Quality education: A commitment towards sustainable development
As one of the countries participating in the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which were set in 2015, Malaysia is committed to its 17 development goal targets. The goals are designed to be the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all member states of the UN. Malaysia is one of the 193 countries that adopted the initiative in the UN General Assembly. This 15-year progression plan is titled “Transforming our world: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, and it supersedes and further builds on the Millennium Development Goals, which ended in 2015.
The big picture of the plan is for countries to have shared common goals, joint collaborative partnerships, while working towards eradicating poverty, being responsible for the use of the planet’s resources and be held accountable to achieve the set targets. These frameworks will ensure that no countries are left behind or slacking in striving for a better future for their people and, ultimately, for the preservation of the planet we live on.
The best way to eradicate poverty and to ensure understanding of the world is by empowering people through good education. Previously, under the UN plans for education, the familiar terms used were “the right to education”, a basic human right, and “education for all”. As we progressed, we recognised that the mere provision of education is not enough. We are also familiar with the words of our first premier: “Half an education is no education at all”. What we need is quality education. The No 4 goal (SDG4) under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is about quality education. The mission for SDG4 is to ensure inclusive and equitable, quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
Under SDG4, there are 10 targets and 11 indicators that include provision of safe and non-discriminatory access to education at various levels ranging from pre-primary, primary, secondary, technical/vocational, higher education and beyond for further opportunities for lifelong learning. The indicators submitted by member countries are a set of benchmark targets to be achieved by 2030, which encompass the percentage rates for out of school, completion, minimum learning proficiency, gender gaps, trained teachers and education expenditure.
A progress report for SDG4 benchmarks and targets was released by the Unesco Institute for Statistics a week prior to the international day of education, which fell on Jan 24. The report titled “National SDG4 Benchmarks: Fulfilling our neglected commitment” looks at selected targets for the year 2025 and 2030, benchmarked against the performance achieved in 2015. Malaysia has been very good at providing the targets and have submitted two out of 15 of them, omitting the unavailable data, which is the reading and mathematics proficiency at lower primary level.
However, the report does not specifically address the impact of Covid-19 on the targets that have been set. On the other hand, the UN SDG Report 2021 has indicated that Covid-19 has wiped out 20 years of education gains, and the number of children falling behind in reading proficiency and school completion rates will get worse. These are observations that are being made globally.
Zooming into our country’s benchmark and targets set for 2025 and 2030, we should be concerned about how we are going to achieve targets such as primary and secondary completion rates, reading and mathematics proficiencies and improving the number of trained teachers, while considering the impact of the 20-year loss of education gains. Could we look back at the achievements 20 years ago and assume that we are currently at par with the achievements of 2002? Most importantly, what does it take to climb back to achieve the 2025 targets within these three years?
In 2005, those who completed upper secondary education stood at 27%; the percentage was even lower than in 1995, at 30%. In comparison, the all-time high for upper secondary completion was in 2019 at 62%. It is therefore reasonable and prudent to target upper secondary completion in 2025 at 62.5% and 67.4% in 2030.
But what will all these targets mean if we know that the basis and benchmark that we should be working towards is to at least reach the average performance in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test? The PISA determines the quality of the education system, and whether or not the students can cope beyond compulsory schooling and be able to integrate well into the labour force. As it stands, 40% of our upper secondary graduates can only handle simple and obvious tasks and are unable to secure high-income jobs. Despite the aspirations of the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (MEB), which is drawing to a close, we are still struggling with improving our system. The 10-year running below-average PISA results have not even factored in the damage to learning caused by Covid-19.
The formula to improve student outcomes and overall quality of education is to improve teaching quality. Hence, SDG4 has trained teachers as one of the indicators, consistent with the saying that “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers”.
The Ministry of Education (MoE) needs to engage external assistance from specialist organisations to provide the impetus and catalyst to empower teachers and to make teaching more student-centric. This by no means implies that our teachers are not good. There is a proven teaching and learning method that we have been practising for a while now that would tick all the right SDG4 checklist boxes. The shortcut and quick win to get back on the right track is to employ the Trust Schools Programme — a home-grown methodology that has led to better student outcomes. It is an evidence-based success story that we need to replicate in as many schools as possible.
The formula is simple. Can the government and MoE acknowledge this and do the right thing?