Keep the focus on bilingualism and English proficiency
It is encouraging to learn that substantial progress and improvements have been made to achieve the targets outlined in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (MEB) according to the recently launched MEB Annual Report 2022. It concludes that we are on track with the implementation path of the MEB despite the setback created by the pandemic and its challenges.
With regards to achieving English proficiency, the MEB plan has set targets for every education level to reach its milestone. The English language programme for students and teachers are aligned to international standards, a benchmark measured by the standardised Common European Framework of References (CEFR). There are six levels of CEFR, which grades speaking, writing, reading and listening skills. The proficiency scale ranked from the lowest to highest are A1, A2 (basic user); B1, B2 (independent user); and C1, C2 (proficient user). The denotation of level 2 is that it is more advanced than level 1 in each grade scale.
Basic users can communicate in English with limited context, independent users can read and speak English with some fluency in situations that are familiar to them, and proficient users can use English fluently and widely. The targets are established as follows — pre-school children, A1; Standard 6, A2; Form 5, B1; pre-university and undergraduates, B2; English language teachers and professionals, C1.
In terms of achievements for the year 2022, the MEB Annual Report unfortunately did not provide its figures on students’ achievements, though the cumulative number of teachers who have reached C1 level and above is reported to be 18,876 in 2021. The total number of in-service English options teachers could not be found in the document to evaluate the percentage of teachers who have reached that level. However, an article quoting the director-general of the Ministry of Education (MoE) at the time said there were 41,676 English teachers in 2019.
In the MEB plan, only 28% of students in 2010 achieved the minimum credit (Level B1) in SPM English, measured by the 1119 English component. The target by 2025 is for 70% of SPM graduates to achieve credit in English. The MEB was very ambitious in targeting that by 2016, it wanted to make English a must-pass subject in the SPM.
However, that did not materialise as there were many challenges and much resistance to iron out. One that is glaringly obvious why it cannot be implemented is the number of proficient teachers available. In 2019, only 37% of English option teachers were certified at CEFR C1 and C2. In 2017, when a Cambridge baseline study was conducted to analyse the data for CEFR achievement among students, it found that 44% of those in Standard 6 attained A2, 24% of those in Form 3 attained B1, 40% of those in Form 5 attained B1 and 14% of those in Form 6 attained B2.
Local undergraduates are required to take the Malaysian University English Test (MUET), which is benchmarked against CEFR. In 2022, only 40% attained B2 level. It is rather painful to see that 10% of these undergraduates are still stuck at the kindergarten level of English proficiency.
MoE admits that a strong command of English enhances employability. The two main programmes that have been specifically formulated to address this problem and to attain the desired CEFR levels, under the current policy of Upholding the National Language and Strengthening English are the Highly Immersive Programme (HIP) and Dual Language Programme (DLP).
HIP exposes learners with immersion in English within the school environment, be it signages, posters and so on. DLP exposes learners to more contact time in English via the subjects of science and mathematics, though initially it was planned to be extended to all STEM subjects. HIP has been implemented in 96% of schools nationwide. However, DLP has suffered setbacks — only 20.2% of primary schools (in most cases, only one class) and 33.2% of secondary schools (in most cases, only pure science classes) offer DLP classes.
It is the MoE itself that has put a limit on its development by putting barriers such as to meet the achievement of the Bahasa Malaysia subject in schools when those schools are already 100% Malay medium apart from the subject of English. The irony! How then will the country achieve its desired English proficiency levels when the students are short-changed and a good programme such as DLP is cannibalised by its own implementers? More and more schools are being ordered to reduce the number of DLP classes, much to the chagrin of many parents, and some courageous ones are standing up to such ludicrous actions.
It is most enlightening to see territories such as Sarawak and Penang standing up and standing firm on going full speed ahead with DLP. Both regions have planned that they would need a STEM-ready workforce, and that schools should be able to prepare the employees to feed the growing industries. Penang Skills Development Centre (PSDC), an industry-led non-profit organisation whose council members are from various technology and manufacturing industries in Penang, revealed that it would need five technicians for every engineer. The technicians are sourced from the M40/B40 group, many of whom are SPM graduates. The training of these technicians is conducted in English. How advantageous it would be especially for the B40 group to capitalise on such an opportunity.
“The purpose of education in Malaysia is to enable Malaysian society to have a command of the knowledge, skills and values necessary in a world that is highly competitive and globalised, arising from the impact of rapid development in science, technology and information.” — Education Act 1996. As we drain ourselves in navigating these self-imposed restrictions on our children’s education, the question is, whose interests are we really serving? As we welcome the 66th Merdeka, are we truly merdeka?