Indonesia’s new Culture and Elementary and Secondary Education Minister Anies Baswedan has a huge task ahead of him.
Australia was alarmed when its students ranked 19th in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests in 2012. But Southeast Asia’s largest economy performed much worse. Its students scored the second-lowest out of 65 countries. Vietnamese students scored better than Indonesians (and Australians), ranking 17th on the chart.
The Indonesian government has made efforts to improve the quality of education. It has mandated 20% of the national budget for education. There are plans to improve the learning process and to enhance the quality of teachers.
But there is one big problem that has often been overlooked.
Students caught in the crossfire
In many places in Indonesia, there is a long-standing conflict between communities and the schools that provide education for their children.
Trapped in the middle of the conflict are the students whose studies are often disrupted as a consequence.
Research in Bulukumba regency, in South Sulawesi and Sekadau, and Bengkayang regency, in West Kalimantan, revealed that one in three schools visited is in conflict with communities for several reasons.
First, schools often lack proper land documentation. Second, communities are “free-riding”, using school properties without proper care. Third, schools face vandalism or theft.
These challenges exist not only in these two provinces, but across Indonesia, wherever increased urbanisation is converting villages to cities or creating new jurisdictions as a consequence of decentralisation.
Conflict over land
Schools in rural areas often start with members of the community granting or selling a piece of land without proper documentation. As time goes by, these schools expand. Yet the land certification had never been completed until another party brings this issue to the front.
For example, the school bought the land a long time ago when the price of land was still low but did not immediately process proper land titles. As the price of land dramatically increased with the process of urbanisation, the next of kin of the former land owners became tempted to claim the land and demand a large amount of money.
Problems of schools that lack proper land documentation are widespread in Indonesia. In Mamuju regency in West Sulawesi, nearly all elementary schools - about 90% - do not own land titles. In Bulukumba regency, 70% of schools have the same problem. Half of the elementary schools in Lebak regency in Banten province also don’t own land titles.
Many schools have been ignoring this problem. Principals and teachers are too busy with teaching duties to resolve this. In extreme cases, the community seals the schools, barring entry to students and teachers.
In Sumenep regency in East Java, students had to temporarily use people’s home terraces before moving to a classroom of an Islamic school and then to a seaweed warehouse. In Bulukumba, students had to use the basement of people’s homes.
Problems in land documentation reflect school’s ignorance of the legal status of their land. Also, school officials often do not know how to handle land documentation problems, not to mention lacking the funds to acquire land. This is not only the case in rural areas or outside Java but also in urban areas and in Java.
The free-riders problem
Another type of conflict happens when communities use school grounds for non-school activities such as grazing areas for their cattle or goats after school time. This makes the school dirty and creates unsanitary conditions for students. It may cause health problems and prevent students' full participation in the education system.
Villagers also often use school grounds to store community tools and equipment. In one fishing village we visited, the fishermen put their net in the schoolyard as it was close to the sea.
Communities also use school grounds for recreational activities. Anybody can enter the school area to play football and, in the process, destroy plants or break classroom windows.
This issue affirms the fact that schools have been viewed as common goods and community members act like free riders. Anybody in the neighbourhood is free to take advantage of the school yard. Schools are regularly used by trespassers for individual benefits.
Vandalism and theft
The third conflict is caused by vandalism and theft of school property. Schools in both rural and urban areas face this issue.
In some cases, young delinquents loiter, get drunk and spray graffiti on school grounds. These activities are often combined with criminal action where school assets are stolen. School officials feel it is unsafe to keep various learning resources and materials at school.
While problems of land documentation have been reported in local media, the problems of free riders and vandalism are often unreported. Unless we visit the schools, we would not know they face these challenges. Schools seem to be helpless in defending themselves in these conflicts with the community.
How should this be solved? For one thing, the new minister and regional governments should be aware of this long-standing problem.
The government should provide training for school principals to help them learn “soft” skills to engage with the community and revitalise school committees. School principals need to understand the culture of the local community and be open to working with them. Appointing principals who are part of the community might help ease the problems.
The school committee has an important role as a mediator between the school and the community. But often it is seen as a money-collecting institution for the school.
Many school committees have been inactive and lack the capacity to intervene. Conflicts with the community should be a spur to revitalise the school committee.
In terms of land issues, the local government should start documenting schools that presently lack land titles. Each school should keep its own land documentation.
The local government should also set aside budget funds to acquire problematic pieces of land. To solve this problem, government agencies, for example the Education Agency and the Land Agency, need to work together.
In terms of free riding, vandalism and theft, it is important to note that many schools still have no clear physical boundaries. Schools need financial assistance to build proper fences or hire security guards to protect grounds after school hours.
It is crucial for the government to enact measures that will improve learning processes and teaching capacity. But these measures can only be effective when schools are free from conflict with their communities.
The PISA results show that Indonesian students face serious challenges in their schooling. We should, at the very least, make sure they can study in peace.
Palmira Permata Bachtiar is affiliated with SMERU Research Institute. This article expresses her personal opinion