Modern Learning Melds with Tradition

Feature | 31 May 2009

A unique blend of modern and traditional teaching helps children learn the basics-and more

It's another Friday morning, and 16-yearold Chairunnisa "Nisa" Zarkasi and her classmates are gathering in their school's courtyard for the morning assembly. A couple of kids are still lingering in the library surfing the internet, while a group of boys outside is playing a prank on a friend.

At first glance, it could be most any high school in Indonesia, but this is the start of the school day at Madrasah Aliyah Negeri (MAN) Yogyakarta III School-one of Indonesia's madrasah schools.

All across Indonesia, ADB provides support for Nisa and thousands of other students, so they can pursue an affordable, progressive, equalopportunity education in madrasah schools.

"People should know that Madrasah Aliyah is like any other school, just with some additional teaching-not the other way around," says one of Nisa's teachers, Rini Utami.

"Madrasah" simply means "school" in Arabic. In Indonesia, the bulk of the curriculum is secular, with courses in science, math, foreign languages, and even health education. What differentiates madrasahs from public schools is that the latter provide 2 hours of religious studies each week, while madrasahs provide 8.

For Nisa and other young people in Indonesia, the schools offer students an opportunity to further their education, expand their horizons, and forge a pathway out of poverty.

"We encourage our students to think critically, and by their second year here they're questioning everything," says Ms. Utami. "It makes our job harder, since we have to provide them answers, but that's the beauty of the interactive model we use here."

Ms. Utami says girls particularly find the school's reasoned, analytical approach to education to their liking.

"Since I've come to this school, I've really come to love chemistry and math, and when I get older I'd like to be a pharmacist," says Nisa. "If I study science, then I'll have a better chance to excel and advance in life."

A Path Out of Poverty

An $85 million ADB loan to Indonesia has benefited 388,000 madrasah school students, many from low-income households. The Development of Madrasah Aliyahs Project has improved teaching standards and upgraded facilities in a large number of madrasah schools, while supporting the implementation of a secular curriculum and the improvement of teachers' skills.

The project, which supports the government's efforts to bring madrasah education up to national standards, has supported the training of more than 5,000 employees of such schools, and increased enrollment by 74%, in part through the granting of about 2,900 scholarships.

Ensuring a better madrasah education system is pivotal to achieving the Government of Indonesia's goal of universal basic education, as well as the Millennium Development Goals for education and gender equity.

Demand for madrasah education is growing: it constitutes 13% of total primary and secondary enrollment. The schools are particularly attractive to the poorest rural students, who are the hardest to reach. Madrasahs also attract more girls than general schools and so will be key to the government's efforts to reach gender equity in education.

"A lot of students in Indonesia don't have the opportunity to attend high school because of poverty," says Ayun Sundari, of ADB's Jakarta office. "Madrasahs play an important role in providing educational opportunities for poor children."

More than half of all madrasah students in Indonesia come from farming and daylaborer families, and at MAN Yogyakarta III, half the student body cannot afford the full tuition fee of Rp85,000 ($7.14) a month. ADB support allows these students to attend school, and the poorest students never have to pay any fees.

"Parents who can't afford to send their kids to school should see Madrasah Aliyah schools as an option," says Nisa. "We have everything public schools have, and more."

Transformation through Decentralization

While Indonesia once had a centralized administrative model for its school system, more recent decentralization initiatives by the central government have allowed local schools to introduce new teaching and learning methods.

"Because of decentralization efforts, our school now enjoys a great deal of autonomy, which allows us to innovate in accordance with our student's abilities," says Mr. Thoha, deputy principal at Nisa's school.

Nisa and her classmates are living proof that the introduction of progressive, student-centered approaches in madrasahs is paying dividends for Indonesia's young people.

"At this school I'm free to pursue my [academic] interests, but can also find time for things in life that are more important than worldly matters," Nisa says.