by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. A version of this article was published as “Poor and ignorant” by The Star 10 December 2013. Also, Chinese-language version is published in the Red Tomato 13 December 2012

Tuesday, 26 November 2013 was another milestone in the development of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS). The inaugural IDEAS Council meeting took place on that day.

When I presented our plans for the next three years to the Council, it felt like I was presenting to the who’s who in Malaysia.

Our Council is now chaired by Tun Mohamed Dzaiddin Abdullah, former Chief Justice of Malaysia. Members include Tan Sri Munir Majid, Tan Sri Michael Yeoh, Dato’ Sri Nazir Razak, Dato’ Dr R Thillainathan, Datuk Seri Azman Ujang, Datuk Omar Mustapha, Dato’ Dr Anthony Cooper, Dato’ Saifuddin Abdullah, YB Datuk Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa, YB Dr Ong Kian Ming, and YB Dato’ Nur Jazlan Mohamed.

I am really grateful to have these luminaries scrutinise our plans. It is easy to drift away in a bubble, thinking that we are doing what is needed and important. But when you listen to these individuals scrutinise your plans, you quickly realise that you must always have your feet firmly set on the ground.

One of the issues raised was the need to give a better definition of what we are about. Many people know us for the more political elements of our work, but the research side, particularly our research initiatives in education reform and good governance, is not that well-known.

In actual fact, as an organisation we spend most of our money and time on research work. Our biggest study at the moment is in the field of education, particularly to identify and help address the challenges faced by the bottom 40percent when they send their children to schools.

The study has been ongoing for several months, and it has so far cost us about RM400,000. We have interviewed almost 1300 people from 10 different states, all from low-income households.

This is probably the first time ever such a survey has been conducted on the bottom 40percent, and the findings are indicative of what the poor throughout the country is experiencing.

Before I explain some of our findings, let us firstly take a quick look at the recently released results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is a benchmark used by many countries globally to measure the performance of their school system.

Based on the PISA results, Malaysia was placed at number 52 out of 65 countries. We are very close to the bottom of the pile. No wonder the government has been rather quiet about it.

If we look at the results, it shows that we have improved a little bit in Maths, and we showed not much change in Science. But we have deteriorated in Reading. Clearly there is a need to improve significantly and quickly in literacy.

The government has stated that by implementing the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013 – 2025, they are confident that Malaysia can rise from the bottom third to the top third of international assessments like PISA (the other assessment used is TIMMS).

Can that be achieved? Let us look at some key findings from our study. We are still going through the rich data sets but two key statistics are very telling.

Firstly, the vast majority of parents from the bottom 40percent are not even aware of the Malaysia Education Blueprint. Ninety percent of them says they do not even know what it is. This astonishing figure casts doubt on the government’s claim that they have properly consulted the public when preparing the Blueprint.

Obviously there was total failure in engaging the group that needs help the most, i.e. the bottom 40percent.

In fact, while the public consultation was still taking place, we released our May 2013 Policy Ideas briefing paper. In that short paper, we stated that the crowd that attended the National Dialogue sessions comprises of only a very narrow section of society, i.e. teachers and PIBG representatives.

This means the findings from the dialogue series would be heavily skewed towards the opinions of these two groups only, and cannot be seen as representative of society as a whole.

Now our national survey of the bottom 40percent confirmed our fear. The bottom 40percent do not even know about the new Education Blueprint. If they were ignored when formulating policy, how can we actually expect the policy to help them?

Secondly, 67percent of our sample seems to rely completely on schools to educate their children. They are not even interested to communicate more regularly with their children’s teachers. Out of this, 87percent says they trust that teachers know better about how to educate their children.

Perhaps not many may not realize how problematic this is. To me this is a major concern. Education is ultimately a parental responsibility and this responsibility should not be passed to someone else, even teachers. Worryingly, our study implies that most parents are ignoring this most important responsibility, assuming instead that by sending their children to schools, they have fulfill their responsibility to educate.

Let me put this in context by quoting directly from the Education Blueprint.

The Blueprint states: “A 2011 research by AKEPT found that only 50% of lessons are being delivered in an effective manner. This means that the lessons did not sufficiently engage students, and followed a more passive, lecture format of content delivery. These lessons focused on achieving surface-level content understanding, instead of higher-order thinking skills. This statistic is particularly challenging as an estimated 60% of today’s teachers will still be teaching in 20 years’ time.”

In other words, while 67percent of parents in the bottom 40percent believes that teachers know best, in reality not more than 50percent of the teachers are effective. If parents do not reclaim the responsibility, more children will be left out.

We will be releasing more data in the new year and we would be most happy to brief interested stakeholders too. In the mean time, I urge the government to pay particular attention to the educational needs of the poor if we really want to make Malaysia an inclusive developed nation by 2020 that is placed in top third of international education benchmarks.

Oh, by the way, only 28percent actually know who the current Minister of Education is. I am not sure if that is something we should be worried about, though.

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Wan Saiful Wan Jan is the Chief Executive of IDEAS

Image credit: Imag.com.my

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