by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published in The Edge 6 January 2013

Children belonging to the lowest income groups suffer the worst consequences of lower quality education. They cannot opt for a private education system or for a better school outside of the area that they live in, nor do they have adequate access to alternative sources of education such as from the internet and private tuitions.

If neglected, they will continue to live in a vicious cycle that keeps them in their current socio-economic condition.

Understanding the challenges faced by parents in the bottom 40% income group is therefore crucial if we want to develop an education system that can help the group that needs the most help. But unfortunately this is also the very group that is most frequently neglected in any policy consultations.

It is naïve to expect the poor and underprivileged to attend consultations held in big towns and cities because that would be too costly for them. And even if they do attend such public consultations, they may not be articulate enough to make their voices truly heard in such public meetings. Hence, there is a need to reach out to them so that they are no longer left out.

Over the last few months, my colleagues at IDEAS travelled to several places across Malaysia conducting focus group discussions with low income parents. In urban poor areas, we spoke to those with household income of less than RM2000 per months. In rural areas, we lowered our criteria to households earning less than RM1500 per month.

Thanks to support from ECMLibra Foundation and arise Asia Sdn Bhd, we have completed the first of four stages in the project. A first stage report will be released soon but I want to take the opportunity to briefly highlight some of our early findings in this article.

Many of the parents we spoke to feel that their children are trapped in a government school system that does not provide adequate learning experience that will prepare and motivate their children to succeed in life.

These parents claim that schools give greater attention to higher-performing students. Weaker students are not equally supported, despite the obvious fact that they are the ones who need additional attention and additional support. Some teachers are reluctant to teach classes with weak students. One parent complained to us that her child once returned home early saying “Cikgu tak mau ajar kita hari ini (The teacher doesn’t want to teach us today).”

The quality of teachers is a significant issue. Low income parents whom we met complain that it is ironic to see underperforming teachers sent to their schools. These parents feel that the weaker schools would benefit more from having better teachers. How will schools in poor areas improve if they become dumping ground for bad teachers?

Perhaps due to an overwhelming belief that the government school system is inadequate, low-income parents view private education as a must if they can afford it. Without private education, their children would not learn sufficiently and would not be able to keep up with their classroom peers. Of course private schools are beyond their reach. Thus they express their preference for the private system by sending their children to private, fee-paying tuition classes.

They see private tuition centres as better able to provide the learning experience their children need. The class sizes are smaller and tutors give more attention to the weaker students. Perhaps for that reason they are willing to spend what money they have on tuition classes. In fact, one single mother told us that every month she spends RM300 out of the RM600 that her family earns on private tuitions.

But the key phrase here is “if they can afford it”. Even though they believe private tuitions are very important, the majority of parents we spoke to cannot afford it. Those living in urban areas (i.e. urban poor) are more likely to use private tuitions compared to those in rural areas. The rural poor suffers twice: first from low quality schools and second from inability to pay for tuition classes to cover for the school’s weaknesses.

The majority of the parents we spoke to perceive private schools to be better than government schools. They believe that private schools have smaller class-sizes, and better teachers who have closer relationship with students and able to provide quality time when needed. They consider students who go to private schools as having a better future because they can master additional languages, especially English.

They also see students who go to private schools as being more able to mix with people from different ethnic groups. They see private schools as more multi-racial. Since many of the poor parents live in clustered communities dominated by a particular ethnic group, they have no choice but to send their children to local schools that are dominated by one particular ethnic group too. This automatically leads to segregation.

There are many other issues that we discovered in this study which I am unable to discuss in this short space. Problems like negative peer-group influence, parent’s lack of education preventing them from supporting their children, racism among school staff, discrimination against weak students, and teachers looking down on the less educated parents, are all real problems that are happening on the ground.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is the feeling of helplessness among the poor parents. They want a better teaching and learning environment for their children. But they feel trapped in a government school system that is not supportive of their children’s needs.

When we reached out to them, we found that are very eager to speak up. But they almost never get the opportunity to do so because no one has engaged them properly. These parents feel powerless. And the thought no one want to listen. We have only started a very early first step in this journey to give them a voice. I appeal to readers who feel the need to give a voice to the poor to help us continue this journey.

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Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (

Image Credit: Diari seorang Syabab

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