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

Wednesday, March 06, 2013


‘To get our kids to understand each other’

Last year Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced her Asian Century policy, which included the line: ’All schools will engage with at least one school in Asia to support the teaching of a priority Asian language.’
Fine ambition, tough assignment.  Duncan Graham reports on progress in Indonesia.

Despite her effervescence, teacher Vicki Richardson is surprisingly media shy.   “I’d never dream of approaching a journalist,” she said, “that’s just not me.”
Which is a pity because once cornered by The Jakarta Post in Surabaya the cultural coordinator for Perth’s Tranby College was delighted to tell a good news story about linking with the East Java capital’s  SMA Negeri 5 (State Senior High School 5).
The partnership started in 2009 when the two schools signed up to the Building Relationships through Intercultural Dialogue and Growing Engagement program, less clumsily known as BRIDGE.
The Indonesian section of the program, financed by the Australian government and the private Myer Foundation, has been the most successful with funding guaranteed till 2015.  However similar but more costly partnerships with China, South Korea and Thailand are reported to be floundering, with few contacts and the cash evaporating mid 2013. 
Started four years before Ms Gillard’s announcement the BRIDGE school partnerships ‘provide teachers and students with the opportunity to engage with peers in Asia’ through  face to face visits of teachers spending a week in an Australian school.

So far there have been 80 Indonesian engagements, though not all have survived, sometimes because the prime drivers, like Ms Richardson and her SMAN5 counterpart, Abdul Latif (left) retire or move on to other jobs. 
That seems to have been the case with Queensland’s Catholic Aquinas College that partnered with Islamic school Madrasah Aliyah Negeri 3 Malang in 2011. Teachers made visits but there have been no follow-up exchanges.
MAN3 has a new principal, Ahmad Hidayatullah.  “I’ve been occupied with other issues but the school still wants to be involved,” he said. “This is a high priority.”
Teacher Thohir Yoga, who has been to Australia, denied religious differences were the reason for the program stalling.  “We’re 200 per cent behind this and ready to go,” he said. “We have the money; we just haven’t had replies to our e-mails.”
They’re not the only ones.  An attempt to get Aquinas to comment for this story has also been unsuccessful.
There are more than 9,500 schools in Australia. The goal is for 512 teachers and 209 schools to be involved with the BRIDGE program by 2015. 
 “Little steps, little steps,” said Ms Richardson, a self-confessed ‘Indophile’ when questioned about the pace of progress during her tenth visit to Surabaya.  At the time she was on her annual leave.
 ‘It’s taken time for my school and colleagues to recognize the value of this program and the need to understand Indonesia. I deliberately wanted to be involved in Java, to extend knowledge beyond Bali, because Bali isn’t the whole country.
“All the Tranby and SMAN5 students have been involved with the exchanges for three years which is testimony to their ongoing friendships.  This is my personal aim, not sanitised visits and then forgotten.”

Last year Ms Richardson (right), who is fluent in Indonesian, was nominated for an Australian award recognizing her work in improving understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. 

Hampering her mission to help lift Australians’ understanding of the people next door is the reality that most high school students stop studying languages  two years before graduating to concentrate on topics like maths and science.  Official figures show less than six per cent of year 12 students are tackling an Asian language, and even fewer are studying Asia in other subjects, like economics, history and politics.
SMAN 5 was founded in 1957 and has more than 900 students.  It has established links with schools in Singapore, the US and Germany. Tranby is a fee-paying 1000-student college run by the Uniting Church in a middle class suburb of the Western Australian capital.
Although two SMAN5 students pulled out when they learned Australians keep dogs as pets, Mr Latif hasn’t had problems getting parents to pay up to Rp 13 million (US$ 1,400) for air fares to send a child to Tranby for a fortnight.  They stay free with host families who’ve taken a course on cultural differences, including warnings not to serve their visitors bacon. 
“This is a rich school,” Mr Latif said, “just take a look at the students’ cars in the park outside. There’s a waiting list.”  He realized the advantages of exchange programs several years ago while waiting at an airport and seeing scores of Japanese students heading for the US. 
“Why not Indonesia?” he thought – and set about finding ways to make the idea work.  He also has an infectious enthusiasm for exchange programs that must help sway the sceptical and dismissive.
“I never knew we had a neighbor so different,” said Zulino Rizky Hafiz, 17, one of the few boys who’ve been to Tranby. Most exchange students are girls.
“I appreciated the informality of teachers and students feeling free to ask for help, but I didn’t like the way teenage boys and girls get so close.”
Fajar Sartika, 17, who plans to enter medical school, already speaks high level English. She also found the learning environment easier and subject choice more acceptable.  She doesn’t wear a headscarf but some of her classmates who did were jeered by boys at a seaside town, according to Ms Richardson.
“The Tranby girls robustly defended their visitors’ rights, responding that ‘there’s nothing wrong with Indonesians’,” she said. “Suddenly the reality of racism hit home.”
Australian families sitting down together for evening meals and discussing each other’s activities was also an unusual and pleasing experience; others found the absence of maids and having to share domestic duties a bit disturbing.
“Some teachers think that trying to develop exchange programmes is too difficult,” Ms Richardson said.  “But I’ve always thought this is the best way to get our kids to understand each other.”
21st century approaches
Lisa Hayman, senior projects manager at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Education Foundation said the BRIDGE project, which it’s helping develop, was “all about breaking down stereotypes and discovering our neighbors.”
The AEF ‘enables educators to develop Asia literate young Australians’ and provides teachers with resources to teach about Asia’. It’s been running for 20 years pushing mainly monolingual Australians to become ‘Asia literate’.
Ms Hayman’s colleague, former Indonesian language teacher Deryn Mansell, agreed that it was often just one person in a school who became the driving force in a BRIDGE project.  However support of principals and the whole school was important if a project was to survive.
Ms Hayman stressed that although student visits were ideal the cost put these beyond the reach of many.
“We’ve got to look more broadly than just physical exchanges,” she said.  “That’s a 20th century approach – we can’t keep flying around the world.
“It’s time to use 21st century information and communication technology, such as setting up Skype sessions between schools and students using Facebook and smartphones.
“This is already happening, including with some of the 2,000 schools built by Australian aid. Every partnership is different.”
Though not all contacts will be substantial or enduring, supporters say partnerships provide opportunities to learn about other cultures and lifestyles. 
The four-year AUD$4.2 million (Rp 42 billion) program is funded through a private/government partnership. There’s no contribution by the Indonesian government.

First published in The Jakarta Post 6 March 2013


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