IDEAS Event Report

“School Autonomy: Are Malaysian Schools and School Leaders Ready?”

Saturday, 15th August 2015

The University of Nottingham, KL Teaching Center.


School Autonomy: Are Malaysian Schools and School Leaders Ready?” was IDEAS’ panel discussion on whether or not schools and school leaders were ready for greater autonomy to be allocated to them by the Ministry of Education.


Speakers included Lionel Jackson, the former Senior VP of Education Eco-System at Agensi Inovasi Malaysia, Dato’ Noor Rezan Bapoo, Board of Trustees, Teach for Malaysia, Madam Che Kamaliah binti Endud, former Principal of the Tunku Kurshiah College and Farihah Fahmy, former Teach for Malaysia Fellow.


Lionel Jackson began by stating that “We were great at one time” and how the education system was now producing students who could not think or solve problems. He expressed regret for not getting involved in education sooner, saying that looking back the “past 30 years seem like a waste”. Touching on school autonomy, his response to the question asked in the title of this forum was “No! For the grace of God, no! We are certainly not ready!”. This, he argued, was because autonomy meant the confluence of three factors: accountability, leadership and autonomy and the situation in Malaysia was no where near to achieving a balance between the three factors.

Accountability is crucial to ensuring the ability of delivering a quality education but it the Malaysian context, the question as to who a school is accountable to is a complicated and a problematic one. Schools are accountable to their funders which is the Government/MOE who in turn get their income from taxpayers who are the parents hence schools are essentially accountable to parents. Here arises the problem of the lack of parental involvement in schools. Changes or reforms to the education system will only happen when parents make their voices heard, and that too must be informed voices.

Next, on the aspect of leadership, Lionel spoke of how head teachers were disengaged from the whole teaching process and also their teachers. He said that good leadership was a combination of elements of autonomy and democracy. In Malaysia, the MOE is still promoting seniority over capabilities, a practice which is detrimental to schools. Finally, expanding on what he said earlier on the third aspect, autonomy, Lionel stated that it “encouraged ownership” and that there needs to be a line or “an electric fence between the MOE and schools”. Lionel ended by advocating for the exclusion of politics from schools, calling it “the single biggest stumbling block to reforming our education system.”.

Former Deputy Director General of MOE, Dato’ Noor Rezan Bapoo provided a perspective of an insider in the system, who has been trying to improve it. She called herself a “very strong rebel in education” and that “too many times, I’ve gotten myself into trouble but I’m not here for my political masters, I’m here for my students, they are the most important.” Dato’ Noor Rezan recalled her experiences working with the MOE and she also advocated for school autonomy, touting the Yayasan Amir Trust Schools as shining examples of the success that can be achieved.

She touched upon the issue of  head teachers stating that when she first entered the MOE, they were selecting headteachers without even interviewing and solely based their decisions to hire them on seniority. However, being the rebel that she was she changed that. She formed a panel to review and interview each prospective candidate. Dato’ Noor Rezan emphasised on the importance of picking the right person with the right personality and capabilities for each school. She ended by stating that autonomy would allow schools to make the best decisions for their communities. Reflecting on the topic of autonomy in the MOE, she said that “Talking about autonomy is like putting your head on the chopping block”.    

The next speaker, Madam Che Kamaliah binti Endud, recalled her experience at “creating her own autonomy” during her time as Principal as the Tunku Kurshiah College in Seremban. Schools in Malaysia are not willingly given autonomy by then MOE, hence it is the choice of the principal to exploit whatever little leeway to create some autonomy. According to her, she used worked within the rules to create some autonomy to ensure the wellbeing of her students, and with sorted the good academics results will follow. Madam Kamaliah also emphasised on the need for a mindset shift among teachers, they need to understand that the work they do is for the students and not the principal or any other leadership. She is also a strong believer that the principal of a school knows what’s best for the school, not some person from the MOE or the district education office. Madam Kamaliah ended her part by stating that complete autonomy is intoxicating and corrupting. Therefore, she advocates limited autonomy.

Finally, the last speaker, Farihah Fahmy spoke of her experience teaching in an underperforming school in the outskirts of Taiping, Perak where many of the students come from the bottom 40 percent. She recalled how one of her Form 5 students did not know what the English word “work” and underlined her belief that not all students can and should be held to the same standards as prescribed by the MOE. Each student has developed at a different phase and the groundwork for each is very different, hence there needs to be some autonomy in assessing their capabilities and a need for differentiated learning. The alternative would be to allow them to fall through the cracks meaning that the system has failed its students. Farihah concluded by advising a cautious approach to autonomy for such a thing requires major changes in the system and also the mindset of the teachers.


The event concluded with a question and answer session where various questions regarding the feasibility of school autonomy in Malaysia were posed towards the panel. Participants questioned the readiness of Malaysians in accepting school autonomy while others highlighted the need for differentiated teaching and learning. Members of the panel agreed with the need for differentiated teaching and learning for students with different capabilities. They also emphasised on the need for the selection  of qualified and capable individuals to the positions of teacher and headteacher. Skepticism was also expressed over whether the MOE would approve of such autonomy.


Most participants found the panel discussion to have gone very well with many finding it useful to themselves and their work. There was a general consensus that the program has provided a valuable insight into the feasibility of school autonomy in Malaysia given the present constraints in the education system.

However, a number of participants noted the absence of a representative from the MOE. Many  also felt that the program could have benefitted with better time management. Some also felt that the program ran too long. There were also calls to better promote the program.

Overall, all participants rated the program either very good or good and were satisfied with the content of the programme.


1 Comment

  • Lionel Jackson 2015 Aug 20 / 14:15

    I thank IDEAS for the opportunity to be part of this.
    I agree that the panel discussion went very well with a good turnout too.
    School Autonomy is a topic that needs more discussion, more discovery to enlighten the stakeholders as we have a tendency to flip-flop at the first sign of problems.
    While i agree that an MoE presence is good, i will note that anyone below the rank of Dep DG would be pointless if the forum is to be taken seriously. No malice meant, but One needs to understand its inner workings
    We can only go wrong for so long and I hope for an awakening to our education system.


Leave a comment