by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published by The Star 4 March 2014

Last month the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) released a paper on Malaysia’s Trust School programme. It was authored by Dr Arran Hamilton of CfBT Education, a not-for-profit education consultancy of which I am a director.

Before going further, I must disclose a vested interest here. I like the Trust School concept. So my comments today are biased for the expansion of the Trust School programme. There is a lot of untapped potentials in the scheme, and I hope to see more Trust Schools in Malaysia, quicker.

Back to the paper that we recently released. I was excited when I first saw the draft. There is almost no discussion about the Trust School model in Malaysia today, and I think it is time we start talking about it by releasing the paper.

The author explained that the Trust School is one of the various ways the government works with the private sector to deliver education. It is part of what is commonly called public-private partnership (PPP) in the school system.

Trust school models (click  to view larger picture)

Trust school models (click to view larger picture)

PPP is not new to our country. As the chart shows, there is a whole spectrum of PPP initiatives ranging from simply contracting out services such as security and facilities maintenance to the more complex contracting of whole school operation. Trust School is a type of PPP.

The Trust School initiative in Malaysia was started in 2010, when the Ministry of Education (MoE) allowed Yayasan Amir to pilot the programme in ten schools. Yayasan Amir is a government-linked charity, set up by the government-linked company Khazanah.

In the programme, Yayasan Amir helps to improve the quality of learning and teaching in selected schools. Within just a short time, Yayasan Amir has shown that the Trust School model works. The selected schools have shown improvements in students performance.

I am really glad that the MoE has subsequently acknowledged the programme’s potentials by incorporating the aim of having 500 Trust Schools in Malaysia by 2025.

But Dr Hamilton stresses that our PPP models, including the Trust School, are still heavily government-led. In Malaysia we have only seen a rather weak form of PPP, in which we hardly go beyond the contracting of services. We do not yet have a PPP initiative in which the government taps into the efficiency and expertise of the private sector to deliver the whole schooling experience.

The current Trust School model is effectively just a scheme that allows LeapEd Services Sdn Bhd – another GLC that is wholly owned by Khazanah – to be sub-contracted by Yayasan Amir to deliver upskilling and support programmes in the selected schools. After five years, unless the contract is extended, the schools will stop receiving support.

The funding for Yayasan Amir comes mainly from Khazanah’s initial allocation plus corporate donations raised by Yayasan Amir itself. Yayasan Amir then pays LeapEd to implement the programme. The MoE does not directly pay Yayasan Amir or LeapEd.

Given that Malaysia’s education system is one of the best funded in the region as measured by percentage of GDP allocated to education, Hamilton suggests that it seems counter-intuitive to ask the private sector to top up the money.

How long can the Trust School survive if it is dependent on the private sector subsidising government schools? We are supposed to have 500 Trust School by 2025, and we want to see them sustained thereafter. Can we realistically expect companies to help fund 500 school (or more) forever? Companies donating money now may get the “feel-good” factor, but are they really contributing to something sustainable?

Let us not forget that Yayasan AMIR is a GLC – a government-linked charity. And they subcontract to another GLC, LeapEd. In practice, there is a GLC monopoly at two levels, first only Yayasan Amir is contracted by the MoE, and second only LeapEd is subcontracted by Yayasan Amir. This could create an unfair advantage for them over others as it may raise an unnecessary barrier to entry. And if LeapEd is the true deliverer, why is there a need to incur cost to pay for a middleman in the scheme?

Nevertheless, it may be necessary to create such an environment to kick off the programme. But now it would be better if both the MoE and Yayasan Amir open up the scheme to competition so that true edupreneurs can bring in more innovation for the benefit of the children.

Hamilton argues that the MoE should consider stronger forms of PPP involving expert organisations being funded on a cost-neutral basis to turnaround Malaysia’s lower performing schools. I see the potentials for an education voucher system in this proposal, through which we can achieve cost-neutrality. So at the end we can produce an improvement of student outcomes without incurring extra costs, and without being dependent on private sector donations.

The models rolled out in US, the UK, the Netherlands, Canada and New Zealand have actually involved transferring responsibility for school operation and management to expert operators. By doing this, they created education systems with more competition, flexibility, accountability, greater accessibility to world class education expertise and cost reduction. All these in turn often resulted in better student outcomes.
But in order for that to happen, there needs to be a paradigm change at our MoE. Friends in the MoE must accept that the ultimate priority is to ensure students continuously get the best quality education. It does not matter who runs the school. What does matter is the quality of education that our children get. If that means the government should actively invite experts into our schools, then for the sake of our children that is exactly what they should do.

In the case of our Trust School programme, it is clear that Yayasan Amir is doing well. It is time to allow the scheme to be ramped up, and the likes of Yayasan Amir should be given more power and autonomy to take the scheme further.

However, rather than encouraging a monopoly by only contracting Yayasan Amir, and subsequently by Yayasan Amir only subcontracting to LeapEd, the MoE should carefully formulate a new and more robust framework.

The framework should make both MoE and Yayasan Amir select operators through an open and transparent tender process, with the MoE channeling funds allocated for the schools directly to the operators. This would spur competition between providers, forcing each one to prove how good they are, so that at the end our children get the best that they deserve.

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Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my)

Image credit: studyco.com

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