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How to reform Malaysia’s ailing educational system

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Francis Loh looks at how greater autonomy, devolution of powers and decentralisation can raise Malaysia’s educational standards and restore trust in the teaching profession.

The 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) scores show that Malaysia is getting left behind in the race with its East Asian neighbours, with whom Malaysia competes for foreign direct investments.

As we enter the era of the knowledge economy in the 21st Century, driven by the increasing use of IT, the relative grasp of our workers in gaining skills and knowledge will determine where we stand vis-à-vis our competitors – whether in front, alongside, behind or far behind them.

We must give concerted attention to the entire area of human resource development if we do not want to lag behind our competitors. Human resource development also contributes towards steady economic growth and ultimately escaping from the so-called “middle-income trap”. If we are serious in focusing on such development, we must give our youth special attention and the required opportunities.

Malaysia lags behind

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development – the OECD – conducts the Pisa survey to measure the ability of 15-year-olds to apply their skills and knowledge to real-life problem-solving in reading, mathematics and science. The youth surveyed come from OECD countries and some non-OECD ones.

In 2009, 64 countries took part in the Pisa survey. Ten other countries, including Malaysia, then took part in the Pisa 2009+ project in 2010. The top 10 performing countries then were Shanghai-China, South Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia. Malaysia ranked in the bottom 30%.

The Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2025 discussed Malaysia’s performance in that survey. Out of 74 countries, Malaysia performed in the bottom third for reading, maths and science – well below the international and OECD average. Significantly, Malaysia was over 100 points below East Asian nations Singapore, Japan and South Korea. Almost 60% of Malaysian students failed to meet the minimum benchmark in maths; almost 44% did not meet the minimum proficiency level in reading while 43% did not meet the same in science. Overall, Malaysian students scored higher than Indonesian students but lower than their counterparts in Thailand. The performance of some 80% of the Malaysian schools taking part in the Pisa survey was graded as poor, 13% as fair, and only 7% as good.

The 2018 Pisa survey results show that Malaysia continues to lag behind. Malaysian students continued to score below the OECD average: in reading – 415, while the OECD average was 487; in maths – 440, against 489; and in science – 438, against 489. East Asian students from mainland China, Singapore, Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan scored higher than the OECD average, leaving their Malaysian counterparts far behind.

Despite this poor performance, the education system in Malaysia has undeniably made tremendous progress since independence in 1957. Then, more than half the population had no formal schooling; only 6% had secondary-level schooling and less than 1% had attained post-secondary education. By 2011 Malaysia had achieved 96% enrolment at primary level, 91% at lower-secondary level while the equivalent at the upper-secondary level was 81% (Malaysian Education Statistics 2017).

These statistics implied that 81% of every enrolled class of Malaysian students spent at least 11 years in school – and this was provided free to all. The number of tertiary level institutions and the number of students enrolled have also grown exponentially.

Clearly, the Malaysian government has made education accessible to all – regardless of ethnic, religious, regional and gender backgrounds. That said, it is also clear from data like the Pisa survey and other global comparative studies that the quality of education delivered in Malaysia leaves much to be desired. We have not given enough attention to this aspect.

Too centralised

Why has the quality of education been poor? The obvious answer is that the educational sector in Malaysia has become too centralised.

The federal Ministry of Education (MoE) formulates policies, develops plans and projects, controls financing and spending, and implements physical development. The centre also develops the school curricula; recruits, trains and posts teachers; and promotes head teachers all over the country.

The state education department in each state answers directly to the MoE. It receives regular directives from the centre and implements all educational programmes it is instructed to carry out within the state. It also monitors and supervises all matters regarding the curricula, schools, teachers, students and public funds received from the ministry. In effect, it functions as a regional agency of the ministry! In carrying out its functions, the state education department is assisted by principals or head teachers, who implement all educational programmes identified by the MoE and supervise and guide teachers. The teachers, in turn, monitor and supervise students, see to their welfare and learning, and liaise with parents and the community.

The district education offices were created in 1982 to help the state education department manage and supervise a situation that had grown too big and complex. They liaise on the ground level between the schools and the state education departments in matters concerning teachers, students and the curricula on the one hand, and with parents and the community on the other. They also look into the maintenance of schools and supervise public exams. And they collect data from the schools for decision-making at higher levels and disseminate information concerning regulations and changes, as instructed by the ministry.

Although different levels of administration have been created and the duties and functions of each level are spelled out, any organisation that employs some 420,000 teachers and 32,000-odd officers cannot be expected to function efficiently. Worse, power-crazed politicians and officials have used the organisation for political ends.

In neighbouring Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Thailand, the trend is towards decentralising the management of the education system.

Too politicised

Another reason for the poor quality of education in Malaysia is its politicisation. This relates to the fact that education is among the most sought after ministries – not least because the minister can develop influence over half a million teachers and administrators employed in the ministry.

It is well known that every time a new education minister is appointed, he changes and reverses policies adopted by his predecessor. Yes, the MoE is well known for its flip-flops. For instance, English is used to teach science and maths, and then this move is reversed by another minister, and then brought back again although under a “new programme”! History was an optional subject once and then made a compulsory one! The latest development is the introduction of khat and Jawi into the Bahasa Malaysia curriculum, which is compulsory for all. I dare say that another minister will probably reverse this policy.

The point is the educational realm is extremely politicised in Malaysia. We must take education out of the clutches of politicians and put them in the hands of parents, the community and especially, dedicated teachers. But where and how do we start?

Learn from little Estonia

We could learn from Estonia, one of the newest countries in the West which gained its independence with the collapse of the Soviet Empire in the 1980s. Located between Russia and Finland, Estonia has been termed “Europe’s newest education powerhouse”, outperforming the major European economies such as the UK, Germany and France.

Estonia has turned especially to Finland to draw lessons on how to restructure its educational system and so promote human resource development to anchor its place in the competitive knowledge economy. Incredibly, Estonian students’ performance has improved in such a short time.

It is true that its leaders created a vast internet infrastructure after they gained independence, unlike some other ex-Soviet neighbours like Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine.

More importantly, Estonia has made quality early years’ education a national priority. Compulsory education starts when children are seven years old and goes on until they are 15 before a smaller number of students enrol for tertiary education.

Estonian children are sent to “kindergarten” when they are as young as three or four to get them ready for school. In the kindergarten, learning is through play directed by teachers, with formal learning only gradually introduced. In essence, children are prepared emotionally and physically to attend school. And so they learn to be brave, to raise their hands and to ask questions.

The result: a closing of the gap between the haves and have-nots. Students are not separated by subject or by attainment or by sets or streams as known in our country. Instead, teachers are required to find ways of levelling upwards pupils from all backgrounds during their primary school years. There is a national curiculum yet few measures to compare students against students, schools against schools. Indeed, there are no tests in the primary schools.

Give teachers freedom to design lessons

There is a clear correlation between the good performance of students and good teachers.

Teachers have a high degree of freedom to design lessons within the given curriculum. For many, the teachers are the main reason why Estonia is doing so well in education. Given the freedom to innovate, the teachers have played a major role in not only getting students excited about learning but also levelling their achievements.

As in Finland and the other Scandinavian countries, teachers in Estonia are highly regarded and well paid.

Clearly, the Malaysian educational system needs to be decentralised and reformed. Teachers should also be given more leeway and allowed to design their lessons for local circumstances.

It has been 19 to 20 months since Pakatan Harapan has taken over and Maszlee Malik appointed the new Education Minister.

Has anybody heard of any reforms being conducted in the MoE? Has the running of the ministry been decentalised as recommended in the ministry’s own Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2025? Have there been changes in how we train our teachers? Any substantive changes in the curriculum? Any recruitment of enthusiastic young people applying to become our nation’s future teachers?

Yes, some change of personnel has taken place at the top of the education system.

Yes, funding for Chinese, Tamil, mission, sekolah agama rakyat (religious), tahfiz and independent schools has become a little more regularised. These grants now come directly from the MoE rather than from the Prime Minister’s Office, as was the case previously.

Yes, the minister, who has expressed much enthusiasm for the Finnish model of education, has also announced that there will be no exams in the early years of our primary school. But it does not appear, at least not yet, that the MoE has given greater independence to teachers on how to teach. In fact, the teachers will first need to be instructed on having greater initiative.

Decentralise, decentralise, decentralise…

Admittedly, one of the goals in the MoE’s own blueprint is to “decentralise” the ministry. However, its provisions do not yet allow for the schools to play decision-making roles. At best, the ministry transfers policies and programmes that it has designed at the top downwards to the state education departments and district education offices. 

We need to decentralise by transferring certain jurisdictions and decision-making to the state and local governments, as occurs in most federal countries. State and local government authorities will then share the responsibility of providing quality education to students. It is probable that local and state governments (rather than Putrajaya) can better relate to the needs of local students, especially in Sabah and Sarawak.

Apart from involving state and local authorities, parents, alumni, the local community and local industry/business should also be mobilised to play more comprehensive roles in the upkeep and running of schools.

More responsibilities could be given to parent teacher associations (PTAs). At present, more independent boards of governors/managers in national-type and mission schools have assumed limited responsibilities at least in maintaining the schools and their traditions.

Decentralisation should also encompass decision-making in the deployment of heads of schools and teachers and in extracurricular activities, if not parts of the main curriculum itself. Education officers from the federal, state and local governments can work closely with teachers, PTA members and boards.

In this way, teaching quality, school improvements and the teaching environment would be upgraded more cost-effectively. If more funds could be allocated downwards and powers on how to spend those funds can be devolved to the local level, it is possible there will be more competency, accountability and transparency over the use of those funds.

By granting more autonomy to schools in urban areas which cater for more middle-class children, the MoE can redirect its focus, give more attention and allocate more funds to schools, especially in rural areas, that do not yet have strong parental and community support.

Such reforms, including engagement with parents and the community, will restore trust in the education system. Too many parents have resorted to private schools and to home schooling.

Finally, like in Estonia and Finland, we need to restore the dignity of the teaching profession and recruit more young people to become committed teachers. With trust in the education system restored, parents will stop discouraging their children from becoming teachers. More capable and qualified people of all ethnic backgrounds will then step up to join the teaching profession.

Francis Loh
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
20 December 2019

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