THE policy on giving the sciences priority over the arts has been in existence since the 1970s.
Dubbed the 60:40 policy, its objective was to produce sufficient graduates for a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)-driven economy by 2020.
With the formulation of the policy, students have since been streamed into the science and arts classes after their major public exams held at the end of third year in secondary school. The exams have over the years changed names several times, the most recent being the Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR).
The recently unveiled Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 reveals that the policy target has never been met due to various factors.
The blueprint notes that “In 2011, only 45% of students who graduated were from the science stream, including technical and vocational programmes.
Additionally, the percentage of secondary school students who met the requirement to study science after PMR but chose not to do so increased to approximately 15%.”
The blueprint has outlined steps to raise the outcomes toward science.
Measures taken include raising student interest through new learning approaches and an enhanced curriculum.
It also includes incorporating higher-order thinking skills and increasing use of practical teaching tools and making the content relevant to everyday life to increase interest.
The blueprint also states that there is a need to sharpen the skills and abilities of teachers. This will be done by training teachers in primary and secondary schools to teach the revised curriculum.
It also highlights the need to increase parents and students’ STEM awareness through national campaigns.
I am of the view that the measures are indeed laudable and given time, the science:arts ratio will improve somewhat in favour of the science component compared with what it is today.
However, it will still not be 60:40 as envisaged and never will be.
My analysis is that if Form Four students now are to be streamed 60:40 into the science and arts and assuming we have perfect streaming for Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM), we have the cohort of the “right” streams knocking at the doors of institutes of higher education.
And, let’s further assume that after taking into account the normal attrition rate, those wanting to advance academically are still in the right ratio of 60:40.
For example, if you begin with 1,000 Form Four students: 600 doing science and 400 doing arts; after SPM, say with a 20% attrition, you still have 800 students in the right ratio, that is 480 from the science and 160 from the arts stream.
Now, the 160 from the arts will neither be allowed nor qualify to do any STEM courses. On the other hand, the 480 from the science stream can switch to the arts courses.
Many in fact, are doing so being lured by the belief that there is more “money” in arts-based careers later.
So, how can you then achieve the 60:40 ratio of science:arts graduates?
A simple mathematics calculation and reasoning will show that this is not attainable no matter how successful the proposed measures mentioned above will be.
We need a broader base of SPM students qualified in the sciences.
I have all along been advocating a “no-streaming after PMR” strategy.
I am proposing that all students in Forms Four and Five, irrespective of whether they are in the academic, vocational or technical stream, pursue a common science syllabus that is broader and more practical than the present arts stream science subjects.
All SPM students are then in the “science” stream.
I am not advocating to “dilute” the present Form Four and Form Five pure science classes.
We must take cognisance that our present arts stream students are not learning enough science; they definitely need to know more science, given the fast expanding knowledge in this field.
Present “arts” students also need to discard their mindset and perception that science is difficult.
We live in a world of science and technology. Knowing basic science and technology helps us to live a better and fuller life.
We must begin to think that everybody must and can learn the sciences!
Our mental preparedness and belief is a necessary first step to our successful science learning.
At the same time, this “new” science syllabus is to be spared the “higher-learning preparatory materials” found in the present pure science subjects.
Lest we fear that our upper secondary students may lose their edge in the pure sciences, we may know that much of the “higher-learning preparatory materials” now being taught to Forms Four and Five pure science students can be carried forward to Form Six/Matriculation/Foundation science courses.
Moreover, the pure science courses are repeated in the introduction phase of those pursuing Form Six pre-university courses.
I can attest to this as I had taught Physics and Mathematics to students in Forms Four, Five and Six.
This way, everybody gets to learn sufficient science and there is still enough teaching-learning time left for other subjects.
With all the SPM students doing a common science syllabus that can prepare them sufficiently to enter STEM courses at Form Six and pre-university level, we will certainly have a better chance to achieve that 60:40 science/arts graduates target by 2020.
The blueprint projects that a new Standard Secondary School Curriculum (KBSM- Kurikulum Standard Sekolah Menengah) will be introduced in 2017.
Would the authorities concerned consider a common science curriculum and syllabus for all SPM students? I believe this is a viable strategy to help us achieve the desired number of science and arts graduates.
LIONG KAM CHONG
Seremban, Negri Sembilan