At the time of the Portuguese colonial rule, the education system in East Timor was a completely neglected area in terms of broad education. The illiteracy rate was 95-98%. Basically, education was only offered to the elite. The Catholic Church and religious orders were responsible for education. The Mission in Soibada, founded in 1988 by the Jesuits and the Canossian Sisters, established the first boarding schools for boys in 1904 and for girls in 1910 a. The children of the traditional rulers, the Liurais, were brought up and Christianized in Europe. When they were baptized, they had to take on Portuguese names. The colonial administration thus expanded its influence and supported its rule on a new, Christian elite. East Timor’s political awakening came from this elite in the 1970’s.
During the Indonesian rule, the country was covered with elementary schools, but the level of schooling remained extremely low, even in comparison to other “provinces” of Indonesia. The majority of the teachers were Indonesians (around 75%). In 1999 around 49% of the population could not read or write, with the illiteracy rate being significantly higher among girls and women. After the vote for independence, militias with the support of the Indonesian military destroyed almost all schools in the country.
According to naturegnosis, schools in East Timor could not be resumed until mid-2001. The education system had to be completely rebuilt: not only had schools to be built and equipped, but also teaching content had to be developed and, above all, teachers had to be trained. As if that wasn’t enough, the changeover to the new language of instruction, Portuguese, posed major challenges for both teachers and students. Portugal and the Portuguese-speaking countries promote teacher training and have sent teachers to Timor-Leste, although numerous non-governmental organizations and states are involved in promoting education. The educational magazine Lafaek, written in Tetum, is very popular for pre-primary and primary schools The Catholic Church and religious orders maintain numerous schools, more than 15% of all schools are run by the Salesians of Don Bosco. Jesuits and Marists are also involved in the training of teachers, the Salesian institutions for vocational training enjoy a very high reputation.
In many places, lessons are held in Portuguese even more badly than properly; At home and in everyday life the children speak Tetum or one of the other languages. Despite much that has been achieved in the education sector since then, the level and quality have fallen. Only half of all school-goers finish primary school.
Mother tongue lessons
A few years ago, it was therefore decided to leave schools free to teach the children in the first grades on Tetum. But the level remained modest. On average, it takes children 11.2 years to complete 6th grade, according to the Ministry of Education’s Strategic Plan for Education 2011-2030. Over 70% of the pupils finish school before the 9th grade, the highest dropout rates are recorded in the first two grades. The children find it difficult to grasp the material and lose interest in learning because they are being taught in a language that they cannot speak. This is the result of a survey carried out by a Timorese team of experts with the help of the NGO BELUN. One of their main recommendations is therefore to teach the children in their mother tongue in the first few years. This provides the best conditions for the children and would also enable the parents to better accompany their children on their way to school at the beginning. Tetum and Portuguese should be learned as 2nd and 3rd languages.
In April 2010 the National Education Council set up a task force and took up the recommendation. A network for the promotion of multilingual education, which includes not only the Ministry and the National Commission of UNESCO, but also numerous local and international NGOs, was formed. The new concept was tried out as a pilot project in 12 selected schools in three districts. The project caused heated controversy. It aroused fear in the population that the country’s unity and identity would be endangered. However, the result is very promising. The pupils do significantly better than those in regular schools.
With the support of the World Food Program, the Ministry of Education has introduced free school meals at all schools in the country. These serve to provide the students with a full nutritional supply. They are supposed to counteract malnutrition, improve the ability to learn and also promote local food production in Timor-Leste. As evaluations show, school meals have a positive effect on the attendance rate of school children.
The government’s program (2015-2017) envisages the establishment of at least 250 preschools to give children a good start and a better chance of successfully completing school. The government initiative “Eskola Foun” (“New School”, child-friendly schools) is carried out in collaboration with UNICEF. The United Nations Children’s Fund supports the construction of preschools, the equipping and training of teachers. Local organizations Alola and Ba Futuru are active in training early childhood education professionals.
The country has 14 universities that do not yet meet international quality standards. The most important is the state Universidade Nacional de Timor-Leste (UNTL). In communities, the government is setting up educational centers whose programs are aimed at people who cannot read and write adequately. Local organizations such as Fundação Lafaek Diak (The Good Crocodile) also promote reading skills for the 45+ generation by distributing reading glasses.
The offer of the Berliku Fanu Rai arts center is aimed specifically at children from farming families in rural regions. The students of the Berliku Lian Orchestra experience personal development through further musical education.
In 2017, the government allocated only 7.9% (2015: 2.7%) of the state budget to education. The program of the 6th government of Timor-Leste 2015-2017 provides information on tasks and goals in the education sector. The 2018 report jointly published by the UN Population Fund, UNICEF and the Timor-Lestes government Regarding the educational level of the population shows that more and more children are getting access to school education: The number of people without educational qualifications has almost halved since the 2004 census, from originally 49 percent of the population to currently 26 percent. One of the main problems that remains is that students often exceed the recommended age for their level of education. Early promotion of a school career and equal access to education, as the Timor-Leste government has set itself the goal of the 2030 Agenda, have not yet been achieved. There are also major deficits among disadvantaged groups of people, which is reflected in the low literacy rate.