A brief look at Indonesia’s education system

Believe it or not, Indonesia’s education system is the fourth-largest in the world. Over 50 million students, 3 million teachers, and over 250,000 schools are spread across the archipelago. Those numbers keep on growing every year!

Being the most populous country in Southeast Asia and the fourth globally, it is no wonder that Indonesia’s education system is immense! Of course, managing it isn’t an easy job. Three ministries supervise and organize the entire system: the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and the Ministry of Research and Technology. The Ministry of Education is concerned with compulsory education, i.e. kindergartens to senior high schools; the Ministry of Religious Affairs with Islamic schools known as madrasahs and other religious schools; and the Ministry of Research and Technology with universities and polytechnics.

In a broad sense, schools can be divided into two types based on who’s running them: government or private. Government-sponsored schools are primarily public schools and universities, whereas private schools are operated by either a foundation or a non-governmental body. Within private schools, there are “national plus” schools. This term for private schools complements the national curriculum set by the Ministry of Education with an additional curriculum, such as the Cambridge curriculum or uses another language besides Bahasa Indonesia as the language of instruction (usually English or Mandarin).

Indonesians attend school for 12 years. They spend their first six years in elementary school (sekolah dasar; SD), where they learn basic subjects such as science, maths, language (foreign and Bahasa Indonesia), arts and crafts, religion, and civic education. They then move on to junior high (sekolah menengah pertama; SMP) for three years, learning more complex subjects such as biology and world history. Finally, they continue on to either senior high (sekolah menengah atas; SMA) or vocational school (sekolah menengah kejuruan; SMK) before moving on to university.

In senior high, students can usually choose their preferred major from Natural Science, Social Science, or Language. Another path is to select a religious school (madrasah). The only difference is that the Ministry of Religious Affairs sets the curriculum in religious schools, which includes Islamic teachings.

Some schools also offer additional classes in the afternoon, from 3 PM to 6 PM. These classes are often held when it’s close to exam times to provide tutoring and extra material in preparation for exams. Privileged students, especially high school seniors, attend cram schools at night to help them pass the university admission test.

The day of a student in Indonesia is rather dull. Students are expected to come to school early, around 7-8 AM, and remain there until the afternoon, around 1-2 PM. That’s 6 hours of sitting still! They get two breaks: one in the morning (9-10 PM) and another for lunch. In the classroom, the usual method of instruction is reminiscent of enlightenment education: communication is primarily one-way, with the teacher explaining the subject while students take notes. Creative learning or learning through action is often kept to a minimum, even in primary education.

The Indonesian education system mainly concentrates on passing standardized tests and puts minimal emphasis on nurturing critical thinking or creative arts. Students are often discouraged during the lesson to ask questions or present a critical rebuttal towards the teacher. Such behaviour is ingrained in Eastern culture, where the teacher is a figure of authority who must be respected. The act of asking a question is deemed disrespectful. If the teacher fails to answer, it may cause them to “lose face”. Questioning the teacher would also embarrass the student, implying they could not comprehend the teacher’s explanation, leading the student to “lose face”.

As such, emphasis is put on memorization and the ability to answer questions “by the book”, not on critical or creative thinking. The end goal of any class is to pass the standardized exams held at the end of every semester. Standardized tests are almost always multiple-choice, like the SAT; essay-based questions are more common at university level.

Education is one of the government’s central agendas, as specified in Law No. 20/2003 regarding National Education. The government invests 20 percent of the national budget annually into improving education. Most investments go towards repairing schools in remote areas, providing training and certification for teachers, and providing financial assistance for less privileged students. A large portion is invested in primary education, whereas secondary and tertiary education still lacks government support.