Such a school is different from the international schools already running in Indonesia, such as the Jakarta International School, the British International School or the Australian International School, which mostly serve children of expatriates employed in Indonesia. The RSBI schools are also unlike the national-plus schools which are private schools mostly located in big cities like Jakarta or Bandung.
In addition to the national curriculum, RSBI schools employ internationally recognized curricula, such as the Cambridge International General Certificate of Secondary Education.
Even though the guidebooks identify nine areas of quality assurance a school needs to attain in order to become an international standard schools (SBI) (such as curriculum, teachers, management, evaluation etc.), the salient and most controversial factor for RSBI is the use of English as a medium of instruction.
Unlike other international schools, RSBI schools require teachers to master English, with a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) score of 500 for science and mathematics teachers.
This is problematic because TOEFL measures the ability of non-native English speakers and thus it cannot be the benchmark for English communication performance in class. In fact this criterion is a major burden for science and mathematics teachers, whose English communication skills are still far below the minimum required level.
A study conducted by the education ministry in 2007 and 2008 involving more than 27,000 SBI school teachers found that more than half of them had only novice proficiency in English, while only 0.7 percent could be regarded as having an “advanced working” or higher level of proficiency in English.
This fact should have been noted at the beginning by the RSBI policy designers; Indonesian teachers are not actually designed to teach subjects in English.
Malaysia has had a similar experience. Math and science (called PPSMI) were taught in English starting in 2003, only to result in lower scores in TIMSS (trend in mathematics and science study) prompting the government to roll back the policy last year. A study of PPSMI found that Malaysian teachers were not really ready to teach in English; even though English is a second language there.
In order to join the RSBI program, a school is required to prepare some documents to be evaluated, after which it will be granted RSBI status and entitled to a greater budget from the government. At secondary level for instance, a school receives
Rp 300 million (US$ 31,000) annually for the first three years in addition to routine funding.
Some RSBI schools even earn significant amounts of extra money from provincial and regional governments. The aid is regarded as “seed money” to help the schools develop and increase their capacity building.
However this practice is not actually a new one. This is a replication of the fund channeling activities of the program that was implemented in 1999, called School-Based Quality Improvement Management (SBQIM). The program was initiated to help hundreds of secondary schools across Indonesia implement school-based management ideas.
In practice they planned and executed quality improvement program thanks to a block grant called “quality improvement operational assistance” (BOMM). Reports on these measures showed that all schools emphasized the enhancement of the academic achievements of their students, through extra school hours for students who were preparing for national examinations. It clearly demonstrated that the school’s planning capacity remained far from satisfactory.
What is interesting about the RSBI program, unlike the SBQIM that involved regular public schools, is that the former involved top schools in the city or district (“cream of the cream”) and treated, more or less, in the same way as SBQIM schools. A lack of clarity of the policy direction from the ministry on how to establish an “international standard school” and limited planning ability of the schools, led the RSBI schools to mostly rely on superficial things related to physical infrastructure, such as expensive facilities.
When it comes to community contributions (i.e. parents), RSBI schools, unlike public primary and junior secondary schools that have been restricted since 2005, can continue asking parents to contribute regularly amounts stipulated by the school (or through the school committee).
The amount of money RSBI schools are allowed to collect is often higher than the government’s assistance (including teachers’ salaries). The schools spent the state money on facilities needed to help them reach “international standards”, with, alas, only limited transparency and accountability. This situation has led to the impression that RSBI schools are the expensive schools in town.
In a nutshell, the policy design of RSBI was neither carefully planned nor executed, and unfortunately it was not based on solid research and eventually led to negative impacts on society. It also mirrored the policymakers’ failure to fully grasp the Indonesian school system and its capacities, casting doubts over the feasibility of the program to achieve success.
The RSBI policy simply lacked a solid foundation. It was initiated to prepare students for “studying abroad”, or “globalization” and “competition”. Hylwell Coleman compared Indonesians who study abroad (around 50,000) with migrant workers (who are mostly poorly educated and have limited preparation for “global” challenges) and found a staggering ratio of 1:54, which shows that the RSBI program, despite its huge funds, simply constituted a considerable subsidy for the wealthy.
The writer lectures at the faculty of education, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.