Education equality key to unlocking potential of young Malaysians

Systemic injustices and a child’s background often determine his or her outcome in life.

Children from less privileged communities do not receive the same educational opportunities, Teach For Malaysia (TFM) chief executive officer Chan Soon Seng (pic) explained.

TFM is an independent, not-for-profit organisation on a mission to give all children the opportunity to realise their potential through quality education. It partners with the Education Ministry to reach high-need national schools and is one of the 60 partners of the prestigious global education network Teach For All.

“According to the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025, one in five students do not complete secondary school.

“Our fellows face huge challenges in the schools they serve. Students are often behind what is expected of them academically.

“Many lack the motivation to learn as a result of years of being left behind,” he said, adding that students also lack access to a broad range of opportunities that can expose them to the outside world and life beyond school.

The Covid-19 pandemic, he said, has further set students back.

“Their education has mainly been derailed by socioeconomic challenges, prevailing ideologies, and systemic challenges.”

In conjunction with its 10th anniversary, Chan shared the non-governmental organisation’s findings on the issues preventing our young talents from unlocking their full potential and how we can help our education system grow.

> What are the key challenges facing our education system?

Students from low-income or rural backgrounds face greater barriers in accessing and engaging in quality education. A student who may need to work after school is less likely to be able to have the time to complete their homework. They may be unable to afford basic stationery like pencils, exercise books and calculators.

On top of such challenges, these students are often confronted with negative mindsets or beliefs about their abilities. A student who is sleepy after working a night shift may be viewed as unmotivated to learn. A student who couldn’t afford to go to pre-school may be considered less able than their peers who benefited from that head start.

There are also many systemic factors that students need to overcome.

Holistic, meaningful learning is often sacrificed because of an imbalanced orientation towards academic examinations.

Our teachers often have to navigate the tension of meeting students at their actual level or teaching to the test, in order to show more immediate results that schools are often pressured to deliver.

Academic growth is crucial, but it is equally important that students can have access to leadership development and broader opportunities beyond the walls of their classrooms.

Hopefully, the recent abolishment of the Form Three Assessment (PT3) and the Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) will enable the system to shift towards focusing on the more holistic parts of education that will allow students to better navigate the future of work.

Resource allocation is another systemic challenge we need to address. Schools in rural areas are less likely to have the infrastructure or connectivity that schools in urban areas have. From a human resources perspective, schools are unable to hire and select their teachers, and this can be a huge constraint in how school leaders drive their schools forward.

Progression within the teaching field is largely tenure based, meaning that many young, dynamic teachers in the system are often denied leadership opportunities until they have served a number of years.

Another challenge is that in a constantly changing education policy environment, teachers often do not receive the quality of professional development and support that will enable them to change their practices.

Oftentimes, there is an overemphasis on paperwork to prove implementation, instead of prioritising the support needed to change actual practices.

So, while policies may be advocating for a more progressive education system, there is often a disconnect in implementation.

> Education inequality is worrying. How has the pandemic compounded the problem?

In March 2020, the country’s schools were forced to close due to Covid-19. The pandemic has exacerbated the problem of education inequity, especially in the B40 and Orang Asli communities.

Learning loss models project that school closures of six months for pupils in Year One may result in 2.2 years of learning loss.

The most affected schools in Malaysia were closed for up to 62 school weeks, or approximately 1.44 school years, leading to a compounded learning loss of significant proportions for the longer term.

As students return to in-person learning, teachers will be faced with the challenge of catching students up on where they ought to be in an already overambitious curriculum, while having to teach a more diverse classroom.

Evidence from past education disruptions shows that without remedial measures, learning losses are likely to grow even after children return to school if the curriculum and teaching are not adjusted to meet students’ learning needs. According to a report by the Asian Development Bank, Malaysia has one of the highest learning losses among Asian developing nations.

> How can we progress?

From a macro perspective, the Malaysia Education Blueprint lays out a comprehensive education transformation plan.

It’s important that the government continues to uphold these commitments and see the transformation effort through till the end.

In the immediate term, we’ve seen that teachers need to go above and beyond traditional expectations in order to meet the additional needs of students from high-need backgrounds.

Time and time again, we’ve borne witness to students excelling beyond their own expectations of what they can achieve, through the power of having someone who believes in them and is there to support them to realise their potential.

Likewise with teachers, when given high-quality professional development and support, they can transform their teaching practices to address the needs of their students.

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