After my last article, Jacqueline from one of my active chat groups asked that I write a wish list to our Education Minister. Instead of talking about the IIUM president’s job that he insist on keeping, I challenged the group members to focus on our primary and secondary national schools by asking them to give me their personal top three wishes for the wish list that I can compile and message to Dr Maszlee Malik via this column.
Within the next hour, my phone pinged non-stop from this highly educated group of opinionated professionals and entrepreneurs.
Faris ‘the progressive professor’ said he wrote a mini thesis on our education system way back in 2009 and was dismayed at how things were (and are). This led him to home school some of his kids with the eldest son now getting a scholarship from a Japanese university. Being a devout Muslim has not stopped him from allowing his son to seek science and technology knowledge in a different country. He also has a very talented daughter who is artistic and imaginative in drawings and graphics.
Sharman our CPA chipped in that financial literacy should be included in the secondary school syllabus so that the young should learn how to manage their finances. Mohammad our insurance veteran agrees on financial literacy and recommended that our children should also be taught communication skills and critical thinking skills.
Siti, our fleet taxi entrepreneur, wants Kemahiran Hidup (living skills) to be reinstated, critical thinking class in secondary, one foreign language (besides Malay and English) and IB ( International Baccalaureate) curriculums in secondary schools. Jacqueline, our lawyer agrees with Siti on IB CAS which focuses on community service and projects.
BC, our bank manager, feels that our teachers should be facilitators and coaches rather than the old school type of “I told you so” mentality. He is impressed with Finland’s school education system. Nathan, our bachelor entrepreneur based in Sabah, wants to see less conventional education, more sports and our children taught more problem solving and social skills.
Aaron, our roof contractor, wants more allocation for scheduled building maintenance, build more asrama for students from rural areas and build more sport halls. Dr YC Lee, ex CFO of a PLC, feels that examination results should be the initial driver for educational change, widening to a more holistic approach. He feels strongly that the examination marks and subsequent distribution curves for grades be made public.
ST Muk the “Idealist” Sabahan wants to integrate all primary schools into a single curriculum system to nurture integration amongst all races at young age. The three main languages to be taught so that the young ones have a basic grasp of Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin and Tamil but Science and Maths be taught in English. No religious classes during school hours. Have a balanced gender and racial mix of teachers and set KPIs for promotions of teachers.
I then asked them what is more important for our education system now? Integration, religion or academic excellence? Integration means students from all races study in national schools from young. The emphasis of one religion in national schools will keep the non-Muslim students from joining hence the popularity of the vernacular schools which is anti-integration. Academic excellence means merit-based examination results which will polarise the poor students even further from the smart students.
At this moment, these three priorities are mutually exclusive as far as our education system is concerned. Thirty years of poor education policies caused by politics along racial lines plus the encroachment of religious phobia have resulted in a broken and divided education system. National schools are divided along racial and religious composition whilst academic standards have dropped to an all-time low. We are producing students who lack in problem solving skills, creative leaning skills and communication skills.
I stand to be corrected on these viewpoints and observations:
Examination grades have been lowered to cater to the weak students on the national bell curve. This could be probably due to the pressure on the Education Ministry to show positive year on year performance of our national education system.
The increasing Islamic curriculum and culture in national schools have driven the non-Muslim students to join the vernacular schools from young and now extended into the secondary schools as well.
Most Malay school students have a poor command of English whereas most Chinese school students from Chinese speaking families have a poor command of English and Bahasa Malaysia.
Most of the teachers in national type schools are Malays and mostly females. The Chinese teachers are mostly in Chinese vernacular schools and private schools. Most teachers have a poor command of the English language.
National type schools are slacking in teaching of Science and Maths with fewer teaching hours per week which is the opposite of vernacular schools. Some textbooks are inaccurately written with twisted facts and some exam questions are racially insensitive with regard to national unity.
Teaching of Science and Maths in English across all national schools would be difficult as there is a big shortage of English-speaking teachers and retraining of 500,000 teachers would be an impossible task.
Taking religious classes out of national type schools would be difficult as most Muslim parents want it to be part of the school curriculum. Similarly, the vernacular schools will be here to stay if the national schools continue with their current path.
Raising the academic standards would be difficult but doable if there is political will. Just be transparent with our grading standards and raise the bar on a gradual basis.
Dear Dr Maszlee, you have been handed the toughest job of all the Cabinet ministers.
We would like to offer you some practical solutions and our “Professor” Faris to your council of eminent educationist as you ponder on overhauling our education system beyond the white or black shoe saga.
Faris and Wong, our automobile expert has this vision of a Malaysian Vision school where you can incorporate national unity, academic excellence and religious studies of all faiths. Siti, Jacqueline and BC hopes that you can incorporate best practices from the Finnish education system (which you yourself admire) highlighting creative thinking and IB elements.
For national unity, set a flexible quota as per racial composition of our citizens. Bring in retrained teachers in English, Maths, Science and IB with a more balanced gender composition. Bahasa Malaysia is the main language except for teaching of Maths and Science in English.
Add in another foreign language option. Have a modified IB curriculum to suit our local standards but focus more on creative thinking and problem solving. Let the children play more sports and enjoy extra curricular activities whilst allocating some hours per week for living skills and religious classes. Curriculum should be skewed towards Science, Maths and IT/Technology.
Just convert 5% of current primary and secondary schools in all states and towns to the new concept Malaysian Vision schools. It might take you five years to convert as it requires a steep learning curve for the teachers. I assure you that there are many parents from all races (who cannot afford private schools) who would love to send their children to this Malaysian Vision school.
As for the rest of the schools, you will have to allow the parents to decide. If the parents want to send their children to national type schools and religious schools, just improve the syllabus with more hours given to Science, Maths and IT/Technolgy. In addition, please encourage more sport activities and if possible encourage more English lessons and throw in a foreign language or two.
If the parents want to send their children to vernacular schools, just improve the syllabus with more hours spent on Bahasa Malaysia, English and a foreign language or two. In addition, more sports please and less homework.
Faris feels that you might need to overhaul your Ministry team and culture. I personally feel that you should look into textbook quality and factual accuracy.
It has taken the previous government 30 years to polarise our schools and the education ministry to lower our academic standards. It will take you and the future Education Ministers another 30 years to achieve your dream of a “Cambridge” level education system that will be relevant and comparable to the world’s best.
Just remember that you will need to feed “Cambridge” level students into our local universities so that our universities can be of “Oxford” standard. My group of non-Oxbridge friends would not be able to advise you on how to improve our local universities. Anyway, you will be too preoccupied with one university under your purview so we hope you can assign your deputy to look after the interest of the other universities.
If possible, please ask your deputy to build University Malaya to become the next “Harvard” University. Like you, I have a sentimental attachment to my alma mater.