IDEAS Event Report

“A peek into private schools in Malaysia – are they really better than government schools?”

Saturday, 24th October 2015


“A Peek Into Private Schools in Malaysia – Are they really better than government schools?” was IDEAS’ panel discussion on whether the private schools in Malaysia are better than government schools due to the considerable amount of autonomy that they have. The discussion was based on the school case studies that the panellists are in the midst of writing.


The session was moderated by Dato’ Satinah Syed Saleh, the Education Advisor to Khazanah Nasional Berhad. Speakers included Nina Adlan Disney, the CEO of Asia Pacific Schools Sdn Bhd, who provides an overview of the private school’s scene and the inadvertent downsides that they could bring. Meanwhile, Dr. Grace Lee, an Associate Professor with the School of Business, Monash University Malaysia, talked about the autonomy and education atmosphere of the a Chinese Independent Schools (CIS). Finally, Altaf Deviyati, a Social Policy Consultant and Director of IMAN Research, talked about private Islamic religious schools and emphasised on relationship between parents and schools.


Nina Adlan Disney started by stating that if the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is used as a yardstick for students’ performance in education, then the result in PISA indicates that there is a correlation between the amount of autonomy granted to schools and the schools’ performance in education, with higher autonomy translated to higher performing level. However, Nina reiterated that allowing school autonomy does not automatically guarantee quality education, but rather the quality depends on how the schools decide to use the autonomy to deliver the education.  In addition, she mentioned that the increasing students’ enrolment in private schools reflect the growing middle class population, and subsequently cautioned that private educations could contribute to polarisation of education based on class instead of encouraging education to be more inclusive. In a way, Nina set the scene for discussion of autonomy of private schools to follow. She noted that autonomy of the two private schools (who follow a national syllabus) can be split into four areas – finance, staffing, methodology (syllabus and pedagogy) and internal policies.

Dr Grace Lee described the history of how CIS came into being, the organisational structure and the CIS relationship with Dong Zong, the Chinese education group who coordinates the CIS’ education. She shared how the particular CIS she studied prided themselves for being able to raise funds independently albeit charging relatively low fees to the students thanks to the strong financial support they receive from the Chinese community. She proceeded by citing few reasons why the parents she spoke to (a selection of parents form four different CIS) choose to send their children to CISs, namely their doubt on the quality of education at government schools, their belief that allowing the children to always speak in their mother tongue as a way to preserve their culture and finally, the desire for their children to be a well-rounded individuals. However, she also mentioned few downsides of CIS system, such as the potential for abuse of power by the school boards and the demanding dual system (two syllabus which mean that the students graduated with two qualifications – United Education Certificate and SPM).

Finally, on private Islamic religious schools, Altaf Deviyati looked into two schools which are run by two religious organisations namely ABIM and IKRAM as her case studies. She described how both schools are aligned with their respective founding organisations and hence are run differently. However, both schools share few similarities. For example, both provide national syllabus and Islamic subjects, with considerable amount of independence to deliver the latter’s syllabus.  Other similarities between these schools are the strong relationship that the schools have with the students’ parents and the reason parents’ decided to send their children to religious schools. Her interviews with parents show that they choose these schools due to their wish to let their children have better religious foundation and become holistic individuals (not just focussed on academics). She then stated the downsides of these schools, which are the demanding syllabus and extra-curricular activities that their students need to participate and lack of exposure to ethnic diversity. She concluded her presentation by advocating for more school autonomy and involvement of parents in government schools.


The event was ended with Q&A session. Most questions were focused on the quality of the schools and the students that these schools produced. Among the issues that were raised were the accountability of the private schools towards the relevant stakeholders, whether the quality of education depends on the teachers, syllabus or the school managements and finally, how different people define differently what quality education means and is supposed to be.

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