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Tuesday, 30 November 1999
Page: 11112

Senator ALLISON (7:37 PM) —I rise tonight to speak on the future of education in East Timor. Right now international aid agencies are delivering basic health and social services. Peter Hosking of the Jesuit Refugee Service says he fears that Australians may suffer compassion fatigue when the Defence Force's bills start coming in. But we need to keep education on the agenda, because without it Timor has no hope of making it in a globalised economy.

The task facing Timorese educators is indeed daunting. The Timorese are currently faced with the question of what languages will be taught in schools and in what level of priority. They are faced with the challenge of managing the process of healing for children who have witnessed and suffered so much violence. They are faced with the prospect of no secondary schooling for at least a couple of years as adolescents help their parents in the fields to alleviate chronic food shortages. They are faced with an absence of secondary teachers. A high proportion of secondary teachers before the ballot were Indonesians, who have since fled. They are faced with literacy rates of only 44 per cent for women and 61 per cent for men. They are faced with a situation in which there are very few written resources for the teaching of Tetum, the main indigenous language, and they are faced with having to forge an entirely new education curriculum.

I hope Australians will remember the union movement here as one of the drivers for change in Timor when nearly everyone else was turning their backs. The education unions, the IEU and the AEU, are especially deserving of praise, and I want to acknowledge that tonight. They will play a major role in helping Timor build up the skills of its people. UNICEF and other agencies are delivering basic writing materials such as writing pads and pencils, but other supplies are virtually non-existent. Other equipment has always been lacking—things like glue, atlases, coloured pencils, wall charts, books and the like. Chairs and tables, for instance, have always been a rarity in schools. The unions have given generously. St Josephs Primary School in Gilgandra recently raised $600 by holding a special mass. By November, donations via the IEU will have reached $40,000. The IEU is also in the process of collecting classroom kits of materials, especially maths workbooks and other teaching aids.

Mr Patrick Lee of the New South Wales IEU recently had as a guest in his house a former assistant to the Director of the Catholic Education Office in Dili. The Catholics have taken on the responsibility of getting the education system functioning again. They have already reopened some schools. The reopening of schools has provided relief to parents and structure and routine for children, which is crucial in the aftermath of trauma. Martinio Borromeu started working on the Tetum curriculum before the ballot, and he has been trying to retrieve it from memory. When my office spoke to him, his colleagues were missing or in the hills. Borromeu said that the most pressing educational need is trauma counselling and training for teachers. He said that the Timorese cannot afford to have psychologically broken people filled with hatred and hopelessness educating the next generation of children. Teachers will have a crucial role in helping children to heal, and this need precedes training in content and pedagogy.

A core group of about 10 Timorese teachers are currently working on an emergency teachers guide to assist traumatised returning teachers to get back in front of their classes. Before the ballot, teachers were paid very little—about $20 a month, barely enough to support one person let alone teachers with dependants. Borromeu said that the remuneration caused resentment, particularly among Indonesian teachers who attracted much more money back home, and this often bred a callous attitude towards student progress, with quotes like, `It's not my problem if you can't read.' Outside Dili, principals were often not paid at all. Corporal punishment was rife, as one would expect in a society under invasion, and the military would often intervene in disputes between Indonesian teachers and families.

Class sizes were generally around 100, and seldom below 50, students. One teacher would usually take multiple year levels. Because there was a dearth of written materials, instruction was usually didactic and learning was done by rote. The Indonesian education system is often accused of encouraging conformity and mediocrity, and this duality is writ large in Indonesia's occupied territories. Families had to pay fees every month for their children's schooling. Not surprisingly, it often made more economic sense to keep children as young as five out of school and in work at home. Schooling usually took place in shifts.

The way forward for education in Timor will not be an easy one, given this scenario. The question of language is a vexing one. Tetum will presumably be the first language taught in schools, but there are very few written resources. The Mary MacKillop Institute in Sydney has been working for some time on developing curriculum materials in Tetum and has so far got to middle primary level. Before the ballot, it was decided that Timor's future lay in making Portuguese the main second language taught in schools. I have been told that this is now a fairly shaky proposition. English as a second language is in demand. It is the international language of commerce and the language of ASEAN. The place of bahasa, the Indonesian language, is unclear. There is recognition, though, that the many students who have been taught mainly in bahasa cannot be abandoned. There is also a deep hostility towards the Indonesian language remaining even for a transition period. The Mary MacKillop Institute told the recent Senate inquiry into Timor:

In the present situation, East Timorese children entering a classroom find themselves in a learning context that is foreign—the only language allowed to be spoken and used in the classroom is that of the foreign invaders. . . . Psychologists who specialise in learning theory tell us that, beyond mild levels, fear inhibits learning. The trauma that many children have experienced at the hands of the invaders must surely put a psychological block and hinder the East Timorese children's learning in their language.

Two years ago AusAID rejected the institute's funding for classroom and curriculum materials. Another agency was told there would be no funding for first language learning or ESL support because Portuguese was being touted as a replacement for bahasa. AusAID's consistent refusal to fund educational projects in Timor should be a source of national shame. Bear in mind that most schools are lucky to have a blackboard. The institute's massive literacy and translation work has been kept going by the Catholic Church and its congregations. When one of the sisters visited Timor earlier this year, people were dying of malnutrition. Children were travelling hours on foot to get to school. Some children were working punishing hours to keep their younger siblings at school.

One agency has touted a demonstration school model where teachers would combine on-the-job experience with their training. This would release badly needed teachers immediately. Post-independence, ESL support will be vital as well as first language learning and language laboratories. Peter Hosking says that Timor will quite capably run its own school system but, to do this, it needs help in teacher training and curriculum development. His suggestions include sending Australian teachers to Timor. State education departments and non-government systems could, for instance, provide teachers with leave to do this. Or we could give Timorese teachers scholarships to study in Australia. Perhaps if we had treated the Timorese asylum seekers better we would have had some qualified teachers ready to return.

The fact that Timorese children seeking asylum in Australia are excluded from TAFE, apprenticeships and traineeships after year 12 is disgraceful. They are also barred from university as they are considered to be over seas students and therefore full fee paying. David Peace, a Melbourne teacher, recently wrote:

I feel ashamed when I try to explain this policy to the dedicated, enthusiastic young people who have chosen Australia for their home after escaping terror and tyranny in their homeland.

Asylum seekers are generally on protection visas, which do allow them to access state primary and secondary education. But these children start school in a language vacuum. Many parents speak Hakka, a Chinese language, while the children speak Tetum. Neither is a written language and this makes it very difficult for parents to help with literacy enrichment. Children routinely miss out on extracurricular activities because of their parents' poverty, unless they go to a particularly understanding and proactive school.

I would argue that Mr Ruddock should also rethink his shameful approach to sending home with just a bag of rice, a blanket and a sheet of plastic refugees who came from East Timor during the conflict. Children in these circumstances will not have access to schools back in East Timor, let alone health services, adequate food or shelter. They do want to return, but now is not the right time. In my view, Australia has a dual moral obligation to the Timorese: we must help with rebuilding its educational institutions and we must abolish the education trap that we have created for Timorese asylum seekers in this country.