| Pacific Beat, ABC | Edited extracts
PORT MORESBY – Hundreds of students in a remote Papua New Guinean school have repeated the same grade for eight years because teachers are abandoning their jobs.
Cedric Agurope, a former student of Jangit Primary School in East Sepik Province says he did not make it past Grade 3.
Now 25, Cedric can do little more than count and write his name. “We didn’t learn anything,” he said.
“Now I am a grown man and should be married. I don’t know how to read or write.”
Agurope enrolled in Grade 3 in 2014 when he was 17 but was unable to continue studying when teachers stopped showing up to class.
New teachers did not replace them, so students spent the remainder of the year at home and fishing, gardening or hunting.
Agurope enrolled in the same class five years in a row, and each time the same thing happened.
Despite wanting to learn, Agurope dropped out in 2019.
In January, eight community leaders including the village magistrate sent a letter raising their concerns about teacher absenteeism at Jangit to the provincial education body.
But the concerns were not passed on to the PNG Teaching Service Commission, which said it had only recently become aware of the school’s problems.
The commission, which employs public school teachers across the country, is now investigating Jangit and other schools in the area.
Councillor Max Okm, Cedric Agurope’s uncle, said the problems at the school started in 2014 when a new headmaster was appointed.
He claimed the headmaster and teachers would turn up at the start of each year, sign their contracts to work and then leave within weeks.
Some got jobs in a nearby town while still being paid to teach at Jangit, Okm said.
“As a result, most of our children for the last eight years have not been in school.
“Every year they’ve been repeating the same grade. That is why we have a very huge [literacy] gap.”
Cr Okm claimed the headmaster was the first one to leave each year and the other teachers followed.
“We hardly have any teachers. When the head teacher goes, they all go,” he said.
Headmaster Noah Agregum paints a different picture, although he agreed staff shortages had been a chronic issue and children were being held back.
He said violence and tribal fighting had forced teachers to flee the village each year since 2018 and not return until the next year out of fear for their safety.
“They leave and get shelter. That’s the normal way of doing things,” he said.
“We have not completed even one calendar year.”
Agregum, who is from Jangit village, denied claims he was absent from the school and said he stayed in the village to keep the school running as best he could.
Prior to 2018, Agregum said teachers were appointed to the school but some did not show up because the village was remote.
Those who did take up their positions usually left within a few months because they were not being paid properly and were concerned about sorcery.
He said the school had been closed between 2002 and 2012 due to a sorcery-related murder. The ABC was unable to verify this.
Cr Okm and Mr Oriwau deny that safety concerns of the village had an impact on teachers.
“In terms of law and order, there’s nothing wrong here,” Oriwau said.
Samson Wangihomie, who heads PNG’s Teaching Service Commission, says he believes the issue of teacher absenteeism is widespread, particularly in rural and isolated schools.
“The impact is massive … it denies the children their right to be educated.”
Mr Wangihomie said he had received more than 20 reports of similar problems at other schools after the Jangit story was reported by local media last month.
“[Teachers] are just getting paid for nothing at the expense of the children’s education,” he said. “And that is not good enough. That’s fraud.”
Mr Wangihomie said more than K1.5 million kina in wages had been misused at Jangit Primary School since 2014.
He said the commission would work to recover lost wages and pursue legal action if necessary.
“We’re taking a tough stand on it,” he said.