Monday, 18 January 2016

Out of School: Student Absenteeism in Papua

By Nick Baker, Communication and Knowledge Management Officer 

Teo faces an uncertain future. ©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Nick Baker

It’s Monday morning at 8am in the Papuan village of Poumako. As a brass bell rings, groups of children emerge from their houses and begin the walk to class. But not Teo – the nine year old isn’t going to school today. He actually rarely does.

Teo’s story is common around his village and across Papua province. This area is one of Indonesia’s poorest and most isolated in the far east of the country. These conditions see countless children drop out of school to help support their families. Instead of pencils and books, many children here are more familiar with hammers and shovels.

“I sometimes work at the harbor,” Teo says. There is a large harbor a few kilometers from his village which services the region. Children like Teo are able to make a few extra rupiah by loading and unloading the ships that regularly dock there. “I carry things like furniture, cement and rice," he says, “These usually weight 15-25 kilos.”

Children work at a Papuan harbor. ©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Nick Baker

The village school in Poumako is a rickety collection of buildings. Children play soccer in a small common area that is surrounded by five classrooms. It all stands precariously on high wooden stilts – with the whole structure teetering above a heavily polluted swamp.

Despite such conditions, many of the children seem energetic and ready to learn. Some only own one pencil, others own none at all. But they take pride in their school uniform as they move from class to class.

Markus Fasak has been the principal of this school for a number of years. He says that a lot of students regularly don’t show up. “Lots of children join their families fishing or harvesting sago (a starch extracted from tropical palms). Income-generating activities are often more important,” he says.

It’s a point that is echoed by teacher Basilus Batmomolin. “The community paradigm is different here,” he says, “Some families just don’t see education as that important.”

A classroom in Poumako. ©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Nick Baker

Latest government numbers paint a dire picture of student absenteeism in Papua. A recent survey found that up to 30 percent of children here were out of school. This spikes dramatically in hard-to-access districts: 50 percent for primary school and 73 percent for junior secondary schools.

“Children who don’t complete school start their life at an immediate disadvantage,” says UNICEF Papua Education Specialist Monika Nielsen, “Their opportunities in life are dramatically reduced. Many of these children will be confined to agrarian work or manual labor. And so the intergenerational cycle of poverty continues.”

Students in Poumako walk to class. ©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Nick Baker

Even with these challenges, children all around the area still have big dreams. A group of young students provide a long list of their future career ambitions. “I want to be a nurse,” says one girl. “I want to be a policeman,” says a boy. Another boy wants to go to university to “study”, although he doesn’t know exactly what yet.

But for many young people here, a childhood without an education means a future without opportunity. This could be the case with Teo. He may be working the docks for some years to come.

UNICEF is currently implementing the Rural and Remote Education Initiative in 120 schools across Tanah Papua (the provinces of Papua and West Papua) – including Poumako. The Rural and Remote Education Initiative for Papuan Provinces is a programme under the UNICEF- Government of Indonesia Country Programme of Cooperation 2011-2015 and is funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) of Government of Australia.  The objective is to test effective and sustainable approaches for improving learning outcomes of literacy in early grades. It will help create improved learning environments where children stay in school and succeed in their studies.