Although the Education Ministry appears to advocate ‘one size does not fit all’, the system is highly centralised, allowing little creativity.
IT has been an eventful year for education: the “soft landing” turning into a pathetic “crash dive”, the start of the Fulbright programme, the new ministerial line-up, the launch of the Malaysia Education Blueprint (MEB) and the renewed debate over English medium schools and English as a compulsory SPM pass.
Other issues included the RM2.2bil wastage on security, the controversial LGBT musical in universities, SK Pristana shower/canteen, CLP passes plunge, purported SPM leaks, animal slaughter in schools, the API cut-off for schools, 40% floor for science students, the snail’s pace implementation of 1Bestarinet, more trust schools, the NUTP’s demands for school-based assessments to be abolished, the appointment of the new director-general and last but not least, the end of PMR.
Topping it all off has been the highly publicised, much criticised and condemning Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores for mathematics, reading and science. We would not do justice to readers and supporters if we did not make a small but crucial demand.
Individual schools had the option of choosing their preferred language of instruction. While we believe many schools chose Bahasa Malaysia, a large number still chose English. It would be interesting to analyse if there is a correlation between choice of language and the scores attained by these schools, and to what degree our better performing schools equal those of developed countries.
If there is evidence that the top third of our schools chose English and their scores were equal to those of Shanghai and other similar countries, then there is every reason to support these types of schools.
Similarly, primary schools that are feeders to these secondary schools, which have a similar profile, should be reconsidered for the same to be reinstated indefinitely.
In response to the Pisa scores in the “Malaysia Economic Monitor, December 2013: High-Performing Education”, The World Bank recommends that “decision-making is made closer to schools and parents” and “providing more information to parents and communities so they can better demand a quality education for their children”.
It was further revealed that where parents exert pressure for higher results; achievement data is made public; greater autonomy is given over what is taught and how students are assessed; parents and teacher-peers apply pressure for accountability; and student achievement data is used to evaluate principals, all these elements enhance students’ performance significantly.
Such findings underscore the significance of parental interest and pressure for academic performance. The system has to involve parents who will ensure the accountability, transparency and integrity of their schools on its behalf.
Although the Education Ministry appears to be a strong advocate of “one size does not fit all”, in reality, the system is highly centralised. Schools have to await teachers, resources and instructions before any decision can be made, allowing little creativity where it is most needed. Local autonomy is key — until it is a given for the quality of education to be raised, the human capital required for an innovation-led, high-income economy will come to nought.
Much can be deduced from Pisa, which claims it is not merely a test but also “gathers extensive data on students’ social background, how they approach learning and the characteristics of the school”. In its quest to bridge the rural-urban divide, the ministry has lost sight that based on the above, such a gap cannot be closed completely. Urban schools cannot be managed like rural schools.
A prime example is where parents want their children to be taught science and mathematics in English, yet the ministry insists that it be abolished to the detriment of students’ performance contrary to the World Bank findings.
Test questions are available on the Pisa website to demonstrate the level of difficulty in mathematics. My son, who is 15 and the product of national schools, offered to do the test and achieved a perfect score. The fact that the questions related to revolving doors, bicycles, walking and relative speeds are not hard to visualise, so students should respond confidently.
Pisa is nonetheless academic and may not suit the majority of our students, of which 74% do not proceed to tertiary education. If we are to improve our international ranking, some curriculum tweaking is necessary to incorporate more thinking skills as early as the upper primary level. A skill-driven curriculum may be more appropriate for the masses, hence the ongoing emphasis by the ministry on vocational education.
The ministry has given autonomy to cluster, high performance and trust schools, and students’ performances have improved. Autonomy and therefore decentralisation should be more widespread, and communication with parents through dialogues should be frequent. Give parents the opportunity to meet with subject teachers on a regular basis, have more open days, involve parents in teacher assessments, publicise school scores within the district or state and use student achievements to rate principals.
Until principals are made accountable for teachers’ and students’ performances, there is little else that schools or the ministry can do.
Incidentally, we have been advocating that schools seeking exposure to an international benchmark on a more regular basis should participate in the International Competitions and Assessments for Schools (Icas), endorsed by our education ministry. It is a yearly assessment set by the University of New South Wales, Australia, offering subjects in English, science, mathematics and writing.
> The writer is chairman of the Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE) and can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @PAGEMalaysia).
PAGE wishes to thank readers for their support of this column. As we bid farewell, we would like to leave with the impression that we have, over the last 30 months, achieved our role as a watchdog through the eyes of parents in providing a rethinking of the evolving landscape of education. The STAR Online Opinion 29/12/2013