by Jenny Gryzelius. First published in The Sun 31 May 2012

Teachers are the linchpins in our society. Some might argue that engineers, scientists or doctors should be more highly valued. But how do you get excellent engineers, scientists and doctors? In every case you have to start with the basics; behind every successful lawyer, accountant and banker there is childhood learning. And teachers are a key part of the learning process.

In the old days this was done either at home, with the village sage or at a religious facility, usually on an informal basis for the child to learn what was needed for life. Now it is predominantly done through formal education.

The curriculum is no longer set by teachers based on what they feel they can offer their students. Rather it is set nationally, based on what society needs from its future workforce.

On the other hand, what the teachers have been getting in return is a load of administrative duties which threatens to undermine the work with their students and undo the important role that they play.

It is precisely because the pivotal role that teachers play in our society that the news about the promotion of 24,000 teachers concerns me. It is not that I do not think that teachers are entitled to promotions, but I am worried that routine promotions rather than promotions based on merit do not give the right incentive.

It should be noted that in this I am not talking about annual pay rises for teachers, in most professions there are increases in pay and benefits according to the years of service. But when it comes to promotions there has to be some kind of review.

The announcement by Education Minster Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin concerning promotions for teachers only refers to promotions due to years of service without a requirement for quality assurances or even further training.

Of course, in a centralised organisation with over 400,000 employees it is difficult to give each teacher a proper review before a promotion is awarded. It is easier to base the promotion structure on years of service rather than as a recognition of talent and commitment.

One way around this conundrum is to allow schools more autonomy, both on staffing issues and promotions. In Malaysia staffing of schools lies with the Education Ministry. Schools have little or no say over teachers that they employ, or have the means to keep them if they perform well. The ministry decides on transfers.

Furthermore, the schools’ influence over promotions is limited, even though it is the headmasters who know best which teachers are worthy of promotion, and to which position. If schools had more autonomy, they could internally promote teachers who are doing an excellent job, or who are showing great talent for a specific task.

With centralised promotion structures there is always a risk that the wrong person gets the wrong job. As mentioned above, administration takes an increasing amount of time away from classroom time for teachers. If schools could control the promotion procedures then teachers could be better and more efficiently matched with tasks that are suited for them, and according to the schools’ specific needs.

This would be especially important for rural schools. Schools in rural areas are struggling to keep teachers, who if not given a proper incentive to stay would otherwise apply to go to more urban areas. If rural schools were given the autonomy to hire and promote teachers that they feel work well according to their specific needs, they would be able to better incentivise teachers to come and work for them.

Rural schools would have the option of offering excellent teachers who are still too new for a routine promotion a higher level and better paid job, or the possibility of fast tracking to a better position.

Teachers are the cornerstones of any society, and in rural Malaysia they do a mammoth job educating the youth. However, students deserve teachers who get promoted based on merit rather than years of service.

Schools also deserve to be able to promote and give incentives to teachers who are working best to fulfil their students’ needs and this can best be achieved if schools are given more autonomy.

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Jenny Gryzelius is a senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS)

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