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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on September 14, 2020 - September 20, 2020

The members of Majlis Penasihat Pendidikan Malaysia 2018-2020 (MPPK), or National Education Advisory Council, selected by the then minister of education Dr Maszlee Malik, officially ended their two-year terms on July 31. The council comprised Tan Sri Wan Zahid Wan Noordin (chairman), Tan Sri Yong Poh Kon (vice-chairman), Prof Emeritus Datuk Dr Sukiman Sarmani, Brigadier General Datuk Yusri Anwar, Datuk Boonler Somchit, Datuk Satinah Syed Saleh, Prof Dr Omar Yaakob, Prof Dr Ruzita Mohd Amin, Associate Prof Dr Ramzah Dambul, Cikgu P Ramanathan and yours truly.

MPPK, in its numerous deliberations, also formed several sub-committees and sub-groups to address specific issues. Among these were the enhancement of English language usage in schools, the teaching of Islamic Studies, attending to neglected special needs education, encouraging public-private partnerships, fortifying STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and, last but not least, boosting teacher professionalism, including addressing teacher absenteeism.

The discussions ran concurrently and the members clocked almost 100 meetings, even working through the eventful Movement Control Order and juggling between three education ministers — a first for any council.

Our recommendations remain theoretical and confidential at this juncture, until the minister decides whether the findings (which are public knowledge) are worthy of resurrection or face the risk of being swept under the carpet, thus questioning the future purpose of the MPPK as provided for in the Education Act 1996, and whether our contribution is to be ignored.

We all know that graduate unemployment is deplorable. Employment agencies say English proficiency is crucial, especially when the private sector employs 90% of the workforce. Forty-two percent of our graduates have only primary school proficiency, 60% of fifth formers have not progressed beyond that, 44% of Standard Six pupils can achieve only lower primary school proficiency, and 30% are still at kindergarten level, while the rest are in between. The blueprint targets 70% credit passes in Cambridge 1119 but, in reality, more than 50% fail.

We want to see the ministry approving more dual language programme (DLP) schools and increasing the number of classes. Effectively, non-DLP schools have only 11% exposure in the English language, compared with 35% for DLP schools. Sarawak has fully implemented DLP in all its 1,164 schools — not without challenges — which exceeds the 1,095 DLP schools in Sabah and the peninsula. A total of 17 recommendations were made in our report.

National schools now comprise 97% bumiputera pupils, while 96% of students in Chinese schools are ethnic Chinese and Tamil schools have an equally high percentage of ethnic Indian students. That makes national schools more Malay than national.

The perception that national schools have become religious schools is due to an overemphasis on content, and ignoring nurturing qualities of an inclusive attitude, character building and values aligned with the teachings of Islam. For six months, a sub-committee deliberated and found that the classes were too big in size, textbooks in Jawi were challenging for the students and parents too, while teachers did not seem to be appreciated, coupled with an education system with a heavy curriculum. Here, 12 recommendations were made.

As for special needs education, it has been poorly implemented despite the recognition of persons with disabilities (PWDs) with the formation of Institut Pendidikan Guru Pendidikan Khas and the launch of special, inclusive and integration programmes. Apart from that, Malaysia is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons 2008, and ratified it in 2010. Emphasis was also to special needs education in both education and higher education blueprints.

There is no monitoring mechanism, no empathy for PWDs, no budget and an inadequate number of teachers. What is worse is that they are undertrained, making them incompetent.

While the Zero Reject Policy was implemented gradually on Jan 1, 2019, its fate is as yet uncertain. Four recommendations have been made here.

On the subject of public-private partnerships, we urge the ministry to give due consideration to further engaging Teach For Malaysia (TFM) teachers in low-performing schools as well as Leap-Ed’s Trust Schools Programme, as both have proved successful in enhancing effective teaching skills.

Corporations are urged to assist in co-funding such initiatives alongside the government. Without adequate funding, less outstanding teachers from TFM will not be able to make a lasting and positive impact on B40 students, while schools without the ingredients of the trust school recipe will only dilute its effectiveness.

For STEM, the need for scientific English cannot be emphasised enough. The literature churned out by the medical profession globally and daily for the public on the pandemic is in English. As a start, two periods of science per week in primary schools is ludicrous. It was found that the per capita grant, for example, in physics, was a mere RM14 per student — a figure that has not been increased since 1997. As I am writing this, I am told that this figure has now been raised to RM65, as the ministry awaits the funding, which is long overdue. There were 12 recommendations made here.

The quality of a school system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. Quoting the blueprint, there appears to be differences in perception of what constitutes good-quality teaching and learning between schools and the school inspectorate. For example, 63% of schools rated themselves as having good or excellent teaching and learning practices, compared with just 13% by school inspectors.

Teacher absenteeism, meanwhile, constitutes 55% of wrongdoing by the ministry’s employees. The Tiada.Guru campaign is picking up in Sabah and is set to trend ahead of the polls. While an exit policy is now in place, how is it that bad teachers are not being shown the door? Principals assess their teachers and give them an “A” despite their underperformance for the simple reason that they fear the blame will shift to them instead, and they, in turn, become the non-performers.

In conclusion, the education minister and the ministry would do well to review, consider and implement our recommendations. They can even take the credit, by all means. If the new minister picks his own MPPK, it would still need another two years to come up with its own recommendations, which may not differ much from ours. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and our children are waiting for a booster shot. Looking at the volatile political scene, ministers do not seem to last long. So, make an impact. Leave a legacy.

Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is chairman of Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia, an educational lobby group that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other educational stakeholders

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