O’Neill misled Abel in desperate attempt to cling to power
John Neitz, respected senior educator in colonial PNG, dies at 84

The main issues behind the decline in quality of PNG education


VICTORIA POINT, QLD - Phil Fitzpatrick asked in  PNG Attitude recently, ‘Education is the key: does anyone know what happened to it?

The prime minister of Papua New Guinea recently attributed the decline in the quality of education to curriculum changes instituted 10 years ago. This was an important factor, but only one of many.

I have a number of thoughts on the causes of decline, perceived or real.

The plan

Following the government’s commitment to the United Nation’s ‘Education for All’ push in the late 1980s and early 1990s there was disenchantment within the Department of Education over the large numbers of pupils whose educational opportunities were terminated at the end of Grades 6, 8 or 10.

Despite building a small number of new classrooms in high schools, and an even smaller number of new high schools, transition from Grade 6 to Grade 7 was not improving.

And transition from Grade 10 to Grade 11 was stuck at about 1,000 students a year in only four national high schools.

An education sector study, funded by the World Bank but with minimal external input, was embarked upon to determine a way forward.

At the same time there was an international call, echoed in PNG, for greater efforts to be made in the support of vernacular literacy for educational and cultural reasons.

Some provinces, notably Milne Bay, Bougainville and East New Britain, had established vernacular preparatory/elementary schools supported strongly by their own communities who saw them as critical elements in the preservation of the local culture.

The Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) provided critical professional support.

But the communities’ view was not necessarily shared by the emerging vocal urban middle class.

So, with the view of the majority in mind, the sector study resulted in a revolutionary proposal.

Schooling should begin at age six in a three year elementary school using a language of instruction chosen by the community, usually the vernacular, but not necessarily so.

Apart from its contribution to cultural retention, the use of a language spoken by the children would allow for their introduction to reading and writing using a language that they already knew, following a fundamental educational principle of moving from the known to the unknown.

All elementary pupils would feed into six years of primary school from Grades 3 to 8 with the transition to English as the language of instruction in Grade 3.

After primary, all pupils would feed into high/secondary schools offering Grades 9 to 10/12 and beyond, at least to Grade 10.

To increase the number of students enrolling in Grades 11 and 12, a high school in most provinces would be converted to a secondary school by the addition of those grades. 

Exceptions were to be made in the case of Western Highlands and National Capital District where the numbers of students qualifying for selection to Grade 11 far exceeded the numbers anywhere else.

These represented the structural changes in the national education plan.

The principal curriculum changes were: (1) the possible introduction of languages other than English as the language of instruction; and (2) the teaching of reading and writing in the chosen language in Grades Prep, 1 and 2 (with transition to English as the language of instruction in Grade 3); and (3) modification to the science curriculum in upper primary (Grades 7 and 8) to remove the need for science laboratories.

What happened


Communities and their school boards of management were left almost entirely to their own devices in building classrooms for elementary schools.

The regulation regarding the language of instruction, which provided for communities through their board of management to decide on the language, was, in some cases, misinterpreted as meaning a vernacular language must be used.

Communities in rural and remote areas welcomed the use of vernacular as the language of instruction and for teaching reading and writing.

The misinterpretation, however, brought immediate opposition from the emerging urban middle classes where there was no common vernacular language, with the possible exception of Tok Pisin or Hiri Motu or, in some cases, English.

An innovative elementary teacher training system was devised and successfully implemented but it rapidly declined post project as the Department of Education had never institutionalised elementary teacher training with the same seriousness as it had done for primary and secondary teacher training.

In most cases under-resourced elementary coordinators and inspectors in the provinces had to step in and provide whatever training they could, notwithstanding the fact that teacher education is a national function.

Again, the urban middle classes - most of whom would have successfully completed their primary education thanks to the efforts of ‘A Course’ teachers who had completed Grade 6 and one year of teacher training, ‘B course’ teachers who had completed Form 2 (Grade 8) and two years of teacher training or ‘C course teachers who had completed Form 4 (Grade 10) and two years of teacher training - complained bitterly about the enrolment of Grade 10 leavers in elementary teacher training as opposed to the upgraded requirement for Grade 12 for enrolment in primary teacher training.

Very many communities in rural areas did not have Grade 12 leavers but were happy to have new employment opportunities open up for their school leavers and to have their children start school at age six.

As has been the situation at all levels of the education system for decades, the availability of appropriate teaching and learning materials at the elementary level has been dire.

It took some years for the Teaching Service Commission and the Department of Education to have all elementary teachers efficiently included on the government payroll. 

Treasury had been very opposed to the introduction of three years of elementary education, failing to understand that because of the lower salary of elementary teachers the cost of paying a teacher for three years at the elementary level would be no greater that paying a teacher for the two years of primary schooling which would be withdrawn from community/primary schools.


The addition of Grades 7 and 8 to primary (formerly community) schools presented most communities and their boards of management with numerous challenges.

Apart from the initial six primary schools (four in Madang Province and two in West New Britain Province) which received K35,000 each and a small number around the country that benefited from AusAID and European Union support, the communities, boards and teachers had to fend for themselves.

Little, if any, in-service training was provided for primary-trained teachers to teach Grades 7 and 8, or their inspectors. Teaching and learning materials were in little supply. And sanitation facilities to provide for the needs of adolescent girls were low on the list of infrastructure requirements.

The failure of centralised supply of adequate teaching and learning materials, a national function, saw school boards and teachers buying and photocopying the necessary materials and the burden on rural and remote schools that had only difficult and expensive access to stationary shops and photocopying facilities was great.

A study of the education budgets of five representative provinces over a five year period showed no provision of any infrastructure renovation or development at primary schools.  The situation was no better in most other provinces.


A lot of thought was put into the selection of the first two pilot secondary schools which were chosen because the Department was certain they would be successful. And successful they were, with one of them topping the national examinations in their first year with a Grade 12.

These two schools had been provided with teaching and learning materials, in-service training and over K1 mllion each for infrastructure development like chemistry laboratories.

Two subsequent interventions upset this happy state.

First, a new government introduced, overnight, ‘free education’, leaving almost no money in the Department’s budget for anything else.

And then there was the general state of politics. Why was one of the early secondary schools located in a place in Southern Highlands that few people had ever heard of? (Because the governor-general at the time came from there.) Why was the first secondary school in New Ireland Province in Namatanai and not Kavieng? (Because the prime minister at the time was the local member.)

And so it went, with virtually all decisions being political rather than based on any professional or economic considerations.

Initially, the plan had provided for the staged introduction of the new system with one secondary school in each province.  However, with the success of the first two, every member wanted one for their electorate.

In a small number of cases, international aid donors, principally Australia and the European Union, provided support for new secondary schools but manystarted off with no additional support.


There was an obvious need for some modifications to the curriculum to support these developments and assistance was offered by Australia in the form of a curriculum development project.

This turned out to be an unmitigated disaster  It was, in effect, an attempt to introduce a whole new curriculum called outcomes based education (OBE), which many states in the US and one or two in Australia were already dumping.

No provision had been made in the original project design for the massive in-service training challenge which it presented, or for supporting textbooks and materials.

So, these issues may, at least in part, help to answer Phil’s question about what has happened to education in Papua New Guinea.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

RCJ (Colin) Hayward

These arguments have been going on since Independence and are just going round in circles.

I worked in PNG high schools for about 12 years. Along with most expatriate staff, I left reluctantly in about 1977-78. At that time most of the high school jobs were going to Philippines' contract staff.

I can remember when they arrived and nearly all of them had masters or doctor of education degree plaques on their desks but I don't remember any of them being literate in English, which was the medium of instruction.

Since that time I have kept a passing interest in the progress of education in PNG. It is very difficult to get real information but it seems that all the schools I worked in are now closed or are closing down due to lack of properly qualified staff and lack of upkeep.

I remember when I was there we always had 'work parades' twice a day. I wonder if they still exist?

The other main reason for the demise of the schools appears to be staff pilfering at the school level and corruption at the administration and political level.

It seems that Whitlam had a lot to answer for and the UN was right behind him. Somare was very important with his Bully Beef mates and certain European high school teachers. Such is life....

Prin Simon Cholai

The 1995 education reform, undertaken by PNG through its National Education Plan 1995-2004, was a holistic approach.

It called for curriculum, teacher education, and standard reforms. The education structure of 6, 6, 2 was changed to 3, 6, 6. That in itself brought about demands that the government was not committed to meet.

Reform(s) in a medium size economy like PNG with a rapidly growing population should be progressive and specific taking into consideration the government's commitments.

Funding for rapid teacher upgrading, curriculum reforms, and education standards weren't given priorities hence the downfall in progressing education initiatives.

Mrs Rebekah Cook

Thanks for the article. I have lived in PNG for nearly 18 months as a principal of a school in POM. I have not yet travelled around the country, but I certainly hear the stories.

Our story is that we are a small private school Prep to Grade 8, with 300 national students and, apart from my husband and myself, the rest of the staff are nationals.

In 2018 in NCD, 8,200 students sat for the Grade 8 exams to fight for 3,200 places in Grade 9. 5,000 children would not get a Grade 9 placement.

(This situation seems to have increasing numbers of children not getting a place each year from what I hear.)

However, in 2018 4,500 students passed the exams and the Education Department had to work out how to place them in 3,200 places. So they preferred the public schools over the private schools.

Many of our students did not get placements despite scoring 40 - 50 point above the pass mark. Other schools were allocated 100's of students above what they could accept.

Over time we have been able to get our students into school, with our last student getting a place just last week. But they shouldn't have to fight to get into Grade 9! It should not be okay that 5,000 students are expected to fail and not gain entry to high school.

We will do what we can for our graduating students this year and we are hoping that we can find a room and a space to start their high school education for them.

However, it seems we have to do it alone. There is no government assistance to get started. These children deserve an education and deserve to have the opportunities that other children have.

This country needs children to have an education, and needs schools to be improving what they can offer. Every day I turn families away who want to get their children into our school. It is the hardest thing I do.

Arthur Williams

Thanks for a good summary of education in PNG. I am adding here a little from my time in PNG with five daughters.

In 2007 my youngest was at primary school in Kavieng before she joined me at Taskul to attend the school there with her cousins.

I went to have a look at the school that I had first seen as a Kiap in 1970 when my wife had been trying to teach our 2 expatriate children through correspondence courses.

I almost cried when I saw the dilapidated buildings, broken gutters with one water tank, windowless & leaking classrooms, earthen floors, ancient blackboards a non-existent library with floors littered with the remains of some books and leaflets.

To cap this utter negation of the right of a child to be educated one of the teachers had no chair but was using a sawn off short section of a tree trunk – plenty of those as Asian loggers had been clearfelling on the island for years with no positive impact on the living standards of its citizens.

There had not been a resident Education Inspector for quite a few years as the establishment officer refused to leave the bright light of Kavieng to live in his designated poorly maintained house on a deteriorating government station where the fellow public servants struggled with lack of electricity to run the Lavongai sub-district.

To reach the primary school I had to walk past the late 1960s community hall which was about to fall down. One of its enclosed offices was occupied by an ex-govt labourer the other which I think had been a bulk store was the Taskul Elementary School.

It was a new concept for the people and quite a number of educated unemployed young people had been eager to become ‘teachers’ by what some saw would be through default.

The idea of these ‘Tok Ples’ schools was considered to be an innovation but I had previously met several teachers from earlier days who were unqualified teachers employed by the United Church after some training and possibly Catholics too.

Over here in Wales we now have Welsh medium or tokples schools at all levels including nursery. In fact the language is compulsory in even the English medium schools. The idea is to turnout bilingual kids and enlarges the long declining number of its citizens able to use the language.

The last census figures I saw showed it had failed to do that. An aside my youngest daughter when she came with me to Wales in 2008 had to study the language and be examined in it at Grade 10 but she also had to try and learn Spanish, French too.

Back in PNG when she moved with her mum from their island to Kavieng she had to attend an Elementary School on Nusa Island but sadly it used a different tokples to her mother tongue. An often deterrent for public servants to be transferred if they had children aged 5, 6, 7.

If she had been taken fifty miles south from the provincial capital she would have to cope with another Tok-Ples and travel another 50 miles southwards another or out on Lihir Island, where we had lived, with yet another.

An example of an unconsidered outcome from educational theorists tinkering with policy without their being considered in practical or real life situations especially if the Waiganista fail to fully support the latest policy fad.

A final reference to my youngest. During her last year in Grade 6 Maths was taught by the headmaster who was often called away urgently to respond to a phone call or other administrative task.

With such hampering of proper teaching and exacerbated by being in a class of almost 50 has meant only in her post education years has she been able to improve her lack of mathematical knowledge.

I was with the extended family one evening in Taskul when the two of the primary children asked me about a Bunsen burner as they were now in the ‘top-up’ class and were studying science by the light of one hurricane lamp and several so-called ‘prison-lamps’ - just a bottle with a homemade wick suspended dangerously into a few cms of kerosene.

None of them had ever seen or used this 150 year old gas burning aid to science and industry. Luckily I was able to show them a picture of such a device and even found an old mathematic/plastic template of one.

It brought home to me yet again the Waiganista lack of support for expanding primary schools. Many rapidly ‘upgraded’ primary to high school was the result of the PNG Govt. slavishly responding to UN idea of ‘Education for All’ It meant it could be seen on the world stage as having rapidly expanding secondary school numbers.

Alas on the ground the real practical truth was different. Some had no dedicated science teachers merely the old primary mortals using their own earlier years training or even schooldays experiences to teach children desperate to be ready for the IT world of the 21st century.

This week there was an article in the PNG media about the Wednesday Syndrome of too many public servants that I encountered in several areas of the nation.

I would be in my store on Thursday when in would come teachers asking me to cash their fortnight cheques. I knew that many of them came from tiny two-teacher schools so that it would suffer a 50% drop in staff for Thursday and Friday, to the detriment of its pupils.

For more distant schools some left their classrooms on a Wednesday to be in the Education Office next morning to get their cheque and start shopping etc. before they long trek home.

I felt sorry for those in the watery wastes of the Gulf province who had long journeys to get to Baimuru. They would spend 90% of their salary on basic groceries that included the necessary 5 or more tanks of outboard fuel to get them home with enough to return two weeks later.

In the Morehead area teachers from the small government station and Arufe were lucky if they got paid in a month as the Western Government was unable to afford chartering a plane for many weeks to deliver goods and services to its hard working officers.

In the islands region we are aware of the extreme difficulties experienced by them on the Atolls despite several ships being bought over past 50 years to service those remote climate change affected isolated islands.

Has the digital age put paid to these absences? I doubt much has changed outside of the urban centres.

Sadly too many of the mob who run parliament don’t really care about the vast rural people. I think Slim Dusty had a song about the five-year election related pilgrimage of existing and putative MPs. Must find it on web.

I know I should dream of a new era coming but having been a PNG watcher for almost 50 years and having every new PM promising reform and less corruption and saying ‘Bringing government to your doorstep’ all I can say is Mauswara tasol!’ ‘Oli giaman’ was a catchphrase of the many disillusioned and imagine still is.

After all ‘If youse speaks good English yours kids speaks good English. Innit?’

Paul Oates

Phil, that raises the germ of an idea, long left intentionally alone, to molder and disappear into the annals or unrecorded history.

Why not champion those PNG people who have provided the backbone of services to their people, often without any pay or support?

Once the dust settles after the ongoing fracas of a general election in Australia, perhaps the next challenge aught to be along these lines?

Philip Fitzpatrick

Your point about the dedicated teachers struggling but still carrying on is a good one Daniel.

I came across similar dedicated individuals almost everywhere where I went doing social mapping.

I was also impressed with the health workers still manning aid posts and clinics even though they had no medical supplies or salary.

Some of those people were supposed to be retired but they stepped in to fill the need.

It would be good if we could celebrate some of those people.

When you stand them up alongside the politicians there is no comparison.

Daniel Doyle

Phil, I had waited for some time before responding to your question in the hope that some PNG educators would respond.

As that didn't happen I produced the summary above. It is nothing more than a summary as the detail would require a book length description. (I'm not volunteering!)

It if all sounds like doom and gloom, it isn't.

I have the greatest respect for the thousands of teachers throughout the country who have lived through this and continued to do their best despite lack of resources, long delayed pay increases, lack of various entitlements, etc.

Without their dedication the system would have collapsed by now.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Thanks Daniel. There's a mixture of just about everything in there, ranging from middle class objections to teaching in elementary schools right through to the dreaded OBE, greedy politicians, political interference, dumb ideas and lack of funds.

It will be interesting to read any comments by teachers to your succinct summary.

Ed Brumby

Dan's excellent account makes for a depressing read, and incites suspicion that progress in PNG's education sphere since the mid-1960s - when I was part of that sphere - has been lacklustre at best.

We, at least, had the benefit of solid (and sometimes visionary) leadership and (mostly) reliable bureaucrats, a reasonably sound, relevant and fit-for-purpose curriculum, (mostly) sufficient supplies of supporting materials - and the daily support of the ABC/NBC Schools Broadcasts.

We were given enormous freedom to innovate, and were encouraged to do so.

We were also painfully aware of the limited opportunities awaiting those in our care.

I remember well gazing out at my class of 44 Standard 6 pupils knowing full well that only 2 or 3 would gain entry to high school, that some might join the army or police and that the majority would be confined to village life - which, of course, would be no bad thing in the grand scheme of things.

I took some comfort in knowing that they would finish their formal schooling with reasonable levels of literacy and numeracy, a heightened awareness of and, hopefully, an ongoing curiosity about the world beyond PNG and some capacity for critical thinking - all of which could be applied to make village life even better.

Lindsay F Bond

Of Education, what lessons come from China?

Mao Zedong was leader of China in the 1960’s. He felt “that the current party leadership in China…was moving too far in a revisionist direction”. Mao response brought on a ‘cultural revolution’ including to “shut down the nation’s schools”.
See: https://www.history.com/topics/china/cultural-revolution

Eventually however, Mao’s cultural revolution caused “many Chinese to lose faith in their government altogether”

Zhou Enlai, China’s premier “acted to stabilize China by reviving educational system”.

Of Education for PNG, what lessons are to be learned?

As Daniel states, the new curriculum [of] outcomes based education (OBE) brought unmitigated disaster, and misinterpretation restricted opportunity, and “free education” brought alarming increase of costs to communities, and is laden with “decisions being political” not based on “professional or economic considerations”. These are of the era O’Neill.

Appreciation for Daniel’s summary, is offset by sadness at setbacks as enumerated, but is in hope that PNG people and leadership will be encouraged to stabilize and revive industrial, intellectual and integral education for the nation.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)