Between a rock and a hard place
Posted by DAVID BC TAN under: Malaysian schools on 10 Dec 2009.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO SAY about the depressing state of education in the country that hasn’t already been said? Despite all kinds of reports decrying the social costs of shortsighted education policies, Malaysia’s descent down the educational ladder is still leaving families both bewildered and infuriated.
Gains in other countries have left the nation’s schools and institutions of higher learning way behind (read what one opposition leader said about Malaysia’s TIMSS 2007 ranking)while flip-flop politicians and nationalist interest groups squabble over English as a medium of instruction, affirmative action, and racial quotas. Even de facto Pakatan leader Anwar Ibrahim has been quoted saying he’s not in favour of English as a medium of instruction in schools:
“This issue has become a controversy for far too long. We consider this policy a betrayal of Bahasa Melayu as our official language. But how we do it should be decided by educationists and with consideration towards the national education policy. This includes not forcing our children to pass English as a compulsory subject in the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) as this will result in many students, especially in rural areas, to fail.”
Meanwhile, the merit of a single-stream educational system is once again being touted as the magic wand to stop the rot and promote unity. That’s bitter medicine for a lot of parents. No one is holding their breath of course. But what options do parents have in Malaysia’s blighted educational landscape? Here’s an overview of some hard choices:
These are government schools that have been largely abandoned by non-Malays due in part to allegations of institutionalised racial and religious tendencies. According to a report, 93% of Malays attend national schools, 90% of Chinese attend Chinese vernacular schools, and 70% of Indians attend Tamil vernacular schools. Some 5 million Malaysians are in national schools (primary and secondary), but the absence of a significant number of non-Malay children in the classroom is telling. Race and religion notwithstanding, a lot of parents will tell you with a straight face that if national schools were any good there would be no reasons to leave.
More than 100,000 Indian children are taught in 525 Tamil schools according to 2007 figures. Many are in deplorable condition, and some classes were even held in warehouses and under trees, says Selangor state executive councillor Dr Xavier Jayakumar.
On the other hand Chinese vernacular schools are thriving and bursting at their seams. Often seen as a vanguard of Chinese culture, these schools are popular among Malaysian Chinese and an increasing number of non-Chinese too (60,000 at the last count). DAP leader Lim Kit Siang wrote in 2006 that Chinese primary school enrollment had more than doubled to 636,124 since Independence. These schools enjoy minimal government handouts but admirably, the Chinese community raises millions every year to keep their schools afloat. There is an undiminished surge in admissions to these schools due to their perceived educational excellence and discipline, contributing to a critical shortage of classrooms.
Say what you will about the exorbitant costs of these elite institutions; the fact is 5000 Malaysians are currently enrolled in previously out-of-bounds International schools since admission was relaxed in 2006 (40% of places in international schools are now open to locals). At least 20 new international schools are slated to open soon much to the delight of middle-class Malaysians whose frustration with the local education system are being addressed by the promise of a superior learning environment and state-of-the-art facilities. American and British-style international schools lead the pack, offering O Levels and IB, but of late Global Indian International School has opened a campus in Kuala Lumpur.
Not many people are aware that some 10,000 children cross the causeway from Johor to Singapore daily for their education. Again, parents forgo free education in national schools for higher than normal fees (school fees and biennial donations in Singapore dollars) to put their children through an English medium school in Singapore where the learning culture is perceived to be superior to Malaysia’s impoverished options.
Move abroad, preferably to Australia or New Zealand, get PR, or burn your passport and give your children an education and a future you never had. Not to worry, you’re in good company – over 300,000 Malaysians have moved abroad since 2008. Ostensibly for the sake of their children’s education, and most certainly because they feel in their bones their own country’s inescapable collapse and they don’t want to be there when it happens. People are voting with their feet and incredible as it may seem, the powers that be are looking the other way.
Now, this option does not necessarily sit well with lots of parents (or educators) although reports coming in from abroad attest to educational achievements above the national average. And there’s the rub: In Malaysia, homeschooling hasn’t been around long enough (no more than 20 years old); we’re just seeing the first generation off and there’s no available research to confirm if homeschooled kids are indeed succeeding or if it’s just spin. Admittedly educating one’s child at home will make different demands on different families and I am realistic enough to see that it won’t be practical for a lot of Malaysians at this point of the country’s development. Nevertheless, I am convinced it is a rewarding option and there’s no question of homeschooling if I have to do it all over again.
This is where parents who like the idea of homeschool send their children to if they can’t (or won’t) educate their children themselves. You won’t catch me calling these centres ‘homeschool’, but who am I to contradict the vendors and operators who promote these places as such? As much as I am bugged by this misnomer, I’ll grant that these learning centres are doing families a favour.
Learning Centers are a relatively new phenomenon in Malaysia and almost all are set up by or affiliated to churches (which means they do not fall under the MOE’s jurisdiction). These centers subscribe to two well-known Christian homeschool curricula – AOP or School of Tomorrow – of which AOP ones are by far the more popular. My guess is, there must be close to a hundred of these learning centers today. As far as alternative education goes, they do fill a serious need although their performance is understandably spotty (many are staffed by well-intentioned but untrained educators).
So how do you choose? Caught between a rock and a hard place are you?
As a homeschooling parent, I know what works for our family, but I appreciate it’s not an easy decision to make. I have heard parents say how they wish they could homeschool but a) they can’t afford to have one spouse stay home, or b) they’re no good with children and couldn’t possibly teach them at home all day. Others claim that theoretically homeschooling sounds great but it’s fraught with too many uncertainties.
Once a mother told me that many homeschooling families in Malaysia were ‘failing’ – their kids in limbo, resisting discipline or instruction, with a number unable to get beyond basic arithmetic or even write a half decent essay. Where the fault lies will require another post. Writing as a homeschooling parent (I am aware of my own bias), there’s no need for homeschool to fail, and every reason why it can only succeed. But there you are – decisions, decisions, decisions. How will you choose?