By Wan Saiful Wan Jan for The Edge 11 June 2012
The Ministry of Education is undertaking a major review of our education system. This is perhaps the most important work done by the government today because its repercussion will be felt for decades to come. I congratulate Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin for taking this bold step in his capacity as the Minister of Education.
The recorded history of Malaysia’s education system goes back to hundreds of years ago, to the time when the Malacca Sultanate was founded. Records show that education for the traditional aristocracy was historically conducted by private tutors. But there were also the ‘sekolah pondok’ or madrasahs that were set up for those who wanted to focus on Islamic knowledge. The early Chinese and Indian immigrants must have also set up their own education institutions, adding early variety to the mix.
The year 1816 saw the establishment of Penang Free School, the first known English-medium ‘modern school’ in the country. Then in 1855 the first Malay School was established in Bayan Lepas, also in Penang. Our schools have evolved greatly since then, and today there we have schools that fall into various categories such as the Malay-medium National Schools, vernacular National Type Schools, cluster school, high performing schools, boarding schools, trust schools and more. Of course, we also have the private national and private international schools.
The different types of schools can sometime be rather confusing. Their existence was a result of the evolution of our education system and policies. The 1950 Barnes Report called for the abolition of vernacular schools. The 1951 Fenn-Wu Report reputed Barnes, and urged for the preservation of the different types of schools. The 1952 Education Ordinance implemented many of the recommendation of the Barnes Report but the 1956 Razak Report created a compromise between the Barnes and Fenn-Wu reports.
Then came the 1960 Rahman Talib report which led to the introduction of the 1961 Education Act. The National Education Philosophy was introduced in 1988. The Education Act 1996 to some extent protected school choice. The National Education Blueprint was published in 2006 but it failed to make a bang, and it was only to be effective until 2010 anyway.
So, the last time we really had a major revamp was back in 1960 in the form of Rahman Talib Report. Now, 52 years later, if a new policy document called the ‘Muhyiddin Report’ were to be published, it can only be welcomed.
The government actually started their review late last year. The first significant output was a rather big document called ‘Education System Review: Malaysia”. The report was ready in April, and it was this report that helped the Ministry identify the nine key areas (teachers, school leaders, school quality, curriculum and evaluation, multilingual proficiency, post-school opportunities, the role of parents and the community, the efficacy of resources and information
sharing, and the administrative structure of the Education Ministry) they must focus on.
I am disappointed that the government has chosen to not publish this important report. I appreciate that some of the findings can be damaging to the government, but, without knowing the problems that has been identified through the taxpayer-funded studies, it would be difficult for us, the taxpayers, to provide in-depth suggestions that can directly address the identified issues.
The government is now running a series of national education dialogues across the country. So far half of the scheduled dialogues have taken place. My team and I attended and observed the dialogues in all the states thus far. Our conservative estimate is that at the very least 5000 people have attended the dialogues. In terms of public engagement, the dialogue series is a very important element in the bigger review process.
We published a brief commentary to summarise our opinion on the public engagement stage of the review. Of major concern is the demographics of the participants. As it stands, the dialogues are not at all inclusive. The vast majority of the participants are teachers, and there are some Parent Teacher Association representatives. But we have not found people who attended as parents.
Understandably the government wants to make sure they have a guaranteed number of people in the audience at each event. To achieve that, teachers were asked to attend. Unfortunately this resulted in the events becoming like a teachers’ union meeting wherein the conversations focused too much on teachers welfare, remuneration, workload, and working conditions. And, unsurprisingly, there was no conversation around how to sanction or remove underperforming and failing teachers. There were numerous demands for increased pay and grants, but we did not hear demands for value for taxpayers money.
To ensure the dialogues really become a “public” consultation, there needs to be more effort to collect inputs from other groups. The government needs to engage with parents of children with special education needs. Our education system will not be complete unless we think about all the children, including those with special needs.
We also need to actively seek the views of parents who fall under the “bottom 40%” group. This is the group that needs the most help and their concerns and aspirations must be included. We cannot expect the poor and underprivileged to spend their own money to travel all the way to the bigger cities and towns just to attend the dialogue sessions. And unless there are active efforts to go to them, their voice will not be heard.
Equally important is the voice of the private sector. The government is pushing for more public private partnerships in the education system. Hence it is extremely important for the government to engage with private sector players in drafting the new policy.
To ensure public-private partnership works, the government must treat the private sector as a true partner. It cannot be just another slogan. Of course we as an organisation would be happy to help because we too are actively engaging with both the private sector and the government. But the team drafting the new education policy should continous open their doors to the private sector so that there can be proper synchronisation. Only then we can see truly effective public-private partnerships blossoming.
Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my).