• Tunku Munawirah Putra, The Edge

Addressing the issue of school dropouts

A question was raised in parliament recently about the number of children who have dropped out of school since March 2020, when schools were forced to close during the lockdown implemented to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. This has again revived the discussion on concerns over school dropouts. Sadly, and unsurprisingly, the written answer given by the Ministry of Education left much to be desired. It raised more questions than answers.

It was reported that a total of 21,316 students stopped schooling between March 2020 and July 2021. This is a cause for concern, indeed, sending alarm bells ringing, though it has been forecast in the Unicef and United Nations Population Fund ­(UNFPA) Report in October 2020 entitled “Families on the edge” that a large number of children from low-income households who are poverty-stricken are at risk of dropping out of full-time education.

Research by Khazanah Research Institute in June 2020 highlighted that 77% of children are unable to participate in digital learning at home, supporting the observation that many would be left behind in their education because of a lack of access to online learning.

But data compiled in a report by Ideas in 2014 entitled “Dropping out of school in Malaysia”, as well as data from the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, put the number of dropouts at more than 40,000 in 2012. The dropout incidence was worse at the start of the millennium, with over 50,000 not proceeding beyond primary school and receiving only up to Standard 6-level education. However, the enrolment rates in secondary school have improved over the years. Currently, compulsory schooling in Malaysia is only up to primary-level education. Dropout rates are highest between Standard 6 and Form 1. The second-highest dropout rate occurs between Forms 3 and 4.

Based on the Ideas report, the main reasons for dropping out in the past have been a lack of interest in school, the inability to afford fees and poor academic performance. Most of the dropout cases are children from the low-income group in both rural and urban areas.

The Malaysia Education Blueprint (MEB) 2013-2025 aims to increase compulsory schooling from six years at primary level to 11 years, which would include the completion of secondary schooling, by 2020. The directive to remove UPSR and PT3 in the 2020 cohort perhaps contributed to retaining more of these cohorts than previously, which is consistent with the report presented in parliament.

Low academic achievement would not have been a factor for dropping out, as there was no UPSR and PT3 evaluation. Perhaps this is a good way, though a sneaky one, to show improvement and address the statistical data on dropout numbers, but it is far from addressing the crux of the problems for dropping out and low academic achievement.

The last comprehensive study that looked into the dropout problem was almost 50 years ago, in 1973, under the Murad Report. More can be done now with improved information exchange, better profiling, data transparency for making better decisions and targeted solutions. It is high time another comprehensive study is done to keep students in school for a complete 11 years until high school, while maintaining the desired outcome expected of them.

Studies have shown that high school graduates earn 50% to 100% more than those who do not complete high school. In addition, Malaysia faces the issue of gender disparity, where boys have a higher propensity to drop out than girls. Enrolment figures show that 70% of university students are female. The concern that girls are outperforming boys, and that the gender gap is increasing, will perpetuate the problem of marginalised young Malaysian men. The problem is serious enough for the MEB to categorise them as the “lost boys”.

Setting up a task force that will analyse and propose recommendations is the first step to giving due recognition to this problem and admitting that we need to fix it urgently. The socioeconomic disaster that will result from this trend must be arrested.

If we do not invest in preventive measures now, more would have to be spent on remedial measures later. Research has shown that people with low educational attainments are more dependent on welfare and more likely to be involved in crime. This would be a big loss to the economy when they could have potentially contributed with their income instead.

Those who are deemed at risk of dropping out must be given the help and support they need to at least stay in school. Individualised intervention catering to their needs should be given so that they are able to keep up with learning and continue going to school. The breakfast programme for all students should have been continued, as it provides them with the nutrition to jump-start their day. We wish that the government would seriously address the dropout problem and take care of it before it becomes larger.

The Edge