Schools for Asia - Stories from the field

Ermera, Timor-Leste
UNICEF/Timor Leste/Soares
18 August 2020

Providing children in remote areas with the best chance at education

The sound of singing children carries on the warm midday breeze. The students are belting out a Tetun-language rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” as they wrap up their first training session on their way to becoming young facilitators of the new School Readiness Project.

The project is being piloted here at EBF No. 680 Hatulailete school, in the remote village of Urahou 2, Ermera municipality. The road to get here is oftentimes narrow, and always bumpy and winding. But to reach this aldeia (hamlet) is to reach a place full of blooming bougainvillea, dotted with carefully constructed houses and home to dozens of children, many of whom are students at EBF No.680 Hatulailete.

Beautiful photographs of smiling students adorn some walls of the school, while brightly coloured artworks hang on others. There are outdoor handwashing basins big enough to accommodate 20 or more students at a time, tiled bathrooms with facilities for the disabled, and a huge rolling green field where the children can run around freely.

Today, however, is dedicated to training the 20 young facilitators and 25 family members who will support the school’s preschool-aged children as they transition to Grade 1, as well as current Grade 1 students. The young facilitators range in age from 11 to 13 and are in Grades 5 and 6. They are being trained in how to teach children aged 3–6 on basic numeracy, literacy, colours, shapes, and actions through play.

Supported by UNICEF and the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport, the School Readiness Project aims to prepare students who are entering Grade 1, especially those who may not have had the opportunity to attend preschool and those who are repeating the grade.

Nilton, 12, is in Grade 6 and is a newly trained young facilitator. “It’s exciting to know I’m going to be teaching the younger kids,” he says. “It’s good to teach children, because it will make them better in school and help them to read and write, and to keep studying longer.”

“Our trainer was good, and the teachers helped us, too,” adds Izaun, a Grade 5 student and also a young facilitator. “I liked playing bingo, doing the puzzles, and dancing. I think the younger kids will love these things, too.”

These are simple activities that facilitate learning, but they are not common in rural Timor-Leste. Both Nilton and Izaun say they would like to be teachers when they grow up.

“The biggest obstacle in school is children finding Grade 1 difficult,” 

Jorge Manuel Mouzinho, the UNICEF consultant responsible for designing the training.

Sonia De Carvalho, a Grade 1 teacher, has been working at the school since 2006 and took part in the teacher-training session. “I now have the skills to teach children through play, which is different from what I have done before,” she explains. “I think these teaching methods will help us to create child-friendly learning environments, especially for those new to school. I also think these materials will help the children to learn things more quickly.”

Sonia is referring to the 12 learning aids that have been introduced during training, which include basic games such as puzzles, as well as flash cards, building blocks, and story books.

“The biggest obstacle in school is children finding Grade 1 difficult,” says Jorge Manuel Mouzinho, the UNICEF consultant responsible for designing the training. “These children have never had any experience in reading or writing. For some children, their parents have only ever taken them to the coffee plantation or the field. They are not familiar with being around teachers, or with colours or numbers, so the young facilitators are a great help to them.”

The School Readiness initiative targets not only young facilitators and teachers to support children transitioning into formal schooling – their parents and other family members have important roles to play as well.

“I want to do at home the things I learned in the training,” says Eusita da Cunha, who participated in the training session for caregivers. “My children are all grown up, but I have two grandchildren in preschool. They live nearby so when they come to visit me we can play together and I can apply my learning to them. It is important for them to start learning at home, because if they don’t, it will be difficult for them when they go to primary school.”

Nicolau Goveia Leite is School Coordinator at EBF No.680 Hatulailete, a position he has held for the past 13 years. During his tenure, he and his staff, with the support of UNICEF and the Ministry, have elevated the school to become one of the best of its kind in the country. “This school is an example to which other schools can look for inspiration,” says Cidalio Leite, Director-General of Preschool, Basic Education, and Recurrent Education. “This is due to its infrastructure, because it is well-managed, and, although it is in a rural area, it looks modern.

As confirmed by national data, the importance of preschool education cannot be underestimated. According to the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport, just 22 per cent of children in Timor-Leste are enrolled in preschool, while almost 24 per cent of students repeat the first grade. Statistics also show that 1 child in 40 drops out of primary school altogether, but the likelihood of this occurring is dramatically reduced when a child has attended preschool. With this initiative, it is hoped the numbers will soon start painting a different picture, one in which Sustainable Development Goal 4 – inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all – is achieved.