Indonesians are required to attend nine years of school. They can choose between state-run, nonsectarian public schools supervised by the Department of National Education (Depdiknas) or private or semiprivate religious (usually Islamic) schools supervised and financed by the Department of Religious Affairs. However, although 86.1 percent of the Indonesian population is registered as Muslim, according to the 2000 census only 15 percent of school-age individuals attended religious schools. Overall enrollment figures are slightly higher for girls than boys and much higher in Java than the rest of Indonesia. [Library of Congress *]

After completion of the six-year primary-school program, three years of junior secondary school may be followed by three years of senior secondary school; or students can choose among a variety of vocational and pre-professional junior and senior secondary schools, each level of which requires three years of study. After secondary school, students may choose either three years of postsecondary vocational and pre-professional schools or three years of high school. There are academic and vocational junior high schools that lead to senior-level diplomas. There are also “domestic science” junior high schools for girls. At the senior high school level, three-year agricultural, veterinary, and forestry schools are open to students who have graduated from an academic junior high school. Special schools at the junior and senior levels teach hotel management, legal clerking, plastic arts, and music. *

The completion rate for Indonesian primary schools is excellent. Indeed, 100 percent of the relevant age-group had completed primary education as of 2003, according to World Bank data. The gross enrollment rate for primary schools was 100 percent, but it decreased to 62 percent for secondary schools and 16 percent for postsecondary schools. There were nearly equal numbers of girls and boys in primary and secondary schools; in the late 2000s, the ratio was 96.7 girls to 100 boys. Depdiknas reported that in school year 2007–8 there were 63,444 kindergartens, with a total enrollment of 2.8 million pupils and 176,061 teachers. Later statistics are available for primary and secondary levels for school year 2008–9. They indicate that there were 144,228 primary schools, with a total enrollment of 26.9 million students and 1.5 million teachers; 28,777 junior secondary schools, with a total enrollment of 8.9 million students and 629,036 teachers; 10,762 general senior secondary schools, with a total enrollment of 3.8 million students and 314,389 teachers; and 7,592 vocational senior secondary schools, with a total enrollment of 3 million students and 246,018 teachers. Additionally, there were 1,686 special education schools from kindergarten to senior secondary levels, with a total enrollment of 73,322 and 18,047 teachers. *

There are many private schools in Indonesia, many of them are run through mosques and churches. Private Muslim and Christian elementary and secondary schools, universities and institutes, which are found in major cities and the countryside, combine secular subjects and religious education. With the exception of some Muslim schools, private schools are generally too expensive for ordinary Indonesians and only members of the elite and middle class attend them.

School Life in Indonesia

Most school children in Indonesian wear uniforms. The school year begins in July. Children attend classes from 7:00am to 12:30 and from 1:00pm to 5:30pm. There are school fees and fees for uniforms and books. Many ordinary Indonesians find the school fees to be a burden. Many look nostalgically back to the Suharto era when school fees were lower.

In the morning children of various ages in differnet kinds of uniforms can be seen walking on the sides of roads to school. Families that can afford it pay about 10 cents a day so their chidlren can take public transportation. Policemen and soldiers sometimes askers motorcyclists to dismount from the vehicles in front of schools where students are taking spelling tests.

A style of pedagogy prevails inside public-school classrooms that emphasizes rote learning and deference to the authority of the teacher. Although the youngest children are sometimes allowed to use the local language, by the third year of primary school nearly all instruction is conducted in Bahasa Indonesia. Teachers customarily do not ask questions of individual students; rather, a standard teaching technique is to narrate a historical event or to describe a mathematical problem, pausing at key junctures to allow the students to call out responses that “fill in the blanks.” By not identifying individual problems of students and retaining an emotionally distanced demeanor, teachers are said to show themselves to be sabar (patient), which is considered admirable behavior. [Source: Library of Congress]

On why chose a particular school for his first grade son, Aryan Pramudito told the Jakarta Post he enrolled his son at Tara Salvia elementary school in Tangerang, Banten because the school not only tested the ability of would-be pupils to read and write but also tested their psychological condition. “The most important thing in why I enrolled my son here [Tara Salvia school] is that there have been no bullying cases here,” he said, adding that he wanted to enroll his son in a school where he did not need to worry about him. [Source: Suherdjoko, The Jakarta Post, July 15 2014 ]

First Day of School in Indonesia

Suherdjoko wrote in The Jakarta Post, “The long school holiday has finished and children across the country welcomed their first day at school with enthusiasm that surprised even their own parents. Nadia Dirna, a pupil at SD Grogol Utara 03 Pagi state elementary school in South Jakarta, said on Monday she was excited to return to school. She is in sixth grade and was happy to have her favorite teacher, Ibu Ina, from her fifth grade class teach her again. “She said the holiday was too long. She is a diligent student. That’s why she is really excited [to start her new class] today,” Nadia’s mother, Kartika Wulan, told The Jakarta Post. Like Nadia, Neta Agustin, a fifth grader at the same school, said she was also excited to resume classes because she had missed her friends. “I love spending time with them,” she said. [Source: Suherdjoko, The Jakarta Post, July 15 2014 ]

“Second grader Ekaputra, 8, woke up without being prompted by his mother, Dini Wulandari, 39, on Monday. “He is fasting and he woke up early for sahur. I was surprised that he promptly woke up. It is usually hard to wake him up,” Dini said. Dini said her son had also packed his schoolbag without being nagged. She took him to his school in Bintaro, South Tangerang, but her son said he would be fine if she wanted to go to work and leave him. “Last year, on his first day at school, a bit shyly, he asked me to stay around a while,” Dini said. Preschoolers apparently shared the joy of their seniors. Ismail Soleh was happy to go to Tunas Muda X IKKT preschool in Kebon Jeruk, West Jakarta. Ismail’s mother, Ningsih, said that she found it easy to wake up her 4-year-old son. Ningsih said she chose the preschool because of its proximity to her house.

“On the first day, schools across the archipelago generally filled their student orientation courses with interesting activities. Sedes Sapientiae senior high school in Semarang, Central Java, for example, required its new students to make bags from cardboard boxes and hats from plastic balls. The students have to wear the accessories during orientation week. “I asked my father to help me make my bag and hat,” said Kidung, a new student at Sedes school. Unlike Sedes Sapientiae senior high school, Maria Goretti junior high school required its new students to make hats from plaited bamboo. “I have to put a label on my hat. I also have to tie my hair in pigtails using red and white ribbons,” said Bening, a new student at Maria Goretti. While the two schools required their students to wear unique accessories, SMK 1 state vocational high school in Kendal, Central Java, invited its best alumni to meet its new students during student orientation week. By presenting its best alumni, the school aimed to motivate its new students to make similar achievements.”

Poor State of Indonesia’s Schools

In the government education system, generally, quantity has prevailed over quality. Facilities remain poorly equipped and salaries remain so low that many teachers must take additional jobs to support their families. Only 51 percent of Indonesian teachers have the right qualifications to teach and at any given time one-third of teachers are absent because of illness or legitimate leave. Only a third of Indonesian students — in a country where 57 million attend school — complete basic schooling and the education system is plagued by poor teaching and corruption.

Al-Jazeera reported: “Indonesian educators and commentators have slammed the country's school system for placing more emphasis on rote learning than creative thinking. A culture of teaching anchored in obedience as well as a rigid approach to religious studies and assigned reading have been described as major problems.Education experts say less than half of the country's teachers possess even the minimum qualifications to teach properly and teacher absenteeism hovers at around 20 percent. Many teachers in the public school system work outside of the classroom to improve their incomes. [Source: Al-Jazeera, February 22, 2013 ~]

“Corruption is also rife within schools and universities — with parents often having to pay bribes for their children to pass examinations or pay for services that should be provided by the state. Indonesian Corruption Watch claims there are very few schools in the country that are clean of graft, bribery or embezzlement — with 40 percent of their budget siphoned off before it reaches the classroom. Meanwhile, millions of dollars in foreign aid is poured into the country's education system despite the government spending only a very small proportion of its GDP on schooling. And some international observers are asking why Indonesia still relies on external funding for school construction given that it has been listed as a middle income country by the World Bank. ~

“Responding to its critics, the Indonesian government is introducing a new curriculum in an effort to simplify education, slash drop-out rates and produce more PhDs. One of the government's most controversial proposals has been to abolish or postpone the teaching of science, geography and English in elementary schools and to instead introduce compulsory subjects that promote national identity and patriotic values. Many educators are concerned that this could push Indonesia back to the Stone Age in a rapidly globalising world. They argue that a child's early years are the time to provide them with a more formative education using critical thinking, especially considering the high drop-out rates after primary school. But the government has defended the changes to the curriculum by arguing that they are trying to simplify a school system that has been criticised for overwhelming elementary students with too many subjects. ~

Corruption in Indonesian Schools

Bribes are routinely paid to teachers and principals in part because their salaries are so low, but that just the tip of the iceberg in regards to corruption in education in Indonesia. According to Voice of America: A report by Ade Wirawan of Indonesian Corruption Watch “on corruption in schools says that graft in the education system goes far beyond the problem of students bribing teachers for passing grades on exams. It’s systematic. “Corruption takes a lot of different shapes. For the parents, it’s pure extortion. For example, if so-and-so’s parents don’t give money, he won’t receive his school certificate,” Ade noted. Ade says that everyone in a position of authority gets their share of bribe money. Professors accept so-called gifts to whisper exam answers to students; the school’s administration demands a fee for services already paid for by the Department of Education. [Source: VOA News, July 19, 2011 \~/]

“But schools also have ways of inflating their bills to bilk more money from the state. Ade says that schools inflate the prices of purchases for equipment and services by two or three times. He says that in some ways, this corruption is necessary to survive in a system that demands such illicit payments from everyone. “But we’ve also discovered that the schools themselves are victims of extortion from the state administration. Sometimes it’s voluntary, for example they’ll pay in order to make sure that the school principal’s job is safe, that he will not be sent far away," Ade noted. "But sometimes it’s also extortion: the school doesn’t want to pay but it’s forced to. You want to have a permit to build or repair a classroom? You have to pay. And that explains why most Indonesians schools are in such state of disrepair.” \~/

“Efrida, a mother of three who, says she first suspected corruption in her kids’ school when the administration asked parents to pay for registration fees — something that should be covered by the government. She says the school’s principal refused to answer her questions about why the money was needed. Ade Wirawan from ICW estimates that 40 to 50 percent of the education budget disappears before it reaches the children. That is a big loss for the country. The World Bank says that the lack of a properly educated workforce in Indonesia remains a major obstacle to faster economic growth.”\~/

Combating Corruption in Indonesian Schools

In 2011, the Voice of America reported: “Widi Wiramotko is an angry woman. The petite mother of three clutches a thick file that, she says, contains proof of how rotten her children’s school is: the documents show the school requires parents to pay for services already financed by the state. Widi explains that she got the documents when she served as a representative of parents on a school committee. The committee refused to sign off on the administration’s proposed budget because they suspected wrongdoings. As a result, all parents were kicked out of the committee and, she says, her son was harassed by the administration.[Source: VOA News, July 19, 2011 \~/]

“Widi and a dozen other parents have joined forces to bring cases of corruption to the courts. They are helped by Indonesian Corruption Watch or ICW, the country’s leading independent organization that targets graft. Ade Wirawan is a researcher at ICW who has been studying corruption in schools. “In Indonesia, it’s very hard to find a clean school, and very easy to find a corrupt one. One of my contacts who is a school principal even told me that there is not one school in the whole country that is not corrupt,” Ade said. \~/

“For parents such as Sulaeman, it is also a question of morals. Sulaeman asks if one teacher is corrupt, what does his behavior teach his 30 pupils? And what type of citizens will the education system produce? Analysts say the government still needs to make massive changes to its system so that parents can refuse to pay unlawful fees and schools can say no to greedy administrators. Until then, they say, tough lessons in corruption will continue to be a part of schools’ unofficial curriculum.” \~/

Problem with English Teaching in Indonesia

Seven out of ten people in Indonesia questioned by the Jakarta Post said their English classes at school were boring and did not help them later in life. Sari P. Setiogi wrote in the Jakarta Post, “While English is taught at most elementary school, some parents try to give their children a head start by encouraging them to master the basics — numbers, familiar objects and the like — before enrolling them in international kindergartens. For the majority of students though, learning English is a tough task, and one that they readily complain about. "Er... I learned English, yes, but I don't feel confident. I feel weird every time I try to speak English,” said Toto, a graduate of a private university in Jakarta. [Source: Sari P. Setiogi, Jakarta Post, August 30 2004 ^/^]

“Toto blamed his high school English teacher for failing to encourage him. He likened his teacher to a robot. “He said the same sentences every time he entered the classroom,” Toto recalled. “Open your textbook. Read the text. Good — those were the words that came out of his mouth.” An English teaching expert said Toto's experience was quite common here. “English classes in the country are considered rather boring, certainly they don't inspire a love of the language,” said Arief Rachman at a seminar held by the Indonesian International Education Foundation (IIEF) recently. ^/^

“IIEF organizes English tests for applicants for scholarships to study at overseas universities or attend fellowship programs abroad. Arief, who was also executive chairman of UNESCO's Indonesian National Committee, said about 80 percent of English teachers here taught in an authoritarian way. When it came to textbooks, Arief said, they were dry and lacked material that was relevant to daily life. ^/^

“Participation is the best way in which to stimulate children who are studying English, Arief said. “Maybe we should learn from kindergartens,” he said. “The learning process should be made fun and interesting for students. More activities such as a role-play and games, and the use of computers, would surely make learning fun.” Students should aim to master reading, speaking, audio-lingual and written skills, according to Arief, who hosted an English program on television station TVRI in the 1980s. “On average, Indonesian students' (English) reading ability is about 70 percent, listening 80 percent, speaking 5 to 10 percent and writing 3 percent,” said Arief. ^/^

“He said only about 40 percent of English teachers in the country could really communicate in English. “Our English teachers may understand theory, but they do not know how to use the language,” said Arief. Separately, director of the IIEF Irid Agoes told The Jakarta Post that no trainer of high school English teachers she observed exceed the standard score of 500 in their Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). “If the trainers are of that standard, can you imagine the skill of the teachers they train,” she said. Irid said writing was not a habit among most Indonesians, including lecturers. “Why? Because they are afraid of making mistakes,” said Irid. Cultural factors also prevent some Indonesians from speaking English. “Some people think that speaking English is too Western,” said Irid. “In fact, their fear (of being too Western) causes them to miss out on the opportunities that a good grasp of English would bring.” ^/^

U.S. Aid Helps to Liven Up Indonesian Classrooms

Reporting from Wlingi, Java, Jane Perlez wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “In the first- grade classroom of Wening Sripeni, a diminutive teacher in head scarf and neck-to-ankle garment, the 6-year- olds bubble over with answers, a show of hands at every question about who's who in an Indonesian family. "That's Grandpa," said a voice from the back. What does he like to do? "He likes to read," says another. Who is this? Sirpeni asks, pointing to a baby with a book in a bathtub. There were a lot of giggles at the juxtaposition of a baby and a book. "So you can see the baby likes to do the same thing as Grandpa," Sirpeni says. "Reading is very important." Such back and forth, especially with mirth, is unusual in Indonesia's schools, where rows of desks, a blackboard and chalk, and a stern teacher dispensing strict discipline are the norm. [Source: Jane Perlez, International Herald Tribune, August 7, 2006 ]

“The elementary school, tucked among the emerald-green rice fields here in Java, is participating in a drive by the United States to energize primary education in 1,000 schools and eventually more than 2,500 schools. Fortified by the belief that lively lessons, engaged teachers and interested parents can promote tolerance and crimp extremist Islamic views, the Bush administration has made education in Muslim countries a major focus of the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID.

“The effort in Indonesia is different from elsewhere, American officials said. The money is spent chiefly on training, not bricks and mortar, an approach that can be at once more helpful and less prone to corruption. Also on the American agenda here: an anti-corruption measure that shows school administrators how to make budgets that parents can understand, and displaying them publicly at the school. Nearly $9 million has been set aside for creating a version of "Sesame Street" with Indonesian characters and situations. It is scheduled to debut next year.

“President George W. Bush personally announced the $157 million, five- year education program during a visit to Bali in 2003, a pledge that faced initial skepticism over the possibility of U.S. meddling in Indonesia's schools, and a slow grind within a famously corrupt education bureaucracy over how the money would be spent.At the outset, the very schools that the United States were most concerned about, the privately run religious schools that teach about 20 percent of the students, were declared off limits. As well, the government insisted that the curriculum was not to be meddled with.

“But the government has allowed the American training in state-run religious schools like the Tegalasri madrassa, which receives funds from the Education Ministry as well as the Religious Affairs Department. For the first time, the madrassa that teaches children from an especially poor farming community about six miles from Sripeni's school got top scores on the national exam, said Syaiful Ridwan, the principal. Enrollment at the madrassa is now increasing, he said, as parents hear about the results.”

Turning a School Around in Indonesia

Jane Perlez wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “The American help was not the only factor for the turnaround. Yes, the teachers had acquired a greater variety of teaching skills by attending training courses. But now, Ridwan said, teachers were motivated by better salaries. Extra money from the national government had allowed him to increase the lowest salaries — an astoundingly little $15 a month — to $30 a month. Lesson materials were sparse at the madrassa, and it was a struggle to pay the extra electricity bill to operate five computers for one hour daily. [Source: Jane Perlez, International Herald Tribune, August 7, 2006 ]

“In first grade, Dwi Ernawati, a new young teacher, struggled to keep the attention of students who, working in groups of four and five, were supposed to make simple sentences by gluing tiny letters to a piece of paper. Two elderly men, grandparents of two of the first-graders, stood at the back of the class as parent helpers, but were too old and too uneducated to be of assistance. In contrast, Sripeni's classroom in an economically better-off part of the school district, and where the Religious Affairs Department is not involved in the school, two young mothers were on hand. They efficiently passed around paper and kept an eye on the rowdy ones.

“To organize the training of the Indonesian teachers, USAID hired a Washington consulting firm, Research Triangle Institute, which specializes in running American government education programs abroad. The company hired an American with Indonesian experience to run the teacher training, and he in turn hired a small army of Indonesian educators in the provinces to run the training workshops. The training manuals deal with such basics as how to organize a classroom — in small, friendly groups of tables rather than rows — how to stimulate classroom discussion, how to encourage practical work.

“Sripeni, a 17-year veteran teacher who seemed to have a special vitality all her own, said she liked the ideas sprinkled through the manuals. Her classroom had no blackboard. Instead she had arranged a pastiche of posters: a chart of the professions of the parents, a list of the five religions of Indonesia, the praying times for Muslims, the class attendance record, the "magic tree" of family connections. "The children are very creative," Sripeni said. "I'm just reacting to their demands. Now their development is very fast. It used to take a long time to get the children to read one sentence. Now they can read a page quite quickly."

“The final test of whether the $157 million has been well invested, educators say, will be the endurance of the training, whether the new ideas will last beyond the five years of the American grant. Once the grant is spent, local educators are supposed to be familiar enough with the techniques to continue themselves. Whether that will happen is still open to question.”

Dangers of Going to School in a Sumatran Jungle

Some Indonesian kids have navigate across dangerous jungles rivers with giant barges, invisible logs, tricky currents, crocodiles and poisonous snakes to get to school. Reporting from Teluk Meranti, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “They're equatorial Huckleberry Finns, two wild-hearted boys guiding an old wooden fishing boat along a wide and mighty river. Fandi and Alfan, brothers with one name each, live in a remote village in the heart of the Sumatran jungle, at once a protected and dangerous place to be a child. Most mornings they rise before their rooster crows, bolting down a meager breakfast of coconut and chile-spiced vegetables over rice before venturing out on their journey: rowing to school aboard a hand-carved 15-foot sampan. Barely 12, with large brown eyes and stick-like arms, Fandi is 3 years older than his brother — in his eyes almost a man. "I am older," he said sternly. "I do more rowing. But sometimes the work is hard, especially when the current is strong." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2009 ]

“Here on the vast Kampar peninsula, a land carpeted with dense forests and veined by unpredictable rivers, many isolated communities without their own schools or road access must send children such as Fandi and Alfan out onto the busy river highway. The boys' father, a farmer too busy growing rice to shepherd them to school, offers his sons advice: Row hard and watch for danger.Along the muddy-brown Kampar River, there are no kindly school crossing guards, no lumbering yellow buses, no lines of parents jockeying for parking space to deposit their little ones, with last-minute reminders of forgotten books and raincoats. On their hourlong row, the boys negotiate a two-mile commute along a river teeming with giant barges, invisible logs and islands of floating water hyacinth to tangle their oars. Worse is the dreaded bono, a rogue wall of water that rumbles up from the nearby ocean, overturning boats and claiming victims.

“The currents are fickle and the boys often must wait an hour after school to catch the right conditions to head home. One day, villagers crowded around a large net that some fishermen had dragged out of the water. They had caught a 20-foot python. For the smallest boys who must negotiate the river each day, the snake was like a monster from the deep. "Sometimes, I'm scared," said Megi, an 8-year-old friend of Alfan's who makes a similar trip to another village. "I'm just a boy." Local officials are practical about such perils. Forest children, they say, must grow up fast. "It's dangerous," said Ali Mursidin, an official in Teluk Meranti, a town of 2,500 people. "But this is our life here. Children must live it the way it is."

“Teluk Meranti's four schools serve children ages 5 to 18. Many live in the town and walk or ride motorbikes to school. But scores of others from surrounding villages must negotiate the river. That frightens some teachers. "I worry about them," said Mardiana, who, like the brothers, goes by one name. "Many are so small. The boats are unstable." Marzuki Effendi, a sociology teacher here, said he and his brother rowed to school for years. Twice they were struck by bono waves, which upended their boat and swallowed their belongings. Effendi laughed as he recalled having to tell his teacher that he lost his homework in the river. "They understood, just like I do," he said. "Teachers know for many students there is no other way to get to school."

“Students have been riding the Kampar River for half a century, since the first school was built in the area in the 1960s. Back then, many trips took two hours each way. Eventually, more schools were built, cutting travel times. A few years ago, officials built a jungle road that will soon make the school boats obsolete, giving children the option of walking or riding motorcycles to school. But a major bridge connecting Teluk Meranti with other villages has yet to be finished. The delay doesn't bother Fandi and Alfan. For them, the Kampar River is their local street corner, a place where they play and test themselves, becoming excellent swimmers.”

Paddling to School in the Sumatran Jungle

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “On a recent day, still dressed in his school uniform — pink plaid shorts and matching tie — Fandi launched his sampan from a sagging dock with rotting boards. After school, he had picked up a plastic jug of kerosene for his mother, which he stowed along with his green backpack. On many days, the boys pass boatloads of girls wearing traditional Islamic head scarves, four to each craft, who drift slowly along the river, taking turns at the helm on their own long row home.His gaze focused, Fandi stood for better leverage, extending two long oars into the water. The handles crossed at his chest, he pushed outward, propelling the boat forward, lifting the oars from the water as he felt it surge forward. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2009 ]

“Along the way, the brothers often talk about their day or the games they play at home. But when the rowing gets tough, the boat goes silent. They try to stay near shore but often have to venture out into the open river where the currents are stronger. A weary Fandi sometimes hands the oars over to his brother. Secretly, Alfan would like to row more, but he knows his place. Yet when the need arises, he said, "I'm ready." Sometimes, when his older brother is running late, Alfan leaves school without him, knowing his brother will catch a ride with someone. The younger boy takes the sturdy little boat by himself and rows alongside a friend, like a kid trying out a new bike in the neighborhood without supervision.

“Many days, the boys arrive at school tired and sweaty after a hard row. But on this afternoon, even with the temperature in the 90s and the humidity stifling, the river was easygoing for the return journey. The boat was mirrored in the calm waters. Even when the new bridge is finished, Fandi said, he isn't sure he wants to give up his daily row. The trip is quicker on water. The river is what he knows. The boat pushed on, carrying these two river boys back home. Today, at least, there would be no lighting out for the territory.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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