While the Education Ministry’s indefinite postponement of the SPM English issue has drawn flak from many quarters, there are an equal number of stakeholders who are happy with the decision.
IT was a fact that the ruling to make English a compulsory pass subject for the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) was on track. And it was – at least, until recently.
On Wednesday, the Examinations Syndicate announced that the ruling would be put on hold.
A little less stress: The decision to postpone the must pass SPM English paper will allow students more time to brush up on their proficiency before the ruling takes effect.
In a four-paragraph statement, the Education Ministry said that the postponement was to “allow teachers and students to have more time and opportunities to prepare”.
Two years ago, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who was then Education Minister, had announced that making English a must-pass subject in SPM was part of the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025’s second implementation wave, which starts next year.
This would affect more than 400,000 students who sit for the paper every year.
A pass in English has never been compulsory for SPM.
Since 2000, a pass in Bahasa Malaysia was sufficient to get the SPM certificate.
Previously, a credit was a must.
In 2013, History was made a compulsory pass subject as well.
Also put on hold is the reintroduction of centralised practical exams in the SPM science subjects.
The subjects involved are physics, chemistry, biology and additional science.
The move was first proposed in the blueprint as well, as part of the reforms to strengthen the quality of science education in schools.
Practical science tests were carried out in SPM until 1999, when they were replaced with written tests and continuous school-based practical science assessments (Penilaian Kerja Amali Sains or Peka).
In the new practical science exams, students will have to carry out experiments individually, based on instructions given.
If the invigilator steps in to help them, their marks will be deducted.
Schools were notified of the change in June last year.
Students who are sitting for their SPM exams this year were supposed to be the first batch to take these tests again.
But, according to a circular released earlier this year, the tests would only start next year.
The ministry’s latest statement, however, said the tests would be put on hold, just like the ruling for English in SPM.
This is to make sure that all science labs in schools nationwide are fully equipped and up to standard.
“It just doesn’t make sense to take a postive step forward and then back down,” said Concerned Parents of Selangor (CPS) and Association of Parents and Individuals towards Revising the Education System (Aspires) coordinator Shamsudin Hamid.
Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE) chairman Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim said once a policy was made, plans had to be made as well to ensure that the objective and target date were met.
“It appears that the ministry has failed to follow through with the targets they set for themselves.
“This is unfortunate for students who desperately need the English proficiency for their future. The targets of the blueprint should be adhered to,” she said.
So, it comes as no surprise that the about turn drew mixed reactions from all stakeholders.
Malaysian English Language Teaching Association (Melta) was happy with the postponement, said its president Prof Dr Ganakumaran Subramaniam.
“Our members, who are teachers from all over the country, have expressed concern that with the ruling, many teachers would simply resort to drilling students in order for them to pass the examination.
“This would defeat the true purpose of the policy implementation which is to create genuine competency in the English language,” he said.
The National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) praised the ministry for “understanding the situation”.
“We have been saying time and time again that students, especially those in rural areas, are not ready for this.
“So, we welcome the move and fully support it,” said its secretary-general Datuk Lok Yim Pheng.
English teacher Shafinaz Aida Abd Wahab agreed.
Having taught in rural schools before, she said “students will suffer” if the ministry had pressed on with the ruling next year.
Retired English teacher Vera Biusing said the declining standards of English meant that the ruling scheduled for next year was not feasible in the first place.
“Language is just not something you can learn overnight. And, English is a ‘killer subject’.
“Most students from rural areas won’t pass their SPM if this was made a must-pass subject next year,” she said.
Vera, who has taught in schools in Sabah, Labuan and Sarawak, said the compulsory pass will make English teachers nationwide “mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted”.
“I can imagine the amount of stress, pressure and extra work they have to put in.
“But even with all of that, it won’t guarantee a pass for the students.”
S. Kalaichelvi, a teacher from Selangor, also said the postponement was a good move as it would give students more time to prepare.
But then again, she said we cannot expect all students to pass English in SPM unless some massive changes are made in the education system.
“We still have students who can’t read and write in English when they enter secondary school.
“With these problems, how can you expect a 100% pass?” asked the English teacher.
Many like Vera and Kalaichelvi, believe there will be massive “casualties” along the way if the SPM results are anything to go by.
On average, around 20% to 23% of students who take the SPM fail the English paper every year even after more than 11 years of formal education in the language.
Though the percentage of students remains the same, the fact is the numbers are dropping.
This could be due to the fact that students and teachers are making strides in improving their English proficiency, thanks to the various initiatives under the blueprint (see sidebar on Achievements to date).
In 2012, there were over 100,000 students who did not pass the English paper. The figure dropped to around 89,000 last year.
As such, Noor Azimah said the ministry should “raise the bar” for those who are weak in English.
“When are we going to start improving the standard of English in the country, if we are going to keep pandering to the weak ones?” she asked.
She also said she was surprised by the Education Ministry’s decision to put the ruling on hold.
“This is especially since there were concerted efforts made by the ministry towards English excellence among the students and teachers,” she said, referring to the “Upholding Bahasa Malaysia and strengthening English” (MBMMBI) policy introduced in 2011.
The Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers (FMM) also said they were disappointed with the ministry’s decision.
In a statement released on Friday, they said that the postponement could weaken on-going efforts to improve the employability of Malaysian graduates.
A parent from Petaling Jaya, Heeran Kaur, said the “bigger issue is that the ministry is often making U-turns like this”.
“Why does the ministry come out and insist on programmes when the necessary framework has not been clearly set?”
Janice Chai Xin Hui, 16, also said the “flip-flop” policies made it hard for the people to take the ministry seriously.
“Students will never be ready if we don’t start making it a compulsory pass. We must start somewhere,” said the Form Four student from Petaling Jaya.
For most students, the only time they get exposed to the English language is during the five English lessons a week in secondary schools.
Kalaichelvi said this was “not substantial”, and students will not improve if this did not change.
“So, more subjects in English need to be brought in. This can be non-exam subjects,”
As for Vera, the best way to master the language – for both students and teachers – was to “read, read and read”.
“My students used to complain that library books were boring.
“So, to get them started on the reading habit, I brought Enid Blyton books and Archie comics, among other books, into the classroom for them,” she said.
Though finishing the syllabus was important, Vera stressed that “learning languages is fun”.
“It’s alright to let students watch movies or use songs as part of the lessons!”
Also, as the ministry has yet to set a date for when the rulings will come into effect, a grace period for students and teachers to prepare was necessary.
A physics teacher from Penang who only wanted to be known as Mr Tan said there “needed to be concrete plans”.
“We need to know how long it will take for it to happen.
“Two years should be enough for the ministry to equip all schools in the country with the apparatus needed,” said Tan, who has taught the subject for over 20 years.
As for making English a must-pass subject, setting “a clear and definite timeline will motivate schools to devote more resources towards learning and improving their competency in English”, said the FMM.
“There is great concern that without a set target date, the many on-going initiatives and efforts including the retraining of teachers and providing the necessary facilities, would take a back seat and be given lower priority.”
Melta thinks that a four to five year period was an “adequate time frame”.
And, since the announcement was made about two years ago, the timeline for the ministry to implement this ruling should be in about two to three years, said Prof Ganakumaran.
Heeran Kaur expressed her hope that cohorts for new programmes by the ministry should start with pupils in Year One.
Also, “they should be allowed to end the programme without having to deal with sudden changes”.
“There needs to be a logical timeframe, where the programme must run for a minimum of 10 years, so that we can see the actual results,” she said.
Also, being clear on the Government’s policy on English will be a morale boost for all involved.
This is why the FMM called on the Government to “stay committed and firm in its decision to make English a must–pass subject”.
They also suggested that this be done between 2016 and 2018.
Ultimately, Prof Ganakumaran concluded that the ministry needed a plan that looked ahead to the implementation of these rulings.
“We don’t want students, teachers and parents to lose sight of the priority of developing competence in the English language.
“We also don’t want them to abandon any strategic plans they may have developed to achieve this goal.”