Policies have been formulated to improve and facilitate teaching and learning at all levels, yet there are weaknesses in the system that need to be urgently addressed.
THE dismal performance of our students in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) in 2013, where 51.8 % of our 15-year old students failed to reach even the baseline level for Reading, Mathematics and Science, has rightly alarmed many concerned Malaysian parents and educationists.
It bears repeating that the quality of an education system simply cannot exceed the quality of its teachers, no matter how many billions of ringgit is used in educational development plans or blueprints to improve our school system.
Prominent lawyer, politician, columnist and author Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, could well be expressing the sentiments felt by many informed Malaysians when he wrote in his book I, Too, Am Malay, that many teachers, are “poor in quality” and the school curriculum is irrelevant while administrators are too political.
The fact that 70% of our English teachers failed to make the grade in the Cambridge Placement Test speaks volumes of why and how we continue to witness a decline in English proficiency in our schools and universities over the years.
If it is true that a large number of our teachers are incompetent, then policy-makers will have to get the views of all the major stakeholders, accept sound suggestions from various quarters, before they attempt to tinker with our school system.
M. Bakri Musa, columnist and author in his book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia, mentioned the greatest weakness of all our educational reforms is the government’s exclusive dependence on in-house or Education Ministry officers, who have somehow failed to improve the quality of our education system over the years, in spite of all their grand schemes.
Let’s review how effective, practical or meaningful the educational reforms have been at school level.
When the co-curricular points system was first implemented in our schools, it seemed like a good way to motivate our students to participate more actively in sports clubs and societies to make them well-rounded students.
In the first place, the system was never implemented in good faith.
Students sitting for the Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM) exams face a serious handicap when it comes to applying for admission to local universities for some degree courses compared to Matriculation students, who study for a shorter period of time and sit for their relatively easy internally-marked exam papers.
And as if things are not bad enough for STPM students, it looks like the co-curricular points system was designed to make university admission even easier for Matriculation students. The system enables them to secure high marks for co-curricular activities which account for 10% of the entry-score requirement for public university admission.
In matriculation colleges, students who participate in co-curricular activities among hostel block members are awarded marks meant for district level events, while students who compete in activities in college are awarded marks that are equivalent to state level grades. When students compete in inter-college events, they are accorded marks equivalent to that of national level!
Any wonder why so many SPM students choose not to do their Form Six?
The system is biased as it favours Matricu-lation students over STPM students. Moreover the chances of STPM students who score 4As getting courses of their choice at varsity level is also uncertain.
Considering the circumstances, many bright students simply don’t want to continue with Form Six.
Why experience the mental agony of getting 4As in the STPM exams only to be denied places for courses like medicine and pharmacy?
Let me reiterate that the STPM is a tougher exam and the co-curricular point system for matriculation students gives the latter an unfair advantage.
Research suggests that superior learning takes place when classroom experiences are enjoyable and relevant to students’ lives, interest and experiences.
As such, it is rather unfortunate that at a time when our education system is already failing to provide students with appropriate problem solving, critical and analytical skills and knowledge content, especially in Science and Mathematics, our policy-makers see it fit to make all students take up History (now made a compulsory subject to pass in the SPM exam).
Instead of learning world history and exposing our students to lessons we can learn from major historical events, much of our Form Four History textbooks are devoted to specific topics all in the name of promoting patriotism and national unity.
And why bother to introduce the SPM open certification exam in the first place when we have no real intention to offer our students real flexibility in their choice of subjects and electives based on their interests, abilities and aptitudes?
In his best seller, The World is Flat, Thomas L Friedman, points out that in today’s world, how children are educated may prove to be more important than how much they have to learn in school.
If what he says is true, why should we stifle our students’ initiative, curiosity and creativity by burdening them with uninspiring and even unnecessary subjects that have made school life such a dreadful and boring affair.
And yet, despite repeated calls to scrap Moral Education, such pleas have fallen on deaf ears. It has been pointed out that Moral Education, instead of exploring how we can effectively teach and test moral reasoning, only serves to indoctrinate our students and subjects them to mindless memorisation of core values.
To make things worse, our policy-makers decided that learning Moral Education was not good enough; in order to make our students more civic-conscious and patriotic, they went on to introduce yet another subject called “Civics and Citizenship” for our secondary school students from Form One in 2005.
Our national education philosophy emphasises holistic development of our students. That being the case, won’t Physical Education (PE) play an important role in producing physically fit and well-rounded students?
And yet with our students experiencing so much stress in their school life, they have to make do with just two periods for PE!
If that is not bad enough, some schools even use PE periods to teach “more important subjects” like Health Education. And what about our school-based assessment?
Various quarters have already pointed out that simply scrapping the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) and Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR) exams to introduce the current school-based system may not necessarily serve to enhance learning and make school life more enjoyable for students.
When the school-based assessment system was introduced to schools in 2011, it was assumed that teachers would be able to assess their students’ abilities and potential.
But with so many “poor quality” teachers it will not be fair to assume that they are sufficiently equipped to evaluate their students based on internally-prepared assessments, that they take pains to assess their students properly, and that they are unbiased towards their students.
Well, that’s really a tall order. Already, we have heard stories from schools of incompetent and indifferent teachers teaching weak classes and yet awarding their students Band Six, no less, in their respective subjects!
And as usual, many schools are already resorting to buying workbooks in the market instead of getting their teachers to come up with their own worksheets and materials to assess their students, making a mockery of introducing the school-based assessment in the first place.
But we can’t blame the teachers, not when they are burdened with so much paperwork and keying data online into the SPPBS (Sistem Pengurusan Pentaksiran Berasaskan Sekolah).
It is worth noting that our current school-based assessment at the end of the day, is not much different to the A-B-C-D-E grade system or even the Percentage Score system. So why should teachers need to waste time with the banding exercise when in their daily dealings they can easily discern the band(s) the students actually deserve for the topics taught?
Wouldn’t it be better to reflect on their teaching approaches and enhance their professional knowledge, rather than waste time with paperwork and keying data?
It is about time to address the problems facing our education system.
For a start, the government should really grant greater autonomy to good schools in both urban and rural areas to adopt a broad-based curriculum, save for a few core subjects under the supervision of the Education Ministry, to let students learn what they ought to learn in today’s challenging world.
Get dynamic school principals to manage such schools and empower them to make decisions on matters related to school operations with the participation of parents and the local school communities.
If the principals are allowed to hire competent teaching staff, and be accountable for their performance, then we stand a better chance to improve our education system at the school level, specially when we are in a position to compare the performance of such autonomous schools with our national schools.
And with so many parents paying for tuition lessons these days, they would gladly pay school fees to get their children to study in such autonomous schools.
When such schools, gain a good reputation, the tuition syndrome will slowly die and more parents would choose to place their children in such schools rather than vernacular or international schools, resulting in a win-win situation!
With the current rot in the school system, the authorities should no longer be so protective over their turf. They must have the courage to admit the serious shortcomings of their policies and display greater commitment to think out of the box. It is now in the hands of the ministry to make it all happen.
n The writer, a retired teacher, is still passionate about education. He hopes the Education Ministry will be bold enough to bring about changes for the greater good of students, teachers and parents.