A world away but the thirst for knowledge thrives

From such a long distance, in a land that can seem so remote and difficult to understand, it is easy to have misconceptions about what life is like in Papua New Guinea (PNG).  We are bombarded with stereotypical images of what everyday life is like in developing countries showing poverty, neglect and inequality; these images may depict some of the reality but when it comes to the core essence of being, are things really that different from our version of normal in the global North?  And in contrast what lengths do people go to that far exceed what is usually expected?

In PNG the education system may have major challenges, from overcrowding of classrooms – particularly in urban settings due to the introduction of the tuition free policy, to teacher absenteeism, to high drop out rates for girls in higher grades, to poor infrastructure and limited access to resources making learning difficult, as well as contending with the barrier of having an incomplete curriculum to work with; but what is important to recognise is that despite these challenges, day-in day-out young people still come to learn.  And teachers go to great lengths to teach.  Whether it be in a hot, bush material classroom or a safe and sanitised concrete construction, the thirst for education is universal and is something that all young people deserve to have access to.

Through these photos I hope it is possible to bring a little clarity to the realities of life in PNG schools; that although different in some ways there are also plenty of similarities and people going above and beyond to ensure that young people have an education.

Absorbed in books
Reading

Although slightly less glossy and perhaps a little older these young boys on opposite sides of the world sit glued to their reading books; one in a fluorescently lit library in the South of England, the other sat on a wooden bench with sand under his feet in an island classroom in the Sepik in PNG.  Current reading material may be scarce in PNG but there are excellent initiatives like Buk bilong Pikinini (BbP) that set up libraries with new children’s books that are collected through donations from schools and organisations to ignite young people’s passion for reading.  BbP also runs literacy programmes that include story time and children reading from the books in the library.

 

Learning can happen anywhere
Story time

Story time is an opportunity for the teacher to transport their class to another world and who says that this has to happen on a carpet.  In a wintery New Forest in England it is better being huddled on the mat inside the classroom, but in East New Britain in PNG why wouldn’t you take advantage of the lush green grass and gentle breeze that cuts through the humidity and sit outside for story telling?

 

The dedication of teachers
Teacher supporting students

Despite the challenges that teachers face in PNG, from not being paid to managing huge classes, teachers still come to the classroom to support the children.  It isn’t uncommon for teachers to continue working despite lack of payment.  In other parts of the world this would cause mass strike action.  In remote parts of East Sepik teachers are going as far as identifying a lack of schooling in their village and establishing schools themselves, bringing in friends and family members and giving them some basic training to teach the children, sometimes under the floors of their homes.  Lack of trained teachers is a huge problem with a deficit of 800 elementary teachers in one of PNG’s 22 provinces alone.

 

Chalk and talk
Chalk and talk

From interactive white boards to black boards with worn down nubs of chalk, the difference is clear to see.  Teachers are grappling with incomplete and out of date curriculums but they are doing their best to teach lessons with what they have.  In PNG so much work is being done by organisations like Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) to help teachers move away from the practice of chalk and talk, where pupils sit for the full lesson listening to the teacher and copying from the board, to using more engaging strategies and resources made from recycled materials with the children.  This progression has a huge impact, showing them a magnetic blackboard would blow their minds, an interactive white board would transport them to another world!

 

More boys in the classroom
Gender balance

Every child has the right to an education, but more than 62 million girls around the world are not in school, and those who are, struggle to remain in the classroom. And yet, it’s proven that when girls have an education, they can lift themselves and everyone around them out of poverty.  In PNG between 2008-2013 there was a 22% dropout rate for girls in primary school {Source: Education Indicator Dashboard}.

 

A resource rich country but not in the classroom
Resources

A major and evident difference is the resources that are available.  In PNG it may be a struggle to find pencils and paper to use for exercises but people are incredibly resourceful; making musical instruments with natural objects, carving story boards to tell stories and legends, using recycled cardboard to make flashcards and working out ways to best maximise limited floor space with bulging class numbers. Unlike conventional classrooms in Asia where having children sit on the floor is frowned upon, in PNG teachers lay down mats made from local bush materials and children have a wonderful area for a range of activities.

 

Propped up with building blocks
Infrastructure

In PNG children can be learning in broken, bush material structures on dirt floors and in classrooms that are propped up with whatever is to hand and you may be able to see through large holes in the ceiling, but eager faces fill the room and teachers make the absolute best of what they have available to them.

 

Just because of where you were born
Writing

Around the world, 57 million children of primary school age do not attend school.  Whether in the global North or a remote corner of PNG there are children attentively holding pens and pencils.  It is important to remember that for some there will be a bus to take you safely to school but for others there may be a long, hot walk; despite these barriers millions of children do make it to school and it is for them that it is so important that work continues to ensure that they have access to quality education and that those that have barriers to accessing learning aren’t forgotten about.

 

If you work in education and think that you could share your skills and make a difference, why not consider a placement in PNG?  The VSO education team are currently trying to build up pre-service teacher training in maths and science where there are severe shortages of lecturers at the teacher training colleges and teachers in the classrooms and a huge need to revise the curriculum in training institutions.  Teacher trainers are based at the teacher trainer colleges, supporting the lecturers to help them design and develop curriculum resources and provide coaching and lecturing to the lecturers at the teacher training colleges who have had little opportunity to access personal development in these areas.  They are hugely rewarding roles, working with lovely staff where you will make a lasting change to education in PNG.  For more information on vacancies visit the VSO website.

 

“Education is the most powerful weapon that we can use to change the world”.

 

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