Indonesia's Battle to Improve Schools


Indonesia's pursuit of educational excellence through an ambitious pilot project on schools of international standard appears to have hit a roadblock.

The Constitutional Court has told the government to abandon the project before the start of the new school year in July. The experiment was deemed "unconstitutional" as it was beyond the reach of less well-off Indonesians who are denied access to quality education.

There is uncertainty as students worry about coping with the change in status, while the Education Ministry balks at the idea of dissolving more than 1,300 such schools across the country after it has invested billions of rupiah on their development.

The court struck down an Article in the 2003 Law on national education that obliges the government and the regional administration to set up at least one pioneer school for development into a school of international standard, or Rintisan Sekolah Berstandar Internasional (RSBI), after some years, and a full-fledged international standard school, or Sekolah Berstandar Internasional (SBI), at every district or municipality.

The court, known as MK, issued the ruling in response to a judicial review filed in December 2011 by the Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW) and education activists, who claimed that the clause influences "the commercialization of the education sector by allowing such schools to freely charge students under the guise of improving the quality of teaching."

"Article 50, paragraph 3 of the 2003 Law on the National Education System violates the 1945 Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia," said Constitutional Court Chief Justice Mahfud MD in the verdict's reading on Jan. 8.

Article 50 had been the legal basis for such schools which would serve as models for other government schools to emulate.

With the liberalization of education, the private sector also set up its own international-standard schools with a curriculum different from that of the regular state schools. Many of these schools emerged as top schools in their respective districts and are sought after because of their better performance in national examinations.

Parents find the RSBI and SBI schools attractive as they are allowed to adopt a curriculum based on integration of the national curriculum and those of their foreign counterparts, to use English as a key language of instruction and to have smaller class sizes.

The schools receive annual block grants and are allowed to charge higher monthly fees for the better facilities provided.

But they have drawn criticism for being elitist as the schools are accessible only to children of the rich and the middle class because poor Indonesians cannot afford the high monthly fees.

The schools are also vulnerable to corruption because of the various fees imposed on parents wanting to get their children enrolled. There is suspicion that in some schools, money from the higher fees could have been diverted elsewhere instead of being used to improve infrastructure and the quality of education.

The court's verdict was exuberantly welcomed nationwide by those wanting to shut down the schools.

But the Education Ministry remains unconvinced that the project should be disbanded because of the investment it has made and the possible disruption students would face if they became regular state schools.

Education Minister Muhammad Nuh said, "The Article embodies the spirit of reform. In building the nation, we need high-quality human resources coming from top schools. During the law's deliberation, the lawmakers agreed that top schools refer to international-standard schools."

The judicial review was filed during the controversy surrounding the schools since their inception almost a decade ago.

First, critics have pointed to the schools' character. They claim the system is elitist because the schools take in children from rich families who can afford the fees.

This has become contentious because in principle, all citizens have the right to quality state education. The international-standard schools are seen as discriminating against the poor. The project also widens the social gaps among students who are now divided between schools of national and international standards.

Second, the suit was taken because of the prevailing nationalist sentiment over the schools having a different identity because of the wider use of English. Critics see this as a violation of Indonesia's language policy where Bahasa Indonesia should be the medium of instruction.

"RSBIs or SBIs intentionally neglect the role of Bahasa Indonesia; this is against Article 36 of the 1945 Constitution specifying that the national language is Bahasa Indonesia," said Justice Akil Mochtar of the Constitutional Court.

With the impending closure of the schools, the Education Ministry would have to take measures that would be the least disruptive to the students, perhaps by re-designating the schools as independent schools.

In this way, the schools could draft their own curriculum to be closer to the national ones but could still incorporate some of the foreign programs.

Some provision can also be made to allow for using English, a language seen as having an economic value that would benefit students themselves.

The wider use of English does not mean students would be less nationalistic but, instead, should be seen as an opportunity for students to acquire better proficiency.

As efforts are made to retain the international-standard school as the top school in the district, some form of scholarships should be offered to help the poor enroll so that the schools would not appear to be only for the rich.

The judicial review may have upset the government's pursuit of educational excellence. But it should not stop its efforts to seek improvement in the school system, ranging from providing better infrastructure to training teachers to upgrade their skills.

Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times

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