Alice Unithy and her babies begin paddling their canoe down the swift, grey-green river just as the sun burns through the clouds. It is only 8am, but already the air is thick with humidity, even on the water. By lunchtime, it will be 30C, so hot the youngest child wilts with sleep in the back of the boat on the way home, her blonde head nodding against her chest. Alice makes the trip down the Aluta river from her home in remote eastern Malaita, Solomon Islands, to the village of Aefera, four days a week so that her daughter, Rose, 5, can attend the kindergarten there. It takes her an hour each way, longer when the wind is strong. Sometimes, when the river is in flood or the weather is bad, she can't make it at all. On those days, they stay at home and Rose forgoes her singing and her ABCs to instead potter about the house and play with her sister. "She wants to read and write," Alice says. "But I find it very hard. Sometimes I am tired. Nothing is easy." Alice is shy, and speaks softly in Pijin to our translator as she explains her journey. Despite the long days, she says it is more important that Rose learns to read and write, and so they will continue to come to Aefera to learn. Just 9 per cent of children in the Solomon Islands are enrolled in early education centres (ECE), lower still in the country's most remote areas, such as East Malaita. Primary school enrolment is higher, around 50 per cent, and only 70 per cent finish primary school. For girls that number is lower still. Many don't begin school until age 9 or 10, when they are old enough to walk the often long distances to the nearest classroom. The Government is seeking to instil the value of education by introducing early childhood centres, but resources remain scarce and support unreliable. Classrooms such as the one at Aefera are largely built and staffed locally, with the support of aid agencies such as World Vision. From 2014 to 2017, the organisation helped build 17 such classrooms in the area, reaching 1000 children with new centres and training 50 new teachers. Eric Dauga, one of two teachers at Aefera, was one of those who volunteered to take part. Previously, he was a farmer, but with four children of his own and many more in the community he decided something had to be done. "Before, the students, they don't do anything. Just stay in the home and just paddling in the water, things like that," he says. "In our community there are plenty of children [who] don't know how to read and are low in literacy. Plenty of children, they just stay in the home and they don't know what to do so I decided to teach them." However, like many of the teachers, Eric goes unpaid, due to a change in Solomon Islands education policy. Previously the Government would fund a teacher's salary, plus operating and materials grants for registered early childhood centres. Around a year after the World Vision programme in East Malaita began, a moratorium on paying early childhood teachers was introduced, and instead communities are expected to fund the centres themselves. "So far since this school was established there is no help from the Government," Eric says. "I feel a little bit sorry about that but I'm not going to give up. I'm struggling so that our children can become literate. "I want our children to read so they can have jobs in the future. When they're big. I don't want them to be involved in being drunk or drugs. I want our community to be a community that is outstanding from other communities." World Vision's East Malaita community development facilitator Victor Suriniu said because of the lack of financial support some centres had closed or teachers had quit. But in other places, like Aefera, communities were instead working to pay teachers by helping in their gardens; catching fish for them; or donating coconuts. "We talk with the early childhood committee and the parents to see if they could support the teachers," he said. "But some find it quite hard." READ MORE: • Hidden Pacific: Q&A • Why we're tackling poverty • Village birth attendants • Rotting clinics running on little more than hope On the same day as we visit Aefera, Victor takes us to another community up the river, named Niuhari. The road is impassable by truck, so we walk from the river for 5km, in mud that sucks our jandals from our feet, and in heat that sees even the locals drenched in sweat by the time we arrive. At Niuhari, a collection of thatched huts set among coconut palms and rubber trees, is a two-roomed school, painted blue. Below it lies an immaculate playground complete with swings and a sandpit, and next door, the new kindergarten. From inside its open doors we can hear tiny voices singing a Bible song. Grandmother-of-four Hellen Siu is sitting on the floor with her youngest grandchild. He cries when we arrive, the first white people he's seen, but soon cheers up enough to sit with Hellen while we talk. "Before we had to walk about 7km to get to a school," she says. "But now everyone has access. We are very happy because the early childhood centre is right here in the village." Hellen gestures at her grandson. "He knows how to read, how to say his alphabet ABC, and count 1,2,3. He knows how to write it and to read," she says. "Before the school started here the children's life was very different. They would play too much and not concentrate on anything." The children at Niuhari have two teachers. One of them, Irene Futai, walks the same road we arrived by to get to school each day. She is 30, new to teaching, and desperate to learn more. "I teach the children literacy but it is hard for me," she says. "I need more books. I only have one on phonics. I read it every day. I would like to learn more to help the children, to impact their knowledge before primary." World Vision runs some workshops for the teachers, but an evaluation report completed by Murdoch University found most wanted more resources and training than it could provide. "There was consistent anecdotal feedback from teachers that without books and equipment for teaching and adequate training and remuneration for the teachers, many students would continue to be disadvantaged within the school system," the report said. Victor said there were also some communities which lacked a centre, but regardless, the project was helping. They now had plans to integrate early childhood education with some of World Vision's economic development initiatives, such as fishing and farming, to foster sustainability. "This is only the fourth year. We emphasise to communities, if you continue the ECE, we think in 10 years we will produce more students," he says. "Already they can read, they can write, they can tell the difference between colours. Before they couldn't do that. "At the moment not many in a village like this go to university. But the aim is that we'll have good students, have doctors and lawyers. That's what we are focusing on." Facts • Papua New Guinea has a 63 per cent adult literacy rate, and 36 per cent of primary school graduates leave school still unable to read. In the Solomons 71 per cent of children finish primary school, with a 60 per cent literacy rate. • Education is not compulsory in Solomon Islands. Schools are run by the national and provincial governments and by various churches. • The Solomons government only pays some school fees, with parents in rural areas paying about $100 Solomon Island dollars ($18) per year for primary and kindergarten, and SBD$1200 for secondary school ($222). The monthly Solomons wage is about SBD$171. • In 2012 the Papua New Guinea Government introduced a free tuition policy meaning, in theory, education was free up to Grade 10. It's the country's fourth attempt at free education and its longest-lasting, despite issues with implementation. • Many children in the Solomons don't start primary school until age 9 or 10, given the long distances required to walk to school. • Teacher absenteeism is a major issue in the Solomon Islands, with a 2011 government audit report finding, between 10 and 25 per cent of primary school teachers were absent without a valid reason at any one time. Part of this was due to an "overly complex and inefficient" system.
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