May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Schooling in Aceh

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Barbara Leigh

We say a person in great debt is 'mortgaged to the hilt'. They borrowed money while offering their house or other property as security. If the repayments stop, the lender has the right to claim the house, land, goods or company against which the money was borrowed. A mortgage is commonly used in suburban Australia to purchase a house.

In rural Indonesia, housing is cheap. Nonetheless, people are still 'mortgaged to the hilt'. What are they buying? They are investing in the schooling of their children. The goods they buy are the certificates offered by Indonesia's educational institutions.

They obtain money to pay for them by mortgaging land, buffaloes and houses, often at high interest rates. In order to meet outgoing expenses, all able-bodied members of the family seek income- generating work whenever a sliver of time and opportunity is visible.

For the poor, the situation is much more poignant. They have nothing to mortgage.


The following is a true story from rural Aceh. However the flavour is essentially Indonesian.

Raziah is a 32 year old woman. Her long black hair is caught behind her head. The sarong she puts on over her thin work dress is clean, but faded and worn. Raziah's husband died in 1978. She has four sons. Her first child was born when she was just 14 years old, and the last when she was 24, three months after her husband's death. She has no land and lives in a small house with a dirt floor where she works to keep her four boys at school.

She sews the broad flat leaves of the rumbia palm onto a pole of bamboo using a twine found in the forest as a vine. The finished flap is about two metres long and 60 cm wide. These flaps of sewn leaves are used for roofing in most village houses. The roofing flaps are placed in step-like formation on the rafters. The more widely-spaced the flaps are, the more likely they are to leak and weather. However, even if the roofing flaps are closely spaced, they will need replacing after a few years because of rot. This means that, at least before the introduction of galvanised iron, there was a constant demand for these sheets, called atap.


Raziah's oldest son is 18 and is in junior secondary school, SMP, class 2. The other children are all at primary school. Although the second child is 14, he is in class 4 at the local Islamic school, the madrasah. The third is 11, and is in class 1 at a government primary school. The youngest child is 8. He is in class 1 and attends the madrasah so that he will not be in the same class as his older brother. Besides, schooling at the madrasah is cheaper.

When Raziah begins work, she first has to ask permission to take the leaves from the trees of other villagers. When the sewn flaps are sold, she receives Rp 125 (9 Australian cents) per flap. Of this, Rp 40 has to be paid to the owner of the trees. Her profit is thus Rp 85 for each flap. Raziah's annual income would be in the order of Rp 80,000 - Rp 100,000 (AU$60 - $80 at a generous estimate).

The annual schooling costs for fees alone are for each respective child Rp 20,000, Rp 2,500, Rp 10,000 and Rp 2,500. This makes a total of Rp 35,000 to be paid each year.


In addition she has to clothe and feed her four boys and herself, as well as care for them when they are sick. Her hut was left to her when her husband died, so she does not have to pay rent. She does have to buy firewood for cooking, and any furniture must be bought. The boys sleep on reed mats upon a wooden frame on the floor. When any son decides to marry, Raziah will have to pay the parents of the bride. As she has so little, not much will be demanded of her, but it is likely she will go into further debt to do the best for each son.

Should Raziah'send her sons to school? It is a vexing question, one that parents with very little income constantly ask themselves. Apart from the legal issue that schooling is compulsory, Raziah sees school as giving the boys an opportunity to better themselves. She sees them receiving something she did not; she sees education to be in accord with the teachings of Islam; and she sees herself gaining respectability because her sons are in school and are not 'just farmers'.

Her labour power is being used on behalf of her children's education. This is not solely a gender issue. If she had daughters, she would also work to support them at school. Parents are working harder to raise the extra cash income needed for schooling costs. Needless to say, more cash is needed if interest repayments are in addition to schooling costs.

Women bear the double burden of carrying out household tasks and working to gain an income. Raziah's case highlights the gender division, because she is the sole income-provider in an otherwise all-male household. Her first son, and to a lesser extent her second son, could help with work each day. But instead they go off to school for the morning, the first leaving home at 6.30 am in order to walk the 4 km to SMP. This means that the opportunity cost of labour foregone is being borne by Raziah.

But it is the change in her children's attitude which is hardest for Raziah to deal with. The boys see the roofing she produces as part of a range of goods which do not fit the category 'developed'. They see her producing items which a 'modern' household would not use. Galvanised sheets are becoming more popular as a roofing material in the village. She represents the old, rather than the new, and it is the new which is valued.

There is nothing Raziah can do to counteract that attitude. Deep down, she too believes it. She accepts her lot with resignation, whilst continuing to work hard. It is not the sort of work she wants to do, but she has no choice. Like a bee who has been stung at age 30, her life is already given over to the next generation.


What are Raziah's sons learning at school? At a formal level, they are studying a range of subjects that will introduce them to the notion of the wider world of the Indonesian nation and their role as citizens within it. They are learning some mathematical skills and some knowledge of the natural world around them. All their examinations require them to choose the correct answer from a range of options, or to answer true or false to a given statement.

Thus, in an informal sense, they are learning that all ideas are either right or wrong, and that schooling success relies on learning the right answers. At school they are not learning that there may be room for discussion, that words can be manipulative and that a child's creative power may see a red sky when the correct answer is blue.

Secondly, Raziah's sons are learning that however hard they work, there is no possibility that they will be able to continue on at school, because of their mother's economic position. They are therefore also learning how to cope with a perceived lack of education in a world of increasing credentials. Education officials refer to those who complete junior secondary school but do not continue to senior secondary school, SMA, as dropouts, not as graduates. Officialdom therefore gives negative value to children such as Raziah's sons.

Finally, they are learning that their family is backward, not yet developed, and that the whole source of household income is by their mother making a product not considered part of the modern world.

At what price?

Educational expansion is generally regarded as desirable. Learning to read and write opens up the possibility of exploring vast regions of knowledge, whether it be reading the instructions on a medicine bottle, writing to a loved one or studying the intricacies of bridge construction. The current commitment to what is euphemistically known as human resource development is part of a process of attitude change sweeping rural Indonesia. Examination of that process requires an open mind.

We are too used to believing that schooling is automatically a good thing. So great has been the moral weight given to education within the Islamic tradition, the Indian, the Chinese, or the Judeo-Christian tradition. There is no easy answer to this dilemma. Ivan Illich's solution of deschooling society is too simplistic. But it does raise important questions. What is the difference between education and schooling? What price is being paid for this good? Who is paying it? When is it worth it?

Barbara Leigh completed her PhD thesis on Aceh's education system at the University of Sydney in 1993. She is a lecturer in Southeast Asian Studies at the Institute for International Studies, University of Technology Sydney.

Inside Indonesia 49: Jan-Mar 1997

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