by Tamanna Patel. First published in The Edge 12 October 2015

A few weeks ago, I visited a school in a sleepy fishing village on the outskirts of Klang. I have to admit that the state of the school was shocking. I’ve visited underperforming schools in rural areas, but this school for some reason left an impression.

Everything about this school felt forgotten and neglected – from the teachers and students to the school building and facilities. The irony was that there was a private school next door that seemed, at least with regards to its infrastructure, more cared for and well maintained. Now, I’m not saying that just because a school’s building is in good condition that is an immediate correlation to a well adjusted student body and an inspirational teaching staff. However, in the case of the school we visited the first impression of the infrastructure was a direct indication of what we were to find behind the school walls (or rather wire fences).

The first sign of the school is a tar basketball court that has partially collapsed in and hasn’t been used for months. We walked into the small unassuming entrance of the school and heard the familiar muffled sounds of noisy students in classrooms. Our host showed us around and took us to the far end of the school building where the toilets are and well before we reached them, we could already smell them. Most of the school toilets do not have proper sanitation systems and waste falls straight through to the ground below.

Once we signed the guest books and completed our mini-tour of the school we entered our first lesson for the day – English. The teacher introduced us to the class who couldn’t care less if we were there or not, so getting their attention and having them focus on lessons, as you can imagine, is somewhat of a challenge. Since the students at this school are predominantly Chinese, the teacher explains to them in Mandarin that we are visitors and that we would be leading the class. So my friend (who thankfully spoke Mandarin) and I began with a simple ice-breaking activity – in which the students had to introduce themselves and describe themselves using a word beginning with the same letter as their first name e.g. my name is Tamanna and I am thin (not untrue). Some tried the game while others were clearly uninterested. Unfortunately, this turned out to not be as simple as I initially envisioned it to be even for a class of 14 year olds, which led us to change tactics.

Our next game plan was to read with them in small groups, which proved to work better but still not too successful. While some struggled with reading, others with comprehension they seemed to genuinely want to learn the language but they were so far behind at their age, barely able to phonetically sound out the easiest of four letter words and their meanings. It made me wonder what they had been learning in school all these years. Instead, I decided to just have a conversation with my small group so that they could practice their spoken English. What I discovered was quite surprising – that they all wanted to learn English and eventually leave the village that they were in because they felt it offered them no learning opportunities (note that we were in a school).

The infrastructure was in an appalling state and while the students gave the impression they didn’t want to learn, they actually craved opportunities that allowed them to experience the world beyond their small village.

Now, where were the teachers and principals? Well, before we left we stopped by the teachers’ lounge and I was struck by how low the energy was in the room. At that moment it occurred to me that all those in that particular room seemed devoid of passion and their body language reflected this as well. Our host, who also happened to be a young teacher hurriedly grabbed some books he had left in the room and led us to another office to explain how he had been trying to improve his students’ English. He had been holding extra classes for them outside of school hours to help them improve their English using a module he had dug up online. But the support from the other teachers had been minimal and sadly he had to discontinue the classes even as he saw improvements in some of the students’ command of the language.

The surprises did not stop there – I was then told that actually this school’s principal had left the school leaving it without leadership for close to three months. He had been trying to change the school for a decade and had given up especially since the community continually blamed him for the state of the school.

I couldn’t help but wonder how this school was allowed to function like this for years and it seemed at that point that it will continue to do so, unless someone takes ownership of the school because clearly the Ministry of Education has forgotten it. So who will take on the responsibility of turning this school around – it is the community, a new principal, or even an education provider? For me, it remains a mystery.

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Tamanna Patel is a senior researcher at IDEAS.

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