By Jenny Gryzelius. First published in The Sun 3 February 2012

The international debate about education and education research have been increasingly converging towards the conclusion that granting schools, colleges and universities autonomy is a good way to improve the quality of education and the students’ learning experience across the board. Therefore, it is a welcome move that top universities in Malaysia are now to receive greater levels of autonomy. Similarly, awarding cluster school status to high performing schools and giving them access to autonomy and increased funds is an excellent way of furthering the quality of education in these institutions.

The problem, however, with awarding autonomy and additional funding solely to school that have already achieved a high level of excellence is that it will lead to these school reaching even higher whilst not tackling the problem of poor schooling and low educational attainments in deprived and rural areas. The fact that this autonomy is only given to schools that have a history of excellence creates the risk of furthering the gap between those schools that are already doing well and schools that are struggling to achieve.

This article is not arguing against the formation of autonomous cluster schools, or awarding more autonomy to the country’s top performing universities. In fact I welcome both initiatives. But what is needed in this debate is the recognition that the poorer performing schools cannot be left behind. Schools taking in students from deprived backgrounds, and therefore not being able to reach the same levels of excellence, should also have the opportunity to gain more autonomy. In many cases it is in these schools that more autonomy could make the greatest difference, both in terms of the educational attainments of the students, but more importantly also in the life-skills that they endow the students with.

Evidence from similar programmes done in deprived areas internationally shows that school outcomes are improved, or in some cases even greatly improved, when the schools are given autonomy. The improvements include higher intake levels, smaller class sizes, lower drop-out and repeat rates, as well as improved exam scores. Though improvements through school autonomy are not uniform across the board, the majority of schools did improve from it, among them schools in countries facing far greater levels of deprivation than Malaysia, such as Kenya and Nicaragua.

Two other dimensions of granting autonomy to all schools that want it are the added benefits of ‘ownership’ and ‘choice’. If the autonomy scheme was to be extended to schools with less than excellent achievements it would open the door for more parental involvement, as well as involvement from other stakeholders in the community, like businesses, religious organisations and charities. Therefore, the running of the school will be placed partly within the local community, giving it a sense of ownership. The additional benefit is that the community, who are themselves better acquainted with their own needs compared to civil servants at the Ministry of Education, can influence the education policy of their local schools.

The second benefit that would be achieved by making school autonomy generally available is that there would be a possibility of real choice in education, even for those too poor to pay for it. By giving schools the possibility of setting up their own management boards to make decisions on school policy, differences between schools would emerge. Parents that are too poor to consider private education would be given a choice in what kind of education that they want for their children. This choice could be enacted upon either through direct involvement in influencing school policy or by simply moving their child to a school they feel is better managed. The latter option would be especially successful if catchment areas for different schools were overlapping or scrapped completely. Ultimately, this can result in schools actively trying to compete with each other. Through such competition schools will have to improve not only the quality of the teaching (as measured by exam results) but also on the choices of extra curricula activities that they offer. This in turn would be a real improvement in the schooling of the most disadvantaged.

Therefore, giving autonomy to the elite universities and the so called cluster schools is in fact a very good thing. However, for there to be a penetration of its effect to the general population this project has to reach much further than to just those that are already excellent. Schools in rural and deprived areas have to have the same access to autonomy and funds so that the discrepancies in educational attainments between rich and poor do not continue to grow.

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Jenny Gryzelius is the Senior Researcher at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs
Image Credit: Wikipedia Bahasa Malaysia

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