How North Luwu’s ‘democracy cafés’ fixed education inequality

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Lessons from a model district in South Sulawesi, Indonesia.

“Education is a human right, with immense power to transform,” Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, had said.

Yet, in Indonesia, quality of education is spotty, and often hampered by the lack of political will. The difference is particularly stark between urban and rural areas.

The district of North Luwu in South Sulawesi province, led by Regent Indah Putri Indriani, has developed a campaign to attract teachers to underserved communities. Their approach is now catching on elsewhere in Indonesia, where there is an immense need for teacher distribution reform.

The challenges

Quality of education in North Luwu varied greatly due to an uneven distribution of teachers among urban and rural schools. As a short-term measure, many schools hired short-term contract teachers (guru honorer). The schools paid for their salaries directly, but may not have paid sufficient attention to their qualifications or competence.

On the other hand, there was a surplus of teachers in the district’s urban areas. They were not able to receive enough teaching hours for advancement opportunities or even continued certification. These teachers often were forced to choose between forgoing future promotions and picking up additional teaching hours after school.

Teachers who were transferred under previous initiatives felt as though their reassignment was a punishment for poor performance or disciplinary problems, rather than an opportunity to make a difference. This view was shared by many members of the community.

The solution

The local government approached the problem from two angles. They emphasised an open and transparent process and encouraged public participation. A forum of government officials and community members led advocacy efforts to pass a new regulation for proportional teacher distribution.

[blockquote]These dialogues were broadcast on local radio, helping to raise awareness and lead change in the community.[/blockquote] First, a local organisation facilitated regular discussions in lively ‘democracy cafés’ (warung demokrasi), where members of the community would meet to debate education issues over local snacks and coffee. These dialogues were broadcast on local radio, helping to raise awareness and lead change in the community.

The members of these forums included directors of NGOs, the vice president of the Indonesian Teachers Association and active teachers, activists involved in improving village infrastructure, the head of the education council, and local journalists.

The local government also worked with an NGO to lead a thorough update and validation of existing teacher data and conduct an in-depth analysis of teacher distribution. These data are stored in a national teacher database managed by the Ministry of Education and Culture.

The analysis revealed that less than half of the district’s elementary schools had an adequate number of government-appointed classroom teachers. Furthermore, there were severe imbalances in the allocation of subject- and grade-specific teachers: only a third of elementary schools had government-appointed physical education teachers, for instance.

After discussions and negotiations between the government and the community, the regulation was passed in October 2013. Right after the implementation, as many as 128 teachers were redistributed to underserved schools.

The impact

In addition to engaging civil society, the local administration also provided incentives for the teachers reassigned to remote areas - houses and monthly stipends in addition to their salary. These were part of efforts to help these teachers be more comfortable about living and working in isolated areas.

Besides the success of getting trained teachers to relocate, the community aspect took on momentum and brought the issue of education inequality to a broader audience. Citizen journalists wrote about their experiences with basic education, and these human interest stories were picked up by mainstream media outlets or influential local media. This helped to get people talking about teachers and schools.

Other districts, like Barru in South Sulawesi, are actively replicating the teacher distribution model. The local government has also decided to apply the regulation for proportional teacher distribution to all sub-districts in North Luwu, not just the remote ones.

Quality education should be a basic right for all, no matter their circumstances. In North Luwu, education reform became a community effort - where people rallied together to lead change.