Secondary-school English Language teachers and Form Four students would have heaved a sigh of relief on hearing the news.
Some teachers and students would have been disappointed. If the proposal had gone through, Form Four students this year would have been the pioneer batch to sit the must-pass English subject in Form Five next year.
Though many educationists expressed disappointment over the inconsistent shift of educational policies, the latest decision has to be viewed in the bigger context.
SPM is the highest secondary school education that every student goes through. It defines the path for students to higher tertiary studies or career training.
Bahasa Malaysia and Sejarah papers are compulsory pass papers in SPM. Bahasa Malaysia is taught from Year 1 in national and national- type schools.
The language is extensively used and is the language of interaction and communication among the different races in the country.
The Sejarah paper is in Bahasa Malaysia, and BM is the se- cond language of non-Malay students. Both these papers are taught and easily learnt in schools. However, making the English Language paper a compulsory pass can pose problems to teachers and students.
Let us create a level-playing field before we make the English language subject a compulsory pass.
Firstly, the status of English language in the country varies greatly.
Urban and rural students differ in their proficiency and competency of the English language.
Students can be categorised into three levels of users of the English Language:
The first level comprises 15 per cent of students, who use English as a first language.
These students come from mainly urban homes where their parents speak English and are excellent users of the language.
There are many students who have “forgotten” their mother tongue and have embraced English as their mother tongue.
The second level comprises 40 per cent of students, who use the language as a second language. They are competent and proficient in the language.
They have a genuine interest to learn the English language for its many benefits. These students make a sincere effort to learn the language to achieve their ends.
The third level comprises 45 per cent of students, who use the language marginally. They are weak and poor in the language due to limited exposure and usage of the language.
These students come from the rural areas and have no English exposure or background in their homes. The mother tongue and Bahasa Malaysia take precedence in their lives.
These students learn English because it is taught in school. They have no opportunity to use the language outside the classroom.
The school curriculum, syllabus, textbooks and examinations follow a standard that caters for the first- and second- level learners of the English language.
The third-level learners would need differentiated learning strategies that require a different set of curriculum, textbooks and testing procedures.
So, there is an unequal and unbalanced playing field for the different categories of students and it is not fair to group them together under a standard test.