depted55“Education is the key to everything”, says Education Minister Joseph Onguglo. “Without education the country cannot progress, or take its place in the wider world, or even understand what its own problems are. We must give top priority to education – and do it now. Every delay weakens our future prospects. Papua New Guinea is full of talented people but without education and relevant technical training they will not be able to be effective.”

Papua New Guinea, like other countries in the world. strives to provide education for all its citizens, first through universal primary education and then by other means. To achieve this aim, successive governments since independence have set different targets, the latest being the year 1999. By 1999 all children of primary school age are supposd to have access to and receive at least six years of primary education.

At present primary education is provided by 3,000 community schools, approximately half of which are government schools and half are those organised and run by the missions, of which the number of Catholic schools, 850, slightly exceeds the sum of the other church schools combined. While the church schools are run by the missions, most staff salaries and some other costs are met by the provincial governments, assisted by grants from the national government, with the national government taking responsibility for the core subjects of the curriculum.

Various obstacles stand in the way of achieving the stated aim of universal primary education for all. What educationists call ‘attrition rates’ are high, so that even though some 92% of the target population are known to enrol at some point in their lives, only 55% of those who start do actually complete their education to Grade 6. A serious 15% drop out of school very early, between Grades 1 and 2. The government believes that language policy may have something to do with this, the language of instruction being the country’s official language, English, while the language spoken by children of 7 or 8, especially in the rural areas, may be any of the 700 – 800 for which PNG is famous.

Consequently, language policy has been a feature of the latest educational reforms. “Tok Ples Pri Skul” is the pidgin title of an existing pre-school movement in which young children receive their first experience of schooling in their own vernacular tongue. From 1995 this language policy is to be extended to the first three years of primary education as part of a set of policies designed to recogn is e the crucial importance of a strong community base to life at all stages but particularly for young people.

A further big loss of numbers occurs at the transition from primary to secondary school. Only 35% of those who complete primary school go on to secondary school and there is much local variation in the take-up rates, with young people in the Highlands, for example in Enga Province, participating in far fewer numbers than those in the coastal districts and urban areas.

Education is supposedly free in Papua New Guinea, although some schools have been forced to re-introduce fees, but it is not compulsory, That is not because the government does not wish to insist that all children should attend school, but because of the practical difficulties of enforcing such a law in a terrain so formidably opposed to visitations, or even communications, from the centre. It must also be admitted that the government is itself defeated by some aspects of the situation. There are areas where schools are closed for one reason or another, and there is a general need for more resources. “

I am worried about the priority accorded to education”, says Joseph Onguglo. “To my mind it is the most important of all Government’s responsibilities because it relates to the future ability of this country to look after itself, or even survive. I am determined that our education system should progress.”