by Tamanna Patel. First published in The Edge 19 May 2014

While the Malaysian school system is going through an evolution towards a system which, one can only hope, will provide a better learning platform for the nation’s children, the challenges faced by the underprivileged remain the same. They remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, from which there seems to be no escape.

Recently, the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) released the results of our nationwide education survey of the bottom 40percent. With sponsorship from Arise Asia Sdn Bhd, Sime Darby Foundation, ECM Libra Foundation, and Tinggi Foundation, we interviewed over 1,200 parents from low-income households about their child’s current education, covering various issues from the school environment to their access to additional education support and the aspiration of these parents with regards to children’s education.

Unsurprisingly we found that the importance of a good quality education did not the escape these parents, although many of them barely completed secondary school. Ninety eight percent saw education as important in securing a good future for their child.

But we also discovered several issues that deserve attention, especially from those wishing to help children from poor and underprivileged backgrounds.

The average household income of those surveyed was RM919 per month. One would expect that students from such low household income families would have access to government aids.

However, we found that only 15 percent of the parents are benefitting from the Poor Students’ Trust Fund (PSTF). And the level of awareness and receipt of these funds was much lower in urban areas compared to rural areas, and especially low in Peninsula Malaysia compared to Sabah and Sarawak. There is a need for the authorities to do more to raise parents’ awareness of the fund.

Despite financial difficulties, many parents aspire to provide their children with additional support to boost academic performance. Over half of the parents felt that their children would benefit from tuition or extra-classes, but two-thirds said that they cannot afford it.

We also found that one of the leading reasons for students dropping out from school was inability to afford school-related expenses. In fact, on average, parents of dropouts spend less on their children’s school-related expenses compared to those whose children continue to be in school. So even though school itself is free, there is a need to relook at associated costs like PTA fees, book costs, and uniform costs.

Additionally, we found that parents of school dropouts tend to be less engaged with their children when it comes to activities such as reading together or even preparing packed lunches for their child, presumably due to a lack of time and resources. Even more worrying, two third of the parents actually said that they do not want to have more frequent interactions with the school about their children. Clearly any improvement initiatives that require parental involvements will face quite a hurdle.

Accessibility remains a problem for many who live below the poverty line. The need to pay for transportation to go to school contributes to preventing parents from spending money on supporting their children, such as for additional classes.

Accessibility challenges mean parents are either restricted to sending their child to the closest school or end up having to spend more than they would like to on transportation as even some of the nearest schools turn out not to be that easily accessible. The latter is especially the case in Sabah, while surprisingly in Kedah and Klang Valley about a quarter of all parents also lamented the fact that schools were not easily accessible.

While there are many foundations and corporations involved in education, whether through grants or CSR initiatives, there is always the opportunity for many more to be involved. And there is certainly the opportunity to make the assistance more targeted at the real problems faced by the poor.

Since physical accessibility is an issue, then perhaps more can be done to resolve this challenge either by funding transportation such as through school buses, transport vouchers or simply by donating bicycles.

Or perhaps even by building and maintenance roads in villages. Admittedly we can say that this is the job of the government. But clearly someone is failing in this regard, and help is needed.

Now that we know parents feel their children would benefit from additional classes, perhaps more can be done to provide these in rural areas. There might be an opportunity to encourage the growth of NGO or social enterprise tuition providers by making funds available for these ventures.

Of course there is also room for more research in the area of education for the poor to hone in on specific problems in different states, districts and even individual schools.

The data from our survey can be downloaded freely from our website But, if there are organisations or foundations that would like to have a more in depth briefing from us in order to help their own strategy formulation, we would be happy to share our findings. We can also share the raw data if there are researchers out there interested to investigate them further.

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Tamanna Patel is a senior researcher at IDEAS

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