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  • Hana Maher, Malaysian Digest

Closing Down Or Going Private, Mission Schools At The Crossroads Today

When it was reported that three convent schools in Penang were closing its doors to students, many had feared that they were the latest to join other mission schools in the country which have closed their doors for good.

In fact, three years ago three other mission schools in Penang had announced their closure with two of the schools dating back to the 19th century. The Pykett Methodist Primary School founded by B H Balderstone as the Methodist Boys’ School in 1891 and the St Mark’s School which was established in Butterworth in 1885 confirmed they were on the way out and will cease operations by 2024. The same goes for St George School in Balik Pulau which traces its origins back to 1936.

While nothing could be done to stop the closure of these other historical educational landmarks in Penang being reduced to a mention in history books, a brighter future is in store for the three convents.

The Sisters of the Infant Jesus, landowners where the convents are located has issued a press statement on 3 November refuting the closure claims and firmly stated that they had no intention to sell the land and buildings for redevelopment.

"The Sisters want to go back to our initial reason for being here, that is, the initial objective of providing a wholesome education in our mission schools.

“It is about bringing back our ethos, the special character and traditions of what a Mission school is … a Mission school that promotes the overall formation of an individual child irrespective of race, religion or social standing," IJ Sisters’ Sr Celina Wong said.

While the news of the convents going private have been welcomed by many, is taking these schools which have played a significant role in nation building and moulding leaders out of the ‘kebangsaan’ school system a loss to the nation?

Christian mission schools have over 200 years of history in our country but what does the future hold for them in Malaysia going forward?

Christian Mission Schools Play A Significant Role In Our Nation’s Heritage

Over the past decade, a combination of church landowners taking back their lands for other development, declining enrolment and changing demographics of the communities surrounding the schools has seen several mission schools going private or closing their doors for good.

Does the move by Convent Street Light and Convent Pulau Tikus to take their schools out of the public school system signal a growing trend that will affect the national education system as a whole?

Deputy Education Minister P. Kamalanathan highlighted to Malaysian Digest that the move is not regarded as a loss for the national education system as private schools are also part of the national education system.

“There are roughly 408 national and government-assisted mission schools in Malaysia,” the deputy minister clarified.

“While the MOE acknowledges that the landowner has every right to make the decision to privatise the schools, the ministry is concerned for the students who are currently enrolled in the respective schools and an execution plan ought to be in place to accommodate students who want to remain in national schools or moved to other nearby schools.”

Additionally, the deputy minister relayed that the move to privatise the schools will undeniably have an impact on the students and the parents, in areas like the cost of fees, as well as the access to education for students in that community.

Be that as it may, he noted that in doing so it will allow parents to have more options, whether they wish to send their children to a government school or a private school, and reminded parents that a thorough consideration is needed prior coming to a decision.

“Private schools will have to cover their overhead costs to continue operating the schools, and in comparing government and private schools, we would like to remind parents to think thoroughly before deciding on which one is best for their child.

“Mission schools deliver the same curriculum as national schools so the ministry views the decrease in enrollment as largely due to other factors such as logistics and population,” he clarified.

As highlighted by the deputy minister, mission schools have played a big role as education pioneers in our nation's early years, and in the process groomed many of our country's movers and shakers.

Former Bank Negara governor Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz is a famous alumna of Assunta High School in Petaling Jaya and went on to complete her Form 6 in St. John's Institution, Kuala Lumpur.

Likewise renowned humanitarian and MERCY Malaysia president, Datuk Dr Jemilah Mahmood had her early education at Assunta School in Petaling Jaya which she attributed to encouraging her passion and interest in community service when she received the Merdeka Award in 2015.

In fact, current Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman also had his primary education in Sekolah Rendah St Paul in Beaufort and later attended Sekolah Menengah All Saints in Kota Kinabalu for Form 6. The late chief minister of Sarawak Tan Sri Adenan Satem was also a product of mission schools education, receiving his early education at St Joseph Primary School, before continuing at St. Joseph High School in Kuching, Sarawak. The same goes for his successor, Datuk Amar Abang Johari Abang Openg.

Even our nation's royal houses can count alumni of mission schools in their ranks, among them the Tengku Mahkota of Pahang Tengku Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah and his younger brother Tengku Muda of Pahang, Tengku Abdul Rahman Sultan Ahmad Shah who are alumni of St Thomas School, in Kuantan, Pahang, a once premier mission school in the east coast in Malaysia which closed its doors back in 2014.

While we cannot expect all the mission schools to be able to survive through going private, it is encouraging to see that more than a handful have re-established themselves successfully.

According to the deputy minister, to date there are already 12 primary schools, 11 secondary schools and 4 international schools that are privatised educational institutions owned by religious missions.

The move to privatise also shines a spotlight on the other side of the coin, the fact that more Malaysian parents, especially those that are affluent, prefer private or international education as opposed to the national school system.

Former Students And Teacher Share Their Thoughts About Privatizing Mission Schools

“I am very pleased that they’ve decided to privatise the education institutions rather than closing it down as these schools are part of Penang’s cultural, historical and heritage history,” Adeline Chong, who attended Convent Light Street from 1989 to 1999 relayed to Malaysian Digest.

“Personally, going private is the way to go as it provides parents with more options – especially for those who trusts the private or international education system more than the national education system.”

Echoing the same sentiment, Mariah Azmanshared that the decision to privatise the schools will permit the management to outline the school’s curriculum whilst emphasising on the identity and ethos that mission schools are noted for.

“Based on my experience attending Convent Pulau Tikus, the school provided me with a holistic education experience, whereby the school taught me that character development is as important as academic development.

“But above all, the school taught us that being tolerant of one’s race and religion comes with understanding and respecting their culture,” the 48-year-old recalled.

The former legal practitioner vehemently denied any unfounded accusations that mission schools have a hidden agenda in converting Muslims and stressed that these schools in fact offer a wholesome education and are often free of hidden (and political) agenda.

In fact, Roshni Chandar, conveyed that the schools had never interfered with students’ faith, neither have they shoved their religious teachings down the students’ throat.

“The name of the school is tied with the establishments’ history. Whether you’re a Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Christian, it doesn’t matter what your faith is as mission schools have always been known to provide a wholesome education experience for the students.

“But perhaps the national education system may have intervened in the mission schools’ identity and ethos,” the former Convent Light Street student opined.

On that note, all three alumna emphasised that privatisation will allow mission schools to regain their prior novelty and in doing so, will attract more potential students.

Malaysian Digest had the opportunity to speak with a retired teacher, who previously served as a disciplinary teacher at one of the private mission schools in Kuala Lumpur.

“It is a blessing that the parties involved decided to privatise the schools rather than closing it down as a country can never have too many schools.

“However, what is more imperative is ensuring that the establishments not only provide a holistic educational experience for the students, but with quality as well,” the retired teacher emphasised.

Asking the teacher how the move may be advantageous for the schools, the 63-year-old communicated that it gives the schools the opportunity to refocus and rebrand themselves as well as giving them the flexibility to craft a curriculum outline and module that adheres to their identity and ethos.

“One of the perks of private schools is that administrative staffs and faculty members are separated,” the teacher revealed.

“The teachers in national schools often wear many hats – from teaching to administrative duties – but by going private, the three schools in Penang will be able to draft out the roles of each teachers and staffs.

“In doing so, it will ensure that the teachers are not overworked and hence, ensure the efficiency rate and performance of the school.

“I personally see that the only difference between private, international and national school is how the schools deliver the curriculum,” the retiree opined and said that it all boils down to the parents’ preference.

Privatisation Is The Way To Go

Christian mission schools date back over 200 years, when the Anglican church took the first step in 1816 to open Penang Free School in Penang which was later handed over to the government to administer.

According to an article published by the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship Malaysia (NECF), mission schools have always been the ideal places to forge inter-cultural communication and racial harmony in a multi-racial society.

Can taking these schools private be the answer to allow these schools to preserve their character and special identity of fostering a multi-religious community where race or religion is never an issue?

Speaking with Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim, the Chairman of the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) conveyed that it is all a matter of demand and supply and because most affluent parents have higher expectations for their children’s education, parents are willing to pay for it.

“Across the board, we can see that parents are becoming (more) picky about their children’s education as they are aware that education is the foundation that will help shape their children’s future.

“While they are blessed with options following the move, it is important to keep in mind that each parent have different budget constraints,” Datin Azimah pointed out.

Theorising that the three schools are gunning to be a low-cost international school, which is reminiscent to the St. John International, the Chairman communicated that the idea will appeal to many parents as it will accommodate to most parents’ budget whilst providing an international education.

To top it all off, Datin Azimah stressed that mission schools have always been appealing to many parents as these schools have a longstanding history of moulding well-rounded individuals as the system guides their students as per their philosophy and ethos.

“Perhaps it had something to do with how the nuns and pastors managed the schools, but unfortunately, the ethos and philosophy that made mission schools a success was lost since the national education system took over.

“While the national schools are seen as Malay schools and we now have Chinese and Tamil schools, mission schools have always been seen as non-ethnic school – a school that brings multi-ethnicity society together,” the chairman conveyed and emphasised that parents want an education system that is free of political agenda and a system that focuses on the child’s academic and personal development.

With privatisation allowing the mission schools to regain their prior novelty, Datin Azimah underlined that the move will give parents more confidence in the education system, but stressed that it means nothing if the parents do not have a hand in their child’s academic growth.

“I personally think that the national education system still works,” she relayed.

“Parents should not solely rely on the schools to help with their children’s future as whether you send your children to government or private school, it means naught if the parents refuse to continue with the development at home.”

On that note, Datin Azimah strongly encourages for schools – who are facing a decrease in enrolment – to be privatised as it will be seen as a waste for schools to close down and abolished.

“The structure and the school are already there, so it’s just a matter of taking over and managing it accordingly,” she opined.

“In fact, corporations and companies can see this as a CSR opportunity as they can give back to the community by funding the school or the students.”



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