Children with learning disabilities need intervention at lower primary level
Year in, year out, after the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) results spectacle, we choke and suffer panic attacks over the performance of many of our secondary school graduates — whether it is getting easier for 10,000 of them to get straight As or that as many as 70% of the 370,000-plus school-goers choose to end their education journey at this point. For those who have achieved good results and are on their way to continue their further education, kudos to them as we bid them all the best in their future endeav
Our education minister is right to say that the 90% who have received the SPM certificate should be acknowledged for their accomplishments. Recognise them we should, but the big issue that poses a greater challenge is the prospects for the 60%-plus who have managed to scrape through with Ds and Es, or failed subjects. The likelihood that they will end up in low-paying jobs seems obvious. They would be fortunate to dodge a life of crime or avoid getting involved in substance abuse.
We are already witnessing the compounding effect in the educational attainment of our workforce. The current statistics of our workforce is that 70% are qualified up to SPM. The SPM statistics and numbers are not new; they tally with the average qualification of our workforce. We have been stuck in the middle-income trap for so long, though we dream of becoming a high-income nation. Policy after policy to improve our educational attainment has been introduced but yet here we are.
One of the aspirations listed in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 is equity. Equity is about enhancing equality. Giving equality to students would mean that those who are disadvantaged would receive specific care, attention and the necessary interventions. Correcting, rehabilitating, training and improving the lot of post-SPM youth will cost taxpayers a lot more than taking corrective action and intervention at a much earlier stage of their lives. The red flags are already there earlier on in their lives.
It has been reported that tackling poverty and learning disabilities are the two major challenges in the education field. Children in poor families are more likely to have learning disabilities and children with learning disabilities are more likely to come from poor families. This is a vicious cycle that is difficult to break.
We acknowledge the challenges that the education sector faces — the lack of financial support for critical areas of concern, insufficient teaching resources, lack of staffing, difficulties in integration and programme implementation as students make academic progress, and reliance on various non-government organisations to make up for the shortfall in government resources. Nevertheless, more needs to be done by the Ministry of Education to ensure a better success rate by catering for learning difficulties.
Special education needs to be expanded and be more broad-based. The data has to be analysed and benchmarked against international standards and best practices. Special education needs to include learning difficulties such as dyslexia. It has to be part and parcel of the national school system for those who have difficulties in their basic reading, writing and arithmetic as well as behavioural issues. If these students cannot grasp the basics, they should not progress to the much more difficult and complex levels. This will cause disengagement and eventually lead them to drop out of school.
Here are some statistics from the report of the National Centre for Learning Disabilities in the US and data on the effects of learning disabilities. Thirty-two per cent of students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia, drop out of high school or do not receive high school diplomas. Only 38% of youth with learning disabilities who do not have high school diplomas are employed. Prison inmates with specific learning disabilities are three times more likely to have been excluded from school. Half of young offenders are dyslexic. Fifty-five per cent of people with learning disabilities have some involvement with crime within eight years of leaving high school. Sixty per cent of people in substance abuse treatment programmes have learning difficulties. Seventy-five per cent of young people with dyslexia are still undiagnosed after 10 years of schooling.
Malaysia cannot turn a blind eye on learning difficulties such as dyslexia. These learning difficulties must be managed and attended to before they fester into bigger, uncontrollable social issues that will in turn affect the country’s economy and well-being. How many of these SPM students who do not want to pursue further education are actually dyslexic but undiagnosed?
It is time that we invest some resources into the learning disability programmes for our young children who have such traits of disruptive and challenging behaviours. There must be comprehensive assessments in place at every level of their schooling to ascertain the type of learning disability they may have. Having the LINUS programme in school as a reading intervention for the first three years may be good but we do not have data to see its success rate and whether it deals with learning disabilities.
Let’s look at it this way. The annual expenditure per prison inmate in Malaysia is RM12,775 a year. Our government spent RM16.14 per primary school student in 2017 and RM22.81 for each secondary school student in 2018 (based on percentage per capita). It makes economic sense to arrest the crisis during their formative years.
Putrajaya, we have a problem. Learning disabilities are a real disability when not corrected. We need to dive deeper into this issue, and have enough data so that we can deal with this problem better. Equity in education means that we need to give those with learning disabilities the fighting chance and support they need before it is too late.