EDU Nation: Bring back PPSMI as an option

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PRIME MINISTER Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s Budget 2015 speech reinforced the government’s seriousness in improving the English proficiency skills of graduates and making them more employable by tightening the entry requirements for public institutions of higher learning or institusi pengajian tinggi awam (IPTA).

At present, to enter an IPTA, a student needs a minimum of Band 1 in the Malaysian University English Test (MUET). From next year, the MUET band for those who wish to further their studies at IPTAs will be in accordance with their field of study. To enrol in Arts and Social Science courses, the minimum MUET band is 2; Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) a minimum of 3; and Law and Medical courses a high minimum of 4.

And to graduate from an IPTA, undergraduates must sit for a second MUET and achieve minimum bands of 3, 4 and 5 for Arts and Social Science, STEM, and Law and Medical course respectively.

The Ministry of Education (MoE) has been consistent in its emphasis on the importance of English competence. In 2011, it introduced MBMMBI (or the upholding of Bahasa Malaysia and strengthening of the English language), in which the teaching and learning of English was given more prominence.

Exposure to English in the classrooms was increased from 15% to 20% of total subject hours and later enhanced by LINUS 2.0, where students are screened and given remedial coaching, if necessary, on English literacy and numeracy.

Yet, the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 clearly states: “International research indicates that more exposure time than the current 15% to 20% (in instructional English) is required for students to achieve operational proficiency.”

By 2015, all 61,000 English teachers would have had to pass the Cambridge Placement Test, achieving international standards and raising our children’s English proficiency. From 2016, the ministry will make the SPM English language paper a compulsory pass.

However, our focus is STEM, specifically Science and Mathematics in primary and secondary national schools — subjects that are best learnt through English. The time is ripe to reconsider reinstating the policy of teaching and learning Science and Mathematics — core subjects leading to careers in STEM-related disciplines — in English or Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran Sains dan Matematik dalam Bahasa Inggeris (PPSMI). Why?

With the abolition of PPSMI in 2017 for Form One and its total phasing out by 2021, the opportunity to learn and be taught Science and Mathematics in English — to acquire scientific knowledge first-hand in its lingua franca, which is English, from a young age — would be lost forever.

Many schools had opted to teach the two subjects in Bahasa Malaysia (BM) or English. There was little consultation, if at all, with students and parents. The decision to put students with poor English proficiency in the BM classes was due to the inability of teachers to see beyond their comfort zone. On hindsight, it appears to have been to the students’ detriment, leaving their parents enraged.

In November 2011, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin indicated on live television that once English proficiency among students was enhanced, the policy would be reconsidered.

The first MBMMBI cohort who continue to enjoy a more focused and enhanced teaching of the English language would have had six years of this programme in primary school and be ready to take on STEM in English when they reach Form One in 2017. The teachers, too, would have had a more enriching experience teaching English.

The teachers who are being posted to schools this year are the products of the first PPSMI secondary cohort, which was introduced in 2003. We hope that these teachers, who are Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics graduates, are sent to schools where Science and Mathematics are being taught in English as they are an asset to the education system and to the scientific fraternity.

There are still many such schools. There will now be a continuous flow of such prized teachers. The up-and-coming PPSMI teachers are the remedy to the problem of teachers not being able to teach Science and Mathematics in English in the past, which was a major cause of the abolition in the first place.

The teacher training has to begin now and be kept up to be ready in time for 2017, when the KSSM (Secondary School Standard Curriculum) and a revised version of the KSSR (Primary School Standard Curriculum) roll out. Science and Mathematics textbooks and workbooks should continue to be written in both Bahasa Malaysia and English.

The vice-chancellor of Universiti Utara Malaysia, Professor Datuk Dr Mohamed Mustafa Ishak, expressed his concern that “university places may not be filled up as the MUET requirements may not be satisfied”. He admitted, however, that “PPSMI, which required the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English, would have been helpful but now, this too has been abolished”. He was possibly offering a solution yet lamenting that it could have been better planned.

We propose that the policy of teaching and learning Science and Mathematics in English be reintroduced in 2017 in primary and secondary national schools as an option. This will prepare the students seamlessly for the transition to higher education, particularly in STEM-related disciplines and Medicine, which are taught in English, and towards a smooth and successful science career after that.

Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is chairman of the Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia, an educational lobby group that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other educational stakeholders

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 20 - 26, 2014.