Today, thousands of schoolchildren will be wearing big smiles. The PT3 exams are over and they can now sit back and relax till the next big exam looms.
The exams may be over for them but testing times are here for the education system.
Just weeks ago, a group started an online petition. They claim it is time to close down the vernacular schools and get everyone into a single stream.
Some decades ago, I would have agreed with them. As a schoolboy, I felt vernacular schools were backward and that all dedicated teachers were in the national schools.
We had some very good ones in my alma mater Penang Free School and equally good ones who wanted to rival us in schools like St Xavier’s Institution and BM High School.
But how things have changed in the past years.
The syllabus has been meddled with and it’s now unrecognisable from the one we of the older generation had.
Grammar, spelling and dictation are all things of the past, one retired teacher lamented.
And there’s that other thing – the hijacking of the education system by people with a religious agenda.
While Penang Free School had in fact started to steer the school system away from any religious agenda, we now seem headed straight back in that direction.
We hear of teachers who don’t teach, but preach. Of teachers who mock and ridicule the belief systems of others, tear off religious symbols and in some cases, even try to convert students.
Which is why the vernacular school system seems to be ever more important now.
The teachers there, pressured by the old perception that their schools are inferior, work twice as hard. And they produce results. Isn’t that what all parents – no, even the nation – want?
We have seen how non-Chinese students are flocking to Chinese schools, even when there is a national school right next door.
The parents say it is because vernacular schools allow their children to mix with others of different races and religions and understand the diversity of the nation.
Tamil schools are also producing champions – students who go around the world winning awards, both in speaking contests and in science and maths. Slowly, these schools are picking up speed and the numbers are increasing.
Strangely enough, it is the national schools, that are in fact, losing their diversity with students of only one race attending. And people want vernacular schools closed?
Thank God the Prime Minister himself has now stepped in to say that these schools are here to stay.
In a diverse nation, we need a diverse education system. The goals and destinations remain the same, but the approach and routes have to differ according to the needs of the students so they do not get disillusioned.
Which brings us to that other section of society that needs special attention in education – the orang asli and orang asal.
The recent tragedy which saw seven students go missing from school, only for five of them to die of hunger and drowning, has brought to the spotlight the needs of these people for a different approach to teaching.
What works in a school in Kuala Lumpur need not necessarily work in, say, Pos Tohoi.
A recent survey said that when students were tested for the three 3Ms –Membaca, Menulis, Mengira (Reading, Writing and Arithmetics) – the orang asli failed miserably.
Instead, says the report, they excelled in another set of 3Ms – Main, Makan, Menyanyi (Play, Eat, Sing).
But that is the way they are. If song and dance is what attracts them most, it is time the education system uses these to teach.
The retired teacher tells of how he used to spend 15 minutes of class playing and joking with the children in an orang asli school.
“You can start teaching after the 15 minutes and they will pay attention. If you get strict with them, they will pack up and go home and not return to the hostel for months.”
The children will learn only if they are happy at school.
“We have to innovate, prepare different modules to teach the children according to their abilities, although at the end of the day, the target remains the same – to get them to complete the national syllabus and be ready to join society and the workforce,” says an educator nephew.
Way back in 2007, there were plans to incorporate orang asli folklore and legends into teaching and learning aids. The plan was to use story-telling as a form of teaching.
I have no idea if these are already in place.
But from stories coming out of Pos Tohoi, the children were in fear of school.
They were miles away from home. They stayed in hostels, not in their familiar childhood environment and they only had teachers as father-mother figures.
Were the teachers playing that role right?
There are stories of frustrated teachers, those from cities who were sent to serve in the deep rurals. They, too, were out of their familiar turf and away from families and friends.
They are overworked, and vent their anger on the children they are supposed to nurture.
And it’s the children and their education that suffer.
Every child is special. Let’s treat them so. There are many good teachers out there trying to make a difference. We just need more of them. Dorairaj Nadason THE STAR Opinion Columnist Why Not? Friday October 16, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM