Restore the ‘national’ in national schools

For these schools to be parents’ first choice, there must be a clear distinction between secular and religious educational institutions.

NATIONAL schools are NOT religious schools. They are supposed to provide secular education. As spelled out by the Education Ministry, the philosophy is to develop the “potential of indivi­duals in a holistic and integrated manner” so as to produce Ma­­laysians who are “intellectually, emotionally and physically ba­lanced and harmonious”.

Yet, sadly, in many national schools, “religion” is taking centre stage, undermining the very philosophy that our forefathers carved for those schools.

The trend over the last few decades has been alarming. More and more schools are adopting their own concept of religious awareness among teachers and students. The school heads are turning national schools into their own brand of religious schools.

It is not uncommon to see the recital of the Quran during assemblies. Or religious rites performed at schools. And surau built within their compounds.

But more importantly, the ustaz and ustazah are now the de facto discipline teachers, determining not just dress codes but imposing their own perceptions of right and wrong. They are becoming very influential in the schools, even undermining the power of head teachers or principals.

They are mostly left unchecked by district education officers and the ministry as a whole. Some of them have jaundiced views of the role of sports, music, drama and even extra-curricular activities.

Students are taught about va­­lues that the ustaz and ustazah believe are proper and necessary, and thus the very philosophy of developing balanced individuals is left on the back burner. Every move the students make must adhere to the behavioural construct defined by them.

We cannot allow such a system to flourish. We are deterring non-Muslims from joining national schools.

It is not surprising that non-Muslims are scared of the intensity of religious programmes in many national schools today. Sensitivities of other races are never taken into consideration when certain religious activities are conducted.

Human beings drive education. Policies do not. We can have an excellent education plan, but it will certainly fail if the stakeholders at the schools are obli­vious of the bigger picture.

Our national system is not perfect. But we must have done something right over the years, or else we would have failed miserably on the education front.

Our education system is not the best, but we can’t fault the ministry involved for not trying hard to achieve better results. There are simply too many forces beyond education bedevilling the system and putting pressure on educationists.

Our hope is in national education. Revamp the system if need be, or let it go through a total overhaul. Perhaps, it is about time to relook in totality the way forward in education planning.

Many parents are opting for other schools right now. Private and international schools are sprouting all over the country, providing alternatives to the public system.

In a way, it is good. But such schools will widen the rift in our society between the haves and the have-less. But for many pa­rents, there is little choice.

Launched in 2012, the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 reiterates the need for an education system that will unite the people. It should be a system that caters for the best there is in education. And more so, in a multi­racial country like ours, there is a need for one system for all.

What happens at primary and secondary education is critical if we are planning for the next level – higher education. If we believe education is key to Malaysia’s rapid development and that we need student-centred education at that level, we must address primary and secondary education now.

But understanding the politics and the sensitivities of the needs and demands of all races, having a single-stream school system is almost impossible now, which is a pity. Like everything else in the country, education is politicised.

For now, nothing will ever come close to ensuring all our students are taught under one roof. But the national schools must be the schools of choice. No two ways about it. There is a need for the ministry to draw a line between secular and religious education in schools. It is critical at this juncture to do so.

I always believe that the Johor religious education system is one that should be emulated.

Johor has long embraced the concept of “parallel” education.

Ilmu dunia (worldly or secular education) and ilmu akhirat (know­ledge of the hereafter) seldom mix. Parents send their children to national schools in the morning and sekolah agama (religious schools) in the afternoon. Both systems run parallel without much conflict.

Tan Sri Prof Khoo Kay Kim wrote a book about religious education in Johor, arguing that by taking over all religious schools in Johor since the early 20th century, the state government was able to manage systematic religious education.

The curriculum is independently designed by the Johor Islamic Religious Department. Students are learn different things at religious schools. The Johor approach to religious education has helped define the “Johor character”. 

Keep the “national” in national schools, please. We have no other choice. All else will fail if we allow religiosity to determine the character of national schools.

Johan Jaafar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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