May 27, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

The Floating School

Published: Sep 12, 2017

A mobile school in South Sulawesi offers new horizons to young islanders


A mobile school in South Sulawesi offers new horizons to young islanders 


Jamal never dared to think that one day he would hold a real camera. The first time he operated one he was startled by the light that flickered from the camera flash. But it did not take long for him to get used to playing with it and now he loves taking pictures.

Jamal, 16, is a student in a photography class run by the Floating School facilitated by Iqbal Lubis, a professional photographer and photo-journalist. Together with 82 others students from the three islands that make up Pangkep, a regency in South Sulawesi, Jamal has found a place to develop his hobby and learn new skills in photography. Throughout the workshop he does not stop taking pictures – pictures of his mother and friends and of his serene island, Satando.

Though Indonesia’s constitution declares that every citizen has the right to an education, not every child in Indonesia has enjoyed equal access to good quality education, especially in rural archipelagos like Pangkep. In a region with 86 inhabited islands, access to good education is extremely limited. Kids who graduate from elementary school are unlikely to go on to middle and high school because these schools do not exist on their islands. Many children want to study but it’s too costly for their family to send them to the mainland. Therefore, the talents of the youth are ignored and so much of their potential to contribute to their communities is wasted. 

Data from 2014 tells us that 27 per cent of the population of Pangkep Regency did not graduate from elementary school and only 30 per cent completed six years of education. This is similar to the data recorded at the provincial level. The mean years of schooling (MES) in South Sulawesi province was only seven to eight years. This means that, on average, people only study until their second year of junior high school. The poor standard of education in the archipelago means that many young people end up unemployed or forced to find informal work in factories in nearby towns and as seasonal construction workers.

The school

An instructor shows a book to a group of teenage students by the water. (Rahmat Hidayat)

The Floating School is a semi-traditional boat that transports books, stationary, education materials and the mentors themselves around the three islands of Pangkep: Saugi, Satando and Sapuli. The school began in early 2017 and 83 young people now attend. The focus is on bringing a creative and fun learning experience to these children. 

The boat is owned by Daeng Sikki, a local fisherman from Pangkajene. The Floating School rents his boat on a weekly basis to sail to the islands. ‘I am so thankful that we have the Floating School in our islands and I am happy to sail with them. The young people can now learn many things. Alhamdulillah, two of my children are also participating in the school. Now they are much better at using a computer than me,’ said Daeng Sikki.

The Floating School is run by local young people, including myself and my colleagues Nunu and Ammy who are its founders. I live in Pangkep, while Nunu and Ammy regularly commute from Makassar to Pangkep to manage the school. We engage professionals from Pangkep and Makassar as workshop facilitators or mentors. The facilitators include journalists, photographers, students and young professionals.

Inspiration for the Floating School has come from many places. One of those is the Floating Library (Perahu Pustaka) and its founders, whom the school’s founders met during the Makassar International Writers Festival in 2016. A year later, the two organisations have agreed to work together to bring accessible education to other islands in Sulawesi and across Indonesia. 

Five girls participate in a dance class on the shore. (Rahmat Hidayat)

Currently, young people on the islands have opportunities to explore their skills and hobbies through seven classes offered at the school covering drawing, craft, literature, basic computer skills, dance, music and photography. In the workshops, students can study subjects that they are interested in, and the hope is that eventually their new skills lead them to better employment.

Wahida, 15, is taking part in a computer class and is glad to have the chance to finally learn some computer skills. ‘When I was in middle school for three years, I only learned about computers from a book and never had a chance to touch a computer. But at the Floating School I can practice with a laptop. I can type letters on MSWord. As well as that, I have new friends from the other islands.’

Making a difference

Getting the program started did not come easily. Many underestimated and discounted the value of the program because neither we, the founders, nor the facilitators are trained educators. We rely on our professional experience and our skills from working in voluntary service activities to manage the school and we believe that we can develop and adapt our teaching methodology through practice. The Floating School is not like a formal school. The facilitators’ role is to facilitate the learning process, not to instruct students as we see in conventional schools in Indonesia. 

Aside from that, perhaps the more significant hindrance in the early stages was the continued low priority placed on education in the local community. Sometimes parents are reluctant to let their children attend the classes and ask them to go fishing instead. ‘My students are very enthusiastic in drawing. They just lack practice. And it is sad to know that they cannot attend the class because they have to go fishing in the sea. It’s a dilemma, indeed, because they have to help their family,’ said Ario, a facilitator in the drawing class.

Parents are sometimes caught between sending children to class or to fish. (Rahmat Hidayat)

But slowly, as the months have passed and after seeing the work their children are doing, there has been a change in parents’ thinking and they are happy for their children to attend class. 

At the end of the year-long program, all the works produced by the students will be curated and marketed to the public, both online and offline. We hope this will assist in making the project financially sustainable. Additionally, the alumni of the school will in turn join the program as co-facilitators for the same workshops that they took, on their own island or on the other islands. 

In early 2017, the Floating School was awarded a certificate of appreciation by the US Embassy in Indonesia and a project grant as part of YSEALI Seeds for the Future by the US Department of State. Two other educational initiatives on environmental education in Bogor and Depok, West Java, also received the Seeds for the Future grants.

There are many children like Jamal living on islands across the Indonesian archipelago who have undiscovered talents. The Floating School is committed to sailing to and serving the children on the islands in Pangkep, and hopefully soon other archipelago regions in Indonesia, for some time yet.

A small flag for the Floating School flies on the boat. (Rahmat Hidayat)

Rahmat Hidayat ( is one of the founders of the Floating School. He is a professional writer.


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