Thu, 10 Jul 2003

Indonesians lowest in basic skills

Sari P. Setiogi, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

A lack of teachers, disparity of facilities in regions, the qualification of teachers and teaching methods, were the main causes of the inadequacy among Indonesian students in basic skills, Minister of National Education Abdul Malik Fajar said.

He was commenting on the recently published survey of 15-year- olds conducted by UNESCO's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The survey ranked Indonesian students among the lowest in basic skills compared to their peers in 42 other countries.

"In terms of the number of students in schools, basic education in Indonesia is growing very rapidly. However, in terms of quality a wide gap still exists between big and modern cities and small and less developed ones," Malik told The Jakarta Post.

As an example, he mentioned the lack of facilities, including teaching staff, that is experienced by many regions in the country.

"Since the Old Order the government has been trying to resolve the shortage of teachers by implementing several programs," he said. "At one time, university students and graduates were sent to remote areas to become teachers, and to open schools".

"But most programs were either changed or stopped because of social, political, economic and security changes," he said.

The programs were not capable of being sustained and failed to reach their goals, according to the minister. He said the education system needed to keep in mind four simultaneous elements: growth, change, renewal and sustainability. He admitted that Indonesia was still lacking in all those four.

Malik also said that most of the reading material given to elementary school students was too hard to understand. "Most (reading materials) lack any connection to daily life and do not allow students to use either their imagination or creativity".

"What is happening now is that teachers and institutions are trying to 'impress' students with modern facilities and complicated texts," he said, "this only makes students unable to understand what they are learning, even in basic areas."

Students are used to memorizing material and don't understand what they are learning.

He regretted that many students were not familiar with the animals and plants of Indonesia.

"If students fail to understand what they learn at lower levels it follows that they will fail to understand what they learn at higher levels," said the minister.

Malik said the government is working on narrowing the gap between city and outer-city schools. It is hoped that financial aid will increase the quality of students across the country and fulfill the need for community-based education.

However, he said, it was not easy to bring about change. "The government can implement tough policies but we should also consider the reaction of the people".

He referred to the controversial new system of the national final exam (UAN).

The new system distinguishes graduates as those that passed the exam (lulus) and those that failed, but are considered to have finished their school years (tamat).

Those who passed (lulus) may continue their study or work, while those who failed but finished their schooling, (tamat) may work but can't continue their studies.

He also questioned the teachers' readiness to adjust to new policies. "Most have been under the same system for years and it is hard to change, we are talking about a fixed mind-set," said the minister.

The minister concluded that if conditions were sustainable the rehabilitation of the basic education system could still take at least 10 years and a budget of about Rp 15 trillion (US$1,765 billion).

"That would cover the whole country and include the cost of teachers, facilities and improvements to the school environment."