IN a short span of 15 months since her appointment in January last year, the recently retired Education Ministry director-general (DG) Datuk Dr Habibah Abdul Rahim, 60, found herself in unchartered waters, helping the ministry navigate through a pandemic.
Only the second woman to hold the position after Tan Sri Dr Asiah Abu Samah, Habibah, who retired last month, relied on her 35 years in the civil service to see her through.
Habibah started out as a teacher in 1986 before rising through the ranks within the ministry as deputy director-general (policy and curriculum), Education Policy Planning and Research Division director, Education Performance and Performance Unit executive director and Aminuddin Baki Institute senior lecturer.
“Once a teacher, always a teacher – you can’t make decisions without understanding what’s happening in schools.
“My role and responsibilities have changed but at the heart of everything I do is still the teachers and students.
“I just do the best that I can in whatever role I am given.”
As DG, Habibah made sure her Office was dynamic, transparent and accessible to everyone.
“We must move fast and above all else, have integrity.”
A new DG has yet to be appointed but one thing is certain – he or she will have huge shoes to fill.
Habibah clocked out for the last time on April 5, but the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia Adjunct Professor is showing no signs of slowing down.
“If there are opportunities available to support and contribute to Malaysia, particularly in the education system, I’d like to help.”
A Bachelor of Arts in Biology graduate from the University of Salford, United Kingdom, she also holds a Master’s in Education from the University of Bristol and obtained her PhD in Education from Stanford University, the United States.
In conjunction with Teachers Day today, StarEdu speaks to the Selangorian on the impact of Covid-19 on the education system and how we can do better.
> What was your biggest challenge? The main challenge was to ensure learning – whether in school or at home – happens and to prepare students for the public exams when Covid-19 hit. We were managing this as the ministry was undergoing changes in leadership.
I was reporting to (former education minister) Dr Maszlee Malik and then to (former prime minister and acting education minister) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin before Education Minister Datuk Dr Mohd Radzi Md Jidin was appointed in March last year.
So there was a lot of adjustments to see how I, as a civil servant, could best support the administration because each change brings about different ways of doing things. Before I could even finish briefing the current minster, Covid-19 hit.
> What was the biggest accomplishment amid the challenges?The closing and reopening of schools. Closing schools during the MCO was a challenge – we had to ensure that learning continued beyond the classroom. It was unprecedented. Reopening schools posed another challenge. Unlike now, we didn’t have any manuals or guidelines for schools then.
When we reopened schools, it was not just about providing learning within the walls but to ensure that no clusters emerged. So we engaged with public and private schools, associations, and all the relevant health and safety authorities. We also had presentations to the Cabinet because the reopening of schools was a huge thing.
In the end, the reopening went well. Attendance was good. There was no public outcry.
> Why didn’t the ministry keep the public updated on the Covid-19 situation in schools? The data should be from the Health Ministry because we are only responsible for education. Health matters is not under our purview. Also, we must ensure confidentiality when it effects our schools kids. Our daily tracking is to guide the ministry in making decisions related to schools and education.We have been monitoring and reporting on the schools affected, student attendance rate, and Covid-19 cases among students, teachers and staff since last year. We even drill down to the trends in states and districts. In most situations, cases in schools occur because of what happens in community. So when there is a rise of cases in the community, you will also see a rise in school because children spend time with their parents and then they attend school. So if you are not well, don’t go to school. But in some cases, the students show no signs of Covid-19. They attend school, so infections happen. Our guidelines have been effective in making sure schools do not become clusters because we engage with schools to make sure that what is recommended is relevant and can be done. We released the latest guidelines in February and if the SOPs need tightening, they will be revised.
> The PM, in March, said the government would focus on implementing the Digital Education Policy. What can you tell us about it?We started digital learning with ‘Smart Schools’. This was followed by the ‘Making Schools Smart’ initiative in 2006. Even before Covid-19, the ministry had started moving towards digital learning but we did not have policies in place then. We started with a strategic plan for digital education but then we realised we needed a policy in place to guide the planning so we worked on that.
The policy encompasses the entire learning ecosystem so it goes beyond schools, higher education institutions, parents and teachers — it involves the entire community, the infrastructure and the infostructure.
The policy is about the innovative use of digital technology to produce a generation that is not just digitally literate in IT or ICT, but digitally fluent.
It’s not just about technology allowing you to be creative and innovative, to communicate and collaborate more effectively, to analyse data scientifically, and to problem solve.
Digital fluency is also about ensuring that the use of technology is responsible and ethical.
You may gain skills and knowledge, but do you use it for good or bad? So whether we talk about digital fluency or 21st century skills, values, attitude and ethics are of paramount importance. We already have a draft ready – it is being improved on.
> One year on, what has the ministry learnt from Covid-19?We must accept that things will not go back to the way it was. We have to constantly be on our toes. Information must flow rapidly. A gap in communication will make it difficult for decisions to be followed. Everyone must be in the loop. We need strong leadership for the whole machinery to work.
> There are concerns about the effectiveness of the school-based assessment (SBA) being used in light of the UPSR abolishment. Was it a good move to do away with the Year Six test?Unlike the multi-purpose SBA, the UPSR is meant to gauge the outcome of a pupil’s primary education. The SBA, on the other hand, can be used as a diagnostic tool so that you can gauge whether teaching and learning has happened in the class and how you can improve. Teachers must be empowered and made accountable for the assessment of their students. If we remove testing, then learning must happen for the sake of learning.
> There are concerns about the quality of the students and the standard of the SPM as home-based teaching and learning (PdPR) was in place for much
of the year. Can you give us an overview of how the exam
went?Students emotional, social and holistic development may have been affected but we will have to wait for the results to see the impact of Covid-19 on the SPM 2020 cohort’s performance. The SPM exam was postponed three times because of the situation so we said no more postponement. We couldn’t do away with the exam because students needed it to get a job or to continue their tertiary education. Our SPM is recognised by Cambridge – there cannot be a
difference in standard for papers set in 2019 and 2020 so the quality of this year’s certification will not be affected. The SPM papers for
the 2021 cohort, however, will be different because of our new secondary school curriculum but the standard will also be the same.
> Is PdPR effective?We need studies to gauge that because the information we have now is on how the PdPR is happening rather than how effective it is. Online learning is definitely not the same as face-to-face learning.
Studies during first MCO had teachers saying that they managed to cover between 40% and 80% of lessons as compared to face-to-face teaching.
So, among those who achieved 80% or more, I assume learning actually happened. It is the 40% that we are unsure of. PdPR modules must go beyond activities and homework – there needs to be a component for students to do self-accessed learning before they attempt the activities and exercises.
Generally, teachers have adjusted. It is not so challenging for secondary students but the younger ones need support from their parents and older siblings even if they have access to digital devices and connectivity.
Access to devices and connectivity among B40 must be improved to narrow the equity gap and enable learning. Based on our survey, 36% of students do not have devices and at primary level the majority have to share devices – which are mostly handphones – so we need to see how effective learning is through the use of handphones.
> Has English proficiency improved since the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) was introduced two years ago? The CEFR benchmark gives us a continuum to gauge the proficiency of our teachers and students from pre-school to tertiary level. But for proficiency to improve, it’s not just about setting a benchmark – we also need to look at the curriculum, assessments, textbooks, and training of teachers.
We will know how well we are progressing soon because the SPM 2021 English paper is the first to be aligned to the CEFR.
> How can we further our education system for the future?I had a hand in developing and delivering the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 so I am committed to it. There were challenges in meeting some of the aspirations even before Covid-19 happened so we will have to relook at how to go about this. The need for one-to-one device is in the blueprint, for example, but how we go about making it happen, however, is not specified.
> How can parents and teachers help improve the education system?Share your issues, constructive criticisms and suggestions with the ministry. The ministry can come up with SOPs and guidelines but the school leadership, teachers, parents and community are important in ensuring the successful delivery and outcome of the education system.
Ours is a centralised system with a national curriculum but there is flexibility for individual schools to handle things in a way that suits them best. We do not prescribe what they must do because solutions must be tailored to the specific needs of a school, classroom or group of students.
Schools and teachers must understand what they are empowered to do so that they can exercise their discretion. Otherwise, they will be afraid to take action and wait on the ministry to tell them what to do.
Not many schools understand the autonomy they have. Schools in Johor, however, have done well because the entire state, district, schools, parents and teachers have a shared vision. So good leadership is important.
That’s how they come up with innovative initiatives to improve the performance of their students despite operating under the same policies and procedures as schools in other states. Johor schools are successful because they understand the policies and procedures and work within it.