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close this bookThe Courier N 148 - Nov - Dec 1994 - Dossier: Education - Country Reports: Saint Lucia - St Vincent and The Grenadines (EC Courier, 1994, 104 p.)
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View the documentEducation, the key to change?
View the documentIncreasing school enrolment rates
View the documentSchool textbooks, investment... or waste
View the documentDevelopment indicators and education
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View the documentCan we swap debt for education?
View the documentBecoming a teacher: an ambiguous ventre
View the documentAssessing whether an educational system is effective
View the documentLiteracy: three stories
View the documentTuvalu - Education for life
View the documentEducation as an investment for the future

Tuvalu - Education for life

The ACP's smallest country makes education serve development

There is an old and familiar debate over whether education should be tailored to serve the practical needs of society or should resist cyclical influences and turn out generalists, qualified in a range of subjects but with no specific career or objective in view. Many developing countries, including ACP members, have inherited from the colonial period an educational system of the second type. In today's climate of enterprise and competition. How ever, nonspecialists can find themselves at a disadvantage in the job market, and countries with little to sell but labour miss out on the commercial potential of a labour force with skills to match the available resources. The ACP group includes several such countries, the small-island states in the Pacific, and it has been left to the tiniest of these, Tuvalu, to lead the way in devising a form of education which will help its citizens make the most of their lives in an unpromising environment while, at the same time, serving the wider interests of the country's economic development.

Education for Life is a concept first floated by the Government of Tuvalu in a 1988 study as a country-specific programme whose object was to establish an appropriately educated population in order to implement, achieve and sustain the nation's overall development objectives. Manpower is the country's only dependable resource, and the provision of quality education was seen as fundamental if any other type of development was to occur in the areas of social, economic and private-sector growth. The starting point was not a promising one.

Tuvalu has fewer than 10000 inhabitants, spread over a number of small atolls separated by huge expanses of open sea. The difficulties this creates in terms of providing enough teaching staff, buildings and equipment can be easily imagined. There was six years' compulsory primary education for all children at the country's 12 primary schools, nine of them government-owned and free to parents, the others church-run and charging nominal fees. Until 1991, however, there was only one state secondary school, a boarding establishment on centrally situated Vaitupu island, and only enough places in it for one in four primary school leavers from the whole country. To continue their schooling, the remaining three quarters either had to go abroad, if their families could afford it or if they won one of the few overseas scholarships available, or entered a Community Training Centre on their home islands. These Centres, however, were regarded as very much the second-best option. A second, church-run secondary school opened on the main atoll, Funafuti, in 1991, but as a day institution cannot cater for children living on outer islands which may be hundreds of kilometres away.

All post-secondary education was obtained overseas, in most cases through the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. The only official vocational training available consisted of courses in seamanship given at the country's one maritime training school for some 25 young men per year.


As to the content of Tuvaluan education, the largest single employer was the Government, through the public sector, and the main function of secondary schooling was seen as being to prepare students to take up civil-service-type posts, so that the curriculum was predominantly academic. Negligible attention was given to the development of technical and commercial knowledge. Nor was there a uniform system of assessment for monitoring either individual or national standards. This led, and still leads, to an acute mismatch between the 'outputs' of the educational system and the needs of individuals and the country, both present and future.

To cut the public sector down, Tuvalu, like other countries, is now corporatising and trying to privatise some of its activities. However, the competitive but highly theoretical examinations which candidates for recruitment into and promotion within the civil service have to pass bear little relationship even to the work of administration, and certainly do not fit those who pass them for other kinds of work available in Tuvalu, especially anything productive. And even supposing redundant civil servants had received a more versatile form of training, the private sector is minute and the potential for developing it is limited.

At the same time, there is a demographic complication: the population of Tuvalu exceeds the carrying capacity of the domestic economic structure and is rising at a rate which will soon create competition for land and inshore marine resources, especially on and around the main island, Funafuti, where the 1991 census estabilished that 45% of the population of Tuvalu live. If present trends continue, the Government can foresee a day where there will be no living space left in the capital to expand into.

Shortages of space, skills and opportunities, then, have made a rethink of policy priorities urgent. More people must be educated, what they learn must be appropriate to the country's resources and situation, and more Tuvaluans must be equipped to seek their living outside the country. As the Government puts it, the object of the Education for Life programme will now be no less than to raise the quality of life for all Tuvaluans by enhancing the country's human resources within the framework of local tradition and culture.


As the Director of Education, Peneharo Hauma, explains, education reforms started in 1991 with some bold initiatives: the length of primary schooling (on children's home islands) has been extended from six to eight years, after which children go on to a compulsory two years of secondary schooling, without having to pass the selective entrance examination. Senior secondary education is available for those with the aptitude and the wish to go further. The unpopular community training centres have been closed down, and the maritime training school now offers vocational, technical and commerce-related education as well as seamanship courses.

What is more, the curriculum has been overhauled completely to ensure that cultural values, especially the Tuvalu language, are supported and to strike a balance between academic and technical content. Primary schools, for example, as well as Tuvaluan now offer English, mathematics, basic sciences, environmental studies, commercial studies and technical drawing in the upper forms, woodwork, home economics and physical education. As well as these subjects, the secondary schools offer social sciences leading to geography and history, clothing and textiles, and Tuvaluan culture, including skills required for day-to-day life. Extracurricular dubs teach further traditional skills, such as music. A progress report issued last year stresses that the new curriculum will avoid gender stereotyping through equal access for both sexes to all courses.

An extension centre of the University of the South Pacific offers continuing education courses by correspondence for adult students, who can study at home in Tuvalu instead of going to the main campus in Fiji. Some lectures are given by high-frequency radio link-up, and there are local part-time tutors. At present only the Bachelor of Education degree can be taken by correspondence (which coincides neatly with the country's need for many more qualified teachers). Civil service jobs still exert a powerful attraction, though: the centre's director, Pafini Nouata, reports that the heaviest demand is for diploma courses in management, accountancy and economics which equip their holders to compete for public-sector posts or further promotion. Slightly more women than men are enrolled at the centre, and they tend to be more persistent with their studies, but Mr Nouata says the centre is still not getting enough people from the outer islands. He therefore tries to break down barriers by putting out a weekly radio programme whose message is that the facility is there for all who want to learn. 'The development plans of the Government won't work without individual development,' he points out.


Problems persist, however. Funafuti primary school, across the road from the University extension centre, is seriously overcrowded. There are 630 children at the school, says its head teacher, Vione Natano, and only 19 teachers out of a full staffing requirement of 25. Teacher-pupil ratios like this are found in other countries too, of course; the special feature here is that only one child in four is native to Funafuti, the rest being the children of outer islanders who have come to the capital to work or to live with relatives who have work, generally in the civil service. On some outer islands the teacher-pupil ratio is an uneconomic one to nine. Also, Tuvalu still has only two secondary schools, in Funafuti and Vaitupu islands, so that a child from anywhere else in the country has to move away from home and board. These distortions eloquently testify to the effects of Tuvalu's employment, resources and population imbalances on the social structure.

At all educational levels there are still damaging shortages of the skills that could improve people's lives. Three Tuvaluans out of five live from subsistence fishing and tropical garden farming, on infertile land, and most of these lack any skills they could use to generate economic activities. Eighty per cent of the labour force have no formal tertiary qualifications of any sort; in late 1992 only 29 people in the whole country had received any recognised artisan-level training; and only 0.6% of the population aged 15 and over have university degrees. Tuvalu de,oends heavily on foreign donors for all development projects, but the lack of technical, administrative and managerial expertise and business acumen has seriously constrained its capacity to absorb and use development finance. Only 56% of the approved development budget for 199091, for example, was spent.

Small wonder, then, that the Government has decided to go all out for development of its people. And there is strong public support. 'Education in Tuvalu is like a religion now,' says the country's Director of Education, Mr Hauma, and, to continue the simile, parents will make huge pilgrimages, lasting years, and extended families will make great sacrifices, so that their children can worship at the shrine of learning. Where nature has been so tightfisted with other resources, training young brains is certainly one of the best investments the country can make in its own future.

Robert Rowe