The writer is the education and cultural attaché at the Indonesian Embassy in New Delhi.
New Delhi, October 18 2016
One may criticize the slow pace of change in the education system. It is like a gigantic mothership that is slow to move and change direction in a very short time. On the other hand, in some cases this sluggishness can be beneficial and is actually a characteristic of a well-established education system.
Fundamental changes like proposing a new schooling structure or curricula should be difficult and involve not-too-simple prerequisites. It should not be too easy to propose new subjects in the national curricula. As an important part of a nation’s development, an education system should be robust, in particular for its basic principles.
Since education nowadays is envisioned as a global common good, education policies and politics cannot be separated.
The decision to prematurely push through the Indonesian “2013 curriculum” via political means should be recalled. Indeed, a major political party chairman defended the implementation of the questionable curriculum. Politics was not used to champion academic reasons and judgments, as it should have been, but rather used to nullify them.
The national exam is another politically motivated policy. Despite the lack of academic evidence on its merits, the exam has been implemented yearly for more than 15 years and administered to every six-, nine-and 12-year student. Ironically, most of the defenders of this exam are not educators.
After observing this fragile education system and how those in power can easily interfere with education practices, it makes sense to question why the Indonesian education system is not equipped with some protection mechanism.
India reformed its education system significantly in 2005, with the release of the National Curriculum Framework. An expert team on each discipline prepared and wrote school textbooks based on this framework. Even though they are not perfect, substantial improvements have been made. In particular, the new textbooks are more relevant to the day-to-day life of real Indian people and culture.
They not only focus on knowledge but also encourage students to walk through sophisticated scientific processes by debating fundamental concepts. So the students do not merely absorb the collection of unrelated facts but also improve their academic skills and passion for science.
In this reform, the government-owned National of Education Research and Training (NCERT) together with a number of social science professors wrote political theory textbooks for class nine to 12. These books discuss the foundations of the Republic of India, like freedom, equality, nationalism, secularism, etc.
However, unsurprisingly some groups critical to inclusiveness are not happy with these textbooks. Combined with the fact that the textbooks have been used for more than 10 years, under government regulation, the textbooks can be replaced.
However, there is a mechanism that requires that the books’ replacements must be ready and approved by a board of experts before the books can be changed. This mechanism hinders the politically-motivated move to alter the textbooks. One may say that the Indian education system is not perfect, but it has some characteristics of robustness.
Politics should be utilized to promote the advancement of education merits and human civilization. However, when the system is not robust, the merits of education can be compromised merely to secure one’s power.
These days, the robustness of an education system is more vital for large, democratic and pluralistic countries such as India, the US and Indonesia. Since education is considered a public common good and it is a fundamental instrument for nurturing the countries, then education system robustness will avoid the education development from the derailment. It is dangerous when those in power can force the beliefs of the mainstream into the education system while at the same time downplay the culture or beliefs of marginalized groups.
Education must be sensitive to pluralism. Diversity should always be kept in mind by education policymakers. No child in the education system should ever feel alienated, even slightly. No child from whatever cultural background or economic status should ever think that she or he is an outcast in the education system. The robustness guarantees sensitiveness toward diversity.
There are at least three instruments that can ensure the robustness of an education system.
First, a regulation requiring that every change in an education system must go through deliberation by an independent body consisting of experts. Changes should also only be possible after lengthy and thorough research is done and sufficient given time to study it, a simulation is held and a pilot project on a small scale.
Therefore, changing or modifying crucial education elements would require a lengthy, elaborative and thorough analysis. The public should be able to access and engage in this intellectual debate.
Second, if an education blueprint is available, it may guide the direction of education development. It would help decision-makers in the education system to focus on the meaningful goals and vision. From the blueprint, they would know what elements need to be prioritized.
Third, if a national education board exists and functions well, then this board could ensure the robustness of the education system. The board’s autonomy and independence in judgment should always be ensured. Therefore, public should always be kept engaged in the processes from selection to reporting.
For large and pluralistic democratic countries, the robustness of the education system would guarantee the viability of their national values.