La’o Hamutuk

Bulletin  |  Surat Popular  |  Topic index  |  Reports & Announcements  |  Updates
Reference  |   Presentations  |  Mission Statement  |  LH Blog  |  Search  |  Home

The National Curriculum for Preschool and Primary Education

15 February 2018. Updated 27 February 2018.

Liga ba pajina ida ne'e iha Tetun.  Link para esta página em português.


How our children are schooled today will have a huge impact on Timor-Leste’s future – children who are students today will be tomorrow’s parents, farmers, fishers, teachers, doctors, engineers and leaders. Unfortunately, much of the public discussion of this issue has been charged with political rhetoric rather than facts and solid information. La’o Hamutuk is publishing this page to help people engage in evidence-based decisions, opinions, and policy-making.

Recent moves to change key elements of the preschool and primary school curriculum raise serious questions about how educational policy is set and highlight the need for broad discussion to ensure that policies are sustainable, equitable and support school success for ALL Timorese children. They should be based on best practice and local reality – not on political goals or particular leaders’ personal inclinations.

What is the national curriculum? It is a minimum guide to:

  • What teachers will teach (content)

  • How they will teach it (methodology and language use)

  • How long they’ll spend doing it (schedule)

  • How they will know if they’ve been successful (evaluation).

The national curriculum will significantly affect learning for every student in Timor-Leste.

Over the past three years, the Ministry of Education has been gradually implementing a new curriculum for preschool and the first six years of primary school. Teachers have been trained in principles, methods, and the use of new teacher guides and student books. La’o Hamutuk was one of many local organizations involved in consultations related to the curriculum, and we join them in asking our political leaders to carefully study the impact of any potential changes to the curriculum. Any changes should improve the success of teaching and learning, not add more confusion and inconsistency in implementation.

La’o Hamutuk hopes that this page will contribute to better informed discussions, leading to better policies for all Timorese. We feel it is important to look beyond the highly politicized issue of which language to use, and also to consider many other issues which ensure quality education: curriculum content that is relevant to students’ lives, instructional materials, teacher training and support, teaching that promotes critical and creative thinking, classroom and school management and accountability systems, and budget priorities.

New changes to the National Curriculum?

On 25 January 2018, one day before President Francisco ‘Lu Olo’ Guterres dissolved Parliament, the Council of Ministers held a Special Meeting which approved a proposal from the Ministry of Education and Culture to amend two 2015 Decree Laws (DL3/2015 and DL4/2015, also official Portuguese) defining the preschool and primary school curriculum (to grade 6). We have not been able to see the details of these alterations, despite requests made to the Ministry and the Council of Ministers. We understand that they include increasing the minimum hours for preschool and making Portuguese the dominant language of teaching in all grades, both of which represent fundamental changes to a curriculum which is still essentially in its implementation stage in schools. If promulgated by the President, the new changes would be implemented at the start of 2019, according to a Lusa article.

On 30 January 2018, La’o Hamutuk and other national NGOs and individuals sent a letter to President Lu-Olo asking him not to approve the changes because we fear that these changes will not benefit most students. We also pointed out that there was no transparency and consultation before these changes were approved, and asked to meet with the President. We followed up with a press release and also asked to meet with leaders of the Ministry.


In 2013, based on various assessments, the Ministry of Education decided to launch the first nationally-based revision of the preschool and primary school curriculum. The main goals were to address extremely low levels of reading ability and high dropout or grade repetition rates by ensuring the curriculum was 1) relevant and connected to the real lives of students and 2) based on a methodology that gets students engaged and asking questions, rather than merely listening and repeating.

Although ‘active’, ‘child-centered’ and ‘inclusive’ learning had been stated principles of the 2005 curriculum in place at the time, the actual methodology used in schools centered on teachers and was dominated by rote memorization and authoritarian discipline methods. A pilot program started in 2009 by UNICEF showed that ‘child-friendly’ methods were not only possible but highly effective and popular, both for teachers, students and families. Thus, the 2013 reform included teacher guides with lesson plans for each subject at each grade level to support teacher training and curriculum implementation. Revision of prior student textbooks was not pursued because these texts are owned and controlled by a Portuguese printing company, which would make revisions and reprinting cumbersome and expensive; the Ministry decided that the new student textbooks would be designed, owned and controlled by the Ministry itself.

The reform team included about 40 professionals, mostly experienced teachers from various parts of Timor-Leste. Together with national and international consultants, they studied the reality in schools, analyzed the curriculum in place, and consulted widely with national leaders, members of civil society, and experts from the different subjects of the curriculum. They finalized two framework curriculum documents, one for Pre-School (Tetum) and one for First and Second Cycles of Basic Education (Tetum, also Port) (grades 1-6). These books outline how teachers should teach, what students should learn – including values, skills and information – and how schools will assess how well students are learning.

Following this, in June 2014, the Council of Ministers discussed and passed a Framework for Preschool Education Policies and the two Decree Laws establishing the National Base Curriculum up to grade six. After dialogue between the Ministry and the President’s Office, the laws were promulgated, and published in January 2015 as Decree Laws 3/2015 and 4/2015 (also official Portuguese). Implementation was delayed until May 2015 due to a Parliamentary appraisal.

The Ministry began implementing the new curriculum for grades 1 and 2 in 2015; for grades 3 and 4 in 2016, and for grades 5 and 6 in 2017. Teacher training during 2015 emphasized three fundamental changes:

  1. Using teaching methods that encourage students to be active learners, to ask questions, to think critically, and to connect what they already know to new concepts and skills. Instead of viewing students as empty minds to be filled by the teacher, students’ experiences, knowledge, questions and culture are valued. Teachers were encouraged to put students at the center of learning letting them discover the answers to questions through strategies such as play-based learning, hands-on science and oral interviews. Not only do these methods engage students better and keep them coming to school, they also teach students information and critical thinking skills much more effectively.

  1. Promoting non-violence in and beyond the classroom, both through lesson content and new strategies in classroom management. Units and lessons on peacebuilding, tolerance, inclusion and conflict resolution are included throughout the curriculum. Teachers were trained on classroom strategies to build a safe and respectful classroom environment for all. Physical violence as a means of discipline has been shown to have a serious negative impact on student attendance and overall student performance.

  2. Using Tetum as the primary language for literacy (reading and writing) in grades 1 and 2, with Portuguese being introduced only orally in these grades. Starting in grade 3, literacy skills are transferred to Portuguese in a clear and systematic manner, and Portuguese as a language of instruction gradually increases so as to achieve bilingual proficiency by the end of grade 6. This change is based on many studies of both language learning and overall school success, and on the linguistic reality in Timor-Leste: according to the 2015 Census, 34% of Timorese children speak Tetum as a first language when they begin school whereas fewer than 1% speak Portuguese as a first language.

From 2014 to 2017, the Ministry developed and produced more than 150 books, including teachers’ guides, student textbooks, an atlas and story books in Tetum and Portuguese to spark students’ love of reading. They developed new Tetum teaching materials, including early readers linking letters and syllables to sounds, and language and grammar books for both Tetum and Portuguese. Resource and story books were produced on a variety of important subjects including Timor-Leste’s rich pre-colonial history, our national struggle for independence, the natural environment and how to protect it, gardening for a sustainable future, science and math in everyday life, and how to build cooperative and equal relationships. Other materials include posters, song recordings, and videos for training purposes. (A sample of these materials is available below.)

INFORDEPE, the national teacher training center, conducted teacher training during every trimester break from early 2015 to the end of 2017. However, logistical and administrative problems with distributing some important materials, including lesson plans and student textbooks particularly for grades 5 and 6, has delayed full implementation of the curriculum.

During the last four years, Timor-Leste has had four Ministers of Education, and changes in leadership and political affiliations appear to be part of the reason for changing policies. The curriculum was strongly supported by both Ministers Bendito dos Santos Freitas and Fernando ‘La Sama’ de Araujo, until his untimely death in June 2015. Under subsequent Minister Antonio da Conceição, some Ministry officials began to question the curriculum. In 2017, while Presidential and Parliamentary Elections were taking place, da Conceição (who was running for President), initiated a National Education Congress. Current Ministry leadership is citing the recommendations (Port.) from this conference to justify the need to change the 2015 Decree-Laws, but some observers and participants question how these recommendations were prepared and decided.

La’o Hamutuk will continue to update this page and welcomes information from all sources.

Legal documents and information (in chronological order. All are in English except where noted)

Curriculum materials

A sample of educational materials from the 2015 Curriculum:


The Timor-Leste Institute for Development Monitoring and Analysis (La’o Hamutuk)
Institutu Timor-Leste ba Analiza no Monitor ba Dezenvolvimentu
Rua D. Alberto Ricardo, Bebora, Dili, Timor-Leste
P.O. Box 340, Dili, Timor-Leste
Tel: +670-3321040 or +670-77234330
email:    Web:    Blog: