Jakarta/Denpasar. Decentralization and regional autonomy were first introduced in Indonesia in 1999 as the part of an effort to improve public services, accelerate accountability and transparency at regional government level.
Meanwhile, decentralization in education is considered key to making the country's school system more accommodating to local needs. It also allows for transfer of authority over state and public schools to regional governments.
It is further considered an effective approach to unraveling the complexities of education standardization and national examinations. This approach allows regional governments to make decisions, draw up curricula suitable to local needs and encourage them to be more independent.
As an archipelagic country, Indonesia has numerous regions with different customs and cultures. For example, students in West Nusa Tenggara have different customs to those in Jakarta. This also applies to their learning experiences.
Students in many regions grow up speaking local languages and not the country's official language, Bahasa Indonesia. Under decentralization, teachers have the freedom to teach students in their mother tongue, alongside Bahasa Indonesia.
Maman Suherman, an author of children's books, has been a strong proponent of decentralization in education, especially in the school curriculum. He said this must be assessed, managed and monitored by regional governments.
"What is the point of creating regional autonomy if only the central government focuses on these issues? This is one of the biggest criticisms of our education system, because it certainly does not meet the needs of each region," said Maman, who is also an education expert and a former journalist.
Efforts and Obstacles
Collaborative efforts to improve the education system may lay the foundation for future generations to prepare for the challenges ahead.
As a significant basis for further student development, Indonesia has been trying to improve education through measures such as direct funding for schools, the introduction of school-based management, qualification standards for teachers and a more streamlined curriculum.
The government also tries to give public schools financial autonomy and allow them to design their own teaching methods or change their legal status. The state also increased spending on education over the past decade, allowing millions more children to enroll for the mandatory nine years of primary and secondary education.
However, the government's policy follows a one-size-fits-all approach that does not encourage changes in teacher behavior, which is critical to improve students' learning ability.
Beth Schaffner and Barbara Buswell wrote in "Inclusion, a Guide for Educators," published in 1996, that such one-size-fits-all approaches are not effective in an inclusive learning environment.
Joyce S. Choate also wrote in "Successful Inclusive Teaching: Proven Ways to Detect and Correct Special Needs," published in 2000, that since each student has different needs and learning abilities, schools must create teaching strategies, including ways to stimulate creativity in classes.
Concern for the decentralization of education has also drawn support from civil society and the international community.
The Australian government, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and Culture, launched an educational assistance program, known as Inovasi, or Innovation for Indonesian School Children, in November last year to address the issue.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has set aside A$48 million ($36 million) in grants for the implementation of a four-year program in six districts of West Nusa Tenggara. The program, which focuses on literacy, numeracy, social inclusion and school leadership, commenced in 2016 and will end next year, with the option of being extended for another four years.
The program is aimed at assisting teachers, headmasters and school coordinators and owners on the primary or elementary level, particularly in grades one to three. It is also intended to help teachers improve their teaching methods and materials.
Inovasi works directly with teachers to create a learning experience that is more effective for students.
"Our main aim is to develop or adapt materials and approaches to produce more structured in-service training programs," Inovasi program director Mark Heyward said, adding that the program is expected to run for 10 to 16 weeks, or one semester, which is proven to be more effective.
The program uses an iterative system – a mathematical, or computational method – to continuously assess needs, review progress and learning for students.
The Inovasi program also involves planning and the implementation and evaluation of pilot activities by working with local stakeholders and teachers to identify their challenges, test different solutions that are applicable in the local context, while also discovering the "best-fit" solutions for local political, cultural and technical issues in the regions.
"Other experiences showed that one-off training activities [for teachers] do not result in substantial or sustainable changes for students," Heyward said.
He added that Inovasi has already assisted 1,085 teachers at 464 schools since it was first implemented. Teachers are involved in various activities in target schools, while also becoming local facilitators for various activities that form part of the program.
Around 26,300 students in the early grades are believed to have already benefited from the program, both directly and indirectly.
Inovasi is targeting 367 schools in West Nusa Tenggara, East Nusa Tenggara and North Kalimantan.
Inovasi uses pilot programs to discover what works for students and what does not. It also determines which programs may be suitable for current education policies and practices.
According to Heyward, Inovasi constantly adapts until it configures key programs to address local challenges – local solutions for local problems, while also adopting a sustainable learning approach across the archipelago. This includes attracting support from key stakeholders at the national and regional level, including community leaders.
There are several initiatives and efforts Inovasi must address and implement, including the need to build a reading culture to improve literacy in communities and schools, and the development of effective approaches to multi-grade teaching, while also improving the efficiency of teacher deployment.