Believe it or not, Indonesia’s education system is the fourth-largest in the world. There are over 50 million students, 3 million teachers, and over 250,000 schools 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. There are three ministries that supervise and organize the entire system, namely the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Religious Affairs, and 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 madrasah and other religious schools; while the Ministry of Research and Technology with universities and polytechnics.

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

In a broad sense, schools can be divided into two types based on who’s running them: government or private. Government-sponsored schools are mostly public schools and universities, whereas private schools are operated by either a foundation or non-government body. Within private schools, there are “national plus” schools. It’s a term for private schools that complement the national curriculum set by the Ministry of Education with an additional curriculum such as the Cambridge curriculum or use 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 the basic subjects such as science, maths, language (foreign and Bahasa Indonesia), arts and crafts, religion, and civic education. Then, they move on to junior high (sekolah menengah pertama; SMP) for three years, where they learn 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. Usually in senior high, students can choose their preferred major from three options: Natural Science, Social Science, or Language.  Another path is to choose the religious schools (madrasah), which is the same length as conventional school. The only difference is that in religious schools, the curriculum is set by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, 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 additional materials in preparation for exams. Moreover, more privileged students, especially high school seniors, attend cram schools at night to help them pass university entrance exams.

The day of student in Indonesia is rather boring. Students are expected to come to school early in the morning, at around 7-8 AM, and remain at school until afternoon, around 1-2 PM. That’s 6 hours of sitting still! Students 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 mostly one-way, with the teacher explaining the lesson while students take notes. Creative learning or learning through action is often kept to a minimum, even in primary education. During the lesson, students are often discouraged to ask questions or present a critical rebuttal towards the teacher. This 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 as an act of disrespect as if the teacher fails to answer, it may cause the teacher to “lose face”. Also, to question the teacher would also bring embarrassment to the student, implying that the student was unable to comprehend the teacher’s explanation, leading to “losing 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.
So, that’s a very brief overview on how the Indonesian education system is. It is mostly concentrated on passing standardized tests, and puts very little emphasis on nurturing critical thinking faculties or creative arts. As such, we strive to provide opportunities for the students to “take a breather” and indulge in the creative arts in our classes.