Education in Timor-Leste has grown from the ashes


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Timor-Leste is making great progress in education, which is considered an important
asset as the country looks to achieve sustainable, long-term development.


Eleven years since the restoration of Independence, Timor-Leste has now emerged from the ashes of destruction that devastated the country. During the conflict, most of the country’s infrastructure was demolished with over 95 percent of schools burnt to the ground.

Lack of infrastructure was only one of the many challenges facing Timor-Leste’s education. During the period of occupation most skilled teachers were not native Timorese and at the end of the conflict many evacuated, leaving very few trained teachers. Only a small number stayed on in the hope of driving education out of the darkness.

Recently, I talked with teachers, students, parents, to hear about their experience in the past, their views about the current state of the education system, and their expectations for the future.
Everyone I spoke to was passionate about the need to focus on education for the future of the country. Fr. Plenio dos Reis Martins, the Director for St. Inacio Loiola, a Jesuit private school at Kaisait in Liquica District shared his views on how important education is.

“The aim of education is to help the young Timorese to be ready to bring this country ahead for tomorrow, because if you don’t have good qualified people here, I don’t think this country can move forward. “

I met with Isaura Cardoso, a teacher at Aitutu primary school in Ainaro district, about 70km drive from the capital, Dili. She followed her mother’s footsteps to become a teacher and loves teaching more than any other job. Isaura was recruited to the National Police Force in 2001, but resigned in 2005 and returned to the school where she had been a volunteer teacher.

I was curious to hear about her experience as a volunteer teacher immediately after the conflict when conditions were most difficult, and she has seen momentous changes over the last ten years. 

“In the past we didn’t have any materials. The children had to bring their own mats and sit on the floor, and the teachers had to stand up while teaching because there were no chairs, no table,” Isaura recalls

“We had to teach in very hard and sad times. But it’s our obligation to help build this country, so we had to move forward.”

Now, after a decade things look very different. Access to essential services like health and education has escalated. The number of teachers more than doubled, from 5,700 to over 12,000. Many teachers have been recruited and trained across the country, resulting in better student-teacher ratio from 45:1 to 28:1.

Even with all the progress Timor-Leste has achieved, there are still many challenges. The country has one of the highest rates of population growth in the world, with two thirds of the population currently under the age of 25. This creates a need for more adequately equipped classrooms, better and more teachers and learning materials, and improved access to education across the whole country. Education is an asset as the country looks to diversify its economy away from petroleum and achieve sustainable, long-term development. 

According to Luis Ximenes, from Timorese NGO Belun, it’s necessary to be aware of immediate challenges facing the country in terms of skill gaps. Many young people have dropped out of school and now don’t have adequate skills to fill the gaps in the country’s job market.

"To address these immediate challenges higher education and vocational training will be especially important, to help produce higher quality human resources. Timor-Leste also needs more investment from local and International entrepreneurs to provide more job opportunities for young Timorese."

What do you think of Timor-Leste’s progress in education a decade after the country’s independence? And what else can the country do to continue its education? I’d be most interested to hear your thoughts.



Joao dos Santos

Communications - Timor-Leste

August 04, 2013

New York Times in 2011 on World Bank aid to Timor Leste…
"Efforts to support education were unsatisfactory. On the positive side, the bank helped build and repair schools. But, at the request of the new government, which was trying to dismantle the Indonesian education system, it distributed teaching materials in Portuguese. This had been the main language of instruction before the Indonesian occupation, when Timor was a Portuguese colony, and the new government restored it as an official language along with Tetum, an indigenous language. But Portuguese was spoken by only 5 percent of the population, and few younger teachers could understand the materials.". Is this still a problem?

Joao dos Santos
August 08, 2013

Hi Peter,
Thanks for your comment. As in many newly independent countries, language instruction has been a challenge in Timor-Leste, and a subject of national debate. The education policy now includes teaching in both Tetun and Portuguese (the country's official languages) and learning materials have been made available in both these languages. The Ministry of Education is further reviewing its primary school curriculum, including how the subjects of both Tetun and Portuguese are taught in schools. Also, as children in Timor-Leste are spread in 13 districts speaking over 20 local languages, the Government is collaborating with UNESCO to pilot  "Mother Tongue-based Multilingual Education for Timor Leste" in 3 districts (Lautem, Oecusse and Manatuto). This is to allow early grade students to comfortably learn using their mother-tongue language, before then being introduced to the use of Tetun, and eventually Portuguese. (If you're interested you can see more information about the UNESCO supported pilot here: )
From my perspective, I do think that Timor-Leste has taken important steps to improve the quality of its education services, as well as access. Total enrollment from basic to secondary education increased from 242,000 to 333,000 between 2002 and 2010, and the number of teachers more than doubled during the same period, from 5,700 to over 12,000. Measures have been taken to implement early grade reading and maths assessments, which are helping monitor children's learning progress in the first years of school; to develop effective curricula; train its teachers and education officials, and disseminate learning materials such as reading aides, in Tetun and Portuguese, to all primary schools.
I hope this helps!

Trevar Alan Chilver
July 22, 2013

A major issue for Timor-Leste is the quality of teachers being produced by universities. When I observed classrooms in Dili and Hera, the quality of unqualified teachers was significantly greater than that of qualified ones.

July 25, 2013

Dear Trevar,
Thank you for your comments and observations on our education system
I have a few points to add to your observation:
First as you may be aware, we only gained our independence in 2002, during our 1999 referendum and the turmoil that followed during the period, the majority of teachers, who in fact were Indonesians left the country leaving a very small pool of qualified Timorese teachers.
Second, only 10% of the population speaks Portuguese, which is the language taught in schools as one of the official languages chosen by the parliament.
There is currently only one university providing a bachelors degree in teaching which is a privately run university, where the majority of these teachers who graduate are absorbed into private schools (Catholic schools.)
We currently have over 7000 volunteer teachers in the country. The Portuguese cooperation is working with Ministry of Education to provide this cadre of teachers to at least have a level of competency equivalent to a bachelor’s degree.
The National Institute for Training of Teachers (INFORDEPE) is currently working with the National University of Timor-Leste (UNTL) to provide a master level of qualification for a number of teachers to become master trainers from the district level, down to the village level.
The Ministry of Education along with bilateral and multilateral partners are working hard to address these concerns you have raised. Thank you once again for your interests in the country's education system.
If you have further observation I am happy to clarify any concerns you may have.

Theo Phylass
July 28, 2013

Totally agree, 10 years has bring a lot of changes in the country...but need more attention from government of Timor-Leste and its partners to improve the quality of education...Education is just like a bridge to connect the country and its people towards a brighter future

July 29, 2013

It's true that, although there has been significant progress in the education sector in Timor-Leste, the government needs to increase its efforts to improve the quality of education particularly on advancing the availablity as well as the ability of the teachers to teach children who are the future generation of this country.

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July 24, 2013

it is good news..
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July 25, 2013

Many thanks for your interest. Here are some links that you can look up to see more about education in Timor-Leste. And feel free to get back to me if you need more.……

David Dippie
January 14, 2014

The Rotary Clubs of Keilor and Port Melbourne wish to support schools in the Balibo area. We are trying to get information on the schools and the local contacts so we can establish what sort of help they need. Can you tell me who to contact to get this information?
David Dippie

June 03, 2014

What you want me to help you? I am willing and happy to do the needs assesment for the schools in Balibo area for you then will back to you when its done!
If you thinks thats helpful. Please don't hasitate to let me know!

Emilio Vicente
May 28, 2014

As a local partners of the Balibo House Trust _ Balibo House Trust, Timor-Leste Project Manager. Happy to join with all of you.
Hope to be in touch regularly, about every aspect particularly for Balibo, Bobonaro, Timor-Leste
Best regards and many thanks for the generously support of the Rotary within our partnership.

Mavia Belo
December 05, 2017

One of the biggest issues is not about the formation of the teachers, however, how the teachers improve their qualifications; more training need to be systematized, they need to be projected to their own vocations as professional teachers, they are the core keys for most the children around the country and they must be well prepared as they are the heart of the children in this country's succession. thanks.

February 19, 2021

Dear Joao:
I would like to inquire if your country has an existing private school system for tertiary education. I would like to inquire further if your country has criminology system. If none, I hope we could help you in establishing the dynamics of criminology system. Thanks and more power.

Jonathan Mauer
February 19, 2021

I'm sorry for the conflicts which have been a part of the history of Timor-Leste. I taught in Indonesia from 1994 until 2015, so I do have some understanding of the turmoil of those days. My observations at the time of the independence referendum was that, in order to best advance the educational possibilities of the East Timorese, they should stick with Bahasa Indonesia and English for the best opportunities both local and global. It was extremely selfish and short-sighted of the early leaders to choose Portuguese and Tetum, since it effectively isolated the nation from their closest neighbors. Tetum should remain as the cultural language, maybe to be taught as a secondary subject through grade 6, and elective after that, but Bahasa Indonesia and English should be mandatory for all 12 grades. The pain felt resulting from the Indonesian occupation and the nostalgic feelings for the Portuguese colonial roots should not be factors in language of instruction choices. Rather, consider what is best for the long-term betterment of the people of Timor-Leste.