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Education reconstruction in a transitional society: The case of East Timor

Jaya Earnest
Research Unit for the Study of Societies in Change
Curtin University of Technology
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The conclusion of the electoral process in April 2002 paved the way for the declaration of independence of East Timor on 20 May 2002, making the tiny nation the world's newest democracy. The purpose of this study is to describe and analyse information on the education reconstruction process, and to make some recommendations about how to better promote a contextually relevant education in this fledgling democracy. The study is an inquiry into a transitional state struggling with multiple social, political, economic and educational constraints. The research used an interpretive case study approach within a qualitative framework. Multiple methods, sensitive to the context included in depth interviews, focus group interviews, school visits, accumulation of documentary data and reflective narratives. A model and framework for school improvement through effective leadership and on going, in service teacher professional development has been recommended at the conclusion of the first phase of the research study.

Aims of this study

The aims of this study were:

The research study


An historical overview of the road to independence

In 1975, following Portuguese rule the Indonesian Army supported by local militia invaded East Timor and annexed it. By 1999, an estimated 200,000 East Timorese - a quarter of the population - were either killed or starved to death. Indonesia's rule lasted 24 years and during that time a strong pro-Jakarta militia formed as well as an armed independence movement called Fretilin. Fretilin stayed mainly in the mountains where they organised educational classes, provided health care and tilled the land along with organising the nation for freedom (UNDP, 2002).

The referendum and the electoral process

In, August 1999, East Timor held a referendum on independence. With an overwhelming voter turnout, the East Timorese chose independence. The announcement of the results sparked an explosion of systematic violence and killings that lasted until the UN peacekeeping forces arrived in late September. In 21 days nearly the entire population was uprooted and displaced. Some fled to the mountain areas of East Timor, some 250,000 were taken to camps in West Timor. Some 90% of public buildings and infrastructure in East Timor were systematically destroyed. The conclusion of the electoral process on 17 April 2002 paved the way for East Timor's independence on 20 May 2002. Today East Timor with a population of 700,000 is the world's newest democracy (AUSAID, 2001).

Education reconstruction in East Timor

As a result of almost continuous political turmoil, the educational plans for East Timor face an uncertain future. Over 44% of the Timorese population is under 15 years of age, thus education is vital. The quality of education varies enormously between schools, and the events of the past few years have seen education disrupted and students especially the youth drop out of tertiary education in favour of survival (AUSAID, 2001).

A school mapping exercise began in April 2001 to examine each school's physical condition, the facilities available, the area served by each facility, the projected student population, and the student retention rates. More than 700 primary, 100 junior secondary, 40 pre-schools and 10 technical colleges are currently functioning in the country. Of these 535 schools and more than 2780 classrooms, have been rehabilitated to basic operational level under the Transitional Administration's Emergency School Readiness Project. Investment in technical and vocational training for older students is another fundamental priority of the educational administration (UNICEF, 2001).

Photo for Figure 1

Figure 1: A primary school in the outskirts of Baucau, East Timor

Teacher professional development

In October 2001 the Division of Education launched a double track initiative to train teachers. Those who did not possess a degree were trained toward that level at the National University, whilst teachers all over the country are receiving a fast track in service training. At present teaching is under an Indonesian Curriculum until a new East Timorese based course of study can be determined. The national research centre at the National University of East Timor's new campus in Dili will support the work of the agriculture, technology, education, economics and political sciences faculties and promote the development of the Tetum language (UNDP, 2002).

A contextually relevant science education

The contextually relevant developmental functions of science education in rapidly evolving transitional societies are many and varied, from enhancing rural subsistence based activities, to equipping young people with a skill base, developing skills conducive to environmental preservation, the combating of HIV and other tropical diseases (Vlaardingerbroek, 1998). Oginniyi (1986) adopted a similar development oriented approach, stating that the topics that relate to farming, control of malaria and tropical diseases, ecological balance, food production, provision of water, development of good roads and small agro-based industries are more appropriate and relevant to the needs of developing countries than many topics that have featured in the science curricula of developed and industrialised nations. East Timor, the newest nation in South-E ast Asia, has the lowest health indicators in the region, its infant and maternal mortality rates are extremely high, and there is a high incidence of malnourishment, respiratory diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis, dengue fever and diarrhoea (UNDP, 2002). These contextually relevant developmental aspects of science education need to included in the science curriculum.


After Independence the new government has directed that Portuguese is the new national and official language and all the education has to be taught in that language. Educators already struggle with a mixture of the local oral language Tetum, curriculum in Indonesian and the hunger to learn English. Most of the students and teachers in schools do not speak Portuguese themselves and do not have the capacity to teach their students in that language. Education in the world's newest nation is facing enormous challenges and is struggling under harsh conditions in all aspects of education reconstruction, namely infrastructure, human and material resources, curriculum and the dilemma of language learning (AUSAID, 2002).

The research approach and data collection

A case study approach

In the context of East Timor, the study is an inquiry into a complex transitional society that is a fledgling state, struggling with multiple social, political, economic and educational constraints. The research is a case study approach using multiple methods within a qualitative framework with interpretive and critical ethnographic analysis to allow for the triangulation of methods and cross-validation of data (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000). The qualitative approach was more sensitive to the context and included in depth interviews, focus group interviews, school visits, accumulation of documentary data, and reflective narratives that took into account social action that was locally distinct (Punch, 1998; Erickson, 1998).

Data collection

Data was collected over a period of two weeks in two districts of East Timor, Dili and Baucau, from:

Data analysis and discussion

Mountains in the mist

During the period of nearly two weeks I made the trips between Dili and Baucau four times and the magnificent beauty of the mountains and the sheer drop to the sea enthralled me. The winding roads up and down the mountain side filled me with a sense of awe for the raw beauty of this land. I recalled the words of Diane Fossey where she called the mountains in Rwanda the mountains in the mist. While driving back from Dili on a late Saturday afternoon the clouds hung low over the mountains, some of these mountains are considered sacred as the resistance took place in the mountains and filtered into the towns and villages from there. I saw fourteen white crosses on the hillsides representing the fourteen Stations of the Cross and the small shrine of St Anthony at a bend on the road, both these symbols a testimony to the devotion and piety of the people. My journey to meet the village elder was a 45-minute walk through the mountains with the sea on one side, the village elder pointed to an expanse of land on the mountains and declared that this was sacred ancestral land.

A flavour of the country

The local bus from Dili to Baucau was also used as a local postal service and on my journeys. I found that it delivered some packages, letters and even a bicycle part to different villages. I saw buffalo in the paddy fields used as ploughs, mountain goats and chicken scurry across the road before the bus could hit them. Farmers with their families knee deep in the paddy fields transplanting rice. Rows and rows of roadside stalls filled with luscious custard apple, banana and groundnut. As we drove along the countryside there were bundles of wood from the palm tree, the local villagers use this wood for building their homes.

I was intrigued by the fact that the East Timorese were a mixture of races and they had a mixture of the Portuguese, Malays, Islanders, Polynesian and Asians in them. It was therefore easy to see that the people's skin colour ranged from light skinned to quite dark and some had very Asian features and some had slender characteristics. Most of the East Timorese lead simple lives but life in the villages is also very difficult and most Timorese are very poor. As the people have a close relationship with the land, they have big families with many children to till the land and look after it. Malnourishment and respiratory diseases, along with malaria and dengue fever are rampant in the countryside. In spite of all their hardships the Timorese are a simple and patient people with tremendous hope that the independence they have now achieved will provide them better opportunities for the future.

A glimpse of schools in East Timor

On the third day after I arrived in East Timor, I visited two schools, a government primary school and a Catholic junior secondary school. The Catholic secondary school had excellent infrastructure and the government school had recently been renovated and repaired. Many of the schools in the villages have still not been renovated after the devastation and destruction of 1999, they do have roofs, barely sufficient furniture and most of them lack resources. Classroom scenarios depicted traditional classrooms with the teacher imparting knowledge often not from a book, or resources but on their own knowledge and experiences. The students were wonderful, warm and happy and the junior secondary students were open to ideas, suggestions and freely expressed their opinion.

Photo for Figure 2

Figure 2: School children outside a classroom in a government primary school, Baucau, East Timor

The Timorese academic year runs from October to July with a two-month break. I was informed that during the break the te achers take care of their fields. The primary schools run from year 1 to year 6, the junior secondary from Junior 1 to 3 (which is years 7 to 9) and the senior secondary from Senior 1 to 3 (which is years 9 to 12). The Timorese themselves are running their schools and are aware of their limitations, but continue to hope that things will improve for their schools, teachers and students.

Analysis of interviews (voices of teachers, students and administrators)

In this section I have provided a brief analysis of the interviews that I held with teachers, students and education personnel. I have included translations of original quotes, but have not included names, so as to maintain confidentiality and anonymity of the teachers. The interview analysis identified several constraints that have been listed under the headings given below.


All of the teachers that I interviewed talked about the acute shortage of books and textbooks, currently they use textbooks but these are Indonesian textbooks, there are not enough textbooks to teach and all the students do not have textbooks, so students have to rely on copying notes from the board. Most of the books did not focus on East Timor, and were not relevant to the East Timor context. Most teachers felt that it was important to focus on East Timor and for students to have knowledge of their own country.
I teach history but the Indonesian books that I am still using do not have any history of East Timor. We need our oral history documented. I would also like a basic knowledge of the world (history teacher at a junior secondary school).

I teach biology but the biology books are the books from Indonesia in Bahasa, we still do not have our own books and none of the junior schools in the country have laboratories so all our teaching is only theoretical (biology teacher at a Catholic junior secondary school).

At the beginning of this academic year we were given textbooks from Portugal for most subjects. We use some of these books but most of the books are kept in the principal's office. We also do not speak Portuguese at the level where we can teach it to the students (primary teacher in a local government school)

Upgrading qualifications

The teachers spoke of their desire to improve and upgrade their qualifications. All teachers wanted to have professional development courses and learn more about new and modern teaching methods.
After the referendum and the violence of the next 3 weeks during September 1999, all the secondary Indonesian teachers left the country, now most of the secondary teachers are university students who have not finished their courses, they have poor content knowledge and have not been trained in pedagogy, methodology and planning (headmaster of a Catholic junior secondary school).

I would very much like to go abroad and continue with my undergraduate and graduate studies, so that I can help my country. At present I am a trainer for professional development courses, but I feel it is important that I complete my studies (a practical science teacher trainer)

The issue of language

Most of the young teachers did not speak Portuguese; they spoke Bahasa and a local dialect Tetum. Only a few of the older teacher spoke Portuguese. The government has made Portuguese the national language and in most schools there were teachers from Portugal who were teaching the students and East Timorese teachers Portuguese.

The issue of language is a big problem in the country, where most of the young people do not speak Portuguese but Bahasa, only the older elite and the Diaspora who returned from Portugal, Mozambique and Angola speak the language. The teachers in primary and junior secondary are given limited lessons per week to learn the language but are not enthusiastic about the process. All the teachers I spoke to expressed this dilemma concerning language.

There is currently a confusion about languages. We have textbooks in Indonesian but the level of Indonesian known by the students is not good so sometimes we have to explain in Tetum. All of us young teachers in the school do not speak Portuguese and we also not interested to learn the language (teachers at a junior secondary school).

I hope the Portuguese teachers who have come from Portugal and are sponsored by the government of Portugal will stay for a long time at least 10-12 years. They must stay longer than this honeymoon stage, only then will our children achieve a level of proficiency (an experienced educator).

Science teaching in primary schools and junior secondary schools

I have an interest in the development aspects of science and I wanted to find out about the science being taught in primary and junior and secondary schools. The type of materials and textbooks the schools had and if the science being taught was contextually relevant to the students and their situation. Most of the science taught was based on theory and there was very little practical science at both the primary and junior secondary. Most junior secondary schools did not have any laboratories.
I attended a national wide physics training course and was also given a physics practical kit and a manual, but I am not confident to use the kit much and I have to teach the students for the national exams (a physics teacher in a junior secondary school).

At present we do not have any books or curriculum to teach science. We only teach from experience. We teachers have consultation together and talk to each other and then plan. We are mothers so we have the experience of health, water, hygiene, disease and our environment (headmistress of a government primary school)

Practical science and the use of laboratories

Most teachers in primary schools and science teachers in secondary schools in East Timor have never done any laboratory work and do not do demonstrations. Many of them have never been given any training in practical activities. They recognised openly their lack of skills and pedagogical knowledge in this area. Teachers asked for support material for teaching science. They also expressed concern that the provision of laboratory equipment would not change their style of teaching because of existing factors: large classes, lessons times, lack of physical space in schools, and a lack of in service training.

Infrastructure and resources

As in many low developing countries and transitional societies, the harsh reality of the situation is that most schools function with barely minimal resources, some districts in the country are poorer than others and have no roofs, desks and chairs and most schools do not have access to electricity, water and the sanitation facilities are extremely poor. Many principals and administrators struggle with the multiple responsibilities of trying to find the funds to not only run the schools but also to pay teachers' salaries.
I need US$300 more to pay all my teachers this month, I am not sure where I will get the money from. I have not been paid for a few months but I do not mind. I hope the situation will change for the better soon (the headmaster of a junior secondary school)

After the war we had no materials and books many of the schools had been burnt down. Although we have received many donations , many of these are higher level books especially English books. Many schools received blackboards but we have no money to buy chalk or dusters (a primary school teacher).

Students' views on the learning of science, traditional beliefs, HIV/AIDS

In schools in East Timor, students are passive learners with the teacher the giver of knowledge, and students copiously copied notes from the board. I had the unique opportunity to teach two biology lessons in a year 9 class of 48 students in a Catholic junior secondary school, the principal of the school was multi-lingual and was keen to see a different approach used. I divided students in groups of four each and gave each group a theme (eg: health, wate r, disease, air). The students were then given 10 mins to discuss the theme among themselves, choose a reporter and report on the discussion. The topic was then opened for discussion and the students provided me with questions on the to themes. I went back after a few days for another lesson to answer and discuss their questions.

Eight students accompanied me to a beach for a picnic lunch and a focus group interview on issues of traditional beliefs, their environment, drugs, HIV/AIDS. The principal of the school accompanied us and acted as the translator. I had asked his permission to discuss the issues listed above as I did not want to upset cross-cultural sensitivities.

Photo for Figure 3

Figure 3: A focus group interview of secondary school students by the sea in East Timor

It was an excellent discussion by the sea and at a roadside cafe where we had a delicious lunch of rice steamed in palm pouches and fish. The students expressed their views spontaneously and the quotes given below provide an insight into their own knowledge and world views.

Some views on conservation and soil erosion

My uncle lost all his rice fields due to floods and heavy rain. When my father and I went to see him, my father tried to explain that the flooding was due to soil erosion caused by the cutting of trees.

I know of an area called Quelecai where there are trees but there are floods too, it seems as though there are underground springs or geysers in the area.

In East Timor there is a high level of unemployment, so people cut trees so that they can sell the wood and get money to survive. We know that it can cause soil erosion and even floods but the people are so poor.

Views on drugs and alcoholism

Drugs are only in the big city of Dili and they are sold openly only near some discos.

Many people are addicted to the local brew and take it to relieve stress mostly it is the men and not women. Most of the women especially in the villages chew the betelnut/leaf and if they stop eating this then it causes them pain in the chest and stomach.

Views on HIV/AIDS

We all know about AIDS and have heard about it. Mostly in Dili people go and see pornographic material and visit the bars and prostitutes and can get AIDS.

Some Timorese have come back from different countries and may also bring back AIDS.

We are not taught in schools that you can get AIDS from blood transfusions, using infected needles and that it can be passed from mother to baby.

Views about witchcraft and magic

I have personally experienced witchcraft, I refused to give something to some people and they came in the night in the form of spirits, they came to embrace me and I was aware of them, I could see the person but I was too scared.

Once on an excursion, students were sitting and playing with some stones, but one of the stone had an evil spirit and this caused the student to have an accident and he died.

The discussion provided insights into the students' views on traditional and cultural aspects of their lives.

Photo for Figure 4

Figure 4: Meeting with a local village elder

The Indonesians built a lot of infrastructure, carried out development of roads, schools and health centres for the purpose of integration. Due to establishment of many schools, many more students graduated from senior high school compared to when the Portuguese were here. The Indonesians did not manage to win the heart of the Timorese people. Education gives rise to social, racial and political feelings and this works for resistance.

The period from 1984-1994 was one of political tensions. Ordinary people were caught in the middle. Many young Timorese both male and female were arrested. You were also not allowed to speak Portuguese. In November 1992, there was a massacre of Timorese students, especially those who had pro-independence inclinations but the resistance continued.

Although we are now free there is still mistrust and conflict and our goal must be national unity and reconciliation.

The quotes provided above portray the reality of life for the common people in East Timor and the day to day difficulties they face. The quotes also brought to light that teachers' and students' knowledge and experiences had an impact on the education reconstruction process. This study has tried to highlight the constraints faced by teachers, students, educators and administrators involved in education reconstruction in East Timor

Recommendations from the study

It must be acknowledged that East Timorese teachers, school administrators, educators and students at all levels are motivated and enthusiastic. They live and work in difficult conditions, have limited pedagogical knowledge and training, especially in modern methods of teaching, but try to do their best. The challenge lies in the Ministry of Education's ability to respond to these constraints. I have proposed 5 recommendations with particular reference to language, improving teacher quality, curriculum, practical science and a model for school improvement.

Recommendation 1  Resolve the dilemma of national language

It is important for the government to devise a strategy to put a mechanism in place so that teachers can teach in Portuguese. Most teachers in the country lack the competency in reading, writing and speaking to effectively teach the language to the students. Currently schools are still teaching in Bahasa or Tetum or in both languages. The textbooks used in most schools are from Indonesia and books from Portugal have been donated to most primary schools. It will be important to clear the confusion that currently exists with respect to language.

Recommendation 2 Improve the quality of teachers and provide better remuneration

There is no doubt that teachers form the backbone of an effective education system. The Ministry of Education will have to put in place a plan of action so that teachers not only have professional development sessions but also work towards certification and this can be ongoing during the course of the academic year or intensive during the holidays. Most of the teachers in secondary schools are undergraduate students and many have not undergone any professional teacher training. The process of certification and upgrading of skills may have to be deemed compulsory for the first 3 years, and only then can the government assure the quality of its primary and secondary teachers. There are not enough teachers to meet the needs of early childhood, primary, secondary and tertiary education. The challenge lies in re-organising teacher training structures and the creation of a higher pedagogical institute and improving remuneration.

Recommendation 3 Provide a contextually relevant curriculum

I was informed by a senior education personnel that the new curriculum for East Timor is being designed by a Brazilian team and hopefully this curriculum will be ready for the academic year due to start in October. The curriculum, especially subjects like science, history, geography, needs to be relevant to the East Timor context, otherwise it will be an adaptation of a foreign curriculum and may not have local contextual relevance. East Timor needs to develop a curriculum that is authentic, contextually relevant and affordable.

Recommendation 4 Provide a framework for sustainable practical science that is locally relevant

Sustainable practical science will take into account existing school and physical conditions (electricity, water supply, quality of pupils, ventilation, floor space) and limited financial resources. It is possible to provide a core set of science education material to schools. It would be advantag eous to look at science micro-kits from South Africa that were used in the disadvantaged Eastern Cape province of South Africa. Teachers will need time and training to familiarise themselves with equipment, maintenance and practical demonstrations. Decisions about use should allow a degree of flexibility and adaptation to suit a particular school's condition. Consumable materials for science must be obtained locally using local teacher knowledge.

Recommendation 5 Propose a model for school improvement through improved leadership and ongoing teacher professional development

Effective school change and school improvement does not take place in a short period of time, it is an ongoing process that is achieved over a period of time and takes place only when ongoing teacher development is carried out during the course of the entire academic year, along with leadership training for school administrators or principals. Can such a model be put in place on a small scale in three schools (one primary, one junior secondary and one secondary) over a period of two years to see if it will succeed?


There are no easy answers to the overwhelming problems facing education reconstruction in East Timor but meeting and talking to the teachers and students has given me another lesson in resilience, endurance, hope and that people in transitional societies want to succeed against all odds.


AUSAID (2001). Country report on East Timor. The Australian Agency for International Development, Canberra, Australia.

Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (2000). Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed). California: Sage Publishers.

Erickson, F. (1998). Qualitative research methods for science education. In B. J. Fraser & K.G. Tobin (Eds), Socio-cultural perspectives on science education. Dordecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer.

Oginniyi, M. (1986). Two decades of science education in Africa. Science Education, 70(2), 111-112.

Punch, K. (1998). Mixed methods and evaluative criteria, Introduction to social research. London: Sage publications.

UNDP (2002). East Timor Human Development report 2002, The way ahead. The United Nations Development Programme in East Timor, Dili, East Timor.

UNICEF (2001). Country report for East Timor. The United Nations Children's' Emergency Fund, Dili, East Timor.

Vlaardingerbroek, B. (1998). Challenges to reform: Botswana junior secondary school science teachers' perceptions of the development functions of science education. International Journal of Educational Reform, 7(3), 264-270.


I would like to thank Br. Mark Paul (Director) and Brenda Keenan (International Staffing Coordinator) for being supportive of this study and allowing me the use of the facilities of the Catholic Teacher Training College, Baucau, East Timor.

The study was made possible due to a seeding grant from the Research Unit for the Study of Societies in Change (RUSSIC), Division of Humanities, Curtin University of Technology.

Author: Jaya Earnest PhD, an educator and sociologist, is currently a Research Associate at the Research Unit for the Study of Societies in Change (RUSSIC) and the Migration, Ethnicity, Refugees and Citizenship Research Unit (MERC) at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia. Her research interest lies in education policy and reconstruction in volatile transitional societies. This interest is a result of working in countries where education systems were being rebuilt after years of political instability. For fifteen years, she has worked in India, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Australia.

Dr Jaya Earnest, Research Fellow/Associate Lecturer
Research Unit for the Study of Societies in Change
Migration, Ethnicity, Refugees and Citizenship Research Unit
Division of Humanities
Curtin University of Technology
GPO Box U1987, Perth WA 6845, AUSTRALIA
Email: J.Earnest@exchange.curtin.edu.au

Please cite as: Earnest, J. (2003). Education reconstruction in a transitional society: The case of East Timor. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2003.

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