Sunday June 10, 2012
By KAREN CHAPMAN
The Government is making plans to lower the formal schooling age. Here, experts and parents share their views.
THE proposed move to lower the formal schooling age for children is a dynamic step as it will indirectly make pre-school education compulsory.
Pre-school is part of early child care and education and neuroscience research has shown the importance of early experiences.
Early Childhood Care and Education Council president Datuk Dr Chiam Heng Keng said some might have got the wrong impression of what it means to lower the schooling age.
“It is not so much about placing younger pupils in school, but rather a move to ensure that children at that age are able to receive adequate educational exposure.
“Numerous neuroscientific research and sociological studies have proved that pre-school education is important, so it is good for us to move in this direction,” she explained.
There is, she added, a growing movement to improve pre-school education and access.
“Since we are looking into revamping the education system in general, many ideas have been brought up and early childhood education is an important area that we are looking into.
Dr Chiam, who is also Malaysia’s Representative (Children) to the Asean Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children, said one of the guidelines proposed in the recent National Key Result Areas (NKRA) education lab was that new primary schools be built with an annexe for pre-school classes.
This, she added, would improve access to early childhood education.
“At the end of the day, the best interests of the children should be the priority when we make any changes to the system,” she said.
If things go according to plan, five-year-old children could start their formal schooling in three years’ time.
Currently children are six years plus when they enter Year One in primary school.
This proposal to lower the formal schooling age from six years plus to five years plus is included in the Education Ministry’s Interim Strategic Plan 2011-2020. Its suggested implementation is 2015.
The plan states that children aged five plus are prepared to start schooling, with a long-term aim of producing quality human capital.
Concurring with Dr Chiam, former education director-general Tan Sri Alimuddin Mohd Dom said children are able to grasp concepts from as young as three years of age.
He added: “I don’t think it will be a problem for a five-year old to start formal schooling as many children attend pre-school and nursery from a young age.
“Once the facilities are in place and the teachers have been trained, the ministry will be able to cater for all children, be they be in urban or rural areas.”
The Government should ensure that children in rural areas have the same pre-school opportunities as their urban counterparts, said former education director-general Tan Sri Dr Abdul Rahman Arshad.
“It is a good idea to start earlier as children are more exposed to television and mature earlier than previously,” he added.
However, the move to lower the school age would include amending the Education Act 1996, as Section 29 states that children aged six must attend primary school.
Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said on Thursday that the Government was studying ways to implement the proposal.
“This has been decided at the policy level, but we need to look at how it will be carried out — whether we have enough classrooms, teachers and other materials.
“Many of our children have already started their ‘schooling’ early as they are enrolled in pre-school.
“It is good for them to start (primary) school earlier as it will save time,” he said.
Muhyiddin who is also Education Minister, believed that parents would welcome the policy because they know their children are able to cope with starting school at a younger age.
The last time the proposal to lower the formal schooling age was made was during the tabling of the 10th Malaysia Plan (10MP) by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak in 2010.
Under the 10MP, the Government said it considered lowering the formal schooling age from six plus to five years plus as this would extend the access to structured education for children during their formative years.
Muhyiddin said at the time that the lowering of the entry age to school had been discussed for some time.
He said the age of children beginning school in many other countries was lower compared to Malaysia.
Ability to cope
Mother Farhana Lokman said children are now exposed to electronic gadgets at a younger age.
“My son who is eight, is able to use tablets such as the iPad with ease. He can download games and use the various applications to keep himself occupied.
“He has even asked me not to buy him toys. He wants me to buy him a slice of Red Velvet cake after reading about it on the Internet!” she shared.
A. Sumitha said her sons who are in primary school are also into gadgets and technology.
“I feel they are able to start school at five as they have been exposed to computers at a young age,” she added.
On worries by some parents that five year olds might not be toilet-trained yet, Farhana said this should not be a problem.
“It is a matter of training the children from young to use the toilet. It is good for them to get into a routine,” shesaid.
Serena Chan who has a seven-year-old son and a five-year-daughter, believes that whether or not children can cope depends on their maturity.
She said: “I believe that girls are more likely to be able to cope than the boys.
“Speaking from my own experience, my son who is now in Year One, was slower to grasp lessons in kindergarten compared to his female classmates.
“He is doing better now in Year One although he does not like learning Mathematics or the Chinese language.”
Her daughter, she added, is better able to cope and is doing well in her studies.
“She even knows how to do her brother’s Maths homework and she will stand next to me when I am teaching him.
“She is very focused on her work and has a good memory,” she said.
Hazel Ong-Archibald said her three-year-old daughter has been attending pre-school for the past year.
“I think children should be able to cope; the same opportunities, such as attending pre-school, must be extended to those in rural areas,” she said.
Sarawak Teachers Union president William Ghani Bina said teachers must be well-trained.
“I do not believe that children living in the interior would face problems in attending school earlier as long as there are enough teachers and facilities,” he said.
But Nurul Huda Abdullah who is a mother of five ranging in age from four to 15, is worried that a five-year-old child might not be ready for formal schooling.
She said: “To be honest, I am worried about the safety aspect. I have read about cases of children being kidnapped, so my fear would be whether my five-year old would be able to cope if she has to wait for either my husband or myself to fetch her from school.
“I would also worry that such young children are not able to handle money yet and that older pupils in school might bully them.”
Nurul Huda hoped that the Government would consider having a pilot project, including five-year-old children in both urban and rural schools.
“If they had this project, experts could then carry out studies to ensure all children are able to cope.
“I agree that children are more mature now and are certainly more exposed to electronic gadgets, but this does not mean they should lose their childhood by starting formal schooling when they are not ready,” she said.
Beyond the classroom
Sofea Aminuddin believes that children aged five are still undergoing physical and emotional development.
“Some children are still working out their sense of touch, balance and rhythm.
“Boys, especially, need many outdoor activities as they need the physical stimulation and outlet.
“They also need guidance on how to channel their energy appropriately and to respond to their physical needs.
“Unless these needs are being met in a formal school setting, I do not think this decision is taken with the children’s best interest at heart,” she said.
Sofea questioned if the school could ensure the teachers were well-equipped to fulfil children’s unique needs.
Agreeing with her, Chan feels that there must be capable teachers to supervise these young pupils.
“In other words, you can’t have a ratio of one teacher to 40 pupils. There must be two or three teachers at least, ” she said.
Sofea who homeschools her six-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, believes too that learning is not confined to the four walls of a classroom.
“I believe in nurturing curiosity and imagination as well as guiding my children to explore and experience. Every child is unique,” she added.
Sofea said her daughter attended a regular primary school for several years.
“She’s now learning to relearn what she experienced in school.
“It used to be mere regurgitation of textbooks with learning associated with tests and exams,” she said.
Through homeschooling, she said her daughter could now pursue her interest in things she has a natural talent for, such as music and Mathematics.
“The way we learn has also changed. For example, Maths is no longer just a concept but something that’s relatable on a day-to-day basis.
“She’s allowed to question things and is learning to look for information from as many resources as she can find,” said Sofea.
Sumita summed it up well by saying that the best interests of the children is the most important aspect of any change.