LIAM COCHRANE, REPORTER: From East Timor's capital, the harbour city of Dili, it's about a two hour drive to the district of Manatuto.
When it comes to education outside Dili, this school is about as good as it gets. The classrooms have books and learning aids, the playground has clean toilets and running water, and young children are learning basic numeracy.
But venture into the countryside and it's a different story. Just getting there can be a challenge.
KIRSTY SWORD GUSMAO, GOODWILL AMBASSADOR FOR EDUCATION: Well, sadly with all of the recent very heavy rain the road has washed away.
LIAM COCHRANE: These challenges are nothing new for Australian born Kirsty Sword Gusmao who was part of the clandestine resistance movement working for East Timor's independent. These days her husband, Xanana Gusmao, is prime minister and she's goodwill ambassador for education in East Timor.
It's a sector in trouble. A World Bank study in 2009 found at the end of grade one 70 per cent of children couldn't read a single word of Tetum or Portuguese. By grade three, 20 per cent were still totally illiterate.
Kirsty Sword Gusmao and a range of supporters want to change that. This year a pilot program has started in 12 schools across three districts using the local language or mother tongue to teach children during their first years of school. With this foundation in a language they already understand, teachers can then slowly introduce Tetum and Portuguese.
KIRSTY SWORD GUSMAO: Yes, this is the Rembor Primary School and this was previously the grade five classroom. We gave a recommendation to the principal that the grade one students actually be given this classroom, given the very high numbers of grade one students, I think there are about 40 or 50 students.
And therefore, during the training the teacher trainers were able to actually transform the classroom into a child friendly space, putting posters and the kids' drawings, the teachers' drawings on the walls. And also to set up art corners, reading corners, and activity corners for the kids. So it's a much different place from the one that we first visited a month or so ago.
LIAM COCHRANE: Tetae is 7-years-old and she's typical of children who have struggled under the old system.
Despite two years of formal schooling, she still can't recognise a single letter in either Tetum or Portuguese. That's because Tetae speaks the local language of Galoli at home and with her friends.
PAULINO TIMUN, FATHER (Translation): Before this program started Tetae was very reluctant, almost scared to go to school because the teachers were forcing her to learn in what are essentially foreign languages. And since this program has started, she's actually become really happy about going to school.
LIAM COCHRANE: Tetae's parents are enthusiastic supporters of the mother tongue pilot project.
JULIANA SOARES, MOTHER (Translation): I want my daughter to have a good education and to be able to acquire other languages in the future, such as Portuguese.
PAULINO TIMUN (Translation): As a means of helping our children's understanding of new knowledge, and also to help facilitate their learning of the official languages, they need to receive their instruction in their early years in mother tongue.
LIAM COCHRANE: The pilot has only been running a few weeks but already Tetae is engaging at school like never before.
She says when she grows up she wants to be a doctor.
But not everyone agrees with the mother tongue teaching pilot.
(Footage of angry people at mother tongue seminar plays)
The footage is grainy but the emotions are clear. This seminar in January was meant to explain the pilot project to those still doubtful. Instead, it ended in a shouting match with one critic ripping up the mother tongue policy paper and throwing it in the direction of Kirsty Sword Gusmao and the government official.
The paper thrower was Laura Pina, a member of the Women's Network.
LAURA PINA, WOMEN'S NETWORK (Translation): This project will cause discrimination among the students from different mother tongue groups. We have to provide quality education to all students equally.
Mother tongue languages can be developed and protected in many ways, but if we use mother tongues in formal education, it will cause great confusion.
LIAM COCHRANE: Laura Pina is concerned about friction between the languages groups of East Timor. And there's also a practical element to her opposition.
LAURA PINA (Translation): In Manatuto they're going to use only Galoli, but as we know there are many mother tongues in Manatuto, three or four, not just Galoli. So how will they use mother tongue to give a lesson to the students when the students speak so many languages? How many different math teachers will we need?
LIAM COCHRANE: Teaching kids in their mother tongue as a bridge to another language is a concept that's been tried in other countries with great success. Notably in Cambodia.
Teo Ximenes works for the humanitarian organisation Care, and he travelled to Cambodia to see the mother tongue teaching program in action there.
TEO XIMENES, CARE: If we introduce this mother tongue in the lower grades of primary school, of children can learn easily, can facilitate them as communication medium between teacher and themselves. So they can learn best and then after that we can start to introduce Tetum and Portuguese, which is our official languages.
LIAM COCHRANE: Teo Ximenes says it's little surprise the change is attracting opposition, given the country's only had formal independence for a decade.
TEO XIMENES:I respect those who have different perspective, difference ideas. It's just normal, it's natural, but we need to try for the sake of the children's education.
LIAM COCHRANE: However, Kirsty Sword Gusmao says the criticisms of the project go beyond education policy.
KIRSTY SWORD GUSMAO: I think some of the criticism is politically motivated. For some reason my involvement seems to suggest to people that this is an official program and policy of the present government, which is actually not the case. The ministry has given its full support to the pilot, but has actually delayed any, you know, overarching support for or embracing of this policy until some results are shown.
LIAM COCHRANE: It's early days for the 12 schools where the mother tongue teaching approach is being tried. It's only cost $US13,000 to get these pilot programs running, but more money it needed to keep going and to assess whether it's actually helping kids learn.
KIRSTY SWORD GUSMAO: I hope when we hold those results up, that our ministry of education will see the benefits and will want those benefits to be shared and enjoyed by young people and teachers, communities all over the country.