In part two of his article, Tan Sri Yong Poh Kon puts forward a multi-pronged approach that can be adopted to reach the goal of improved English literacy among Malaysians. Reintroduction of English-medium schools along the lines of private and international schools but affordable to a larger segment of the population is one of the options.
WITH the Education Blueprint currently being finalised, there remains an excellent window of opportunity to re-chart our course for the future. At the primary school level where parental choice is significant, it appears that the dream of a national school where students of different races come together at age seven is more unattainable than it was in 1970.
In 1970, almost a third of the students were enrolled in English-medium schools which were ethnically mixed and growing in significance in terms of share vis a vis other language medium schools before the policy was abruptly changed.
Fast forward to present day and it is patently obvious that after four decades of implementation of the policy, our primary schools have become more ethnically separated – statistics on student enrolment in national schools reveal that 94% of the students are Malay and 96% of Chinese parents now enrol their children in Chinese schools, up from 50% in 1970.
Ironically, it is the Chinese vernacular schools which are now the most ethnically mixed, with a good 9% from the Malay community and 3% from Indians and others.
For a large and growing proportion of Malaysian families, English has and remains the effective language of communication to the extent that it has become a mother tongue. Such families no longer speak their ethnic tongue.
Much has been said about the pursuit of national unity through the study and use of a common language, Bahasa Malaysia (BM).
However, this does not and cannot mean that learning and pursuing knowledge in languages other than BM will erode national integration efforts, patriotism or make us less Malaysian.
Virtually all our past and present prime ministers were educated in English-medium schools. In fact, the current Minister of Education I and II went through English-medium schools and universities. They are certainly not less nationalistic on account of that experience. On the contrary, they are more confident and accomplished on the Malaysian and international stage because of it.
By bringing back the option of English-medium schools, teaching not only science and maths but other subjects like geography and literature in English will allow us to tap into world-class curricula, textbooks and, more importantly in this Internet age, enhance access to virtually unlimited storehouses of up-to-date knowledge which are predominantly in the English language.
In such schools, BM should be taught intensively as a compulsory subject to enable students from English-medium schools to take and pass the same Form Five BM paper as their counterparts in the national schools. This ensures all attain the same competency in the national language while allowing students to be more proficient in English and able to engage fully with the world.
An independent survey undertaken in April 2012 by Introspek Asia revealed that 26% of Malaysians “always, most of the time and sometimes” speak English to their children. For this large group of people, English is effectively their mother tongue.
The argument therefore is that this English-speaking multiracial group comprising 23% to 26% of the population should be allowed the option of sending their children to English-medium schools.
Furthermore, this option already exists for the higher income families who can afford the English-medium private and international schools in the country.
However, this option is not available to the vast majority of parents of all races who would like their children to benefit from an English-medium school education as a means to enhancing their upward social mobility just because they could not afford it.
Closing the divide
This has contributed to widening the performance divide between students in the rural-urban areas and household income categories and the government should step in to provide this option to level the playing field.
Any attempt to improve English proficiency must take cognisance of the fact that international research has shown that at least 60% immersion in English and subjects is necessary for full English proficiency to take root, and this can best be done in an English-medium school.
Teaching English as a subject and devoting only 10% to 15% of the teaching hours to English may be inadequate in building English operational proficiency (as acknowledged in the 2012 Blueprint p. 4 to 9).
At least 60% immersion is necessary to raise the level of English proficiency among students, and ensure that children from the lower income households are not deprived of the opportunities enjoyed by students schooled in private and/or international schools.
Obviously, a programme to increase English immersion cannot be identical for each of the 10,000 schools in the country, given varying capabilities to implement the programme.
What is clear is the country’s wish to reclaim lost ground in English language proficiency.
Milestones have been identified to measure outcomes, for example, the official target of making English a compulsory must pass subject by 2016 and the announced goal of achieving 70% pass with credit in the Cambridge 1119 English language examination paper by 2025.
We need to do things radically different if we are to attain these goals.
There has to be a multi-pronged approach to reach the goal of improved English literacy amongst Malaysians.
Towards the end of last year, the Ministry ascertained that the majority of the 70,000 English language teachers do not have the necessary skills level to teach in English and have set in place a series of programmes to upskill them. This is a basic requirement that has to be done but this process will take time.
In the meantime, while the upskilling process is going on, to increase the pool of teachers we need to call upon retirees who can teach in English – there are 400,000 teachers and 3% of them retire every year – i.e 12,000 a year.
If we consider that teachers between the ages of 55 and 70 can still teach effectively, the total number of retired teachers would be 180,000 in that age group and if only 10% were capable of teaching in English, there is a pool of 18,000 to call back to active duty.
We should offer them full pay and at the same time, they would continue to draw their pension (approximately 60%), and this would mean that they would take home a total of about 160% of their last drawn salary.
This is very different from the pre-2005 days when teachers were offered to work beyond retirement at the same pay as then they would be working for only 40% of their salary since their pension would be paid anyway, and that is the reason why not many would want to extend beyond their retirement age.
There are also thousands of other retirees who are fluent in English but were not teachers. On a short course basis, it must be possible to call upon some of them to be teachers in English in this national effort.
In addition, flexible working arrangements like part-time work can also attract mid-career mothers who have left the workplace because they could not do a full-time job.
Having dramatically increased the supply and pool of English teachers using the above, we need to apply the immersion method of English learning through three channels:
1. National Schools: Increase the contact time in English from the current 15% to 40% or more in stages over the next few years.
Projects and activities to be conducted in English in addition to Bahasa Malaysia. Progressively add subjects to be taught in English to raise the contact time in English
Using textbooks, if necessary from other English-speaking countries, we can quickly add subjects to be taught in English progressively until we reach 40%.
The time spent in English in national schools to be dramatically raised, and to work out the resources to be applied to reach those targets and not the other way round.
2. Some national schools are, however, more ready to take off in the English language than others. For example, high-performing schools and some mission schools, which have quicker access to retired teachers who can come back to teach in English.
These schools are to be given increased autonomy to adopt international curriculum and assessments. Bahasa Malaysia will continue to be a compulsory subject and taught intensively. Given their capacity to implement faster, they could become model schools in a pilot project that could be extended to other schools later.
3. Re-introduce English-medium schools as an option along the lines of private and international schools but affordable to a larger segment of the population. These schools teach in English for most subjects but offer Bahasa Malaysia as a compulsory subject.
Using a multi-pronged approach, we have a chance to achieve the goal of having 70% of our schoolchildren attain a credit pass in Cambridge 1119 English by 2025.
More importantly, it allows for our students to quickly tap into all the knowledge available in the Internet, which is primarily in English.
It is proposed that a detailed programme of engagement be worked out, starting with a survey both in the urban and rural areas among parents of students in existing schools as well as parents of children about to enter the schooling system. This survey should gather data by postcode location on whether parents would send their children to English-medium education if given the choice.
With the survey results, the government can assess the size of the demand for English schools and make the necessary plans to satisfy it at least through a pilot implementation.
The results of the pilot study will provide government with better policy-making inputs on the potential outcomes that can be expected from such schools in terms of ethnic integration, achievement rates and
proficiency in English moving forward.
In addition, the results, if positive, will also serve to soften the hard stance of those opposed to a change in the policy that may be long overdue. We owe it to our children and grandchildren of all races to see this through.
> Tan Sri Yong Poh Kon is managing director of Royal Selangor and President of the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers. He also serves on the boards of EPF, MIDA and Matrade.
*The charts are reprinted for clarity