Break the common sense block to engage parents in Timor Leste schools

Caption: Tulodo’s Nick Goodwin at a school in Cribas, Manatuto. Some classes had 80+ students, still too common in Timor Leste.

Sometimes our own worst enemy is common sense. The problem is not that if something makes sense intuitively then it’s wrong. The issue is often people assume common sense solutions are somehow universal. This is the common sense block. Take a look at schools in Timor Leste, where Tulodo’s Nick Goodwin is working with the Australian-funded Partnership for Human Development (PHD) program.

The key education issue for Timor-Leste is that the basic education (year 1-9) school experience does not support student attendance and is poorly conducive to learning (PHD, 2016). In 2009, over 70% of Grade 1 children could not read a single word of a simple text passage (Amorim et al, 2009), and only 1/3 could solve simple additions (de Silva, 2013). Teachers do not have the qualifications and skills to engage children in active learning and to use child-centred approaches. Language difficulties continue to challenge students, with the choice of Portuguese proving to be a huge barrier to success. School facilities and the overall learning environment also do not encourage learning, with parents generally disengaged from their local schools. Participation levels drop significantly between primary and secondary levels. Net enrolment for children in grades 1-6 is around 90% (2014 data, 64% in 2005), but only around 25% participate in senior secondary school (World Bank, 2013).

Common sense, plus a significant body of evidence (Wang et al, 2014; Wilder, 2013),suggests that engaging parents will improve education outcomes. Parents can help motivate and guide their children, they can also ensure better management of schools. However too often we assume what parent engagement actually looks like and how to do it. For this we need to do additional research to uncover what it is that parents can realistically and most effectively do.

In Timor Leste, there are several barriers to change, including lower education levels among most parents compared to their children. Many parents cannot read reports, let alone homework. Parents sometimes live and work far from schools. Some teachers feel threatened by the presence of parents in their classrooms. Therefore it’s vital to understand benefits to change as well as consult teachers and leaders. Sometimes we need to start at the beginning, by inviting parents to visit the schools and answer their questions. We can consider producing behavior prompts, e.g. a wall calendar with 2-3 things parents can do for their children’s education.

PHD’s Professional Learning and Mentoring Program (PLMP) is engaging teachers and their mentors to develop local activities to engage parents. By taking into account the value of education and barriers to change, success with parents is more likely. This will help reduce the common sense block and ensure better education outcomes for Timor Leste’s families.


Amorim, E., Stevens, J., and Gacougnolle, L., (2009), Timor?Leste: An Analysis of Early Grade Reading Acquisition, Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group.

de Silva, Steph; Gacougnolle, Luc-Charles; McNamee, Bronwyn (2013), Timor Leste 2011 Early Grade Mathematics Assessment (EGMA): baseline report. Washington, D.C., World Bank Group.

PHD (2016), Education Annual Plan and Strategic Plan (draft 9 December 2016), unpublished, Dili, Abt & Associates.

Wang, MT., Hill, NE., and Hofkens, T., (2014), Parental involvement and African American and European American adolescents’ academic, behavioral, and emotional development in secondary school. Child Dev, 85:6, 2151–2168.

Wilder, S., (2013), Effects of parental involvement on academic achievement: a meta-synthesis. Educational Review, 66:3, 377-397.

World Bank. 2013. Building evidence, shaping policy : findings of the 2012 Timor-Leste education survey. Washington, D.C., World Bank Group.

Published by

Ratnakanya Hadyani

Kanya is Communication Officer for Tulodo. She hopes to tell stories that hopeful and thought provoking within complex situation created by behavior change and innovation.

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