When the school bell rings, 12 year old Bradford Feka'afu heads off to class at Florence Young Christian School in Honiara, Solomon Islands.What Bradford and his year six class mates learn on that day and throughout their primary school years, will lay the foundation for success, both at school and work.
Bradford is one of around 100,000 primary school students from 525 schools in Solomon Islands. And while school enrolments are high across the country - over 90 per cent -numeracy and literacy rates are alarmingly low which has educators worried.
Investigating the reasons for this is a top priority for the Solomon Islands Ministry of Education.
Linda Wate, Chief Education Officer at the National Examinations and Standards Unit (NESU) within the Ministry of Education, is working with both teachers and policy makers to look at the underlying causes of low literacy and numeracy.
"It's not a question of the number of kids at school, although that is important, we need to know what is happening in the classroom and why learning is being stifled," said Linda.
"The indicators are saying that something is not working as well as it should, so we need to find out why and quickly. We need to know why children are not learning at the expected level."
Linda explains the role of the NESU team is to make sure the country's school curriculum supports good learning outcomes.
"With Australia's support, we are introducing assessment systems to monitor and improve the quality and relevance of schooling and these results will provide the evidence to introduce changes to student teaching and learning, especially for reading and writing skills, as well as tracking progress so we can adjust as we need to."
"Good assessment should reflect good teaching practice, so if the assessment results show very low performances, then this is a good indicator of the current teaching practice."
"This assessment of student learning is critical to better understand what is happening in the classroom as this helps the ministry and donors know about resources and gaps. This is more critical for the early years if learning gaps are not properly identified and rectified quickly.
Linda said early grade assessment is the latest development at NESU with the support from AusAID and was part of a number of initiatives that need to be addressed to bring about changes in schools.
"As well as curriculum and materials, we need to look at the quality of teacher training and ongoing professional development, including support for schools, especially at provincial levels."
Linda believes that teachers are the frontline of children's education.
"Not only do they promote important life skills and influence how much children enjoy school, they provide the right environment for learning."
"From my own experience, teachers need to be active in the change process, they need to ask questions, be confident about their skills and knowledge and translate this into a dynamic and fun learning environment in the classroom."
"Some of the changes required may be long term, some may be cultural. These can be looked at once we have a picture of what is happening in the classroom, where there are gaps and do we have the right structures and support."
Linda said around half of the 8,570 teachers in Solomon Islands have more than ten years teaching experience but have not had any follow-up training since graduating from training college.
"Teaching is changing in Solomon Islands and all our teachers need to see the challenges as opportunities - we want to motivate and convince them to embrace change."
Linda has worked at the NESU since 2007. After completing her education degree at USP in Fiji in 1998, she worked as an assistant teacher at Auki Community High School in Malaita before quickly rising through the ranks to become the school's principal in 2004.
"Teaching is not just a job. It is the front line of giving children life skills to finish school and succeed in life. We need to support and nurture them as much as we do with our children."
Bradford's mother, Hilma agrees. With two other sons 11 year old Screvin and seven Nathan also at school, she knows how significant these early years are.
"As a teacher and a mother, I know how important it is for children to have skills like reading, writing and numeracy. All teachers are working hard to teach these skills but we also need to be creative with how we help students learn so they have every opportunity to succeed," said Hilma.
Australia is working with the Solomon Islands Government to improve quality and access to education for all Solomon Islanders. This includes supporting Solomon Islands national education plan with A$31 million over the next four years to provide education services throughout the country. As part of this support, Australia is strengthening the capacity of the NESU in the areas of early grade assessment.
Source: Press Release, Australian High Commission, Solomon Islands