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Young student writes on the board in Fiji
(C) Australian Council for Educational Research

Strengthening education in the Pacific

Research 9 minute read

ACER is working with partners to improve quality and equity in learning in the Pacific Islands.

Students in the Pacific Islands face challenges to their learning. Recent research has shown that almost half of Year 4 and 6 students are not meeting minimum proficiency levels in reading. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds are at greater risk of lower learning outcomes.

We are working closely with local, regional and global partners to improve quality and equity in learning in the region. Our support is driven by local demand and policy priorities, ensuring it is flexible and responsive to the individual needs of partners. Our work focuses on:

  • monitoring student learning
  • improving teaching quality
  • strengthening local capacity
  • building resilient education systems.

Since 2018, ACER has been providing ongoing strategic, policy and technical support to the Educational Quality Assessment Programme (EQAP) through a collaborative trilateral 10-year partnership between the Pacific Community (SPC), the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT).

A large amount of ACER’s support to EQAP has been through the Pacific Regional Education Framework (PacREF), a regional initiative designed to equitably raise the quality of schooling and empower all children to enjoy the benefits of education and lifelong learning. Implemented by EQAP, PacREF is funded by DFAT, MFAT, Asian Development Bank and the Global Partnership for Education. ACER also works closely with DFAT, MFAT and UNESCO to provide country-level support and research throughout the region.

Monitoring student learning

Ensuring that students at all education levels acquire the knowledge, skills, values and attributes to contribute to their families, communities and countries is a priority under EQAP’s overall programming and the PacREF. Monitoring student learning is critical as it enables governments to introduce evidence-informed policies and practices to improve student outcomes and wellbeing.

Getting the foundations right in the early years is the first step to quality lifelong learning. And yet in the Pacific, 4 in 10 children are not enrolled in pre-primary education.

A recent study with EQAP sought to understand the connection between early childhood education programs and school-age learning outcomes in the Pacific. The study findings and recommendations will inform the implementation of PacREF and support monitoring of progress towards SDG target 4.2: equal access to quality pre-primary education.

We are also working with EQAP to develop a school readiness assessment tool to track individual student learning in early childhood education. Data from the tool will help to inform policies and practices to ensure children are prepared for the transition from early learning to primary school. Importantly, the tool will enable teachers to intervene in specific areas of children’s learning and monitor their growth or progress over time. ACER and EQAP are conducting a series of design and implementation workshops throughout 2024, with 8 countries to pilot a tool.

At the primary level, ACER has been working closely with EQAP to deliver the Pacific Islands Literacy and Numeracy Assessment (PILNA), since its second cycle in 2015. The largest education assessment in the region, PILNA measures the literacy and numeracy of Year 4 and 6 students in 15 Pacific Island countries.

PILNA results enable stakeholders to understand factors that impact student performance. They provide valuable evidence to inform primary curriculum reform, teacher development, school improvement strategies, and most importantly, to improve the quality of fundamental literacy and numeracy skills. Through ground-breaking tools and methods developed by ACER, Pacific Island countries can now use PILNA to report progress towards SDG 4.  

At the secondary level, ACER has been supporting EQAP with the pilot phase of the new Pacific Assessment for Lower Secondary (PALS). This large-scale regional assessment focuses on the learning outcomes of Year 9 students across science, reading, writing and numeracy. To date, ACER has provided technical support for the development, piloting and analysis of assessment tools in Fiji, with trials in 4 additional countries this year. Together, PILNA and PALS can provide critical information about the learning progress of students from primary to secondary school, and strategies for improvement.

Improving teaching quality

Enabling teachers to positively support and engage students is a priority in the Pacific Islands. At the policy level, this means ensuring that teachers are empowered through opportunities for continuous development, shared understanding and accountability. ACER works with a range of organisations to improve teaching quality in the region.

Over the last 5 years, we have worked with DFAT to understand the effectiveness of its Vanuatu Education Support Program (VESP), in supporting the roll out of a new primary curriculum in Vanuatu. Through the Teacher Development Multi-Year Studies, we collected data over 3 years to understand the impact of VESP in improving teaching quality and student learning outcomes.

In April 2024, ACER presented the study findings and recommendations to education policymakers in Vanuatu. These results will help to inform the future direction of teacher professional learning programs and influence education policy reform.

We have also assisted EQAP in updating the Pacific Regional Teacher Standards Framework under PacREF. Working with stakeholders in the region, ACER has contributed insights into Australian and international practices, and co-led workshops for ministries of education and teacher training institutions in the Pacific. The workshops have provided opportunities to discuss how regional teacher standards can be incorporated into national policies, teacher education courses and teacher certification.

Strengthening local capacity

Strengthening local capacity to tackle challenges that impact the region is central to EQAP’s programming and delivering on the goals of the PacREF. As such, ACER works closely with stakeholders at the national and regional levels to build capabilities.

EQAP has recently engaged ACER to conduct a comprehensive review of gender equality and disability inclusion in the region and within its organisational structure. A gender strategy will follow, providing a framework and guiding approach for EQAP's work. The strategy will promote collaboration to achieve meaningful results for students, teachers and communities, and create an educational environment responsive to all learners' needs.

Building system resilience

Home to a diverse group of countries and small micro-states, the Pacific Islands faces significant physical, social, economic and political challenges. Threats of natural disasters, emergencies, climate change and health threats such as the recent measles outbreak and COVID-19 pandemic put strain on the region. Education must provide young people with the skills to respond to and overcome these challenges.

That is why in Samoa, ACER is working with the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture (MESC) to understand challenges facing the education system and identify ways research can support evidence-based reform. Part of the Tautua program, the partnership will help MESC support human development and social inclusion by identifying opportunities to accelerate learning and wellbeing for children.

Understanding why students drop out of school is also important to progress and resilience in the region. In 2022, ACER worked with EQAP on a mixed methods study to enable Pacific Island countries to collect and report reliable data on cohort survival, drop-out and school re-entry rates. The study will drive policies and practices to identify and retain students at risk of dropping out of school.

ACER has a proud history working with partners to address challenges facing the Pacific Islands. It is through ongoing, collective action between partners at regional, national and local levels that improvements in educational quality and equity will be realised.

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