Educational Challenges in Timor-Leste: A Nation Re-building its Educational System

Written by Francisca Rosales

Timor-Leste is a Southern East Asian country with a population of approximately 1 million people. It became an independent country in 2002 after being occupied by Indonesia for 24 years and after 400 years under Portuguese colonial rule (Cabral and Martin-Jones 2021). Timor-Leste is still recuperating from its violent past and faces significant challenges, as almost 42% of the population still lives below the poverty line (UNICEF 2023a). 

Due to Indonesia’s invasion and mass destruction in 1999, by 2001, 90% of the country’s schools had been destroyed, and there was a significant loss of workforce in the educational sector. Since the restoration of its independence, Timor-Leste has made significant progress in rebuilding its educational system with the help of international donors (Quinn and Buchanan 2021; UNICEF 2023a).  Education is mandatory and a constitutional right in Timor-Leste from age 6 to 14, and public school is free (UNESCO 2023; UNICEF 2019). The educational system includes two years of preschool, six years of primary school, three years of pre-secondary school, and three years of secondary education (Komatsu 2019). Approximately 86% of children are enrolled in public schools in Timor, while a small but privileged minority attends private schools, which offer a higher quality education (Soares 2023). Timor-Leste also achieved gender parity in primary and preschool education in almost all regions in the country (UNICEF 2023b). 

The current constitution of Timor-Leste recognizes Portuguese and Tetum (the most spoken language in Timor-Leste and lingua franca) as the official national languages (Ogden 2017). Portuguese and Tetum are the designated languages for the first cycle of education (from grades 1 to 4) and Portuguese is the language of instruction for secondary school (Cabral and Martin-Jones 2021). 

Nevertheless, educational challenges remain. To illustrate, school facilities are debilitated, 66% lack functioning sanitation, 40% lack drinking water and there is still an absence of child-friendly teaching methods. Additionally, education-related figures remain unsatisfactory as 37% of young people between 15 and 24 years of age remain illiterate and 70% of students from grade one do not meet the curriculum’s learning objectives (UNICEF 2023a). In fact, in 2020, 9291 children and 9986 adolescents were out of school (UNESCO 2023). According to UNICEF, only 20% of children of preschool age are enrolled in school, even though the gross enrolment rates in preschool increased by 25% in 2019 (UNICEF 2023a; UNICEF 2023b). 

Difficulties in meeting learning objectives

Despite Timor-Leste’s efforts to rebuild its educational system, girls and boys are still not reaching the learning standards for their age, especially those living in rural areas and poor urban neighborhoods. This is often due to children’s lack of preparation for school, which leads to high repetition rates (24%) and children do not attend school regularly, often resulting in dropping out. According to the World Bank, in 2010, 70% of students in Grade 1, 40% of students in Grade 2, and 20% of students in Grade 3 could not read simple text passages. Also, almost half of the children between 3 and 18 years old with disabilities are not enrolled in school (UNICEF 2023b).

Students look out the door at Cassait Basic School, Ulmera Liquica, Timor-Leste, 2015 / Photo by GPE/Lucinda Ramos via Flickr

Teacher’s capacity-building and lack thereof

One of the greatest challenges that Timor-Leste faces concerns the need to replenish the teaching workforce and the lack of a trained and capable workforce in the public school system (Quinn and Buchanan 2021; Ogden 2017). In fact, many teachers lack qualifications for educating children, especially as many only completed secondary education and only half of the workforce had the minimum qualification for teaching (Quinn and Buchan 2021). UNICEF and the Portuguese and Brazilian governments have been assisting the Ministry of Education in improving the education system for students and primary school teachers (UNICEF 2019). 

To build teachers’ skills and knowledge, UNICEF implemented initiatives that include inviting teachers from public schools to well-resourced schools to engage in peer learning and learn about good educational practices. This initiative follows the principles of Eskola Foun, a children-friendly approach to school that focuses on improving access to and quality of education in primary and pre-secondary Timorese schools. By building the capacity of teachers and school leaders, this program aims to promote a safe, healthy, and inclusive environment among schools in Timor-Leste, where students can thrive (UNICEF 2019). 

Teachers admitted that before engaging in this program, they would teach their students following the education method they experienced when they were students, where the teacher just wrote the content on the board and students would copy it without engaging. After the peer learning sessions, teachers started implementing a more democratic teaching approach in public schools, where students are encouraged to ask questions and share their ideas with the teacher and fellow students. Also, teachers implemented new learning approaches such as taking their students outside the classroom to explore (UNICEF 2019). 

Furthermore, the Ministry of Education has sought to build a strong workforce by implementing a teaching career regime to ensure teachers meet the required qualifications (Quinn and Buchanan 2021). The Ministry of Education also initiated a Curriculum Reform in 2013 for basic education intending to create a Timorese education system that focuses on the country’s culture, history and environment to strengthen national identity. Additionally, the new curriculum encourages using local examples as part of the learning process; for example, by encouraging teachers to use typical market shopping scenarios for calculation during math classes (Ogden 2017). However, the implementation of the curricular reform has often been inadequate due to miscommunication from government officials and the fact that many teachers are unfamiliar with the content (Ogden 2017). To face this challenge, the team responsible for the curricular reform has organized training sessions to clarify teachers’ questions.

Timor-Leste is facing another challenge since the number of teachers has not increased fast enough to follow the increase in school enrolment rates, overburdening teachers due to the increasing classroom sizes (Quinn and Buchanan 2021; Burns 2017). Additionally, teachers feel pressured due to the lack of resources and study material to teach the curriculum (Quinn and Buchanan 2021; Soares 2023). 

Language policy in education

Language has been a contentious issue in Timor-Leste since its independence (Ogden 2017). The current curriculum stipulates Tetum as the first language of instruction, with the gradual inclusion of Portuguese throughout elementary school (Quinn and Buchan 2021; Ogden 2017). This language-progression approach aims to ensure that students are fluent in both Tetun and Portuguese by grade 6, as Portuguese is the language of instruction in secondary school. However, there is a lack of teachers fluent in Portuguese, as the language is spoken only by a minority of the population (Burns 2017; Cabral and Martin-Jones 2021). Therefore, there is still a significant need to instruct teachers in Portuguese. 

Increasing literacy 

Due to the violence unleashed by the Indonesian invasion, a fifth of the population was prevented from finishing basic education (Komatsu 2019). Due to this situation, the Timorese government implemented the Equivalency Education Program in 2010, which offered young people and adults the opportunity to pursue their education through a condensed curriculum equivalent to primary and pre-secondary education. Participants can learn different subjects, including mathematics, science, history, work skills, vocational training, Portuguese, Tetun and English. Anyone can enroll in the program if they are between 15 and 17 years old and did not attend primary or pre-secondary school for more than 12 months, or above 17 years old and did not complete primary education. The Program is free but, while it has a high enrolment rate, it is still below the number of uneducated youths and adults in Timor-Leste. To illustrate, the Equivalency Education Program had 1041 students enrolled in 2010, despite 200000 adults being eligible for it. Nevertheless, in a study conducted by Komatsu (2019), it was clear that many participants never lost their desire to learn, seek new knowledge, and build self-confidence.

Alongside this program, the World Bank funded the Second Chance Education Project to enable adults to complete their basic education between 2010 and 2017. The program incorporated the special needs of mature students and offered a flexible delivery method for students to learn linguistic, scientific, and personal development skills. According to the World Bank, 55% of the participants were women, and 197 students had graduated by 2017 (World Bank 2018).


To conclude, despite being a relatively new nation, Timor-Leste has undergone a lot of progress to rebuild its educational system. Nevertheless, some challenges remain that hinder children’s access to quality education. The government should continue investing in schools’ renovation to ensure sanitation, hygiene and functioning infrastructure to promote students’ health and well-being. 

The Ministry of Education should also continue to assist teachers’ capacity-building, including their literacy in Portuguese. Training should be offered to aspiring teachers so these future professionals have the necessary instruction to excel at their jobs. However, alongside the teachers’ willingness to learn new teaching methods, they also need the appropriate resources to be able to implement the curriculum. These should be provided equally to all schools by the government and its partners. The Ministry of Education should prioritize the distribution of curriculum material to ensure that teachers are unified in their approach, providing high-quality education to students all over the country. 

Also, due to Timor-Leste’s recent independence from foreign occupation, the Ministry of Education should focus on developing a school curriculum that focuses on local history and culture as an essential part of the national development agenda. The government should advocate more for preschool education, especially among disadvantaged communities. Ensuring that children have the opportunity to attend preschool could help them prepare for Grade 1, as the high repetition rate is often associated with poor levels of school readiness (UNICEF 2023c).

Lastly, the government should invest more resources and increase access to quality education and innovative learning environments for out-of-school children and adolescents to ensure their right to education. Education should also be easily available for adults who have not finished basic education. On the same note, the Ministry of Education should offer vocational training that enables young people and adults to increase their social capital skills for employment.


Cover Image by GPE/Lucinda Ramos via Flickr