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Projects >  Tonga

Tonga Education Support Programme: School Infrastructure Survey 2006


Tonga is an independent kingdom consisting of an archipelago of 129 islands, of which only 39 are inhabited.  It is unique in the Pacific as it is the only country with a constitutional monarchy.  In 2006 it has a population of around 102,000 with 39% of its population aged 14 or under and approximately 70% of the population resided on the main island of Tongatapu.  Its human development outcomes, including under-five mortality rate, life expectancy and literacy, are among the best in the Pacific, and on a par with its Middle Income Country status.   

The country has a long-standing tradition of providing virtually universal access to six years of compulsory, free primary education.   Despite its relatively strong human development indicators and commendable strides in achieving universal primary education, the Government of Tonga had recognized the need to improve the quality of education it was delivering in order to meet the challenges of a globalized market economy as well as the aspirations of its large proportion of unemployed youth.

NZAID and the World Bank had jointly entered into contractual arrangements with the Government of Tonga to partly finance the Ministry of Education, Woman’s Affairs and Culture’s (MEWAC) annual and rolling three year plans.  These arrangements were known as the Tonga Education Support Program (TESP). 

The Assignment

A component of TESP involved the development of Minimum Service Standards (MSS) which were to provide a benchmark for schools in order to identify possible deficiencies in service delivery. All schools were to develop rolling three year development plans which set out the measures required to attain or supersede the MSS and TESP was to provide grants to schools to finance the inputs necessary to improve the quality of services they provide so that the standards are achieved.

It was expected that school rehabilitation would be an important feature of many schools’ three year development plans and it was intended that specific guidelines for rehabilitation would be developed for schools so that they would be able to expend grants wisely in order to ensure that civil works would meet all required standards.

My main assignment was to develop and test a survey instrument that would facilitate the gathering and analysis of data related to facilities and infrastructure from the 124 primary schools and 38 secondary schools in Tonga so that MEWAC, school principals and school communities could then determine and prioritize the interventions required to improve the schools’ infrastructure.  I was also to make recommendations for the facilities to be provided at primary schools and for the design of primary school buildings.

I made two visits to Tonga; the first in May 2006 after which the primary school survey was carried out and the second in September 2006 to review the results of the survey and make recommendations for further action.


Conclusions and Recommendations

The conclusions of the primary school survey were that:

  • The overall state of primary school buildings was of a general state of disrepair caused in some cases by the initial poor quality of construction and in all cases by the more or less complete lack of maintenance after construction.  The most common problems affected the roof structures which are the most vulnerable elements in a cyclone. 

  • Other structural problems highlighted by the survey included inadequate foundations, a lack of adequate connections between the floor structure and the foundations, inadequate bracing of walls, cracked floors and earthquake damage to floors and walls. 

  • Few if any schools had sufficient numbers of furniture and the furniture was generally in poor condition and not appropriate especially if teaching methods were to be improved. 

  • Many schools did not have a dependable water supply all the year round and large numbers of schools had either no toilets, insufficient numbers of functioning toilets or flush toilets which would not function when there is no water supply.

  • There were a number of school site problems which included a lack of fencing (required to keep pigs, etc out); broken or missing storm drains; broken paths and septic tanks that were damaged or full. 

  • Few schools had office accommodation or stores for school materials and equipment and there was also a general lack of libraries and a lack of teachers’ housing especially in the outer islands. 

  • There was also no standardisation of classroom sizes and classrooms varied widely in size from school to school and significant numbers of very small primary schools (i.e. those with fewer than 30 students) mainly in the outer islands and these schools generally had more facilities than the number of students justified. 


The survey also highlighted the fact that there had been an almost complete lack of maintenance of primary school buildings and indicated that most primary schools in the country required some degree of renovation or maintenance work.  The funds available under TESP however would have only been sufficient to cover the cost of the renovation of a small number of schools given the prevailing very high construction costs.

It was recommended therefore that:

  • a small number of schools were completely renovated with any buildings requiring replacement being replaced, with other buildings being renovated to an acceptable level and with the provision of any missing facilities including dependable water supplies and adequate numbers of appropriate toilets.  These schools would then have provided models for the renovation of other schools when funds became available. 

  • It was also recommended that all schools selected for renovation under the TESP programme should be renovated to a similar standard and that any new buildings constructed should be simple and economic in terms of design and construction and all buildings should be cyclone and earthquake resistant.


Proposed minimum standards for primary schools were provided together with preliminary designs for primary school facilities and it was proposed that the number and type of facilities to be provided at schools to be renovated should comply with these standards in terms of numbers of classrooms, offices, stores and libraries.

It was suggested that if the Ministry wished to introduce school-based management into primary schools, then schools and communities would have to take responsibility for the maintenance of the school buildings.

It had been proposed that the renovations to the schools to be renovated by TESP would be implemented and managed by the schools or PTAs. The report pointed out however that school facilities in Tonga have to be constructed to a very high standard in order to withstand cyclones and earthquakes and it was not considered realistic for schools and communities to carry out the renovation and construction work themselves.  It was recommended therefore that local contractors should carry out the work and if the schools or PTAs were used to manage the work then they should receive technical assistance in order that the facilities were constructed to an acceptable standard.

Full details of the surveys, findings and recommendations can be found in the two reports that are attached: the May 2006 report and the September 2006 report.

The photo gallery below shows some of the common problems, caused by either poor construction or lack of maintenance, seen in primary schools that were visited.


The TESP programme unfortunately ended before any school renovations could be carried out.  The primary school survey was however completed and the results were entered in MEWAC’s school database where they should have provided an invaluable resource for MEWAC and donors when they had funds for renovating existing and/or constructing new primary schools.  The intention was that MEWAC should update the database annually but it is doubtful if this has been done.

The school survey instrument is however still available and would be very useful for any agency considering the upgrading of school facilities in Tonga or elsewhere and is given as a separate attachment here.

The proposed minimum standards and preliminary designs for primary schools should also have provided guidance for MEWAC and donors when renovating existing and/or constructing new primary schools but this unfortunately does not seem to have happened.

There is for instance another donor-funded primary school renovation project underway at present.  It is not known however on what basis the schools have been selected, the designs that are being used are different from those proposed in my reports and the very large, reinforced concrete foundations that are being used for what are simple, single-storey buildings, must be extremely expensive.  I had proposed the use of timber-framed buildings with steel or timber post foundations for the primary schools which would have been simpler and cheaper to construct and have been used successfully many times before in countries subject to earthquakes and cyclones (see for instance the Solomon Islands health project on this web-site).

Photo Gallery

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