 2001, some 2,630 classrooms had been rehabilitated.

Currently, significant support has been provided to the sector through the Fundamental School Quality Project. This project continues to focus on basic education with a specific brief to support junior secondary education. The project aims to (i) maintain existing primary school enrolment at around 185,000 students (95 percent of the age-group), and (ii) restore junior secondary enrolment to the pre-1999 level of around 30,000 students or 60 percent of the age-group. The project will also continue to rehabilitate classrooms, supply textbooks to students and equip schools with furniture, water supply and sanitation.

Central to the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the school system have been issues surrounding access to secondary school and the language of instruction. Portuguese is being steadily employed as the language of instruction, as part of the move to make it the national language. In late 2001, some 500 teachers from Portugal were placed in primary schools throughout Timor-Leste to train both students and teachers in Portuguese. Coinciding with this, some 500 Timorese were sent to Portugal to train as teachers (in Portuguese). It is anticipated that by the time the first cohort of Year 1 students reach junior secondary school, they will be proficient in Portuguese. The Division of Education, Culture, Youth and Sports is the government agency responsible for education service-delivery. The Division liaises with its counterpart, the Education Department in Mozambique, on such matters as textbook selection and/or development, distance education and curriculum development.

It is too early to advise on the level of curriculum development and teacher training systems development in Timor-Leste. How secondary schools and secondary school education will develop is unclear. The aim is to create a modern school system responsive to developments in the labour market. In anticipation of an uncertain labour market, the international donor community is also sponsoring an employment generation project. The Community Employment Generation Project has been initiated to create jobs and stimulate local economies. The task is urgent as there was an almost total loss of physical infrastructure in the cities of Dili, Manatuto, Suai, Oekussi, and Los Palos. This means that most cities and towns where people earned an income can no longer support residents who require paid employment to maintain a livelihood.

International observers will need to pay close attention to the burgeoning number of students in school in relation to employment generation. It would be unfortunate if large numbers of city and rural students continue to the end of junior secondary school only to face the prospect of few jobs, a small post-secondary school subsector, and few, if any, private colleges.

It is difficult to predict how post-secondary education will develop. During a reconstruction period, it is not unusual for externally financed development assistance programs to focus on university and higher education development. This was certainly the case in Cambodia during the early 1990s, where development assistance projects in education largely targeted the Royal University of Phnom Penh. Donor countries included Australia, Belgium, France, Norway, the United States and the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, poor coordination and the absence of agreed education development plans for the university resulted in different faculties using different languages of instruction.

Owing to its pre-1975 history, many donors including Portugal, Brazil and Australia have been interested in re-developing Timor-Leste's sole university. What is really required is close attention to skills training, so that those technical sectors that have literally disappeared can be restored and staffed with a skilled workforce. Only robust joint donor planning can achieve a sound and coordinated investment strategy for reinvigorating the whole education sector.

Subject Headings

Curriculum planning
Education and state
Education finance
Educational planning
International education
International relations
Language and languages