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Education system: Take the bull by the horns

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The Education Ministry must have the courage to admit the serious shortcomings in the system and to think out of the box, says Henry Soon.


Our cover story of Aliran Monthly Vol 33 No 8 ‘Political parties, stay out of our schools!’ by Francis Loh drew reaction from a couple of readers. We reproduce one of them:

The dismal performance of our students in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) in 2013, where 51.8 per cent of our 15-year-old students failed to reach even the baseline level for Reading, Mathematics and Science, has rightly alarmed many concerned Malaysian parents and educationists.

It bears repeating that the quality of an education system simply cannot exceed the quality of its teachers, no matter how many billions of ringgit we pour into grandiose educational development plans or blueprints to improve our school system.

Zaid Ibrahim, merely calls a spade a spade when he wrote in his book “I, Too, Am Malay” that “ … We are afraid to admit that the teachers, most of whom are Malays, are poor in quality; that the school curriculum is irrelevant and the administrators too political….”( Chapter 7, Pg 245).

Think before tinkering

And the very fact that 70 per cent of our English teachers failed to make the grade in the Cambridge Placement Test speaks volumes of why and how we continue to witness a drastic decline in English proficiency in our schools and universities over the years.

And if it is true that a large number of our teachers are incompetent and of poor quality, then it stands to reason that before we start to make drastic changes to fine-tune or transform our education system, the policy-makers have to do certain things. They have to get the views of all the major stakeholders, be willing to accept sound suggestions from various quarters, do some real hard thinking of the pros and cons of their proposed changes before they attempt to tinker with our school system.

M Bakri Musa, the good doctor who, wrote among other books, “An Education System Worthy of Malaysia”, has pointed out that the greatest weakness of all our educational reforms is the government’s exclusive dependence on in-house or Ministry of Education staff. The personnel have somehow failed to improve the quality of our education system over the years – in spite of all their grand dreams and schemes.

Let’s just take a trip down memory lane to review how effective, practical or meaningful the educational reforms or changes that the Education Ministry has implemented in our schools over the years to see how things really are at the school level.

Unfair co-curricular points system

When the co-curricular points system was first implemented in our schools, it did appear to many that it would be a good way to motivate our students to participate more actively in sports clubs, societies and uniform bodies to enable the latter to become more well-rounded students. But as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

In the first place, the system was never implemented in good faith. Students sitting for the tough STPM exams are already facing a serious handicap when it comes to applying for admission to local universities for critical degree courses compared to Matriculation students, who study for a shorter period of time and sit for their relatively easy internally marked exam papers.

And as if things are not bad enough for STPM students, it looks like the co-curricular points system was designed to make university admission even easier for Matriculation students by making it relatively easy for them to secure high marks for their co-curricular activities, which account for 10 per cent of the entry-score requirements for public university admission.

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Co-curricular activities among hostel block members in Matriculation Colleges are given marks meant for district level; activities within Matriculation colleges are deemed fit for marks meant for state level and merely competing against another Matriculation college in a particular game is good enough to be awarded marks meant for national level!

Now, any wonder why so many SPM students choose not to do their Form Six? Well, not when the system is so biased in favour of Matriculation students and the academic playing field is so unlevel that to gain university admission to their dream degree courses is often a pipe dream for Form Six students, even though they may have worked doubly hard and secured four solid A’s in the so much tougher STPM exams.

As such, many bright post-SPM students simply don’t want to do Form Six and experience the mental agony of getting four straight A’s in the STPM exams and being denied places to pursue critical degree courses like medicine and pharmacy on the simple pretext that their co-curricular marks were not good enough compared to others.

Simple common sense will dictate that we should only deny these brilliant students their dream courses in favour of other university applicants who obtained similar results but scored better co-curricular marks – if our public university admission process is truly based on merit. Using the co-curricular points system so inflexibly and indiscriminately as an end in itself will only do injustice to many of our nation’s talented students.

Uninspiring subjects

Brain research suggests that superior learning takes place when classroom experiences are enjoyable and relevant to students’ lives, interest and experiences.

But our education system is already failing to provide students with appropriate problem-solving, critical and analytical skills and knowledge contents especially in Science and Mathematics to enable them to compete in the challenging global environment. At a time like this, it is rather unfortunate that our policy-makers saw it fit to make all students study History (now made a compulsory subject to pass in the SPM exams) with a syllabus and content that seem hell-bent to promote crass nationalism and blatant Islamisation – all in the name of promoting patriotism and national unity.

Instead of learning World History and exposing our students to all the lessons we can learn from world-shaking historical events, much of our Form Four History textbook alone is devoted to the study of Islamic civilisation and a detailed study of the life of Prophet Muhammad. This has given rise to suspicions that the school history syllabus is written from a religiously biased viewpoint for the political and religious indoctrination of our students.

Pray, tell me, when we impose a particular version of our past and force it down the throats of students to study a racially and religiously bigoted history, can the learning of History ever serve to foster patriotism and national unity? Or will it, on the contrary, breed resentment and contribute to greater racial and religious polarisation in our school system?

And why bother to introduce the SPM Open Certification Exam in the first place when we have no real intention to offer our students real flexibility in their choice of subjects and electives based on their interests, abilities and aptitudes?

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Why should we stifle our students’ initiative, curiosity and creativity by burdening them with more and more uninspiring and quite unnecessary subjects that have made school life such a dreadful and boring affair for so many of our students.

And yet, despite repeated calls to scrap the subject of Moral Education that hardly serves to make our students more ethical and develop high moral standards as moral values are really ‘caught’ and not taught, such pleas fell on deaf ears. The Moral Education taught in our schools, instead of exploring how we can effectively teach and test moral reasoning and present moral dilemmas without prejudice (which do not insist on yes or no answers), only serves to indoctrinate our students with norms and subject them to mindless memorisation of core values.

To make things worse, after some years, our policy-makers decided that learning Moral Education is not good enough. In order to make our students more civic-conscious, public-spirited and patriotic, they went on to introduce yet another subject called Civics and Citizenship for our secondary school students starting from Form One in 2005.

Little wonder, why our students’ time-tables are so bloated these days and why they have to carry such heavy satchels to school. And it may not be long before other subjects such as Consumerism and Financial Literacy will make their appearance in our schools.

So little PE

Our National Education Philosophy emphasises the holistic development of our students. That being the case, surely Physical Education plays an important role in schools to produce physically fit and well-rounded students?

And yet with our students experiencing so much stress in their school life and so eager to have games and exercises in their daily school routine, they have to make do with just two miserable periods for Physical Education! If that is not bad enough, some schools even use those periods to teach “more important subjects” in their respective schools.

But sorry, students in reality can’t even enjoy these two measly periods of Physical Education per week as they have to study Health Education as well once a fortnight or so during such periods!

Are teachers ready for school-based assessments?

And what about our PBS or school-based assessment? Various concerned quarters have already pointed out that simply scrapping the UPSR and PMR exams to introduce the current PBS may not necessarily serve to enhance learning and make school life more enjoyable for our students.

When PBS was introduced to schools in 2011, it was assumed that individual schools and teachers are capable and better equipped and strategically placed to assess their students’ abilities and potential.

But with so many poor quality teachers in our schools, it is really a false assumption to claim that all teachers are sufficiently and equally equipped to evaluate their students based on internally prepared assessments, and that they would take pains to assess their students properly, and that they are unbiased towards their students. Well, that’s really a tall order.

Already we have heard stories from schools of incompetent and indifferent teachers teaching weak classes and yet awarding their students Band Six, no less, in their respective subjects! And as usual, many schools are already resorting to buying PBS workbooks in the market instead of getting their teachers to come up with their own worksheets and materials to assess accurately what they really need to assess in their students, making a mockery of introducing the school-based assessment in the first place.

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But we can hardly blame the poor teachers, not when they are overwhelmed with so much paperwork and keying data online into the SPPBS (System Pengurusan Pentaksiran Berasaskan Sekolah).

It is worth noting that our current PBS , at the end of the day, is not much different to the A-B-C-D-E grade system or even the Percentage Score system. So why should teachers need to waste time with the banding exercise when they in their daily dealings with their young charges can easily discern the band(s) the latter actually deserve for the topics taught?

Wouldn’t it be much better to give our teachers more time to reflect and deliberate on their teaching approaches and methodologies and enhance their professional knowledge of their respective subjects rather than wasting so much time with all the paperwork and keying data online into the computers?

Take the bull by the horns

Really, it is high time to address immediately the woes facing our education system. For a start the government should really take the educational bull by the horns. It should undertake greater decentralisation of power and grant greater autonomy to good schools in both urban and rural areas to adopt a broad based curriculum, save for a few core subjects under the supervision of the Education Ministry, to let students learn what they ought to learn in this challenging age of globalisation.

Get dynamic and open-minded school principals to head such schools and empower them to make decisions on significant matters related to school operations with the active participation of parents and the local school communities.

Such school principals can be empowered to hire competent teaching staff, even from the private sector, if need be, by charging school fees and being accountable for their performance to parents and the local school communities. Then perhaps we stand a better chance to make flexible and effective changes to improve the quality our education system at the school level, especially when we are now in a position to compare the performance of such autonomous schools with our national schools.

With so many parents paying so much money for tuition classes for their children these days when they lose faith in the school system, they would gladly pay some school fees to get their children to study in such autonomous schools. When such schools, especially when they are allowed to teach Science and Mathematics in English, gain a reputation for solid and sound education, the curse of our Malaysian tuition syndrome will slowly die a natural death. More non-Malay parents would then choose to place their children in such schools rather than vernacular schools or international schools, resulting in a truly win-win situation!

With the current rot in the school system, the Education Ministry and policy-makers should no longer guard their educational turf so jealously.They must have the courage to admit the serious shortcomings of their plans and policies and display greater courage to think out of the box. They must do what needs to be done to meet the expectations of the long-suffering Malaysian parents from all walks of life who yearn to have their children educated in line with the best educational practices in the world.

The ball is really in the Education Ministry’s court.

Henry Soon is a retired teacher who has served over 32 years in goveernment service. He is currently serving as the head of the English Department in a private school.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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7 Jun 2014 6.16pm

I forgot to add the egregious Mahathir must be laughing right now even though he did not manage to retard the pace of the (minorities) with the introduction of the ‘remove’ class for them. During his tenure as education minister and premiership but too some extend he now has. But again demanding that someone taller to squad so as to enable the shorter one to look taller can only be an illusion ! I can only feel sorry for all the (minority) students having to spend a year more to complete the remove class. Because their parents have not the means to have them sent abroad for their further education. But has to spend this additional year to complete the remove class achieved the aim of this exercise of egregious Mahathir ? If so why is the standard of education in Malaysia keeps falling behind year after year ? Also how many non Malay students has this policy retarded as a result of this policy and above all has this policy impeded most of the non Malay students from becoming professionals. These students are now working… Read more »

6 Jun 2014 7.58am

Since this egregious Mahathir came into power when he became the minister of education, one of his first tasks was the introduction of the ‘remove class’ for the students wanting to move on to study their secondary education That move is to retard the non Malay students from moving too fast for the Malay students. Isn’t this is just like asking the tall to squad down just so the short will look the taller ones. I know of many the students who refused to spend another useless year staying in the remove class went on to foreign countries and subsequently became skillful professionals. These are the same students the Talent Corp are trying so very hard to bring them back to serve the country. Thus … the real purpose behind the introduction of the remove class was and still is to retard the non Malay students… (?). Therefore one can easily say that not only the whole idea to slow down these students did not achieve the real purpose of egregious Mahathir. But instead help to drive some of Malaysia’s bright students to foreign countries. That… Read more »

Samsudin Hamidan
9 Jun 2014 8.50am
Reply to  charleskiwi

My dear friend. Remove class was a feature introduced before Mahathir’ s
era.The original objectivre was to orientate students into the mainstream classes which was conducted in English. Let’s get your fact right

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