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Education needs a more inclusive approach

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But we continue to shoot ourselves in the foot with regular changes in exam formats, syllabuses and priorities – all of which have a serious impact on our educational system, writes K Haridas.

We need a Malaysian in body and spirit to head the Ministry of Education.

This is a challenge because for decades we have had ministers who represent ethnic parties. It was only a coalition in name, but all the members of the ruling coalition were pushing their own ethnic agendas while tolerating the other.

We have reached a stage where, on an evidence and outcome-based analysis, the ministry will receive a poor grade for the state of our schools and even universities. We all need to be included, and none of us is as smart as all of us. Education, in particular, needs this inclusive approach as we are enhancing human potential for the future.

Look at all the well-meaning slogans and initiatives launched over the last three decades. Have any of them borne fruit? Even Vision 2020 is unachievable. What we have done is to polarise our society to such an extent that education is now so clearly divided along ethnic lines. Private schools have a predominant number of non-Malays as do private universities.

Education was once emphasised as playing an important role in enhancing inter-racial goodwill and understanding. We all need to be good in Bahasa Malaysia, and all this has been done. Now we have khat (Arabic calligraphy) and Jawi. What all this does is polarise our society. Ultimately, it is sad to see how the Malays are hurting themselves in a globalised interdependent world.

We need to prepare our children for the world of tomorrow. This calls for cohesion and everyone doing their best. We have to ask serious questions why countries and states that are so religiously pious with so much emphasis on religiosity are also among the most corrupt eg Nigeria, Pakistan, India and Malaysia.

Government schools presently are for Malaysians who have no other option but to send their children there for economic reasons. Many are disenchanted with the syllabus. The perception is that the exams have an emphasis on mediocrity. The passing marks, in some cases, are so low. The quality of some teachers is questionable, and low benchmarks enable them to achieve low targets and yet make the grade for bonuses and awards.

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Then we have the Mara residential schools, which are only for one ethnic group somewhat similar to the Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools (though some Chinese schools have a sizeable non-Chinese enrolment). These three categories seem to perform better.

Just consider the number of students who have left the mainstream educational system and gone into even Chinese schools not to mention the hundreds of unregistered home schools, church schools and tuition centres. Many of these home schools and church schools are just allowed to be and they provide different curriculums.

Many urban parents opt to send their children anywhere but the national schools. Many of these students – and they run into the thousands – are not even part of the national schools. How are they going to integrate into Malaysian culture? The talk now is about khat and Jawi. In fact, many parents justify their action because of such an emphasis and have lost faith in the national schools and the educational system.

‘International schools’?

There are now 160 private “international schools”. Most of them compete for the same local students. The students in these schools usually comprise about 80% local students and at the most 20% foreign students, if they are lucky. Almost half these schools are located in the Klang Valley. There are all types of rules under which international school licences are approved that many do not know what the criteria are. Perhaps it is who you know that matters?

These schools can be seen located in factory outlets, shop-houses, church buildings and other buildings adapted for the purpose. They have in some cases crowded academic facilities but nothing else. It is these schools that are hurting the image of international schools in Malaysia. How are some of these schools going to produce all-round well-developed students if these schools do not provide extracurricular and co-curricular activities as they lack facilities befitting modern international schools?

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The purpose-built schools, on the other hand – with investments running into the hundreds of millions of ringgit and meeting all building and safety requirements needed for an international school – are left competing with the unregistered set-ups. This is blatantly unfair. It is very difficult to secure foreign students to study in Malaysia, and the ministry knows the underlying reasons. Yet these schools persevere.

However, from the perspective of parents, their children are studying for programmes that have an international recognition – an option much better that the local Form Three Assessment (PT3) or Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM), which are now perceived as mediocre. It is up to the ministry and the minister to get feedback, undertake the necessary research and take positive action.

More consultation, please

The minister must have a consultative committee made up of all the different interest groups with whom he or she vets initiatives and through whom standards are continually heightened. This will help moderate politics in education. Other ministries like the Ministry of Labour have such regular consultations with their respective stakeholders.

My children all went to government schools and did well. This was a decade ago, and I now have many parents seeking advice about the alternative options to the local curriculum. We are so engrossed with religion and religiosity that our children are almost brainwashed. There is very little evidence of change, moral growth or character improvement.

Education has now also become a battleground for Islamic religious expression. It is not a matter of imposition but a lack of inclusion. We are all Malaysians, and there must be a measure of respect and understanding. One can always dialogue prior to these issues coming out as policies.

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Many feel they are not respected and included. You have to be part of the minority to understand such sentiments. The maturity of the majority will ensure that this is acknowledged, but when the majority feel that they are right and can impose, they not only bring dishonour to themselves but lose the confidence of specific sectors.

We have to move from an emphasis on mediocrity to one of meritocracy. Yes, not all will meet these grades. Yet there are different options for students with different grades. Try sending an open feedback note to teachers, parents and students who were all involved in the most recent PT3 exams. The format for these exams was not even finalised till the last moment, and schools were left wondering how to manage this appropriately.

In an environment that is top heavy and where one has to follow the dictum of superiors, there is no place for accurate feedback. There is fear, and as such, honest facts do not see the light of day. People stomach mediocrity, and the officials in the ministry will always want to show that their performance is better than the previous year.

Into the scene comes the Immigration Department, which seems to be another top-down sector. They establish rules that everyone should follow without understanding the challenges faced by school officials in employing overseas teachers. I am not aware of any discussions with the various stakeholders.

I tried to secure an appointment with the outgoing minister and the director of private education. In both instances, I failed. We continue to shoot ourselves in the foot with regular changes in exam formats, syllabuses and priorities – all of which have a serious impact on our educational system.

Insecure people are not open to suggestions, and they impose rules and apply fear tactics to secure both obedience and silence.

That is why many opt out of the system.

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