Seloi Kraik village, Aileu Municipality, Timor Leste
A story for UNICEF's Schools For Asia education fundraising initiative
When she was just five years old, Aida Mesquita followed her older siblings to their local school and started the first grade. “It was really noisy,” she remembers, “there were two grades in a single classroom and it was really crowded, so it was hard to concentrate.” The teacher stood in front of the rows of desks and talked. “If we didn’t pay attention, the teachers would beat us. It made me scared to be at school.”
At the end of the year, Aida dropped out. Like more than 70 per cent of students in Timor Leste who complete grade one, she could not read a single word.
Two years later, with a push from the teachers and her parents, Aida, then eight years old, returned to school to repeat the first grade. She found that things had changed. UNICEF had trained her teachers in its ‘Eskola Foun’, or Child Friendly schools approach.
“The method of teaching was different,” she says, “and every grade had its own classroom so it was easier to learn. There were also more activities and the teachers explained things to us in a way that I could understand.”
Born in 2002, the same year her country was officially recognized as Asia’s newest nation, Aida’s story is all too common. Even today, only 54 per cent of students in Timor Leste enter grade one at the correct age—some enter too young, and some too old. A few, like Aida, do both. And while drop out rates have decreased significantly, repetition rates, especially in the early grades, are still very high: almost 30 per cent of students in grade one must repeat the first year of school.
It is a story that is closely linked to her country’s difficult birth, during which most of the country’s schools were destroyed and almost all of its teachers left, leaving Timor Leste to rebuild its entire education system from the ground up.
Since 2002 UNICEF has partnered with the government of Timor Leste, adapting its response to the changing needs of this growing system. Initially this meant constructing classrooms, but since 2009 it has meant turning its focus to the quality of education children are receiving in those classrooms.
UNICEF’s Child Friendly School principles—which make teaching child centred, and inclusive and place a premium on interactive teaching and learning—were first introduced in Timor Leste in 2009. Adopted by the government in 2014, they are now officially included in teacher training packages and form the basis for the country’s revised curriculum, which was developed by the Ministry of Education with UNICEF support in 2014.
There is still much to do. Today more than 48,000 children are enrolled in 121 UNICEF-supported child friendly schools throughout Timor Leste and to date just 600 teachers and facilitators have been trained in the child friendly school approach. These numbers should grow rapidly, however, as the Ministry of Education, with UNICEF’s support, rolls out the approach nationwide, thereby ensuring that in the not too distant future all children in Timor Leste receive the kind of quality education Aida now enjoys.
Today Aida is in the fifth grade. She has remained in school and is doing well. “I like school,” she says. “I like the way they teach us. We sit in groups and learn with our friends. And if we talk, the teachers do not get angry at us, so we talk freely.” Asked what she likes best about school Aida says, “I like to learn. I want to know more for my future.”
Like this new nation, Aida has big hopes for her future: she wants to learn Korean so that she can go to work overseas to help her family. He ultimate dream is to become a doctor. With a quality education, she may just have a chance.