Focus on helping them learn better

Thursday, September 13, 2012

  By Chok Suat Ling  | sling@nst.com.my 0 comments

OTHER PROBLEM AREAS: It’s not just the quality of teachers that is a matter of concern

THE Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 was launched two days ago amidst much fanfare. Many areas of concern in education were addressed, all spelt out in detail in a voluminous tome more weighty than the telephone books of yesteryear.

The blueprint comprises numerous shifts, thrusts, leaps and bounds — all geared to elevate the performance of Malaysian students to the top one-third tier in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa). We want to stand proudly with countries in that category — Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore. Now, we are in the bottom one-third, together with Moldova, Albania and Tamil Nadu, India, among others.

Malaysian students had participated for the first time in the survey organised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2009 and the less than lacklustre results caused alarm bells to resonate across the land. Pisa is not to be taken lightly — it is a highly regarded assessment used worldwide to evaluate key competencies of 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics and science. Malaysia’s Pisa is in a more precarious position than the leaning one in Italy.

For many other countries, too, the results were shocking, and spurred much soul searching and debate over how their school systems should be changed.

Malaysia has, with the launch of the blueprint, moved beyond the soul searching. Its focus now is to help students learn better. And how this is to be achieved can only be through the teachers — they must be able to teach better and mould young minds.

Most of the nation’s 350,000-strong teaching fraternity do exactly that and more. They discharge their duties professionally and rise to the challenge when policies stunningly change, are reversed, or abolished. They carry out activities unrelated to teaching uncomplainingly, and remain composed even when their cars are torched by student thugs.

However, it cannot be denied that they no longer command the awe and respect they used to. Many, too, can’t hold a candle to their Brinsford and Kirkby-trained predecessors. But it’s more than just their quality that is a matter of concern.

There must be a more concerted recruitment of non-Malay teachers. To say they are disdainful of the teaching profession cannot be true when many are in private schools, where the benefits match effort and contribution.

A more racially diverse teaching profession may help address a longstanding issue — the “Islamisation” of national schools. It is one the authorities have so far only skirted around, perhaps for fear of ruffling feathers.

Some say it is justifiable for national schools to have Islamic principles in their teaching and learning environment because the majority of the pupils are Muslims. But shouldn’t the concept of national schools be that it is the mainstream of education for children of all races?

The Islamisation of national schools is one factor that has led to them becoming more Malay in composition through the years, which does not bode well for national unity. Without the opportunity to interact with those of different racial and cultural backgrounds in their formative years, children — who are essentially colour-blind — will more readily form misconceptions about those not like them as they grow up.

Educators have also long called for the establishment of a teachers’ council: an independent body for teachers. With a council to look after its welfare, the teaching profession could be separated from the civil service and put on a different salary scheme. A memorandum to this effect was submitted to the Education Ministry in 2004. There has yet to be a decision on this.

What also needs urgent redress is the unequal distribution of teachers, and also distribution based on their area of expertise. According to statistics, of the over 350,000 teachers, only 15,000 are serving in rural areas. Many remote schools in Sabah and Sarawak are running without the bare minimum of teachers. There are also schools with 2,000 students, for instance, but few teachers, while under-enrolled schools have more teachers than students.

In some schools, teachers not qualified to teach a subject are forced to teach it, whereas there is an excess of teachers for that subject in other schools.

It took many years for the education system to reach where it is today, so whatever changes and improvements effected will take that long, if not more to bear results. But change it must.

Chok Suat Ling is New Sunday Times editor.