ALMOST everyone I meet has an opinion (or two) on how to reform and improve the education system in the country. Fortunately or unfortunately, there is no one size fits all solution that will ‘fix’ our education system in a manner which will please all or even most parents.
Parents and children have different needs and expectations. Some ideas which can work in certain contexts are not easily applicable in others. What is urgently needed is for our education system to be flexible enough to experiment with and try out different models and ideas in different contexts to see what works and what doesn’t. What we need now is to allow for grand experimentation at the local level as an official part of our education policy.
What do I mean by this? Let me illustrate with a few examples.
If a majority of parents in an area, let’s say Taman Megah in PJ, wants the policy of teaching Math and Science in English to continue, this should be allowed.
If a group of individuals such as alumni bodies or former educators with the experience and knowledge wants to set up their own publicly funded but privately run schools, this should be allowed.
If an NGO which has developed an alternative syllabus to teach Orang Asli children English using contexts and subjects which they are familiar with, this should be allowed.
While these proposals may seem ‘radical’ in Malaysia, they are normal occurrences in other developed countries. The United States, for example, has many ‘charter schools’ which receive public funds but which are operated privately. In the UK, grant-maintained schools allow for the opening up of new institutions which cater to specific needs including an Islamic primary school that was opened by Yusuf Islam, better known as Cat Stevens, a British singer-songwriter. Publicly funded Bilingual Chinese-English and Spanish-English schools operate in North Carolina in the Research Triangle area where many world class universities and companies are based (and where I completed my PhD).
But in order to allow for these experiments to take place, the Ministry of Education has to decentralize unprecedented levels of powers to the local level.
The National Education Blueprint, which was finalized in September 2013, expresses the Ministry’s intent to empower the state and local education departments through ‘greater decision-making power, over budget and personnel and greater accountability for improving student outcomes.’ The same document also envisions ‘expanding the Trust School model to 500 schools by 2025 by including alumni groups and NGOs as potential sponsors’.
But these policies do not go far enough in allowing for grand experimentation. Power will only be decentralized within the Ministry of Education, which will still be a lumbering giant with over 400,000 teachers and 12,000 education ‘officers’ at the state and local levels. To wait for the state and local education departments to get ‘up to speed’ to manage this decentralization will take far too long. Even the current Trust Schools model, which is run by Khazanah owned Yayasan Amir, allows for only minor tweaks to the teaching models in these schools rather than for substantive changes. To allow for grand experimentation, the Ministry has to effectively let go of control of selected programs as well as selected schools.
Some experimentation is already under way such as the aforementioned Trust Schools model. Another is the Teach for Malaysia (TfM) program, which was initiated by two passionate and motivated young men, supported by Khazanah, and then later adopted, a little grudgingly at first, by the Ministry. But these kinds of experimentations are too limited in scope. The TfM program only places 100 ‘fellows’ or teachers a year, with an average of 3 fellows per school. For grand experimentation to have a greater chance of success, entire schools or programs should be turned over at the local level to allow for genuine transformation to take place. The Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs, for example, has proposed a model for affordable private education funded by vouchers for new and also existing schools (http://ideas.org.my/wp-
The objective of each experiment must also be clear from the onset. For underperforming schools in the urban areas, especially in former estates, the objective must to be find touch points to reach out to the students and families of former estate workers, many of whom are from low income families. For national schools in the urban areas, the objective may be to attract parents who are sending their kids to national type school by offering higher quality bi-lingual education. For schools in the interior areas of Sabah & Sarawak, special programs involving creative teaching methods and dedicated teachers are required to improve UPSR passing rates.
The nature of experimentation is that there will be some failures and there will be some successes. The challenge for the Ministry is to put in place a process that will minimize the failures and allow the successes to expand in size and scope.
I am not sure of the exact structural changes which are required in order to allow for these grand experiments at the local level. Perhaps some of the RM20 million spent on McKinsey, a management consulting company, to draft the NEB could have been used to get real education experts to come up with a workable plan.
What I do know is that if drastic structural changes do not take place, middle class parents will continue to vote with their feet and put their kids into private schools or home school them. And students from low-income families studying in underperforming schools will continue to suffer from a lack of options.
Dr. Ong Kian Ming is the MP for Serdang. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.