By Wan Saiful Wan Jan, The Edge, 8 January 2011

Several parents contacted me to share their stories after reading my article last month. There is one common thread to all the stories. Parents want the best for their children and they feel that private schools are better. But they don’t have the money to pay private school fees. I can fully understand how frustrating it is, because that is also my personal experience.

Let’s make one thing clear. I am in no way suggesting that all private schools are good by default. But there are at least two forces that push private schools to continuously improve – the forces of competition and decentralisation.

Private schools must compete for paying clients. The only way they can “defeat” their rivals – other private schools and taxpayer-funded state schools – is by ensuring their students perform better. State schools will survive no matter how they perform. In contrast, private schools that perform badly will head towards certain death because parents will exercise their choice and opt for a better one.

On the other hand, the management of private schools is certainly more decentralised. They have more freedom to innovate and improvise. This liberty empowers teachers and school managers to do what is best for their students, not simply following directives from politicians and Putrajaya overlords. A recent report by McKinsey published in November 2010 argues that decentralisation, including in pedagogical issues, is an important feature of a school that is moving towards excellence.

But there remains the problem of affordability. The key therefore is to introduce competition (and the parental choice that comes with it) and decentralisation while keeping schools free. To me this is still a compromise because total privatisation would be the best way. But it is a very good and most acceptable compromise for now.

The central principle is that taxpayers’ money should follow students. The voucher system is among the best options. We must develop one that is suited for our country.

School vouchers is not a new system. Andrew Coulson, Director of Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, suggested that the earliest explicit description of the idea can be found in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nation, first published in 1776. More recently, in 2005 Reason Magazine called Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman as the Father of Modern School Reform. Until his death in 2006, Friedman tirelessly campaigned for the voucher system, believing that education subsidies, if it were to continue, must be targeted at consumers and not suppliers.

Thanks to funding from the Dutch government, I was able to visit Holland in November 2010, partly to look at the Dutch school system. Dutch parents have enjoyed the benefits of school voucher and choice since 1917. Educational freedom is in fact enshrined in the Dutch constitution.

Dutch schools are government-funded, yet approximately 70 per cent of schools are private. All schools, including private schools, receive full government funding based on student numbers and manpower needs. Schools do not charge top-up fees, thus ensuring that all schools remain essentially free. But parents can donate for additional activities.

When I met Dr Frans van Noort, the principal of St Gregorius College, a religious secondary school in Utrecht, he explained that teachers and administrative staff (including himself) are employed by the school itself. They are not government employees the way our Malaysian teachers are employed. This gives the school management full ability to reward and sanction teachers and staff based on their performance in nurturing students.

I also met Ton Duif, head of AVS, the trade union for school leaders. He fiercely defended the independence of schools, arguing that he would never allow government to interfere unnecessarily in the terms and conditions of service of school leaders that are his members. It must have been the first time I had a face-to-face meeting with a trade union head arguing against government intervention, out of conviction that employers are partners, not the enemy.

Having spoken to a few groups of Dutch schoolchildren, at a cursory glance, I must say that if we compare them with Malaysian students at the same age group, they are more mature in their thinking. Nevertheless my personal observation is limited and cannot be taken as the benchmark. For that, we need to refer to TIMSS and PISA, the two global education assessments schemes usually used for international benchmarking. Holland consistently performs very well in both.

The Dutch system is an example of how choice, competition and decentralisation created by the voucher system benefit students. Commenting on the Dutch system, a World Bank report entitled The Role and Impact of Public-Private Partnerships in Education published in 2009 says “the system is not only successful academically but is also cost effective, yielding good results at relatively low cost”. In other words, it works.

It is time for those who believe education is a public good and cannot be run by the private sector or be privatised to ask themselves how much longer they want to allow their false belief to trump our children’s education attainment. It is wrong to place this mistaken ideology over and above the rights of our children to receive excellent quality education.

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

1 Comment

  • Amran Pawanchik 2011 Jan 08 / 19:08

    Being a product of a Malaysian public school system although I would consider that I form the small minority that was given the opportunity to go to the elite public school, I am somewhat tolerant to the old system of education. I am not much in favour of the private school or the international school for one simple reason, its not meant for the masses.

    If the government can make great elite school for over 40 years, why is it not replicated for the masses? In my opinion, most Chinese schools in Malaysia do provide a more balanced results compared to government run schools. To me balanced results means the difference between the top students and the majority average is not far both academically as well as co curricular activity.

    Whilst parents play at least 45% of the child’s education, schools cannot base their successes by having affluent parents who can afford extra tuitions or even private tutors. A balanced and matured children must have the chance to experience life as a teenager without the burden of all study and nothing else. After all , life is short, while you are young you must be allowed to do what the young people do and experience life as a teenager.

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