Educational challenges in Papua New Guinea

Written by Fenna Eelkema


Flag of Papua New Guinea. Kumul Flying high on the 16th of September 2022 across the Southern Cross. Photo by Spencer Wungin on Unsplash

Papua New Guinea is a beautiful country consisting of 600 islands and a population of 10 million. There are more than 800 different languages used in Papua New Guinea, making it one of the world’s most linguistically diverse nations. After being colonised by various countries for 250 years, Papua New Guinea finally gained independence in 1975. Since gaining this independence, Papua New Guinea has been on a quest to provide accessible and quality education for its children. Despite these efforts, Papua New Guinea still faces educational challenges, such as a low literacy rate, a high drop-out rate, and a teacher shortage. Additionally, school is not accessible to all children due to financial, health, or geographical reasons.

Education in Papua New Guinea

In Papua New Guinea, the journey towards providing accessible and quality education has undergone several transformations over the past fifty years. In 1973, a significant milestone was achieved with the establishment of the first national unified education system. This system adopted the structure of 6+4+2, wherein students completed six years in primary school, four years in high school, and lastly, two years in either a national high school or directly entering colleges. Despite its intentions, this rigid system limited students’ autonomy over their learning, and the education sector still fell short of achieving wanted goals.

In the 1990s, Papua New Guinea established a new educational system in response to the need for change. The structure was changed to 3+6+4, with three years in elementary school, six years in primary school, and four years in secondary school. This shift aimed to implement an outcomes-based curriculum designed to align education with desired learning objectives. However, challenges persisted, and this education system struggled to meet wanted goals.

Therefore in 2021, there was another transformation; the new 1+6+6 structure was introduced, outlining a curriculum that begins with one year of Early Child Education and Development, followed by six years of primary education and an additional six years of secondary education. A distinctive feature of this structure is adopting a standards-based curriculum, outlining precise learning benchmarks for students and providing educators with clear guidelines for teaching and assessment strategies. Hopefully, this new structure will help improve Papua New Guinea’s education for all children.

Low literacy rate

The low literacy rate in Papua New Guinea has been a concern for a long time; while there has been some improvement over the last two decades, still more than three million people are illiterate. In 2000, the literacy rate was 57 per cent; in 2010, it was 61%; and in 2015, it was 63 per cent. The combination of linguistic diversity and insufficient resources has contributed to this long-standing problem.

The high dropout rates are another reason for the low literacy rate. Around a quarter of children aged 6 to 18 are out of school, and the rate of primary school students transitioning into lower secondary school is only 56%. Economic pressure/poverty, family responsibility, or inaccessible schools are some factors that lead students to drop out.

To hopefully lower the drop-out rate, some high schools have started using the FODE (Flexible Open Distance Education) concept, which allows students to pursue their education beyond the confines of the conventional classroom setting with flexibility; students are allowed to study at their own pace within their communities, liberating them from the limitations of urban centres. This program has seen promising results, with over 80,000 students returning to education.

Remember: there is always something to smile about in the world. Photo by Vika Jordanov on Unsplash

Quality education in remote areas

Papua New Guinea’s unique geography and many remote areas make providing quality education to these hard-to-reach regions hard. The key to quality education is quality teachers. Unfortunately, there is a teacher shortage in all of Papua New Guinea; this shortage is so dire that it has even led to instances where children were left without a school to attend. In 2016, approximately 10,000 teaching positions were vacant, with the majority of these vacancies being in remote areas. Drawing teachers to these remote areas has proven to be a considerable struggle. While initiatives like ‘remote school allowances’ and scholarships have been established to encourage teachers to work in these remote regions, poor motivation and reluctance to work in these areas have contributed to persistent teacher shortages. There are also reports of teachers who were entitled to these allowances but did not receive them; this discouraged some teachers from doing their best work.

Many teachers have also not been receiving in-service training. This is due to a lack of funding. The government has been relying on donors to finance, but the budget is inadequate. Furthermore, there are no structures or regular training posts to support teachers in schools. Now that the educational system is transforming into the 1+6+6 standards-based curriculum, it is imperative that teachers receive the proper training to implement the curriculum accordingly.

Financial problems are another reason why there are issues in remote areas. Families in poor, remote areas often cannot afford school fees, which can amount to more than half of their earnings. While some school fees were abolished by the national government in 1993, schools continue to charge some fees, leading to a financial barrier that hinders equitable access to education. Additionally, sizeable towns in urban areas usually have local secondary schools, whereas students in remote areas often rely on provincial boarding schools; sending your child to a boarding school typically costs more money, which puts the families at an even more significant setback.

Poverty and Health Care

Many children in Papua New Guinea are dealing with health-related challenges. Some of these health challenges stem from poverty, disproportionately affecting remote and rural areas where 85 per cent of the population lives.

One of the health challenges is that the immunisation coverage in Papua New Guinea has been stuck around 60 per cent for nearly ten years. This places children at unnecessary risk of preventable diseases that could be controlled through vaccinations. Additionally, for many individuals, it is hard to access clean sanitation and safe drinking water; this makes it hard always to practice good hygiene leading to contagious diseases easily spread among children.

Malnutrition is another health issue in Papua New Guinea, the underlying cause of almost half of all under-five deaths. Nearly half of all the children aged 6 to 59 months (5 years) suffer from stunted growth, indicating chronic undernutrition during critical developmental periods. Stunting not only endangers a child’s chance of survival but is also harmful to a child’s general health and cognitive growth, which could lead to long-lasting negative consequences.

Another issue is that, for many people, healthcare facilities are not easily accessible. The ratio of doctors to people is one doctor for every 17,068 people, compared to, for instance, Australia, where the ratio is one doctor for every 302 people. Additionally, 90% of the doctors are based in urban areas, whereas 85% of the population lives in rural areas, leaving these rural areas with even fewer doctors. Children often reside hours away from the nearest health clinic, facing difficult journeys on foot, by boat, or by unreliable local transportation. This lack of accessibility worsens children’s difficulties obtaining crucial medical care and other treatments.

Because of its geographical location, Papua New Guinea is frequently subjected to natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, landslides, tsunamis, and cyclones. These events threaten people’s health, disrupt healthcare services, and increase existing vulnerabilities.

To address these health challenges, Papua New Guinea must focus on improving general health care, raising immunisation coverage, promoting better nutrition, improving healthcare accessibility, and strengthening disaster preparedness. By doing so, Papua New Guinea can make significant steps toward ensuring a healthier and more promising future for its children.


To conclude, Papua New Guinea’s educational landscape is marked by progress and persistent challenges. The educational system has undergone many changes, from a rigid structure to an outcomes-based approach. The recent adoption of the 1+6+6 structure shows promise for a more successful curriculum. Still, challenges in teacher training remain, which may impact the outcome of this new curriculum.

Low literacy rates and high dropout rates continue to hinder progress. Initiatives like Flexible Open Distance Education (FODE) have shown potential in addressing dropout rates, but more needs to be done to ensure every child has an opportunity to learn.

The shortage of qualified teachers, particularly in remote areas, presents a significant obstacle because quality education can only happen with quality teachers. Efforts to attract teachers to these regions have been somewhat effective but not wholly successful.

Financial barriers, health issues, and insufficient access to healthcare have added to the challenge. Addressing these challenges is crucial for ensuring a healthier and more successful learning environment for children.

Papua New Guinea has made significant progress in providing accessible and quality education. Although there is still a long road ahead, the nation can create s brighter future for its children by putting in the effort and working with various organisations.