The impossible possibility of re-writing a language curriculum

When contemplating the possibility of volunteering your time and sharing your skills, the hope is that you will make a tangible difference to the people that you are working with. The reality is that in a lot of developing countries it is really hard to have a sizeable impact as there are so many development organisations competing for beneficiaries and jostling for donor funding. This really isn’t the case in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

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In PNG the development marketplace is wide open, there are very few organisations working in this remote part of the Pacific and there are plenty of challenges faced by the people, who in the most part live in rural settings. Living in small villages, long distances away from the main towns, with limited road infrastructure contributes to the poor health indicators and access to quality education is compromised.

Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) has been working in PNG for over 55 years and has a strong track record in education, health, gender and governance. Knowledge of the volunteering organisation can be found in the remotest communities here, where historically people would have encountered teachers or doctors working in their communities. More recently though, volunteers work in much more influential positions, consulting on best practice and facilitating lasting change in the systems that greatly impact the delivery of services to the people who need them most.

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Kate Debenham is a recently returned education volunteer who lived and worked in Port Moresby, the capital of PNG for just under three years. Kate, from Essex, decided it was time for a change and took the leap from her Assistant Head Teacher role in a large multi-cultural primary school in East London to come to help build capacity in PNG.

She initially came to work on the Language Support Programme working with teacher training colleges to update the primary teacher training language course, but during her varied time in the education team she also worked on projects to support elementary teaching reform. These included the use of text messaging to deliver stories to remote schools, supporting an early childhood facilitation study, facilitating a pilot study into the English language levels of elementary teachers, giving technical advice on developing a standards based elementary school curriculum and most significantly conducting research into the state of elementary teacher training nationwide.

The impossibility

Through Kate’s determined work at a policy level she has put together and presented research for the elementary teacher training reform which is actively being used to inform policy changes and hasn’t just gone on the shelf never to be referred to. The Assistant Secretary at the Department of Education has quoted the research in departmental meetings and it has been used to inform strategic planning in the new national education plan. Through further elementary projects two of the recommendations from the research have been actioned and there will now be certification in elementary training at five teachers colleges this year. Institutionalising elementary teacher training has been a recommendation of all major education research and reports in PNG over the past seven years and through the Elementary Teacher Training Reform Programme and a strong partnership between VSO volunteers and the Department of Education this process has now begun.

Kate has also played a huge role in rewriting and reviewing the national curriculum guidelines for elementary teacher training and has developed guidelines to support further colleges to write quality courses. Kate reflects on her time in PNG: “I have had opportunities to work at policy level in PNG that I haven’t had in the UK. I have been able to do that because of the relationship that has been built between VSO and the Department of Education for many years. Working here for as long as I have meant that people had confidence in me through the relationships that I built to operate at that level. You must have those relationships and a good understanding of the culture. It is really important to listen to the partner organisation, understand the protocols and the unwritten rules and be humble.”

The impossibility

During her placement she has had some incredible adventures that have taken her to 19 of PNGs 22 provinces, from the mysterious mountains of Simbu to a spiritual journey down the Sepik river: “PNG is fab! It is such a fascinating country full of contradictions and is very paradoxical. I have never been anywhere quite like it; the country is so beautiful and unique but mainly it is the people that make it special. They are so genuinely friendly and helpful in an unreserved way but also very emotional; you can be greeted by complete strangers with hugs and tears streaming down their faces. On my leaving party my male boss was crying, but it is fine. It is such a wonderful quality that we can all learn from.”


Are you interested in volunteering with VSO and being part of creating real change within education that will impact people for many years to come? Volunteers in PNG working within the education sector CAN make a difference, a huge difference. Find out more information on the VSO website.


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