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The story of a disastrous PNG educational 'reform'

Pius Imolket tutors his class at the Tavolo community schoolRAYMOND SIGIMET

THE 'outcome-based education' structural reform of 1993 saw the elevation of selected community schools to primary schools and promotion of high schools to secondary schools in those provinces selected to trial the education reform.

With much reassurance, the national department of education under its secretary, the late Dr Joseph Pagelio, outlined the benefits of the reform.

Children could start school at an earlier age, they would learn their local language and culture, they would undertake two years of high school education at community school level and more students would complete Grade 12 for selection into universities and colleges, teachers would upgrade their qualifications, retention statistics would improve, the list went on.

Outcome based education had failed miserably in countries like Australia, South Africa and the United States. But, in their wisdom, the Papua New Guinea government and its advisors went ahead with the reform anyway.

It looked good on paper and sounded workable to the ears. But 20 years later, history tells us it failed in PNG - just like it did in those other countries.

Last year, the national department of education announced that the 1993 education reform had fallen short of its objective and would be phased out with a new standards based education reform - more or less a return to the old way of schooling.

The problems with outcome based education arose for a variety of reasons: lack of funding and implementation were fundamental failures which were intensified by the lack of trained specialist teachers and many other flaws and let-downs.

The more recent introduction of the free education policy saw an influx of students causing overcrowded classrooms and unrealistic teacher to student ratios. Last year, a technical high school in West New Britain had more than 100 students in each class. The trend across PNG shows there are usually 60 to 70 students per class.

This has resulted in low standards, poor academic performance and a high rate of teachers leaving the profession because of stress and job dissatisfaction.

The 1993 reform was a completely botched job from start to finish despite the best efforts of Joe Pagelio.

It should be noted that during the 20 plus years of the reform, a generation of young Papua New Guineans were indoctrinated into it and some passed through with flying colours. But many more got lost along the way.

The question now is how did PNG go ahead with a reform knowing full well the system failed in more developed countries?

Somewhere between PNG’s own educationists and their external advisers, someone must have an answer.


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Jackson Dedingi

Outcome-based education (OBE) is one of the worst types of system accepted and implemented by the PNG government.

Raymond Sigimet

Thank you all for your comments.

I would agree with Chris and Peter Bridger that the old education system, though having its flaws, should have been maintained and improved in terms of creating more classroom space, increase training of teachers and creation of more paid positions and developing new or revising the editions of the curriculum materials such as textbooks that were in use.

The AusAID assistance to the OBE reform that was guaranteed to the government and the people of PNG never actually transpired or achieved anything as Peter Bridger had explained.

From 1993 to 2008, the secondary schools had no standard recommended textbooks to use, teachers were using anything that they can find that were in line with the syllabus and use them to teach.

There was no coordination or consistency in what was being taught in PNG schools during those years. What one teacher used in his or her school may not be the same with what the other was using in their school.

Unlike the former where everyone was using the same resource materials. So in other words, secondary school teachers were beating around the bush in the PNG education system for a total of 15 years with nothing to work on during the reform years.

The OBE Outcomes edition textbooks for secondary schools were only published in 2009. But again, most teachers find these books to be shallow and too general with the outcomes unattainable in most times.

Peter Turner and Phil have correctly stated and I would agree that the AusAID assistance to the reform went to the pockets of the advisors and not to its intended areas where it matters most for the reform to take effect.

The 20 plus years of the OBE reform has indirectly caused a generation of Papua New Guineans to be suppressed intellectually, resulting in the "visible" low standard and student performance in the education sector and the resultant confusion in the education system in the country is now acknowledged as we are making amends now by introducing the Standard based Education, something new again.

I would also agree with AJ Lambo that to phase out Grade 10 examination would be inappropriate based on the fact that all education system should at least have some form of screening or filtering system in place to create a competitive edge within the classroom setting otherwise we will restrict the potential of bright students to perform at a higher phase and level.

The new structure of 2-6-6 is alright in a sense that its been long overdue that Grade 7 and 8 should go back to the high/secondary school level. I am just a bit worried with the higher standard that is expected at the upper secondary levels if the Grade 10 exam is phased out.

On a side note, I believe PNG teachers are some of the most overworked and underpaid professionals (public servants) in the country because of the current situations and changes that are taking place in the education sector of the country. At the secondary level, the amount of time and work put in to educate is very demanding.

AJ Lambo

And yet the education secretary/ies and minister are talking about structural changes (2-6-6) and curriculum change (OBE-SBE) and even phasing out Grades 8 and 10 examinations with little or no understanding of what the changes entail.

There is no study to support or recommend the changes. All is happening because it sounds too good, just like what happened 20 years ago.

Any change must be based on sound academic research. We have seen time and time again, the most important system - has taken its share of battering without proper planning.

It would be better to leave the system alone and build on it, rather than breaking it down and trying to build it up again. By this I mean it is better to nurture the existing system, instead of overhauling the structure and curriculum, and the examinations.

Why not expand spaces at higher learning institutions to cater for the growing number of students? Why not examinations are made more competitive? Why not act on Ganim's report? These are areas that will strengthen the education system at both the lower and higher levels.

For so long, the leaders - both political and educational leaders - have lack vision to make education the number one area of development.

Changing the structure and changing the curriculum or examination levels will not improve education standard. It will only stir up confusion.

Peter Turner

Yes Phil, to this very day.

Bright eyed, bushy tailed, non Tok Pisin speaking, non PNG experienced (mostly) advisers, blithely attempting to re-invent the wheel.

The one's who know the country and how things work, what is attainable and what is 'smoke and mirrors' are the Untouchables, at least as far as Coffey, Cardno et al are concerned.

Phil Fitzpatrick

"Millions of dollars were spent on advisors, workshops, meetings, travel etc. There was no funding for the development and supply of materials and resources that would be needed to support such a system."

Isn't that the story of many AusAID and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade projects in PNG?

Peter Bridger | Principal, Bialla International School

The PNG Education Reform had two main components.

1. Expansion of Access

The introduction of elementary schools, primary education from grades 3 to 8 in the old Community Schools, and increasing either the number of grade 9 students selected to high school or adding grades 11 and 12 to high schools.

This was a response to findings from an earlier Waigani seminar that saw increasing numbers of grade 6 dropouts, semi educated but with no job prospects resorting to other means, often criminal, to make a living.

2. The reform of the curriculum was supposed to take place at the same time, reducing overlap between subjects and re- specifying important aspects of the curriculum, with a stronger emphasis on life skills.

When AusAID offered to assist develop and fund the development of this new curriculum it was seen as a golden opportunity.

During the planning process of the project we - the Curriculum Development Division staff - were repeatedly assured that the Australian advisors would be here to assist us achieve our plans.

Unfortunately, once they arrived, fresh from the reform of the Australian Curriculum to OBE, the OBE approach was the only one they considered.

Millions of dollars were spent on advisors, workshops, meetings, travel etc. There was no funding for the development and supply of materials and resources that would be needed to support such a system.

I was head of the Measurement Services Unit at the time, and, having seen the disaster unfold in Australia, was horrified to see it happening in PNG. Unfortunately I had little real influence.

The old curriculum had flaws but could have been fixed. What our schools need now is maintenance, materials, resources and, above all, manageable sized classes.

Chris Overland

There is a solid argument that the scientific method has been the source of virtually every major intellectual and technological advance in human history, certainly since 1750
Given the spectacular success of science, it is not surprising that many attempts have been made to apply it's methodology to most areas of human endeavour.

Thus, over time, our universities and other educational institutions have sought to convert what have traditionally been regarded as humanities disciplines into "social sciences".

The basic aim has been admirable: apply the intellectually rigorous scientific method to the investigation of ideas, problems and issues within a discipline in order to produce a more robust, verifiable and useful body of knowledge.

While this approach has been incredibly helpful in some cases, it has also given rise to a great deal of pseudo-science, where the merit and utility of certain ideas and hypotheses has been "demonstrated" using misleading data gathered through seemingly plausible but fundamentally flawed research methodologies.

All too frequently, in the social sciences, vast edifices of theory have been erected on very shaky intellectual foundations.

Enthusiasm for and belief in a given hypothesis, especially one that seems ideologically "sound", has often trumped the hard slog of gathering data and spending long years subjecting it to relentless, sceptical examination to build a substantial and robust case for its value and utility.

No where is this latter phenomenon more evident than in so-called "management theory", where a long procession of explanations for the "management process" and theories about how to manage successfully have been inflicted on successive generations of students.

Many, perhaps most, of these ideas have proved to have major limitations such as either being only relevant in certain situations or simply based upon a quite erroneous understanding of the facts.

Seldom has a discipline been more prone to the proclamation and promotion of what are basically intellectual fads.

Like the alchemists of old, management theorists persist in their search for an elusive universal panacea that always seems tantalisingly close to discovery but is never actually found.

Sadly, this tendency is also alive and well in other, arguably more respectable disciplines, with psychology, economics and education leading the way.

Thus we have seen, in education, the all too ready abandonment of traditional, didactic, "chalk and talk" approaches to teaching based upon theories that seem plausible, even compelling, but which ultimately prove to be either outright failures or only qualified successes at best.

The root cause of this is, I think, our modern obsession with both novelty for its own sake and the idea that what is hard and complex can and should be made simple and easy.

It naturally flows from this thinking that what is old is necessarily obsolete and must be replaced with something newer and better.

This approach is vividly on display in the marketing of new products like computers and mobile phones, where merely cosmetic changes of no functional importance are presented as great advances and so become "must haves" for technophiles.

So, for me at least, Outcomes Based Education is just one of a long and depressing list of seemingly good ideas that, in practice, have fallen well short of what they promised to deliver.

The truth is that the acquisition of the basic knowledge we need to function effectively in the modern world (which is still the proverbial 3 R's) is mostly a question of hard work, self discipline, application and, hopefully, the arousal of a life long intellectual curiosity.

Combine this with reasonably competent teaching, backed by good parental and community support, and most students can emerge from the primary and secondary educational system pretty well equipped to be the life long learners they need to be in order to do well in our fast changing world.

Basically, it ain't rocket science and our modern educationalists would do well to consider that it was old style educationists using very traditional methods who successfully nurtured the likes of Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Howard Florey.

Old methods maybe, but the outcomes were pretty good

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