That Malaysian parents are demanding premium education despite the hefty price tag is a fact.
The Performance Management and Delivery Unit found that about 45,050 students are enrolled in international schools in the country.
Locals number 25,014 while foreigners make up 20,036 of the overall international-school student population in the country.
Also, there are about 106 international schools in Malaysia, surpassing the target set by Putrajaya of 87 schools by 2020, despite the country ranked the eighth-most expensive for international education.
But why are Malaysian parents flocking to international schools when, ultimately, they will be financially burdened early on into their children’s education (there’s college to think about, too)?
A well-rounded education
John (not his real name) opted for an international education as the lessons were taught in English and it provided a more-rounded education.
“Delivery is expected to be more engaging and more thinking skills are required. Parents are expected to be more involved with schools on their children’s development,” he told iMoney in an email interview.
On what drove him towards premium education, he said public schools did not focus on English but more on rote learning and an exam-heavy curriculum.
“Quality and method of overall delivery by teachers are left to chance,” he added.
He spends about RM60,000 a year on fees alone and attributes to a raft of financial manoeuvres such as investments and savings as some of the ways to cope with the exorbitant fees.
Aside from saving in advance, he prioritises education over non-essentials, this he says has enabled him to fund his child at Desa Park City International School, a choice he and his wife made after considering affordability and household income.
John is not the only one critical of the state of the local curriculum. Another parent who decided to remain anonymous also shared with iMoney that the reasons she opted for an international school was due to the flip-flop over the use of Malay or English for maths and science subjects.
Education lobbyist Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE) told iMoney that when the government killed off its PPSMI policy, or the teaching and learning of science and mathematics in English, some parents took their children out of the national school as they felt the decision was politically motivated.
“They were concerned that the kids are used as pawns in a political game, and they were not prepared to gamble on their future. The primary years are very important. It sets the stage for the future.”
Aside from poor policymaking, PAGE said many parents within the group opted for an international school due to the use of English which provides a smoother transition to a university of their children’s choice and capability.
Premium with a pinch of salt
The group says not all private or international schools are better than the top public schools, but clarifies that the success of these schools are mainly because of better quality students, citing natural learning aptitude and concerned parents, not the education system or teachers.
Parents like Abby certainly relate to this. In an email interview, she recalled the horrors her son endured during his time in an international school, a choice she made after recognising her son’s academic potential.
“We were somehow prompted into this direction when our son excelled at two different schools’ written assessments and interviews despite just turning five then. We thought it may be worthwhile to just let him at least learn something at the accelerated level that was proposed.”
Things didn’t turn out as planned.
“We decided to pull him out of the international school as he was bullied and the management just continued ignoring it.”
She added that her son was the victim of favouritism and blamed the overall low-quality education as among the push factors that prompted her to seek alternatives.
“The schools cut costs while trying to increase face value to charge fees by hiring ‘unqualified’ foreigners who were cheaper but can barely even communicate in proper English, whether it was written or spoken.
“Besides that, many are also hiring young, fresh, inexperienced graduates who were not even passionate in teaching,” she said, adding that she ultimately found a suitable academy for her son after trying out various learning centres and home-schooling.
“It’s a big change from attending a proper international school but it still provided an avenue for him to be among friends in a holistic academic environment.
“Not all facilities are within the compound but it’s fine as he has learned to adjust and adapt well anywhere he goes,” she said.
According to PAGE, a hybrid of home-school and national school would be affordable options for those seeking an internationally recognised education such as the IGCSE.
“Students attend home-school or private tuition for IGCSCE and at the same time, attend national school. IGCSE is seen as a stable option and not volatile or politically tempered with as SPM,” the group said.
It added that parents with more spending power could consider a private school with local syllabus as it has smaller classes, handpicked teachers and voluntary activities.
John believes parents should weigh the benefits and affordability as alternatives beyond an international school are aplenty.
“Consider what the future education path is like after secondary,” he said.
Jillian (not her real name), a real estate agent from Selangor, says that every schooling system has its strengths and weaknesses.
“It depends on what is suitable for our kid and what we are looking for and what we can afford. But we won’t spend 100% of our savings on our kid’s primary education as they have a long way to go,” she added.
But Abby had more cautionary advice for parents consider sending their children to international schools.
“I am sorry to tell most parents that the mushrooming mid-tier international schools (those within the RM20,000 to RM60,000 bracket) that cater to middle-income families are not worth the price you need to pay.
“You are better off sending your kids to local primary schools especially Chinese schools or the Wawasan ones or some of the better-managed public schools I have heard of like the one in Taman Tun Dr Ismail,” she said.
If an international education is still what you might be looking for, consider these pointers:
Think about your financial goals when factoring in international education as you have to be willing and able to take on a significant expense for a good number of years without compromising other goals such as retirement.
Also, be prepared to make sacrifices such as moving to a smaller home or not going on as many vacations.
As an international education is a huge commitment, the sooner you start planning, the better. For example, admission to a top school could cost you an additional RM50,000 and above for miscellaneous charges.
It is also normal of schools to ask some form of financial commitment such as an acceptance deposit. And what is early? Possibly even as soon as your child is born.
Factor in the extras
Now, an international school education is more than just tuition fees. Uniforms are usually bespoke and there are school trips (think: RM100,000 ski trips to Switzerland), enrichment classes and even sports fees and other extracurricular activities that cost way more than in public schools.
Practice family planning and budgeting
Parents might be able to send their first child to an international school but when child number two or three comes along, they are stuck.
To avoid this, proper planning and budgeting are crucial so that you do not find yourself in a tight spot in the future. Dot the i’s and cross the t’s. There is no such thing as being financially overprepared here.
Do ample research
Just because a school may promise premium education, it does not mean it will deliver. Do necessary in-depth research into a school of your choice and set your own selection priorities.
Also, understand your child and his or her way or learning. The goal here is to let them grow and excel.