Record enrolments in Timor-Leste shifts focus to ‘who will teach the teachers?’

At Rainha da Paz school in Dili, students play in the shadow of a burnt-out building.

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Their school, like many others across Timor-Leste, had to be rebuilt after Indonesia’s scorched-earth withdrawal policy in 1999 left vast tracts of infrastructure destroyed.

Former President Jose Ramos-Horta said the government has “started from scratch” to rebuild a broken education system. 

“We have done enormous [work to] the education sector,” he said.

“Well over a thousand schools rebuilt or repaired in the last five years.”

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Education is highly valued here. Each school day afternoon, thousands of students can be seen in the capital walking home from class in neat uniforms.

Mr Ramos-Horta says enrolment is at around 90 per cent.

But inside classrooms, many teachers are untrained and unpaid.

An estimated 75 per cent of teachers came from Indonesia during occupation – and returned there before independence. 

Volunteers stepped in to fill the gap. Many are still there, and as their student body grows, so does the demand for better quality education.

Mr Ramos-Horta says there are not enough skilled workers who can teach the teachers.

“You cannot produce schoolteachers, high quality schoolteachers in an assembly line,” says Mr Ramos-Horta.

“We have a problem in quality education, quality of teachers. Very few are well trained.”

Joana Barros is the principal of Rainha da Paz school and has been a teacher for 28 years. When the classroom she used to teach in was burned to the ground, she taught outdoors.

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“I feel like they are all my children,” she says of her students.

Ms Barros is a permanent teacher and receives a salary. She wishes more teachers received the same benefit.

“The government should pay attention to the teacher’s salary,” she says through a translator.

“I also think of the children. They need teachers to be educated.”

Once a week, her school receives a visit from Mary MacKillop International, the international aid and development arm of the Sisters of St Joseph.

With money from Australian donors, they are helping to train Timor-Leste’s vast pool of volunteer teachers.

Country Director Alipio Baltazar says the program has helped train 2000 people to date.

“Education is a really critical aspect of development in Timor-Leste and the government of Timor-Leste very limited resources.”

But with a young, growing population and a huge demand for skilled workers, many more teachers will need to be trained to support the nation in the future.

Rhiannon Elston travelled to Dili at the invitation of the government of Timor-Leste.

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