Wednesday, May 2, 2018

A conducive environment for learning in Timor-Leste

Leonia Mendonca, a 10-year old Grade 6 student at Horaiquic Basic Education School
shows her drawing to the class. Leonia is one of the 170 students now enjoying
 a new school building and new school furniture with the support of UNICEF.
 ©UNICEF Timor-Leste/2017/bsoares
The primary school in Horaiquic village in the foothills of Timor-Leste’s mountainous Ainaro municipality looks, on the outside, like most other schools in the country.


The same eye-catching yellow-and-mint-painted walls; the same grinning kids hanging out in the corridors. But in many schools in Timor-Leste you would expect to see long rows of desks inside each classroom, facing dusty chalkboards and bordering grimy, cracked-up windows. You’d see upwards of 60 students in a class. You’d see those kids wilting in the oppressive tropical heat and wonder whether it’s safe to try and open one of those windows.


But in Horaiquic Basic Education School, things are different.


Chatty students gather in small groups of three or four at clustered tables, with neat new chairs in freshly painted classrooms. Coloured pencils produce vivid artworks, which will later adorn walls and clean, clear windows. Smiling teachers stand back while students take turns talking in front of the class.


With support from UNICEF and its partners, Horaiquic Basic Education School will become a shining example of education in Timor-Leste – which makes it hard to believe that the school nearly crumpled just over a year ago.

A vision for education
Horaiquic is one of many schools in Timor-Leste struggling to accommodate large student populations in dilapidated old buildings requiring urgent repairs. The school’s coordinator, Geraldo Carlos, remembers sharing scant resources like tables, chairs, books and rooms with a neighbouring technical college, and reflects on not being able to teach in run-down rooms.


“We had to gather the students like goats,” Geraldo quips, grinning, but it’s clear the problem was serious: last year, Geraldo and his five-teacher team were desperately short of places and resources for teaching, and split students into school shifts to get through the day.


Under-resourced schools are a common problem in Timor-Leste, which regained its independence in 2002. Approximately 4 in 10 people in the tiny country live below the extreme poverty line. Overcrowded classrooms force teachers to restrict children to half-days of school, and long-neglected repairs create unsafe environments for children but there is limited government budget exists to rehabilitate ageing infrastructure.


It’s changing the way students go to school.


Student experience paramount
“We felt uncomfortable at school,” says Leonia Mendonca, a 10-year-old, sixth-grade student, looking shyly at her lap as she describes the school’s condition before they moved to the newly constructed school building.


“It wasn’t clean, the windows were broken, the doors were broken, there was water leaking into the roof, and the desks and chairs were broken.”


She looks up with a smile. “But we wanted to learn, so we kept coming.”


Leonia and her classmates have just finished a lesson in one of three new classrooms built at Horaiquic. Seated at grouped tables by rows, the students drew pictures of flowers, foods and soccer players, then took it in turns to present their illustration to the class, explaining clearly and articulately what they had produced. Later, these bright illustrations will appear on the walls of the freshly-painted, light-filled room, creating exactly the kind of environment envisioned by UNICEF’s child-friendly school approach, which promotes quality, child-centered education in recognition of that fact that a poor education is tantamount to no education at all.


Lenonia says she wants to be a scientist when she grows up, and her classmates crowd round eagerly to share their own dreams. “I want to be in the police force,” announces tiny, ponytailed Evanseline de Consesou, 10, to the giggles of her friends. “I want to be a teacher, because teachers have to be clever and study hard,” counters 10-year-old David da Costa. There’s general agreement that to be a nurse would be a good job, and that joining the police force would be noble, to counter juvenile crime and underage drinking.


Eyes to the future
The paint’s barely dry on the walls of the new classrooms, but school coordinator Geraldo can already see the difference they’re making. “We have books now, and places to put them, and the children have space to move,” he says. “They’re happy, and they like to learn.”


It’s easy to underestimate how much of an impact a few tables and a new classroom can have in the grand scheme of things. But for the students and teachers at Horaiquic, it’s making all the difference.
Students at Horaiquic Basic Education School enjoying their new school building
built with the support of UNICEF and its partners from Japan and Korea. 
©UNICEF Timor-Leste/2017/bsoares
This difference is visible in the four other schools that UNICEF also supported with new school buildings, WASH facilities and learning materials. These are the Soro Basic Education School in Ainaro Municipality; Biluli Basic Education Filial School, Urahou 1 Basic Education School and Urahou 2 Basic Education School all in Ermera Municipality. UNICEF’s classroom building initiative is supported its partners from Japan and Korea through the Japan and Korean Committee for UNICEF.


Martino Mario Merismento is the director of the cluster school that governs Horaiquic and its neighbouring schools. He articulates a clear vision for the school, one that’s a world away from the recited lines, rote learning and silent lines of desks that have typically characterised schools in Timor-Leste.


“We want to see learning that is 75 per cent student-led, and 25 per cent teacher-led, so the students learn more, and develop themselves,” he says. “This is the curriculum from the Ministry of Education,” he adds. The basic education curriculum introduced in 2015 reflects the child-friendly schools principles promoted by UNICEF in Timor-Leste since 2002.


The new UNICEF-supported classroom construction is providing safe, secure and supportive environments conducive to learning. In Horaiquic, that’s a new building with three classrooms, the school’s first library, and a new toilet block, which ensures that female students have separate toilets from male students, and that running water is always available. Toilets are disability accessible, and the Ministry of Education and Culture with support from UNICEF Timor-Leste has delivered training on hygiene promotion.
The two new new school buildings at Horaiquic Basic Education School
built with the support of UNICEF and its partners from Japan and Korea. 
©UNICEF Timor-Leste/2017/bsoares
 Martino says the school hopes to construct a further three classrooms, to reduce the school day to a single shift. Currently, the school manages around 170 students through its three existing classrooms, and breaks the school day into a morning and afternoon shift to accommodate everyone. 


A single shift of classes would give every student at Horaiquic a full day of learning, without putting extra pressure on the school’s hardworking teachers. And could be just the opportunity one of Horaiquic’s future scientists, teachers, nurses or police officers needs.


By Sophie Raynor, UNICEF Timor-Leste Consultant

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