In my last column, I described how the pandemic was hurting people economically (“Helping those hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic in Malaysia”, StarLifestyle, Aug 23,2020). Covid-19 pandemic will also hit education. More children will drop out of school, especially underprivileged children. The difficulty of continuing education online for some during the pandemic-triggered lockdown was highlighted by Sabah student Veveonah Mosibin, who had to climb a tree for better Internet access to sit for a college exam.
Dropping out of school has severe consequences, maybe even affecting crime rates. It is critical this long overlooked problem be given due attention in Malaysia. More data is urgently needed. In 2011 alone, 20,000 children dropped out of school before completing their (upper secondary level) SPM exam, Education Ministry data showed.
Children who drop out typically come from the lowest income group (B40), dysfunctional families, and unsafe or violent environments – as seen by MySkills Foundation, one of the rare organisations working with young dropouts.
“Mastering the Malay language is a huge issue”, for those coming from vernacular schools to national secondary schools where lessons are taught in Malay, says MySkills Foundation CEO Devasharma Gangadaran. Without help, children give up trying and drop out. More than four out of 10 children of Indian ethnicity drop out of school. Some leave after primary school. In 2016, only 87% of students nationwide continued on to secondary school – compare this with South Korea, where 99.6% go on to secondary education. This is a tragedy, because education is a stepping stone out of poverty.
It’s not school dropouts who have failed, it is the education system that has failed them: “Schools have a one size to fit all policy, ” explains Devasharma, and some children don’t fit well. The tragedy deepens: Dropping out of school can result in dropping out of mainstream society. With few options and little support available, and with a million or so foreign workers to compete with for unskilled jobs, some struggle to survive and turn to robbery, selling drugs, gangsterism or other crimes. That’s a hard path to step away from – especially when prison becomes a second home.
The MySkills Foundation aims to break this cycle: “We try to transform them by providing an enabling environment, ” explains Devasharma, adding that many such children suffer from low self-esteem.
The foundation’s alternative school in Hulu Selangor has offered 1,600 children aged 13 to 17 – currently numbering 200 – vocational training in plumbing, welding, airconditioner repair, farming, secretarial skills and cooking while also – importantly – imparting character and life skills. Without this last, the chance of falling back into the same vicious cycle is 90%.
Devasharma points out various vocational training options do exist in Malaysia but usually only for older teens or SPM leavers who are usually 17 years old, leaving younger dropouts with no alternatives. The foundation thus provides a lifeline for young dropouts falling through the cracks.
Ultimately, the best solution would be for schools to stop students falling in the first place. Small steps in this direction are being taken. Cheryl Ann Fernando, director of Pemimpin GSL, works with school leaders to improve schools and, specifically, find options to prevent dropouts. This works for students with strong support at home but not for students who are “the last, the lost and the least”. Sometimes, specific solutions are needed. For example, successful specific intervention was designed for one Petaling Jaya school where students struggled with literacy. In another school where many Form Five students left after the lockdown to find jobs, school leaders went all out to get them back.
“We are working with 45 schools to get school leaders to look for students at risk, ” says Fernando. “We want to ensure every child is given what he or she needs.”
Another organisation is Generasi Gemilang. It supports children staying in school by providing coaching and mentoring using volunteers from all races and ages – from students to retirees. “We are convinced that quality education is the way to break the poverty cycle and enable social mobility, ” says Caryn Ng, head of education services.
“Effective learning starts from strong foundations. Hence our focus on basic literacy (in English and Malay).” She says that they have found even secondary school students have problems with comprehension. “This makes it difficult for students to thrive.”
Their Literacy and Numeracy Screening programme (Linus) is run at a community centre and shelter home in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, while another programme called KidzREAD improves English reading in three Klang Valley communities. The “Literacy through Individualised Teaching” programme enables tertiary education; some students have subsequently got diplomas in accounting and software development.
Another aspect of education that Generasi Gemilang addresses is providing a “Super Sarapan” breakfast for 826 students from B40 families in 22 schools in the Klang Valley, Ipoh (in Perak) and Miri (in Sarawak); this improved attendance by more than 10%. Studies show providing breakfast improves the performance and behaviour of students.
“It’s very difficult to convince a student who is hungry that education is important, ” Fernando agrees.
The Covid-19 pandemic will present more challenges. But we still only have bandaid solutions, she says. Many more options are needed to ensure all students are taken care of.
For more information or to donate to or volunteer with these organisations, contact MySkills Foundation at +60-3-2691 6363 and Generasi Gemilang at +60-3-7803 0957; click for Pemimpingsl.org.
Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.