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The National Curriculum for Preschool and Primary Education

15 February 2018.  Updated 24 September 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).

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.

Although we tried, together with other NGOs, to obtain access to and give more detailed comment on the draft changes before they were promulgated, these efforts were unsuccessful and the new decree-laws were published in the Official Gazette on 14 March. Skip down for more recent developments.


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, 30% of Timorese children aged 5-9 speak Tetum Praca as a first language, whereas fewer than 0.1% 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.

Recent Developments (March-April 2018)

As the cartoon at right describes (click to see it larger), La’o Hamutuk and other members of the Advocacy Network for Education wrote to the President asking him not to promulgate the proposed Decree-Laws amending national pre-school and primary school curriculum policy until there was time to independently evaluate the curriculum in place and to consider input from civil society. On 1 March, nearly a month after the letter was sent, the President's staff called La’o Hamutuk to say that the President was happy to hear from civil society and would not promulgate quickly, so that he could study the changes and hear more detailed input about specific articles which were of concern.

La’o Hamutuk explained that we could not give detailed input without access to the documents containing the amendments, and that several requests thus far had been denied. At this, the President’s office told us to ask the Council of Ministers’ Office for the documents, which we had already done. We repeated the formal requests to the Council of Ministers and Prime Minister’s offices, but did not receive the complete amendments until 16 March, after which we learned that the President had already promulgated the Decree-Laws the week before, on 9 March, and they had been published in the Jornal da Republica on 14 March.

After analyzing the amendments, the Network wrote a detailed Petition (English summary) to Reject the New Decree-Laws, calling on all political parties to support Parliament's Constitutional right to review Decree-Laws.

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

Parliament rejects changes to national curricula (July-August 2018)

Article 98 of Timor-Leste’s Constitution gives Parliament the right to review and potentially reject decree-laws promulgated by the President of the Republic, as long as the laws are pulled for review by 20% of Parliament Members within 30 days following their publication in the Jornal da República. The Constitution notes that the 30 day deadline “shall exclude the days when the functioning of the National Parliament is suspended.” On 11 July, following the formation of the new Fifth Constitutional Parliament, Decree-Laws N°3 and N°4/2018 - amending the National Preschool and Primary Curricula, in effect scrapping the existing curricula - were officially marked as under parliamentary review.

On 6-7 August, Parliament’s regular plenary meeting was devoted to this topic. Numerous Parliament Members from different parties stated that these issues should be decided based on what is best for children, and not on party politics; however, the discussion was clearly and strictly divided along political party lines. Members supporting the new Government (CNRT, PLP, Khunto, UDT/Fretilin Mudansa) spoke in favor of revoking the 2018 Decree-Laws, and opposition parties (Fretilin and PD) challenged the review process and ironically questioned the change in policy immediately after a change in government.

School language policy was brought up repeatedly during the two days. Again, Parliamentarians’ opinions followed party lines; opposition members called for a stronger emphasis on Portuguese and questioned the ‘mother tongue project’ (a clear reference to the pilot program Mother-tongue Based Multilingual Education’ - EMBLI), whereas majority members emphasized that the 2015 Decree-Laws provided a clear plan for improving literacy and overall school success in both official languages, Tetum and Portuguese. The two days of discussion were observed by many concerned NGOs, including La’o Hamutuk. Civil society voices were heard in the debates when one parliamentarian read sections from the April NGO Education Advocacy Network petition rejecting the 2018 Decree-Laws.

When the final vote was called to reject the two 2018 Decree-Laws, Fretilin and PD members walked out in protest. The final vote was 36 in favor, 0 against, and 1 abstention (from PUDD, which does not side clearly with either the governing parties or the opposition). On 10 August 2018, the Resolutions officially took effect after being published in the Jornal da República. The Resolutions are historic in that they are the first time Parliament has used Constitution Article 98 to revoke a decree-law.

La’o Hamutuk views Article 98 as a part of the constitutional check and balance system among Timor-Leste's four sovereign governing bodies: President, Parliament, Government and the Courts. We hope that all Parliament members will understand this constitutional right and use it whenever appropriate.

We are happy to see that the 2015 Decree-Laws will continue and hope that the Ministry of Education will have the funding and oversight capacity to ensure full and proper implementation of the curricula. We lament the continued partisan division and inability to engage in constructive discussion, particularly on the issue of language in schools. We encourage all parties and individuals to study more about educational policy and research in Timor-Leste, so that conversations can be based on data, not only on personal experience and opinion.

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
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