AS he enters the ramshackle wooden building housing the Tamil school he heads, T. Manickavasagam (not his real name) takes a deep breath. At age 50, the headmaster has given up all hope of seeing his school refurbished before he retires.
Heaving a sigh, he opens the school gates and goes about making sure everything is in order before the 50-odd pupils enrolled in the estate school located in Perak start to arrive.
A staunch advocate of Tamil schools, Manickavasagam enjoys his job as he gets to impart some of the richness of the Tamil language, culture and traditions to young pupils of the MTV generation.
However, dedicated as he is, Manickavasagam is sad and angry that decades have gone by with nothing being done to change the status of Tamil schools such as his from bantuan kerajaan (partially-aided) to sekolah kerajaan (fully-aided):
“I enjoy teaching in estate schools as the children are very obedient and parents have high regard for teachers and do not interfere with our job.
“However, it is hard for me to motivate the kids to learn and the younger teachers to be enthusiastic when the school is a shack with poor lighting and no proper toilets or canteen or field. I don’t understand why the Government does not step in and slowly convert these schools to fully-aided ones.”
Manickavasagam’s school is one of some 370 Tamil schools in the country – out of a total of 532 – categorised as partially-aided. These schools are located on private land owned by corporations, individuals or estate management companies. Under the Education Act 1996, schools located on private land are not eligible for a full grant from the Government
Though partially-aided schools get funding for operational expenditure (teachers’ salaries, food programme for children, textbook provision and such), they do not get funds for upgrading buildings. As a result, they are forced to source for their own funds for even basic infrastructure such as additional classrooms.
Although the same applies to Chinese schools, the strong financial support from the Chinese community has resulted in many of these schools enjoying the same facilities as national schools, if not better.
Unfortunately, though there is support from the Tamil community, it is not comparable.
SJK (T) Thamboosamy Pillai headmistress P. Thaiyanayaki says the Chinese community is willing to contribute a lot to upgrade and maintain Chinese schools.
“The Indian community should come forward and help more. They must recognise the important contribution made by Tamil schools.”
Yayasan Strategik Sosial executive director Dr Denison Jayasooria feels that while more and more of the Tamil middle class are extending their help, the numbers are not yet adequate.
“When you think about it, most of those in the non-governmental organisations helping Tamil schools comprise people from the middle class. However, the bulk of this group is still not stepping forward.
“They are not willing to sacrifice their time to help. To many urban Tamils, the status of Tamil schools is not very important or relevant and so they tend to be very flippant when discussing related issues,” he says.
However, while well-to-do Indians can help, a major move like converting the status of Tamil schools lies with the Education Ministry.
Says National Union of Tamil Teachers president Shahul Hamid Mydin Shah: “We have appealed to the ministry many times before to convert these schools. But, so far they have not approved this request.
“It is very important because teaching in poor conditions is very demoralising for pupils and teachers. If this persists, all our efforts to improve the performance of Tamil schools will be a waste,” says Shahul Hamid.
Adds Dr Denison: “Tamil schools are a constitutional provision for the Indian community and a sizeable proportion of the community wants these schools to function.”
Though appeals for these estate schools to be converted have so far fallen on deaf ears, there may be a glimmer of hope with the appointment of Wanita MIC deputy chief and Kapar MP Komala Devi as the Education Ministry parliamentary secretary, the first time the Indian community has had such representation in the ministry.
Komala Devi has a daunting task ahead of her as expectations are high. Since she took office in April, the parliamentary secretary has already held meetings with the Tamil language officers from the textbook division, curriculum development centre and examinations board; state Tamil language coordinators; and Shahul Hamid.
“To be fair, the ministry does fund the operational costs of all Tamil schools. In terms of teachers’ salaries and the food programme, tuition voucher programme and provision of notebooks and laptops for the instruction of Maths and Science, Tamil schools get the same benefits as national schools.
“However, having said that, there is a need for many of these schools to be upgraded, rebuilt or relocated. Sometimes, as the estates are developed, some developers are good corporate citizens and allocate funds for the schools to be relocated or refurbished. But this is not true in all cases.
“The ministry is aware of this and is discussing ways to overcome these problems. We don’t want any child to be disadvantaged,” she says.
She shares that a meeting between MIC president Datuk Seri Samy Vellu and Education Minister Datuk Hishammuddin Tun Hussein has been scheduled to take place soon to discuss problems like the status of schools as well as issues such as the shortage of teachers and need for Tamil language officers at all district education offices.
Komala Devi, however, urged Tamil school administrators to be realistic and not demand the conversion of all partially-aided Tamil schools at one go.
“I think we need to prioritise. First to get attention should be schools in the ‘emergency group’. For instance, I’ve heard about a school in Kedah where the building is so bad that lessons are being conducted outdoors!” she says.
The Government, she adds, needs to see that withholding aid for Tamil schools now could mean more expenditure in the long run.
“Because of their history, Tamil schools are mainly attended by pupils from lower-income families. If their education is not properly taken care of, they may drop out and cause social problems and their parents may have to resort to welfare, all of which will cost the Government more,” she says.
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