by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published in The Star 18 February 2014

Last year I joined CfBT Education Malaysia as a director. The organisation is part of CfBT Education Trust, a charity that provides education services globally.

CfBT was actually one of the organisations that helped us when we were still fledging. In our first and second year, CfBT provided us with a grant of RM140,000 to enable us to study the Malaysian education system, and to co-organise with the Razak School of Government a series of conference and workshops to promote better public private partnerships in our school system.

Of course when a world leading not-for-profit education consultancy like CfBT invited me to to join them, I am more than happy to oblige. After all, CfBT is one of the oldest education service provider in Malaysia. It was founded in 1979 with the help of the late Tan Sri Murad Mohamad Noor when he was Director General of Education. And as a not-for-profit entity, there is so much that the organisation can now offer the country.

In this article, I am going to tap into some CfBT’s wealth of knowledge.

Last month Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announced that State Education Departments will soon have the power to directly approve construction and maintenance projects worth up to RM5 million per year.

This has been billed as one of the first steps in the District Transformation Programme, a national initiative to decentralise the management of Malaysia’s government schools from Putrajaya to State, District and eventually to school level.

CfBT’s Dr Arran Hamilton and I both contributed to the Ministry of Education’s national launch event for District Transformation in Terengganu, back in November 2013. We are both staunch advocates.

The World Bank is also a very strong and long-standing proponent of education decentralisation. The case in favour of decentralisation is relatively compelling. In centralised systems, it is usually only the people at the very top that get to set the vision. These top leaders feel that they have control and feel that their contribution matters, so they are excited and energised.

Their energy can spread downwards to the two or three layers of people below them who they regulary come into contact with but after that it dissipates quickly. So the people at the very bottom may not fully understand what the reform is really about and they could become reluctant participants in the school transformation journey.

The interesting thing about decentralisation is that the pool of people who feel that their contribution matters increases significantly. The number of layers between the leaders and the followers is small enough for the leaders to be able to meet with the followers regularly to share the vision and spread the enthusiasm, so that everyone can join in the transformation process.

The other great thing about decentralisation is that to some extent local leaders can be the creators of their own vision. It can be a vision that is contextualised to the specific needs of their own local areas.

However, there are also some potential pitfalls with decentralisation that have to be managed carefully.

One of CfBT’s clients, the Asian Development Bank, recently looked specifically at the area of education decentralisation. Their research strongly suggested evidence of what is sometimes called the “Matthew Effect”, i.e. the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

What this means is, in high performing systems, decentralisation appears to be working and producing positive results. But in developing systems, that may not be the case.

For example, Malaysia’s closest neighbours started experimenting with decentralisation from the late 1990s. In Thailand, 35 percent of budgets are already devolved to the local level for direct expenditure and local authorities are able to raise additional funding through local taxation. And in Indonesia districts are now responsible for around 57 percent of total education funds.

However, in both these developing systems, the move towards decentralisation has been bumpy. When local leaders were initially given policy and budgetary controls there was often inertia, simply because they were not used to having autonomy and were reluctant to make decisions.

This is why the gradual release model being pursued in Malaysia makes a lot of sense. Through the District Transformation Programme, more power and responsibility are gradually released to the lower levels, especially to the District Education Officers.

Transferring power gradually means that as local capacity is built, more and more decision-making authority is devolved to lower levels within the system. The government’s ambition is that by 2025 the power and authority to make important decisions are transferred right down to the level of school head teachers. That sounds like a reasonable timeframe.

Striking the right balance is important. We must not go too slow or too fast. If gradual release is pursued too slowly or no real powers is devolved, then there is a serious danger that nothing meaningful gets released at all. Other commentators have called this “centralised decentralisation” and this is something Malaysia will have to work hard to avoid.

Similarly, if decentralisation is not carefully managed and the transfer is too fast, the officers at the lower levels may not be sufficiently ready to take on the enhanced responsibilities. This too may create problems.

Now that the District Transformation Programme has been launched, I hope the Ministry of Education will manage the change process well. Most importantly, there must be real commitment from the top to release power to the lower levels. Without this commitment, nothing will be transformed.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my) and director of CfBT Education Malaysia (www.cfbt.com.my)

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