The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Thursday, July 02, 2009


Loving to learn: Mr Change Agent’s dream © Duncan Graham 2009

If job descriptions were written honestly, Dr Surya Dharma’s would read like this:

· Change Indonesian culture, with particular relevance to Java, so formal education is embraced as a life-long journey of learning, not something to be endured just to get a certificate for a job.
· Lift the status of teachers so the best and most incandescent school leavers compete to study education rather than business management.
· Turn Indonesian schools into humming, pulsing places where students clamor for entrance and thrive in a knowledge-rich, welcoming environment.

“I suppose I am a social engineer, and yes, it is a big task,” said Surya, catching breath during an international tour seeking the help of foreign governments, universities and schools to upgrade Indonesian education.

“I don’t know if it can be achieved in my lifetime (he’s 55 and looks robust enough) – but I hope so. We started this ten-year program in 2005 and so far it’s going well.”

Surya, the director of human resources in the Indonesian Education Ministry and chair of the ASEAN Leaders’ Roundtable Discussions, has the task of overseeing what amounts to an education revolution of massive proportions.

His qualifications make him ideal for the job of Mr Change Agent. He has a Masters degree in public policy and management from Pittsburgh University in the US, and a PhD in education policy and management from the same campus.

He has also had books published on academic achievement and performance management.

A career public servant he was handpicked for his present job after years in administration, policy and teaching.

Among Surya’s many responsibilities is doubling the salaries of the nation’s 2.7 million teachers to an average of Rp 5 million (US $500) a month, provided they upgrade their skills and attitudes.

This means they should then be able to concentrate on their day jobs without having to sizzle sate at roadside food stalls or sell mobile phone subs once classes are dismissed, just to put rice on the family table.

His task has been made easier by the truckloads of cash now being tipped into education. Under the Indonesian Constitution this is supposed to be 20 per cent of the national expenditure, a figure only reached in this year’s budget. Now there’s Rp 224 trillion (US $ 22 billion) available.

Surya and his colleagues have already been to China, Japan, Germany, Turkey, Singapore, Australia and Malaysia gleaning ideas and garnering support, and were heading to Korea after a brief stop in New Zealand.

On the Antipodean leg of his travels Surya was accompanied by two Jakarta State high school principals - Pono Fadlullah (School 70), and Harapan Situmorang (School 71).

They were invited to the NZ capital Wellington by the Indonesian ambassador Amris Hassan who has been pushing for better education ties between the two countries and particularly a memorandum of understanding. He’s also offered to pay for two top Kiwi teachers to visit Indonesia and pass on their skills.

“We have to improve the methodologies used by Indonesian teachers,” Surya said. “We want to create a new system that inspires all students so they really love to learn. We don’t want them to become bored and laze away their time in school.

“Many teachers will resist. These are the people who think that students are empty glasses into which they just pour some knowledge, little caring about the quality. Some even resort to corporal punishment. That cannot be tolerated

“Society is changing and so are standards. Teachers who meet the new expectations also have to be entrepreneurial.”

One of these new breed principals is the effervescent Pono who now gets Rp 10 million (US $1,000) a month for leading a school with 1,320 students. While in NZ he proved his worth by teaching two classes of Kiwi high school girls with skill and style, and was chuffed to learn his name in Maori translates as being true, valid and honest.

Despite his high status position in Indonesian society he had no worries about mixing it with the students at their level, singing Indonesian songs in a rich baritone and abandoning the traditional authoritarian teachers’ position behind a desk.

A major goal of the new Indonesian education policy is to have at least one high quality international school in every one of the nation’s 550 districts. Getting one computer in front of every 20 kids (the ratio is now one to 3,200) is another hope that can’t be done just by sending Bill Gates a handsome cheque.

What’s the point in having lots of laptops if there’s no electricity or Internet access, when classes are so big the teachers can’t recall names, and the first priority is to install enough toilets?

Another ambition is to have 30 per cent of school staff holding a masters degree from a certified university, and upgrade about 250,000 teachers a year. So far 600,000 have become super chalkies, and Surya is looking for international help to reach his goals by 2015.

“My message to other countries is this: Give us the opportunity to learn from your education systems and experience,” said Surya.

“The changes we’re trying to introduce have to start in the home with different attitudes towards education.

“Now we have decentralisation its up to parents to take a leading role in school management, and local government to select good principals and spend their budgets wisely. This carries some problems if regents, mayors and others appoint people for political reasons.”

Surya said that the standard parents’ complaints about education being too expensive had to be put into perspective. While primary schooling was free, costs like uniforms and transport had to be handled by local government, which should be working to eliminate disadvantage.

“In Indonesia there’s been a strong culture of authority in schools, as though the teacher knows everything. The students won’t challenge or ask questions for fear they might be considered ignorant.

“In western schools when the teacher asks for questions all the kids raise their hands.

“When I was studying in the US my daughter hated Fridays because that meant the weekend was approaching and she couldn’t attend school and see her teacher for two days.

“She looked forward to Mondays so she could get back to class. That’s a feeling I’d like all Indonesian students to enjoy.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 1 July 2009)