The 2012 decision to scrap English as a compulsory subject in Indonesian elementary  schools is to be reversed. Materials and advice are likely to be sourced from the Philippines.


The move comes after widespread criticism of teaching programs and practices following the release two years ago of results through the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Indonesia ranked 62 out of the 72 nations surveyed. Nine years ago it was 57. 

Education and Culture Minister Dr Muhadjir Effendy told Strategic Review that pilot projects in teaching English would start in several provinces next year.

“English is the global language and it’s essential that Indonesian students are properly equipped to enter the workplaces of the future,” he said.


“However this is not going to be easy to implement. We need more specialist teachers and teaching materials. We are still working on the details, but I hope it can be introduced in the students’ early years when minds are still flexible. This is the optimal time.”


Six years ago then deputy education minister Musliar Kasim announced a curriculum revamp which dumped English in favor of the national language, Bahasa Indonesia.


After public protests English was allowed back in - though only as an elective. It was also argued at the time that forcing youngsters to learn English made their workload excessive.


The original decision was also seen as a reaction to rising nationalism. Flag-wavers asked why students should spend time on English in the fourth largest country with its own tongue.


The world’s most commonly spoken languages are various forms of Chinese, followed by Spanish, English, Hindi and Arabic.


Bahasa Indonesia is seldom heard outside lower Southeast Asia. Originally Trade Malay, it was imposed to unify the nation after independence from Dutch colonial rule was declared in 1945. The 2010 census recorded 43 million “native speakers” of Bahasa Indonesia; 156 million considered it their second tongue.


The minister said 760 local and other languages were still used and had to be recognized. He said he had persuaded his colleagues that re-starting English would not dilute the national identity.



Effendy was appointed minister in July last year to replace Dr Anies Baswedan who shortly after taking office in 2014 described the nation’s education system as facing an “emergency”.  Under his watch enrolments improved through payments to the poor for their children to attend school.


According to Professor Andrew Rosser of Melbourne University who has been researching Indonesian education, “children are starting school earlier and staying in education longer than they ever have before. But Indonesia has made much less progress in improving the quality and learning outcomes.”


Despite Baswedan’s achievements President Joko Widodo sacked the ambitious minister when he was seen as a political threat. He is now Governor of Jakarta. 


Effendy, 61, is considered a technocrat with no known political allegiances. The former Rector of Muhammadiyah University in Malang did post-graduate studies in military sociology in the US and Canada. His wife Suryan Widati is also an academic.


“There needs to be a recognition of the value of English in subjects like science and mathematics,” said Effendy. “These are taught everywhere often using symbols and terms that are different from those used in Indonesia.


“It’s important that students don’t just learn English but also know how to use it and have the necessary confidence.


“Many [Muslim] students study Arabic and can chant sentences from Al Koran - but they don’t know what the words mean. Methodologies have to change. We need teachers and techniques to help students analyze.” 


He said his ministry was looking to the Philippines for books and teachers. Although Filipino is the national language in the adjacent nation, English is widely taught and used.  Between 1901 and 1935 the Philippines was administered by the United States.  


The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation(UNESCO) claims the PISA tests conducted every three years “provide evidence to policymakers about the knowledge and skills of students in their own countries in comparison with those in other countries … it can help countries to learn from policies and practices applied elsewhere.”

The PISA tests’ top five are Singapore, Japan, Estonia, Taipei and Finland. 

Rosser argues that Indonesia’s poor education performance has “at its root, been a matter of politics and power. Change in the quality of Indonesia’s education system thus depends on a shift in the balance of power between competing coalitions that have a stake in the nature of education policy and its implementation.” 


Effendy acknowledged the difficulty in persuading politicians and bureaucrats to accept reforms. All once attended schools so as adults see themselves as experts; it’s a hazard faced by professional educational change-makers throughout the world. 

He also wants to scrap the annual national exam but has hit barriers manned by diehards. Last year the exams, which were widely criticised for failing to measure quality and reports of cheating, were suspended by Effendy, and then reinstalled by President Joko.

Indonesia has more than 55 million children in 250,000 schools. They are taught by around three million teachers. According to Hamid Muhammad, Director of Teachers in the ministry, the public school teacher shortfall is more than 700,000.

A study commissioned by the Indonesian Network for Education Watch (JPPI) claims three strategic issues need addressing - teacher quality, child-unfriendly schools and discrimination against marginalized groups.

Effendy agreed that quality in public schools remained a concern. “I have often seen that teaching in Catholic schools is better,” he said. “Perhaps this is because students are encouraged to be critical, to ask questions and not see teachers as having all the knowledge.


“We spend a lot of time just teaching to pass tests without students understanding why.


“The other difficulty we have is in servicing schools in the distant provinces where few teachers want to work. Classroom building costs in remote areas can be more than three times higher than in Java.”

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