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Education ou aliénation ?

Vanuatu’s education system takes children away from their native language and culture. A new project aims to reverse this and use school to reinforce both.    
Ralph Regenvanu, Director of Vanuatu’s Cultural Centre does not mince words when it comes to the nation’s education system. “School is one of the major factors that is breaking the transmission of culture,” he says. “We want education to be relevant to the community’s needs and to the needs of children, so that they feel empowered within their own community and not alienated.” Which is why the Cultural Centre and some non-governmental organizations are helping the Ministry of Education make radical changes to the curriculum. “It’s ambitious,” he says, “but at the moment it’s completely the other way round.”

At present, explains Regenvanu, children in Vanuatu receive primary education locally, but are taught in either English or French, with subject matter largely divorced from their daily lives. The 20 percent or so who pass an entrance exam can go on to secondary school, which, more often than not, can be on another island, hundreds of kilometres from home.

The coup de grace for traditional life looms when the parents also move to a town, like Port Vila, on the island of Efate, or Luganville, on Santo, in search of work to pay for the school fees (over 45,000 Vatu or US$400 a year). But, even then, says Regenvanu, while a university education may help a young person find a good job, “less that 2 percent go to university, so the majority get pushed out of the system.” The informal settlements that have sprung up around Vila house many families who gave up everything to pay for their children’s education, and can no longer afford to return home.

The key to the new curriculum, already government policy for the first year of primary school in rural areas, is to teach in the vernacular language. “The best vehicle to gain literacy is through your own language,” says Regenvanu. And, while the Cultural Centre has been pushing for this since the 80s, he adds, the idea took off only when it got World Bank backing, following a national survey.

“Vanuatu boasts the highest concentration of languages per capita anywhere – around 106 for a population of about 200,000,” he explains. Over 80 languages are still very much alive, while about 17 are endangered and eight are extinct. Malakula alone has 34 languages for a population of 18,000. Many people speak three, even seven vernacular languages.

Before teaching materials can be developed, these vernacular languages have to be written down, and a standard spelling drawn up. So far, says Regenvanu, this has been done for 16 languages. “We have developed really basic materials – three books for each of the 16 languages: one on the alphabet, one on birds and one on fish.”

He hopes that materials in at least 40 languages will eventually be available. “Some languages are dying.” he says, “It’s inevitable. Then the emphasis is just on recording the language for posterity.”

“The syllabus will be based on the seasonal calendar, which is how traditional life is organized. It’s the yam cycle – or taro cycle in some islands – with different times of the year for planting crops, spawning times for fish, biological and environmental markers for different times of the year.”

“Each year, five new schools are selected to begin the first-year vernacular programme,” adds Regenvanu. “About 20-30 are already using it. The Ministry of Education policy is to have it fully implemented in a few years time.” The goal will then be to extend it to the first two, and then three years of primary school.

Now, in collaboration with UNESCO’s LINKS (Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems) programme, the Cultural Centre is helping to develop an indigenous science curriculum for high schools, that will use concrete examples of traditional knowledge, like the taro plant irrigation system, the preservation of plant varieties, weather prediction, or a special fishing net that can stun the fish. “We’ve done a lot of research,” says Regenvanu. “Now we think we can turn it into policy.”

Photo © UNESCO/Peter Coles : In the remote hills of Tanna, children still grow up in the traditional way, though change is already coming.

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