by Tricia Yeoh. First published in The Sun Online 6 August 2014

AT an IDEAS education-related roundtable held earlier this week, the issue of school dropouts in Malaysia was raised, specifically in relation to the findings of our nationwide survey among the bottom 40% of poor and underprivileged parents on the challenges faced by their schoolgoing children.

Our study of more than 1,200 parents across Malaysia had 150 families with at least one child having dropped out of the public schooling system. Since the survey sample is statistically representative of the bottom 40% of the Malaysian population, this means that 12 out of every 100 households in the bottom 40% would have at least one child having dropped out of school.

The most commonly cited reason that parents gave in the survey for their child having dropped out was a lack of interest for school, followed by the inability to afford the fees and expenses. Although the session was to have addressed problems and solutions related to dropouts, as the discussion unfolded participants extended the argument to discuss the overall systemic and structural problems facing the Malaysian education system.

After all, it is not only the dropouts whose welfare we ought to be concerned with, but also the hundreds or thousands of others who are equally at risk of failing or completing school without having really gained a meaningful education. For instance, Malaysia fared startlingly poorly in this year’s PISA scores (Programme for International Student Assessment), ranking 39 out of 44 countries in creative problem-solving and 52 out of 65 countries in mathematics, science and reading, below neighbours Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand.

There were five main points raised, which one could take to be therefore reflective of the entire schooling system’s challenges as a whole.

First, the importance of data in ascertaining problems was raised, and the accompanying right approaches. The last time a comprehensive study on dropouts in Malaysia was done was in 1973 (the Murad Report), a good 40 years ago.

Without current and accurate data, it is surely difficult for policymakers to make relevant and informed decisions. At present, publicly available national statistics tracking dropouts are not very clear either, where the Education Ministry’s data can only tell us that 0.1% of children drop out at the primary level, and about 1.96% drop out at any one point in time at the secondary level. But this does not tell us whether these children transferred to private, community or international schools, or whether they truly represent those leaving any form of schooling system altogether. Although dropping out is not always easy to measure given its fluidity – students come and leave throughout the year and community schools may not have accurate records – this is no reason not to try.

Second, school autonomy and independence are crucial in ensuring that schools are empowered to tweak national-level policy to suit their own needs. For instance, a school in a rural town of Sabah would require something entirely different from that in urban Petaling Jaya. This option should be freely given, without them having to seek clearance from the headquarters in Putrajaya. Schools with boards of governors are good examples of how initiative can be taken within that school itself, and additionally get local community, parents and alumni involved.

Third, the support system at all possible levels is equally important, in creating a conducive environment for the children, especially for dropouts who come from lower-income families. At a public policy 101 training session I gave to several Teach For Malaysia fellows last year, many expressed frustration that their students (in the lowest-performing schools) lacked basic literacy and numeracy skills, at times without the knowledge of their own teachers who are expected to “teach to the syllabus”. The support system should also include school counsellors equipped with a range of skills on emotional, psychological, career and academic counselling.

Fourth, the emphasis on academic performance is what hinders children from discovering their potential in what could be a multitude of areas. There has been a growing awareness that vocational and technical education is an alternative option. But parents still do not necessarily place this on equal ground with the more academic subjects.

In fact, why is there the need to limit a child’s choice to either academic or vocational education, when there is a plethora of alternative career options? Youth with the relevant interests and skills can be encouraged to explore careers in film or documentary-making, music, theatre, graphic design, furniture-making and so on. The German education system, which allows students the choice of attending either academic or vocational-type (the latter also includes apprenticeships) schools, does not place any less value on one or the other. Perhaps parents must be equally taught that an academic certificate does not in itself measure success.

Finally, implementation is the thorn. Laws and policies mean little if the bureaucracy is unable to implement them. As many as five ministries or agencies are responsible for vocational and technical education: the ministries of Youth, Education, Human Resources, Rural and Regional Development, and the Construction Industry Development Board, in charge of probably more than a thousand different training centres or schools. Having a simple consolidated online directory listing down all available options would do potential students a great service. Options should also be given to pre-teenagers and teenagers who are simply not interested in academic study at their schools.

Perhaps it is also due time for the government to produce a follow-up dropouts report, which would allow academicians, NGOs and policymakers to more systematically analyse the problems, challenges and set out targeted solutions for the sake of our children’s future.

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Tricia Yeoh is the chief operating officer of IDEAS

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