Mark Heyward l Palladium - Aug 14 2023
Clearing Kids’ Path to the Finish Line

Mark Heyward is the Program Director of INOVASI. He has worked in education development in Indonesia for over 30 years and holds a PhD from the University of Tasmania, based on research into intercultural literacy.

On August 17, Indonesia will be a mass of swirling red and white flags as the country celebrates National Independence Day and marks the end of the nation’s long struggle for independence. Every year, I reflect on how far this nation has come and why I am proud to call it home.

I grew up in Tasmania, Australia’s smallest and only island state, where life moves at a slower pace, and relocated to Indonesia in 1992. With 237 million people across more than 18,000 islands, here only Jakarta traffic moves slowly – cars sitting in almost motionless gridlock in the sticky heat. This multi-cultural nation, embracing 1,300 ethnicities, will celebrate National Independence Day with street parades, festivities, competitions, and Tumpeng Merah Putih (red and white rice in a cone shape).

But some traditions from Dutch rule still remain. Balap Karung (sack races) are one of the most well-known – children bend their knees inside a sack and jump their way to the finish line. Some children will be more successful, and others will lag behind.

Just like at primary school.

Over 68 million children attend primary and secondary schools in Indonesia, supported by three million teachers. The country has done well in expanding access to all children, but Indonesian education suffers from persistently low learning outcomes and for the past 20 years has remained at the bottom of PISA rankings (the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment). I began my career as an early childhood teacher in Tasmania, so I know the value of data for children’s learning.

As the Director of INOVASI (the Australian government funded ‘Innovation for Indonesia’s School Children’ program), I’ve seen first-hand the benefits of evidence-based policy to improve teaching and learning for children in Indonesia. As the COVID-19 pandemic tore across Indonesia, we collaborated with the Indonesian Ministry of Education, Culture, Research, and Technology (MoECRT) to launch The Learning Gap Study. 18,370 students from Grades 1–3 were assessed on literacy and numeracy learning proficiencies, benchmarking against national and global standards.

The study found that nearly half of Grade 3 students had not yet mastered the minimum literacy skills, and even more concerning than literacy, two out of three Grade 3 students did not meet the minimum numeracy skills. Some children were significantly more disadvantaged than others. Imagine children lining up for Balap Karung races across Indonesia, all laughing at the starting line and eager to jump. Although they all have to race an equal 100 metres, some children have a clear path to the finish line, while others have hurdles blocking their way.

In Indonesia, children with disabilities, children in rural areas, students who speak local languages, and boys are all facing significant obstacles. So, while some kids are crossing the finish line, others are still struggling to clear the first hurdle.

Though COVID-19 added further disruption, it also provided surprising opportunities. In 2020, INOVASI equipped MoECRT with data and findings on learning during the pandemic, which Minister Nadiem Makarim shared at the House of Representatives, and continued to support the government with data to understand and address learning loss.

With 718 distinct local languages, Indonesia is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. The national language and language of schooling, Bahasa Indonesia, is a relatively straightforward language, with consistent grammar and spelling conventions, no gender, and simple conventions for indicated tense and plurals.

While some kids are crossing the finish line, others are still struggling to clear the first hurdle.

It does have its complexities, though.

Bahasa Indonesia is an agglutinative language, meaning that many of the words use suffixes and prefixes to create different meaning. Learning as an adult is challenging enough but imagine the millions of children who step into classrooms and are unable to understand the language of instruction.

INOVASI’s study found that many children, particularly those in remote and disadvantaged areas, start basic education before becoming fluent in Bahasa Indonesia. This poses a significant challenge in the learning process. 26% of students whose mother tongue was the local language were at level 1 literacy, compared to 16% of students whose mother tongue is Bahasa Indonesia.

Within the large sample of 18,370 students, INOVASI studied a sub-set of 4,103 elementary school students, and 360 teachers in 69 schools across seven districts. We found that just one year after the pandemic, students’ learning progress from Grade 1 to Grade 2 was five to six months slower than prior to the pandemic. Alarmingly, four out of five Grade 1 students did not meet the expected standards for numeracy, and although just one third of Grade 2 students met the literacy standards, only 1 in 50 Grade 3 students did, proving that learning gaps are likely to increase exponentially over time.

But there is hope. And once again, data proved pivotal to understanding the situation for children’s learning outcomes.

In 2021, The Education Ministry launched an emergency curriculum and requested INOVASI’s support to encourage a flexible curriculum that considers local contexts and the unique needs of individual learners. INOVASI’s Bounce Back Stronger: Post-Pandemic Learning Recovery study compared data on student learning outcomes for 2020, 2021 and 2022 and revealed encouraging signs of learning recovery two years post-pandemic.

We also found that learning recovery doubled for children whose teachers used an adaptive and child-centred curriculum as it emphasised the foundational skills of literacy, numeracy, and character skills which are vital for children’s progression in learning. The curriculum eased both the students’ learning load and the teachers’ teaching load and teachers were granted greater autonomy to select instructional materials for their students.

This is an impressive result given the dire consequences of the pandemic and demonstrates how Indonesia’s learnings are not only of enormous value to the nation, but also to the global education sector. And while there are positive signs of learning recovery and the curriculum offers hope for combatting learning loss, learning is not yet back to pre-pandemic levels.

I am enormously proud of the work INOVASI has achieved since 2016. But we’re more than just data.

We’ve collaborated with MoECRT officials and stakeholders from non-government sectors to make children’s books more available. We’ve strengthened Platform Merdeka Belajar, the national teacher development platform and supported knowledge sharing events around the country. We’ve created unique opportunities for national, subnational government, and education actors to meet and we’ve made a tangible difference in improving children’s learning outcomes.

As my home of 30 years celebrates National Independence Day with colourful parades and balap karang races, my hope is that all children in Indonesia can become independent learners to realise their dreams.

Because all children have a right to a fair chance at reaching the finish line.

INOVASI’s program will end in December 2023. For more information, read 'Creating a More Inclusive Classroom for Students with Disabilities in Indonesia' or contact