AFTER undergoing six years of formal schooling in a government school, 13-year-old Jack Lee (not his real name) had to make some adjustments when he first entered an international school to begin his secondary education.
The years of being schooled under the rigid examination-oriented system had inevitably instilled a desire to achieve the highest scores in young Jack.
During a story-writing exercise at his new school, Jack asked his teacher on guidelines about answering questions that would accord him the highest marks.
To his surprise, Jack was told that there was no right or wrong answers when writing an ending for a story.
His teacher explained to him that one simply had to enjoy reading a good story. The process of writing an ending for the story, the teacher said, would be adding more fun to the whole journey.
The emphasis on “holistic education” in such an unregimented learning environment was one of the factors that has recently drawn an increasing number of Malaysian parents to enrol their children in international schools.
Jack is one of the estimated number of 39,540 students enrolled in about 70 international schools in the country.
Recently, the Education Ministry had announced that the 40% quota for Malaysians in international schools was to be lifted.
Deputy Education Minister Datuk Dr Wee Ka Siong was quoted as saying that the decision to do away with the quota was in line with the Government’s Economic Transformation Programme to make the country a regional education hub.
The Education National Key Economic Area under the Economic Transformation Programme has targeted the establishment of 87 international schools by 2020 with an enrolment of 75,000 students.
Not too long ago, the privilege of studying at an international school was only for expatriates and an exclusive group of Malaysians.
Prior to 2007, Malaysians could only register at international schools if they had studied overseas for at least three years, or if one parent was an expatriate. Still, those who fulfilled the requirement had to get the written consent of the Education Minister.
Education at international schools does not come cheap. Tuition fees for a high school student in a top-notch international school costs up to RM90,000 per annum while international curriculum schools charge between RM20,000 and RM30,000 for high school students per year.
International curriculum schools are different from international schools as while they use British, American or curricula from other countries, they are mostly staffed by local teachers. Incidentally it is the British curriculum that is most favoured by students and parents.
Association of International Malaysian Schools past president Margaret Kaloo said a large portion of the high school fees contributed to the salaries of the expatriate teachers hired in the international schools.
“Staffing is the main problem in running an international school. It’s a fight to get local teachers who can speak good English since they are of a dying breed,” said Kaloo, who is also chief executive officer of elc International School.
She added that there would certainly be an increase in the enrolment of Malaysian students in international curriculum schools following the recent announcement on the lifting of the quota for Malaysian students. “Many middle class parents scramble to put their children in international schools because they want to give them a better pathway to quality education.
“It is not so much about the ‘internationalism’ factor in international schools, the bottom line is parents prefer their children to learn in English. They realise that English is the ticket for their children to get places in good universities and better jobs,” said Kaloo.
Taylor’s Education Group school division president B.K. Gan said some international schools would still like to maintain the 40% Malaysian quota since the schools were set up to cater to the needs of the expatriate community in the first place.
“I suppose that having more international schools will not really make us an education hub. Look at Thailand ... the country has a high number of international schools but the schools have an equally large number of Thai students,” said Gan.
He believed that the proliferation of international curriculum schools had earlier contributed to the increased enrolment of Malaysians in international schools.
Gan said that international curriculum schools were targeting a different market with a lower fee structure and it had no doubt made education in international schools more affordable to many Malaysians.
“Not all expatriates prefer to send their children to the high-end international schools. Some send their children to international curriculum schools because they want their children to have the opportunity to mingle with the locals in the few years they are in the country,” said Gan.
With the increasing popularity of international curriculum schools among parents, Gan opined that there would be more schools switching to become international curriculum schools in the near future.
Renowned economist and Centre of Public Policies Studies chairman Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam said the fact that more Malaysians are enrolling in international schools reflected the lack of faith in government schools.
He lamented that national schools now were no longer glorified as the elite schools of the old days when royalty, ministers and tycoons sent their children to such schools.
“What has gone wrong with our government schools? Many parents, especially those with the financial means are not keen on sending their children to government schools because of the structural flaws within its system,” said Navaratnam who went to Victoria Institution, Kuala Lumpur.
“When more of the rich send their children to international schools while those who cannot afford, go to government schools, the gap of the standards between these two types of schools will widen,” Navaratnam cautioned.
He said it is imperative that the Government give priority to improving the standards of our national schools.
“The draw of international schools is its emphasis on English. National schools can appeal to parents again if more importance is placed on teaching English,” said Navaratnam.
He pointed out that the quality of teachers is another crucial factor that can drive up the standards of national schools.
“Teachers have received a substantial increase in their salaries over the years. The pressure must be put on teachers to constantly improve themselves and they must be committed to their jobs,” said Navaratnam.
Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE) chairman Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim said parents cannot be blamed for sending their children to international schools.
“If it wasn’t for the declining standards of government schools , parents wouldn’t choose to send their children to international schools because they have to cough up a huge sum of money to pay for the school fees,” said Noor Azimah.
While PAGE welcomed the move to lift the quota on Malaysians in international schools, Noor Azimah said the Government should instead address core problems such as qualities of teachers and the kinks caused by the flip-flopping of education policies.
“When Science and Maths were taught in English in national schools, a number of parents who sent their children to private schools transferred them back to government schools.
“Had the policies not been changed, more students, especially the non-Malays would still be attending national schools,” she said.
Notwithstanding, Noor Azimah urged parents not to give up on national schools, adding that the struggle to improve the standards of schools will not be a lost cause.
“Government schools play an important role in integrating students of different backgrounds. Besides, how can we instil national pride in the younger generation if they have never learnt about our local geography, history and heroes?” asked Noor Azimah.
She feared the Government’s stand to liberalise education could actually lead to a disintegration of the nation.
“I may be presumptuous but the continuing trend of more Malaysians in international schools will widen the urban-rural divide. It can create an uneven playing field for students from national schools compared to their international school counterparts when they enter the job market,” said Noor Azimah.
On the contrary, Gan disagreed that the growing number of Malaysians who attend international schools will lead to a social divide.
Based on the estimated enrolment of 35,000 Malaysians in international schools, Gan said the figure was too small to leave any huge impact compared to over five million students in government schools.
“As society advances, those who are more affluent can afford to have more choices in education. However, it does not mean that government schools are of poorer quality than international schools,” Gan said.
He explained that the Government had a duty to ensure that its schools were of high standards and countries such as Finland and Singapore should be emulated for having government schools of the best quality.
“Rather than causing a social divide, the private sector is always happy to assist in improving the standards of government schools by sharing resources for teacher training,” said Gan.
Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs founder president Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz said there were several ways that government schools can model after international schools.
“International schools tend to have more resources and autonomy when it comes to curriculum, teaching methods and the hiring and firing of staff (including teachers).
“If government schools had the same freedom they could compete with each other and also with international schools. This culture of freedom and competition is perhaps what our national schools need the most,” he said.
Like several others, Tunku ’Abidin believed that teacher quality matters most importantly in the process to improve the standards of government schools.
“If effective teachers are allowed to flourish while the ones who are not as effective are removed or given additional skills training, we’d already be halfway there towards high quality government schools.
“Nevertheless, this requires more autonomy at the school level for school heads and parents to make these decisions instead of reverting to the centralised system as in the current practice now,” he added.