By Wan Saiful Wan Jan, The Star, 26 November 2006

IN A workshop on Malaysia’s education policy earlier this month in Nottingham, England, Education Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein spoke of the need to improve our school system.

He described how difficult it is to get teachers to go to rural areas. Usually, the newest teachers have to be forced to go there as no one else would do it.

Hishammuddin spoke of the dire state that some schools are in – they don’t even have 24 hours’ electricity and water supply. He described how difficult it is for some students to go to school because their parents are so poor.

I am a school governor in England and was appointed by the Local Education Authority to be on the governing body of a school in a deprived area about 30 miles north of London. At the same time, I work in policy research, which means I interact with policy-makers and some of the great thinkers in the United Kingdom.

Two of my favourite figures in education policy are John Blundell (Director General of Institute of Economic Affairs) and Prof James Tooley (Director of EG West Centre of Education).

Having been exposed to the British school system and the ideas proposed by these two experts, I think the best way to improve our schools is by introducing parental choice and competition which is advocated by Blundell and Tooley.

Malaysia Think Tank London used some of the main principles they advocate to produce a proposal “Introducing Choice and Competition into Malaysia’s Education System”, which was submitted to Hishammuddin in Nottingham.

Parental choice means giving parents the ultimate say in choosing the best type of education for their children. If parents have the financial capabilities to choose, and if they are presented with practical options in terms of which school to send their children to, parents would undoubtedly exercise that choice to ensure their children get the best school education.

Imagine a system where parents can decide to send their children to any school of their choice. If teachers in school X mistreat the pupils, parents can take their children to another school with more committed and talented teachers.

If a school repeatedly does badly in UPSR or PMR, parents can move their children to a better performing school. Wouldn’t that be much better?

Why should parents be forced to keep their children in a school that does not have the necessary resources, or whose teachers are incompetent?

Admittedly, several factors prevent Malaysian parents from exercising choice, including finance.

To overcome this, I propose three strategies. First, introduce a targeted voucher system. Second, set up a National Education Fund funded solely by corporate and individual donations. Third, publish a school league table every six months.

The targeted vouchers give parents with low household income the necessary funds. The vouchers can only be used to pay for education.

Through this system, schools no longer get automatic funding from the state. Instead, “vouchers” are given directly to parents who can then use the vouchers to pay for their children’s education needs at a school of their choice.

The National Education Fund would be funded by the private sector and individual contributions, not the Government. Companies and individuals who donate would gain tax relief as an incentive. Money from this Fund can be used to top up the vouchers if necessary, especially to assist the very poor to pay for other costs like transport, books and school uniform.

Removing school-based funding and giving money directly to parents would effectively make schools like any other private companies offering a service.

Schools must compete to offer services that are the best value for money. Schools that fail to deliver risk closure because parents would simply not send their children there.

The six-monthly league table would provide parents with a tool to compare performance of schools and therefore help their decision making process. It would also inject more competition to improve the schools.

Similar systems have proven to be effective in countries around the world. The report submitted to the Education Minister by Malaysia Think Tank London provides evidence of these successes.

In an article published in October this year, Blundell argued that the best way to improve schools is to turn schools into enterprises and teachers into entrepreneurs. Schools that are not up to standard would have to improve or be closed down.

Prof Tooley has written extensively about how private schooling worked well for poor people worldwide.

In his book “The Global Education Industry”, he drew on examples from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Peru, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and shows that contrary to expectations, the private education sector was large in many poor countries, innovative, and not the exclusive domain of the wealthy.

On the contrary, he found that the private sector often provided social responsibility, subsidised places and student loan schemes.

Choice and competition have been proven to work worldwide. It will work in Malaysia. There is no reason for us to continue to deny Malaysian parents the right to choose the best education for their children.

WAN SAIFUL WAN JAN

Malaysia Think Tank London

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