We have witnessed the dawn of a new Malaysia. It is time for new expectations, to embrace new hopes, to seek new order, to carry out reforms and to rebuild this nation together to achieve greater economic prosperity for all Malaysians.
One of our first steps should be to revitalise and reinvigorate our education system. Education matters where incomes are concerned, not only at the macroeconomic level but also individual because the labour market pays higher wages to workers with better education. The critical factor then is to create equal educational opportunities.
We have been on a road to transformation since the last Malaysia Education Blueprint, and it seems to be taking forever. Without repairing the cracks and gaps in the education system, the transformation will not be able to achieve the desired result. The Dual Language Programme (DLP) is a good idea but the pathway remains bumpy. In fact, the final list of the DLP schools for this year has yet to be finalised. It is said that some schools are not ready for DLP because they do not meet certain criteria. But what is the point of the criteria if they act as a restraint?
Issues that hamper good programmes because things are done out of expediency or to pacify certain groups need to be closely scrutinised. Issues like politics, race, language and patronage that place obstacles in the way of education have got to be reassessed and cannot be allowed to constrain the achievement of equality in education.
What is needed is a total reform of the governance framework for policy design and implementation at ministry level and governance at school level. We are talking about fundamental changes in the governance of the system, ultimately changing the incentives for administrators, teachers, parents and students, allowing difficult choices to be implemented and reorienting outcomes towards excellence for all.
The characteristics of a high-performing education system are: coverage — ensuring every child goes to school; quality — ensuring the child is learning and knows what it can do with what it is learning; and equity — ensuring every child from every income level, ethnic group, gender and geographical area is able to access quality education.
Malaysia’s performance in standardised international student assessments is below the expectation of a country with its per capita income and educational expenditure. It is well below the performance of the high-income economies that Malaysia aspires to compete against for innovation and knowledge-based investments. Moreover, performance appears to have deteriorated over the past decade.
English proficiency has declined over the years and is supported by data on English teacher proficiency. The disproportionate share of post-secondary graduates among the unemployed further suggests that the education system is not producing the skills sought by the labour market. Meanwhile, schools have become more segregated in the past 40 years, decreasing their potential to contribute to greater social cohesion.
The top priorities are to boost the performance of our education system by increasing school-level accountability and decision-making, and to transform the teaching profession by upgrading its quality and making teaching a preferred choice.
Malaysia’s education system is among the most centralised in the world. The education providers in most of the countries whose students perform well have substantial autonomy. School management can be decentralised by freeing up decision-making on hiring teachers and determining salaries, textbook choices and curriculum flexibility, which will improve delivery outcomes.
Autonomy improves not only school outcomes but also service delivery, catering for the needs of specific groups. For example, poor families can have a say in how a local school should operate and schools can be given incentives to ensure they deliver effective services to the poor. A well-functioning education system balances school autonomy by allowing parents and students to hold education providers (the school, local authorities, the government) accountable for the use of resources and results.
The quality of our national schools should be ramped up to close the gap between private and public schools. In terms of providing equity and equality in education, we should adopt learning achievement models of high-performing systems like Finland’s.
However, there are also successful local working models, such as the Yayasan Amir Trust school and the Teach for Malaysia programme for teacher selection and training.
Greater use of English in giving instructions in schools will restore proficiency in the language and foster better ethnically balanced schools like in the past. DLP schools should continue to be increased in numbers. All schools should work towards having at least one DLP class at every level.
We need to promote science literacy that is on a par with the rest of the world. Science and all things digital are the currency of the world and we do not want to be left behind. Malaysians must be uplifted to be proficient in at least two languages with Bahasa Malaysia and English being compulsory.
On the teaching profession, there is much to do to attract and retain the best teachers, promote teaching as a preferred vocation and remove low-performing teachers. A teacher licensing system and a better accreditation framework for the profession should be considered.
High-performing teachers should be rewarded with perks and good salaries while non-performers should be reprimanded and removed via a targeted voluntary separation scheme. Potential teachers can be attracted by offering tax incentives, for example exemption from import tax on cars. If teachers are seen as role models and ambassadors of the profession, students will be inspired to want to be like their teachers when they grow up, when they see their teachers driving nicer cars than their parents. This is just an example.
Since it is the season for establishing new councils and committees, this would be our proposals for the upcoming education committee, which will be independent with a balanced world view and free of political shackles. It is, after all, about creating a bigger pie for our economy.