How the #PNG education reforms destroyed several generations of children in Sandaun

What I do know is that, evidence shows that by grade 10, many students are still unable to read and write well.

This blog post is not a researched academic piece nor is it an adequate reflection of the state of education in other parts of Papua New Guinea.  It is based on my personal experiences in Sandaun Province after having spent half a year as an elementary school  teacher and having participated in research that took me throughout the districts. It is also based on numerous interviews conducted with teachers and parents in those remote districts. 

Grade 6 class in Aitape, 2002

By 2001, it was clear the education system was showing symptoms of   serious problems. In Sandaun province where I lived for four years, close contact with the education professionals gave me an understanding of what the struggles were.


Through aid supported programs, teachers attended workshops in numbers and elementary school system was rolled out in the province. Each community had to have an elementary school so that students didn’t have to go far to attend school.  They became ‘feeders’   to the primary schools.

New positions called the ‘Elementary School Coordinators’ were created both in the government system and the church run systems.   The coordinator’s job was to manage the schools and to ensure that it had teachers.

When schools were opened, coordinators found that teachers were in short supply.

To counter that shortage, coordinators were told by advisors (foreign or local?) to find “the person with the highest education level in the communities” and have that person trained as an elementary school teacher.

In the election year of 2002, I assisted with a research project sponsored by the National Research Institute. The team leader was Ignatius Wunum, a veteran educationist in Sandaun. (I make mention of him so this information can be verified by a second source.)

We travelled to Telefomin, Nuku, Aitape-Lumi and Vanimo-Green. Following directives from the education headquarters, the elementary coordinators sourced teachers from the local community.

Many coordinators in rural districts realised that they couldn’t find grade 12, leavers in the communities to be trained as elementary school teachers. So they chose the next best option – a grade 10 leaver or grade 8 or lower.

These teachers were ill-equipped from their prior education experience to be able to provide a decent education foundation for five and six-year-olds.

In many areas, the bridging from vernacular or Tok Pisin to English was very badly done due to the poor quality of the teachers. By the third year of schooling, students still could not read or write in English.

I do not know the details of how elementary teacher training is done. But I do know that it takes shorter that the normal teacher training done in colleges and the University of Goroka.

This training was aid funded and it was mass produced elementary school teachers in a parallel teacher training system.

In short this system destroyed the education foundation of several generations of children over 20 years. Many of these students are now in universities unable to articulate themselves in written and verbal English.

In primary school, the Outcome Based Education system, introduced in the mid-1990s presented an additional problem.

Again, I state here that I have little understanding of how this works. I have tried to get a clearer idea of how it works from the experts. But I still fall short.

What I do know is that, evidence shows that by grade 10, many students are still unable to read. It may be caused by a combination of issues. But I do know that this system has not worked for us.

As a journalist, getting the answers from the Education Department and getting them to admit that the system they use has failed  is like hitting a brick wall. Nobody talks to you.

Teachers on the other will speak only off record as they vent about the difficulties they face with kids moving up the grades.

It now comes as no surprise that we are unable to meet the requirements for the law and medicine in universities. I am also concerned about the state of the journalism programs in DWU and UPNG with the quality of students who, in my opinion are not of the caliber required for this profession. It is not their fault if they came through that failed elementary school system that didn’t teach them to read and write well.

I am writing this to create debate because this is a crisis we need to resolve over the next 20 years.

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