A RENAISSANCE, revolution or revival? Call it what you will but Tamil schools are shedding their image of being “second rate” and are well on the way to becoming the preferred option for many Malaysian Indians. Higher enrolment, better results in public examinations and a bigger participation by the middle class are among the factors that are slowly changing the public’s perception of Tamil schools.
“For many years, people held a very negative image of Tamil schools. Media attention on Tamil schools always focused on the dilapidated condition of the buildings, the infrastructure problems, low enrolment numbers and the like.
“However, what has not been highlighted is the marked improvement in the performance of Tamil children in the UPSR (Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah) examination. Their performance is comparable to pupils in national and Chinese schools.
“Tamil schools need to be placed in a more progressive light as they are a legacy and have a very rich history,” says Dr Denison Jayasooria, executive director of Yayasan Strategik Sosial (YSS), MIC’s think tank.
Citing last year’s examination results as an example, Dr Denison points out that the performance of pupils in subjects like English, Mathematics and Science was not far behind those from national or Chinese schools. In English, for example, the percentage of passes in Tamil schools was 61.2% compared with 66.1% in national schools and 68.9% in Chinese schools while in Mathematics, Tamil schools recorded 85.8% passes (an increase of 4.7% over 1982) compared with 82.7% in national schools and 93.7% in Chinese schools. (For a full comparison of subjects over the years, see Chart I.)
“So you see, Tamil schools are not that far behind anymore and the gap between pupils in Tamil schools and those in national and Chinese schools is quite small. In fact, if Tamil schools have more support and encouragement from the community and Government, they will be able to excel further,” observes Dr Denison.
Much of the progress achieved has come out of the desire of the school communities to better themselves as well as assistance from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) stepping forward to provide books and tuition classes for free.
YSS, in partnership with the Maju Institute of Educational Development (MIED), for example, recently gave out some 15,000 workbooks in seven subjects to pupils sitting for the UPSR examination, all for free.
“The impression people get is that there is no concerted effort by the community and its leaders to improve the lot of Tamil school pupils. But actually there are many NGOs and other bodies that are contributing a great deal” observes Dr Denison.
Is the improved performance at Tamil schools causing an influx of pupils from the middle class or is it their presence that has created a sense of competitiveness in Tamil schools, leading to better results?
Says SJK(T) Thamboosamy Pillai headmistress V. R. Thaiyanayaki: “Over the last few years, there has definitely been an increase in children from middle-class families, not just in my school but in all Tamil schools throughout the country. At our school, we have children of doctors, lawyers and teachers. Overall, enrolment has gone up by 10% to 15%.
“It has been good for the school as now there is competition among the pupils. Those who come from educated families bring with them a push to do well and this spurs the other children on.”
In addition, pupils enjoy more personal attention from teachers in Tamil schools as class sizes are small. An average class has about 25 pupils, compared to the 40-odd in national schools.
In fact, SJK(T) Thamboosamy Pillai, located in Sentul, Kuala Lumpur, has 248 pupils, 16 teachers and 22 classes from Year One to Year Six.
The willingness of Tamil schools to adopt English in the teaching of Mathematics and Science may have also contributed to enhancing the appeal of Tamil schools.
Says Dr Denison: “Tamil schools were very willing to move into the mainstream while maintaining their focus on culture and language.
“This stance has made them more attractive to the community, and more saleable too. And, whether there is a connection or not, enrolment in Tamil schools nationwide has gone up. It was definitely a plus point for Tamil schools.”
According to a YSS study, the total enrolment in Tamil schools is now over 90,000, compared to the 80,000-odd students in the late 1990s. In fact, some 60% of Tamil children in primary schools attend Tamil schools.
My culture, my identity
Language is central to one’s identity and Tamil schools play an important role in the preservation of culture and language.
“Sentiments are very strong among the Tamil community when it comes to Tamil schools. These schools sustain the Tamil language and culture and are about the identity of Tamils in this country.
“This outlook is especially strong among the lower-income group,” says Dr Denison.
Parents enrol their children in Tamil schools to master the language and learn about the culture and age-old values like respect for their elders.
Says Thaiyanayaki: “Apart from the language, children also learn thevarams (traditional songs) and values through folk tales. They also learn the importance of prayer as we recite a small prayer at the start of each school day.
“All these indirectly instil discipline in pupils, which is why there are no big disciplinary problems at Tamil schools. These days, cultural values are being neglected and this could be the cause for the rise in indiscipline cases in secondary schools.”
National Union of Tamil Teachers president Shahul Hamid Mydin Shah feels one factor drawing the middle class to Tamil schools is the failure of the Pupils' Own Language (POL) programme at national schools to teach students their mother tongue.
“Let’s face it. The POL programme is a failure really as it has not produced the desired effect. The programme has been carried out in a very slipshod manner and has not taken off.
“In many schools these classes are conducted on weekends or after school, which is not feasible for all pupils. Also, to start a POL class, there has to be a minimum of 15 pupils and if this number is not met, a class can’t be conducted.
“As such, parents who are serious about their children learning their mother tongue choose Tamil schools,” he says.
The renewed interest in Tamil schools has given its teachers an added drive and purpose, observes Shahul Hamid.
“There seems to be a revolution among Tamil school teachers. I think they have been spurred on by the increased support from parents, the community and politicians and are therefore willing to go the extra mile for their pupils.
“Without the prospect of extra pay or incentives, teachers in most schools have been conducting extra classes for pupils, especially those in Year Six. I think the marked improvement in the exam results is a direct result of the hard work of these teachers,” says the union leader.
Thaiyanayaki affirms Shahul Hamid’s observation.
“In our school, teachers’ relationships with their pupils are very close. Our teachers – we have 16, all of whom are female – are like mothers to the pupils,” she says.
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