INTER PRESS SERVICE
MANY PACIFIC ISLAND NATIONS are celebrating the success of rising school enrolment rates, with 14 members of the 16-member Pacific Island Forum on target to meet Millennium Development Goal 2: Achieving universal primary education by 2015.
But a closer look inside the classroom and in communities surrounding these schools reveals a shockingly low literacy rate.
Two organisations – the Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE) and Papua New Guinean Education Advocacy Network (PEAN) – teamed up to assess the impact of formal education on people between the ages of 15 and 60 years in Madang Province.
Their findings suggest that so-called strides in education have not yielded much concrete success: the literacy rate in the national languages of English and Tok Pisin was just 23%, with many students unable to read or write after completing primary education.
Similar findings have been reported in Melanesian countries throughout the southwest Pacific.
In the Solomon Islands, the government has claimed remarkable recovery from a five-year-long civil war (1998-2003), with primary school enrolment at 91%. However, poor school facilities in rural areas and lack of interest in formal learning have been cited as contributing factors to a critically low literacy rate of 17%.
“The issue of low literacy is prevalent mainly with those who are learning in a language other than their primary one,” Lice Taufaga, lecturer at the school of education at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji.
“Literacy is best learnt in one’s primary language, yet most learners in South Pacific countries are expected to achieve it in English, the language of business and administration.”
Taufaga added that there were also cultural challenges, as the solitary activity of reading was not always encouraged or supported in many communal-oriented Pacific societies.
“There is very little exposure to books in the home and in schools, and many children do chores to supplement family income after school, so they have no time to read,” she said.
The linguistic diversity of the region, which contains a population of 10 million and one fifth of the world’s languages - plus European languages introduced during the colonial era - makes literacy a complex issue.
More than a decade ago Pacific educationalists began rethinking the legacy of introduced western curriculums and claiming a priority for Pacific languages and cultures within the education process.
However, the reality is that a bilingual approach remains, with English and French perceived as necessary for engaging in a global world.
“The long term impacts of low literacy levels in English and French are a key concern because much of the information about development is only available in English or French, hence a higher level of literacy in these languages will enhance transfer of technology, information and knowledge at all levels of society,” said Rex Horoi, director of the Foundation of the Peoples of the South Pacific.
“It is critically important that Pacific people have direct access to information relevant for their sustainable livelihoods and improvement of life in the language they understand and communicate in,” Horoi emphasised.
Addressing poor literacy now is vital to improving students’ chances of completing secondary and tertiary qualifications and empowering Pacific Islanders to contribute to social and economic development, whether at the local, national or regional level.