Primary schools provide a basic education for children from age six to fifteen. The Ministry of Education has developed its own syllabus which concentrates on reading, writing in the English and vernacular languages and environmental studies for the first seven years, that is, Classes 1 through 7 (twelve-year olds). This is done by means of the Common Entrance Examination (CEE) on three subjects - English, Mathematics and Vernacular Language. Because enrolment in Secondary schools is limited, competition between the Primary schools, and even more between the islands, is great. However, acceptance to Secondary school is worked out on a quota system whereby each island is allowed to have one candidate enter a junior Secondary school. There are four such schools in Kiribati - Catholic Junior College at Tabwiroa, Hiram Bingham High School (Protestant) at Rongorongo in Beru, Kauma High School (Seventh-Day Adventist) in Abemama and King George V and Elaine Bernacchi School (KGV/EBS) which is he government institution where both junior and senior students are accommodated.

The second entrance test is conducted at the end of class 9 (fourteen-year olds). Children who may have the brains for Secondary education but somehow failed in the first examination are given a second chance at entrance to the secondary school level. Apart from this test, children are assessed continuously during the two years, which are the final two years in Primary school. During this assessment period, students are graded on both practical and academic performances. In practice, assessment marks carry one-half of the weight towards Secondary entrance qualifications. If their assessment marks are satisfactory, they are free to sit the test. A child who does well in both assessment and test gains a place in one of the Secondary schools of his or her choice and enters Form 2 as a special student.

As noted above, the syllabus is developed by the Ministry of Education. In fact, it is drawn up by a committee of educators from various divisions of the Ministry and from different church organisation. Representation of the churches must be noted here for the reason that subjects such as Denominational Instruction and Christian Education involve the churches. Significant changes have taken place in respect of religious instruction as far as the teaching of it is concerned.

In the past, when the churches played a more dominant role in Primary education in Kiribati, religious instruction was entirely a church responsibility. In those days, the teachers performed two roles - they taught the children during school hours and they served the community as catechist or pastor.

In the early 1950s, the Protestant Church withdrew from Primary education. This led to the Government's decision to establish public Primary schools throughout the islands. On the other hand, the Catholic Church continued to provide Primary education and catered for more than half of the school-age population at that time. Staffing the Catholic schools were teachers trained either by the Catholic mission or by the Government.

In 1977 the amalgamation of Catholic Primary schools with the government system took place. An agreement between the churches, both Catholic and Protestant, led to the introduction of a course on Christian Education in the syllabus. Denominational Instruction remained as it was for teaching the different church doctrines by persons from the churches concerned. As for other subjects in the syllabus, the general aim has been to prepare the children for Secondary education where they have the ability. Above all, the intent is to equip children, especially at the upper Primary level, for future community life.

It is worth mentioning here that the attitude of Kiribati parents with regard to the education of their children has proved to be somewhat different from the expectations of the committee for syllabus development. From an educator's point of view, Kiribati children must be taught not only academic subject but also practical subjects such as toddy cutting, fishing, mat weaving and thatch making, just to mention a few of the skills that children need when they grow up and take part in the adult life of a Kiribati community. Knowledge of such skills, indeed, would seem to be very useful. But what about the parent's views? What are their expectations?

All parents want their sons and daughters to go to a Secondary school so that in return the young people will be able to occupy some cash-earning jobs. To teach local skills in the school seems to the parents to be a waste of time in their children's schooling. The parents hold that they themselves can teach their children the necessary Kiribati skills for future living. They think that it is their own duty to teach such skills to their growing children, and they expect the schools to concentrate on the more important academic subjects. This is the general attitude of most parents. However, when it comes to teaching Kiribati skills, parents often seem to overlook their duty.

As a result of parental expectations, teachers are put under pressure and feel that they have to meet the parents' demands. In some cases, teachers will work an additional two or three hours, conducting special academic instruction for Secondary school candidates in preparation for the examination. Of course, the teachers do not have to work like this. But because the number of places in Secondary schools is very limited and because of the demand from parents to have their children go on to Secondary level, teachers feel that the extra hours with the children are indeed worth the time spent. Supposing that a certain Primary school fails to produce Secondary pupils in a given year, then all sorts of accusations from the parents will be inevitable.

Now let us turn our attention to the medium of instruction in the Primary schools. English, of course, is the second language. In Classes 1 to 3 (six-to eight-year olds), the Kiribati language is used in class, except in a course in Oral English. In Class 4 (nine-year olds), children are supposed to have learned enough English words to understand simple English. So then the teacher may instruct them either in English or in their mother tongue, but the emphasis is placed on English. In Classes 5 to 9, English is supposed to be used all the time, but where the teacher feels the need to give an explanation in the vernacular he or she may do so.

However, the usage of the English language by the children, whether in or out of school, is quite different. Children speak Kiribati among themselves and at times even to the teacher. English, therefore, seems to be only the teacher's language in the classroom for otherwise English is hardly ever heard. After school hours when the children are at home, their parents (who have no better education background) will definitely be unable to promote the use of English with their children.

In South Tarawa, where the bulk of educated people (those with Secondary schooling) live and work, the majority are themselves parents and here the chances are better for the children of these people to use English. Besides this home background, children in South Tarawa are also more fortunate than their outer island relatives in that they have access to things like cinema every night, posters and advertisements and all the other imports from overseas which the outer islands generally lack. For all of the aforementioned reasons, children in South Tarawa are far more advanced in schooling and are more familiar with the English language than their fellows in the outer islands.

In the general picture of Kiribati society, as far as language is concerned, English is still a second language and a foreign language. We cannot blame the schools for this as there are other factors to consider - the scattered nature of our islands, the nation's isolation and the lack of tourists and other visitors to motivate Kiribati people to use more English.

Bilingualism in Kiribati is far away and hard to think about at this stage.

Copyright 2000=2011 by Jane Resture-Gray ( -- Rev. 11th January 2011)