Papua New Guinea: Tough lessons for education sector

Recent reports that students in some areas of Papua New Guinea (PNG) are crossing into Indonesia for lessons provided a stark reminder of the challenges the government faces in its bid to improve the education system.

Reforming PNG’s education sector is proving to be far from straightforward, with a controversial and heavily criticised teaching curriculum introduced in 2007 now set to be scrapped, albeit it only after a year-end review.

In March, a former PNG defence attaché to Jakarta, Colonel Tokam Kanene, told local newspaper The National that students from South Fly, Western, had been attending a school on the Indonesian side of the border since 2005. Kanene said that Jakarta had allowed the practice to continue even though the students lacked the necessary documentation. “The PNG government has failed to bring very basic services to its people and especially the PNG children’s right to education,” he said.

Similar criticism in 2008 prompted Sani Rambi, then acting Education Minister, and Education Secretary Joseph Pagelio to commit to implementing a system known as the outcome-based education (OBE) curriculum, which focuses on student-centred learning methods, across all community and primary schools.

The announcement provoked a critical response, with experts arguing that the student-directed approach was not suitable for a national curriculum. Critics also pointed out that Western Australia had abandoned its OBE system one year earlier after its “vague” objectives were deemed too difficult to measure.

In an article published at the time, entitled “OBE is a recipe for disaster”, The National called on PNG’s leaders to engineer an exit from the education system. Statistics back up suggestions that the OBE has failed to produce an improved education system in PNG. UNESCO estimated in 2011 that “more than a third of the six-million-plus population ... are unable to read and write”. In separate research, AusAid found in 2012 that the average years of schooling for adults over the age of 25 in PNG came to just 4.3. The net enrolment ratio in primary education stood at 29.3, while public expenditure on education was only 4.4% of GDP.

Prime Minister Peter O’Neill announced last August that the OBE would be scrapped in early 2013 and replaced with the previously used Objective Base Education curriculum. He also said English would take the place of Tok Pisin as the language of instruction from elementary level.

However, hopes that a replacement system would be introduced quickly were dashed in December with news that the OBE would remain in place until a year-end review, led by a government-appointed taskforce, is completed.

When making the announcement, the prime minister was also keen to highlight government spending on education, saying, “I can guarantee you that we are spending close to PGK2bn ($914.5m) on the education sector in 2013.”

Arnold Kukari, a senior research fellow at PNG’s National Research Institute, told Radio Australia last October that the OBE had failed to deliver on student learning outcomes. “There is poor reading levels among all children,” he said. “There is a lack of critical understanding of subject content among our children. There is lack of teacher training, poor teacher support in terms of further learning. And a massive, massive problem with resources.”

However, while criticism of the OBE has been substantial, the PNG Teachers Association urged the government to take its time before introducing a replacement system.

“A curriculum is the fabric of a country and developing it requires proper and in-depth consultations. This can’t be done overnight,” Ugwalubu Mowana, PNGTA general secretary, told EMTV. He added that teacher training and incentives were key to a successful transition. “Teachers were not trained in OBE, they were just told to implement it,” Mowana said.

While PNG’s elementary schooling system remains caught up in difficulties, demand for higher education is still strong.

Ben Thomas, vice-chancellor of the Pacific Adventist University (PAU), told OBG that around 14,000 students leaving high school in 2012 would be looking for university places. “Our biggest problem is keeping our enrolment under control,” he said. “I believe tertiary institutions need to be scaling up to meet demand and maximise our ability to up-take a surging demand for university places.”

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