Are ALL children in Malaysia getting an education?

Filepic/The Star

A KEY indicator towards meeting Sustainable Development Goal 4 on quality education is that all children must complete primary and secondary education that is free and of high quality.

(Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, are 17 interlinked objectives designed to serve as a "shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet”.)

To monitor the Malaysia’s progress in achieving this goal, the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM) recently shared the graphic below showing impressive rates of completion, with an increase in 2021 despite the Covid-19 pandemic and the shift to remote learning at the time. But do the numbers give a complete picture?

These DOSM statistics, sourced from Education Ministry (MOE) data, suggest that Malaysia is doing very well, with 99% of children completing primary education, 99.8% completing secondary education, and 97.8% completing upper secondary education in 2021.

These numbers are surprising given the anecdotal evidence that Malaysian children (as well as children globally) experienced enormous learning loss in the pandemic years, especially in the beginning, from 2020 to 2021.

A closer look

In principle, to address any shortfalls and improve Malaysia’s education system so it provides quality access to education for all, it is first essential that the data we rely on is cross-checked and reviewed to ensure it is accurate.

We started off by reflecting on what the situation is for SDG indicator 4.1.2 based on data available in MOE’s Quick Facts 2022 and the Health Ministry’s (MOH) data in Health Indicators 2022.

School attendance and dropout rates: Previous annual MOE Quick Facts documents show data for the same batch of students at two points of time.

At face value, they confirm the trend highlighted by the DOSM stats. However, with further analysis, it is apparent that dropout rates during transition years and the rates of non-enrolment of children at the beginning of the school year have not been included, as can be seen by the following data.

Primary education –

> In 2017, 440,025 children enrolled in Year One.

> In 2022, 437,414 students enrolled in Year Six (the same batch of students).

This means 2,611 students dropped out, giving a primary education completion rate of 99.4% for 2022, which shows the increase noted by DOSM in 2021.

Similarly, we can see good secondary education completion rates from MOE’s Quick Facts.

Lower secondary –

> In 2020, 386,695 students enrolled in Form One.

> In 2022, 387,160 students enrolled in Form Three.

Upper secondary –

> In 2021, 373,943 students enrolled in Form Four.

> In 2022, 371,243 students enrolled in Form Five.

We noted that the data do not take into consideration the “life course” of the student and students that drop out between the years assessed (transition years). We then proceeded to calculate this from the raw data as follows:

> In 2021, 446,428 students enrolled in Year Six.

> In 2022, 406,504 students enrolled in Form One (with an additional 12,995 students enrolled in Remove Class).

With this simple calculation, we noted that, even with official figures, only 94% of children actually continued their studies from Year Six to Form One in 2022. In real numbers, this means that 26,929 children dropped out of school in 2022.

Overall, out of an average enrolment in Year One of 450,000 students, only an average of 370,000 reached Form Five, ie, 82.2%.

An average of 80,000 children, or 18% of those who attended MOE schools, dropped out.

Examining the ministry’s own figures, we realised that the way that SDG indicator 4.1.2 has been reflected is misleading, and that Malaysia’s achievement of this vital indicator is more limited than shown.

School attendance in non-MOE schools: Another crucial oversight is the fact that the DOSM data for SDG 4 does not account for or take into consideration the many children who do not attend MOE schools (ie, government or government-aided schools).

According to MOH’s Health Indicators 2022 data, there were 508,203 live births in 2016 -- this would be the number of children expected to enter Year One in 2022.

However, MOE enrolment data in 2022 for Year One show 454,530 students. Hence, there is a shortfall of 10.6% of children (53,673) who did not enroll in MOE schools.

It may be assumed that most of these 53,673 children are enrolled in religious schools (tahfiz), private schools, international schools, home schools, etc.

MOE Quick Facts 2022 table 3.3 on enrolment at primary level in private institutions and table 3.4 on enrolment at primary level in institutions under other government agencies offer some indication of the number of children in these institutions.

Religious schools (tahfiz), private schools, international schools, home schools, etc --

> In 2022, approximately 26,030 children attended Year One in these institutions based on an average of six class years of attendance.

At this juncture, a question arises: given that these are not MOE institutions, what is the quality of education provided and how are dropout rates monitored?

Children who do not attend school: The data in MOE’s Quick Facts 2022, read together with MOH’s Health Indicators 2022 data on live births in 2016, as scrutinised above, underscore the fact that in 2022, schooling options for 27,643 children are not accounted for:

> 508,203 live births in 2016 minus 454,530 students enrolled in Year One in 2022 minus 26,030 students enrolled in non-MOE institutions = 27,643 children.

MOH data suggest that about 4,000 to 5,000 of these children would have died before the age of seven. Taking this into account, one question still requires an answer: where are the remaining children who ought to be in school getting their education? Are these stateless children, children in detention, children of migrants and refugees, or children with disabilities?

It appears that there are some 20,000-plus children that the system has not accounted for each year and who are not captured in Malaysia’s SDG 4 data.

The bottom line

The true shortfall in our education system is staggering: 4.5% of children do not attend any school and 18% drop out before reaching Form Five.

The above review, based purely on data made available by the MOE and MOH, indicates a crisis in our education system -- it is far from being inclusive and equitable. The data call for an urgent review of the quality of Malaysia’s education system and its accessibility to ensure no child is left behind.

In May 2022 we highlighted Malaysian children's enormous pandemic-caused learning loss, which is the highest among developing Asian nations and exceeds that of all Asean members except Myanmar, in “A National Emergency: Our Children's Learning Loss.

We believe that this learning loss -- which has yet to be officially acknowledged by the MOE or addressed adequately -- coupled with the limited enrolment and significant dropout rates, has huge economic and social implications for the nation and its economy. We cannot afford continued inaction that will yield a less skilled labour force and a higher mental health burden in the future.

Malaysia needs more robust data that enable the identification and channelling of resources to support children who are not receiving formal education and those who drop out.

Given the above, we strongly recommend the following urgent measures for government action:

1. Revise Malaysian data on SDG 4 (indicator 4.1.2) to reflect the reality on the ground. We can only overcome the crisis if we acknowledge that a crisis exists, accept the situation, and work towards finding solutions and implementing urgent remedial measures.

2. Strengthen comprehensive coverage and enable independent monitoring by the system for collecting and annually publishing data on:

(a) The quality of education and attendance at all primary and secondary education facilities.

(b) Attendance and enrolment, disaggregated by parameters such as region (rural-urban locations), ethnicity, disability, age, and gender, as well as undocumented/refugee/migrant status.

(c) ALL children in Malaysia.

(d) ALL school environments in Malaysia.

3. Identify and reach out to dropouts to enable their return to schooling or fasttrack them into vocational skills training and employment.

4. Identify vulnerable children and schools that require more support, including financial aid, to enable those from poor families to return to school and complete schooling.

5. Enforce the implementation of a genuine no-reject policy that allows all children, regardless of status, documented or undocumented, to attend school and complete schooling. This is a basic right enshrined in three conventions that Malaysia has ratified: the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as well as in the Sustainable Development Goals that Malaysia has committed to fulfilling.

Any loss of education in a child’s life is a loss for the child and for the nation. If we leave any child behind, we are undermining the nation’s prospects. Just as “it takes a village to raise a child”, similarly, it takes every child to make the village -- and the nation. We neglect our children’s education at our own peril.


Consultant paediatrician and advisor, National Early Childhood Intervention Council


Honorary senior advisor (disability inclusion), Social Development Division, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific


Retired lecturer in Social Policy and Social Work, committee member, Sarawak Women for Women Society


Co-chairperson, CRIB (Child Rights Innovation & Betterment) Foundation


Educator in special and inclusive education and project officer, National Early Childhood Intervention Council


PhD (Cognitive Science), Dyslexia Association of Sarawak

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