Within education in Papua New Guinea (PNG) there are many formidable characters but no one has quite had the same impact on early childhood education as Dr Dinah Dovona-Ope. The 53-year-old, Bouganvillian pawa meri (powerful woman) had a vision and through collaboration with VSO, the Early Childhood Standards were born. This is the first written curriculum for teaching young children in PNG and it’s a landmark development in shaping the futures of young children.
From a very young age, Dinah excelled at school. She grew up in a village called Moru, on the much blighted Bouganvillian island, with four brothers and three sisters at a time where people didn’t have many possessions or much money. Life was centred around the church and her family, who were particularly influential within the Bouganvillian kingdom, were instrumental in the decision to follow the Methodist missionaries when they came to the island. Her Father was a pioneer pastor and teacher and strongly believed in women being educated. As such he pushed women and girls in his church to pursue education and saw the importance in sending his daughters to school as early as possible.
“Not many PNG women come this far. I had to balance family with education and it is rare to find a PNG man to support them. My colleagues would often come to me to discuss their work as well!”
Dr Ope’s education was largely funded through awards, prizes and government scholarships. From high school she attended Goroka Teacher’s College in the Eastern Highlands where she studied secondary teaching for three years: “I never dreamed that I would get this far. I had a dream when I was thirteen years old that I was on a mountaintop speaking English to many people. I think this was telling me that I was destined to be a teacher in the future.”
From Goroka she went to Rabaul in East New Britain to teach for three years; then she continued her studies at the University of PNG, in the capital Port Moresby, where she moved into studying education with psychology. This is where she met her husband and started her family. Despite having a new family, Dr Ope never asked for an extension and managed high distinctions in her studies: “Not many PNG women come this far. I had to balance family with education and it is rare to find a PNG man to support them. My colleagues would often come to me to discuss their work as well!”
Over the years she has moved her family to Australia twice where she continued her studies, completing a Masters and then a PhD into gender and academic achievement of girls in secondary school. When she came back to Goroka in 2009 she was given two awards for excellence from the University of Southern Queensland and the Australian College of Educators.
“This insanity is the result of my personal conviction that I have a sense of obligation to the nation.”
Now with a family of three children, one of whom is adopted, and two foster children she is a Senior Lecturer in Educational Psychology and Head of Division for Teaching and Learning back in Goroka. This is where the vision for early childhood education began. Dr Ope saw the need for a written curriculum accompanied by a series of video resources to make sure early years teaching was of a high quality and engaged young children on a personal, social and emotional level.
She is an ambassador for early childhood education and is keen to get the countries attention with the new programme so that it can act as a model for PNG: “When I have been to conferences and I’ve delivered lectures I’ve stood in the room and said no one else in here is passionate about early childhood education. I want to challenge the country about how they look at education for this age group and make sure that it is much higher on the agenda. I want to bring in younger people to push them to continue good work for the future.”
Dinah is deeply invested in her work and is committed to ensuring that her people have the same access to education that she had: “This insanity is the result of my personal conviction that I have a sense of obligation to the nation. All my studies have been paid for by taxpayers – I’m one of the very few Papua New Guineans who my government has invested in so I’m keen to give back and do what I can. When I saw the conflict in Bouganville I was compelled to go back to University as I could see that so many young people would miss out on the opportunity to have an education and I plan to take my training back home when I retire to give back to my community.”
The Early Childhood Standards will be used for the first time this year and you can watch the videos at: www.youtube.com/pngteachingvideos
VSO is running an amazing campaign about Women in Power, to find out more about how you can show your support for women and girls around the world visit: www.vso.org.uk/get-involved/campaign/women-in-power. This Saturday is also International Women’s Day; the theme for this year is inspiring change. At a benchmark time for ensuring women and girls are on the agenda for the revised Millennium Development Goals, use this opportunity to take action to end injustice and make sure that gender equality is represented in the UN’s post-2015 development framework.