Our national education policy should move towards enhancing school autonomy as it is a more effective way of encouraging people to stay within the national school system, writes Ngu Ik Tien.
The possible revival of the teaching of science and maths in English (PPSMI) has again driven the nation into a heated debate over national education. As highlighted in a recent Aliran article, one size cannot fit all.
The Ministry of Education should redesign a national education system that caters to the needs of the country’s increasingly diverse population mix. The national education system should cover basic features that give prominence to the national language while remaining flexible enough for schools to determine what suits them best. One way of achieving this goal is to delegate authority to local schools.
In Malaysia many multiple streams and “hybrid schools” work well in serving local multicultural communities. These schools are able to function as they do because of the autonomy they enjoy. For example, the primary school I attended was a vernacular Chinese primary school run by the Methodist Church of Sarawak. Despite being a “national-type (Chinese) school”, known by its Malay acronym SJK(C), the school also provided the option of Malay-stream schooling, based on the national school curriculum. My sister was in the Malay stream, and I was in the Chinese stream. I did not realise how unusual this was until I discovered the dominant narratives of the mainstream educational movements in Malaysia.
My school provided more than one type of schooling partly because of the school’s autonomy. As a national-type school, it could maintain its school management board, but this was at the cost of not receiving full sponsorship from the government. The school management board, made up of locals, had a say in shaping the characteristics of the school. So the school could be more responsive and sympathetic to local needs and demands. This hybrid schooling model worked well in serving the local community. It was different from the rigid cultural model of the ideal Malay nationalist school and the ideal Chinese school of Dong Zong.
The most valuable element in the running of national-type schools is the school’s autonomy. To illustrate the success of maintaining this autonomy and to encourage these schools to remain within the national system, we may want to look at private Chinese education, which enjoys a high level of autonomy in the running of their schools, while continuing to be a part of the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) system overseen by Dong Zong.
Private or independent Chinese secondary schools have been undergoing some fundamental changes over the past decade. More and more of these schools have adopted the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), which uses English as the medium of instruction. This adoption does not mean that these schools have abandoned the UEC. Instead, they are providing multiple types of schooling opportunities and recognising different certificates, including the UEC, Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) and IGCSE, for their students.
The main driving force is the surge in parents’ demand for better English language proficiency and multicultural social life. Such changes are being undertaken by many individual private schools, particularly those in urban areas.
This development is seldom discussed publicly as it does not fit into the official narrative of the Chinese educational movement. However, the autonomy enjoyed by these Chinese independent secondary schools has provided room for individual schools to “deviate” and yet prosper. This means a hybrid schooling model is emerging to meet the increasing demand from parents living in a diverse, multicultural society.
Both the national and Chinese school systems have never been as standardised as they have been portrayed. Multiple streams or hybrid schools existed long ago. For example, the most prominent Chinese independent school in Sabah has adopted the policy of teaching science and maths in English for decades. Though the policy has offended some Chinese educationists, they have eventually come to accept the choice of Sabahans and to accommodate it by making adjustments to their textbooks and exam system.
Many may not be aware that exam papers for almost half of the subjects (in particular, science, maths and commerce) in the UEC exams are set in a bilingual format to accommodate the teaching of these subjects in English.
Malaysian society has always been heterogenous and is set to become even more diverse in the years to come. Our national education policy should move towards enhancing school autonomy as it is a more effective way of encouraging people to stay within the national school system.Ngu Ik Tien
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
18 February 2020