The way to improve our education system is not via a directive from the centre to the bottom; the solution is to decentralise our education system, asserts Francis Loh.
On 24 Jan 2013, it was highlighted in the front page of The Star that “a thorny issue has been resolved with the Education Ministry assuring mission schools of ‘maximum consultation’ in appointing their principals”.
The provision for maximum consultation, it seems, surprisingly stems from guidelines contained in the over 40-year-old Revised Report of the Royal Commission on the Teaching Services, West Malaysia, 1971, which, the authorities of the mission schools claim, had not been fully implemented these past decades.
Initially, there was little problem because male and female Christian missionaries – foreign ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ – were available to run and administer these schools without any hindrance or restriction. Consequently, many adopted Malaysian citizenship and mastered Bahasa Malaysia to adapt themselves to the changing educational environment beginning from the 1970s.
From the 1980s, as a result of diminishing numbers of foreign brothers and sisters (because of new immigration restrictions imposed on their recruitment) and declining recruitment of local brothers and sisters, the principals had to be drawn from the common pool of senior teachers directly under the control of the Education Ministry.
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From the viewpoint of the mission school authorities, the priority was to appoint someone who understood the history, character, traditions and ethos of the mission school. But the mission schools had very limited information about or access to this pool of teachers; the qualifications, the grade or level of service they were in; and the administrative experience of these teachers e.g. whether they had attended the compulsory course intended for promotion to headship. Nor were the boards fully aware of what was required by the ministry for teachers to be eligible for promotion.
How could the boards of the mission schools have access to such data? That was when the problem began to emerge. Over the past two to three decades, many nominees of the boards for headships were considered ineligible or not qualified. So the ministry would emplace their own eligible candidates instead.
From time-to-time, there occurred protests over the arbitrary appointments of heads to mission schools which had been made by ministry officers without even the minimum consultation. Many Malaysians would be aware of the controversy surrounding the appointment of the headmistress to SMK Convent Bukit Nanas in Kuala Lumpur in 2011, which the Catholic Archbishop Kuala Lumpur objected to and which was widely reported in the media. However, many of these protests were made behind closed doors, leaving the impression that all was well. In fact, much was amiss.
For example, in the case of a Lasallian primary school that I was personally involved in, the school had no head for seven long months in 2012. The board, which I headed, submitted the necessary documents on the candidate we preferred as head and met with the state’s director of education three times. The Bro Director/Visitor of the Lasallian schools in Malaysia sent a letter of support to the state director of education too as well as a copy of the letter to the relevant officers in the Ministry endorsing the board’s nominee. In that letter, reference was made to the provision in the 1971 Report which provided for ‘maximum consultation’ before heads of mission schools were appointed.
About a month later, I was asked to see the education district head. I thought that he was going to inform me that our candidate was successful. Silly me! In fact, he simply wanted to alert me that there had been no head in the school – as if we were not aware! Disturbingly, he was in the dark that the board had already submitted the necessary documents to his boss on this matter. The left hand had not been informed by the right hand about goings-on. So I submitted a set of the same documents to him the next day.
Four months later, I was again asked to see the district head who, to my utter disbelief, informed me that ‘so-and-so’ had been appointed as the new head of our school! Whereupon I enquired, whatever happened to our board’s candidate? I was told only now – five months after I had first seen the director, four months after seeing the district head – that the board’s candidate was “ineligible” and could not be appointed! Let’s not quarrel about why she was considered “ineligible” – to my mind, a small technicality. But why didn’t they tell this to us back then, five months earlier?!
Meanwhile, on the grounds that the candidate the ministry suggested had not attended or taught in any mission school previously, the board considered the ministry’s candidate not suitable. We insisted to the district head our right to nominate a new candidate, which we did within two days.
Finally, about a month before the school reopened in January 2013, some seven months after the vacancy first arose, a head of our choice was appointed to the post. We are glad that our nominee was finally accepted by the ministry. But this was not the ‘maximum consultation’ that we were entitled to under the Revised Report of 1971. It was certainly maximising our anxieties and frustrations. And parents maximised their complaints to us and to the PIBG about worsening discipline in school and absenteeism among teachers while the school was ‘headless’ for seven months. Fortunately, the new head, a most capable man, is beginning to put things right again.
The Education Ministry director-general, Tan Sri Abd Ghafar Mahmud, has declared that a circular would be issued to all states by the end of the month on the procedure of consulting the school boards. Reportedly, the thorny issue had been resolved in a meeting between the deputy prime minister, also the education minister, and representatives of the Federation of Councils of Christian Mission Schools Malaysia. (But when a resolution was available for over 40 years in the form of the Revised Report, why was this ignored? If a Royal Commission report can be discarded, what fate would await the D-G’s circular?)
This announcement has been welcomed by the Federation of Councils and various individuals related to the mission schools. Datuk Dr Wee Ka Siong, the deputy education minister, has also declared that this directive also applies to all Chinese conforming schools. Henceforth, there ought to be ‘open communication’.
We, too, welcome this announcement by the director-general. With bated breath we wait to see the contents of this directive. Clearly, it must say more than just the basic, if the delays and frustrations that our board had encountered is to be avoided. Indeed, there is no guarantee either, even if details are spelt out in the directive, that the procedures will be adhered to at the state and district levels. Over the years, there have been reports of how teachers, heads of districts, and even state directors have taken matters into their own hands in contravention of ‘directives’ from above; this includes the ‘old’ directive based on the 1971 Revised Report.
A related and equally thorny issue concerns government funding for the mission schools. As sekolah bantuan modal, the term that the government uses to distinguish them, they rarely ever received capital grants for new buildings or upgrading old buildings. Since the 2008 elections, however, the federal BN government has surprisingly awarded the missions schools such capital grants. The mission schools are now demanding that they be regarded simply as sekolah bantuan kerajaan or government-aided schools and be eligible for both capital grants and full grants-in-aid. There is no category as sekolah bantuan modal in the Education Act 1996, which only has two categories i.e. sekolah kerajaan or sekolah bantuan kerajaan.
This was also a demand of the council when they met the deputy prime minister. The press reported that Muhyiddin has agreed to continue providing them with grants, but it is not clear whether they are henceforth to be classified as sekolah bantuan kerajaan and fully eligible for the grants and grants-in-aid.
The reality is that our bureaucracy, including the ministry of education and individual teachers, have become very politicised following rule by a single party – Umno-BN – for more than 55 years! Whereas the bureaucracy, perhaps especially the ministry of education should be neutral and fair, our civil service unfortunately has closely identified itself with the single ruling party.
Consider, for instance, how the federal bureaucracy has been relating to the four Pakatan-led governments these past four to five years! The fact that this 1971 Report containing the ‘thorny issue’ of maximum consultation is being given renewed attention some 40 years later, on the eve of GE13, begs cynicism and caution.
For me, the way out of this problem – indeed, the way to improve our education system – is not via a directive from the centre to the bottom; not even by sending our ministry officials back to school in order to learn how to act neutral. The solution is to decentralise our education system.
An organisation which employs almost half-a-million teachers and officers cannot be expected to function efficiently. Worse, it becomes the target of power-crazed politicians and officials who use it for political ends.
By decentralising, on the other hand, not only can we attract parents and the community to play a role in the running of schools (as the boards of the mission schools and the PIBGs attempt to do nowadays), but important decision-making with regard to the deployment of heads, teachers, extra-curricular activities, if not parts of the main curriculum itself, can be conducted by district heads, teachers, parents and community members who care about their children’ s education. It is too critical an endeavour to leave it to little Napoleans and would-be big-Napoleans to handle.
By way of conclusion, let me clarify that although I met and sent the ministry officials various letters with accompanying documents, not once did I receive a letter to acknowledge my meeting with them or my submission of the documents. Nor did I receive a letter or a c.c. to inform me that the new head had been appointed. Is this the Malaysian way? What maximum consultation?