EDU Nation: Autonomous schools will make Malaysian students smarter

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THE nation’s schools are in crisis. In yet another unprecedented disaster, the floods at the end of last year were said to be of such a scale that the start of the new academic year had to be postponed by a week. All schools, deluged or not, had to abide by this official order.

The World Bank, in responding to the Programme for International Students Assessment (Pisa) scores in its report, Malaysia Economic Monitor, December 2013: High-Performing Education, recommends that “decision-making is made closer to schools and parents” and “providing more information to parents and communities” means “they can better demand a quality education for their children”.

It adds: “Schools that have greater autonomy over what is taught and how students are assessed tend to show higher student performance; when schools have greater autonomy in resource allocation, students tend to perform better under accountability pressure from parents.”

By extension, the benefits of autonomy should not just be limited to Pisa’s reading, science and mathematics assessments but extended to all forms of learning, particularly to a holistic approach to education that the ministry continues to emphasise. This approach must also include how our schools are directed by the ministry.

As mentioned, after the floods, the education minister announced that all schools and kindergartens, private and public, would start the new academic year a week later than planned, without having to make up for it with extra school days later. This announcement was apparently made to empathise with the flood victims.

Following the minister’s announcement, several schools appealed to start work as scheduled, because none of their teachers or students was in any way affected. The ministry, however, was adamant that there should be no exceptions. The upshot was that parents whose children are in kindergarten, for example, were particularly affected, as this meant having to make unexpected and costly arrangements for day care for their children.

In reality, the children who were not affected by the floods showed no empathy whatsoever for their flood-victim peers unless their parents were engaged in flood relief and had urged them to be involved too. Instead, the postponement of the start of the academic year became more reason for an extended holiday.

This is what could have happened if more thought had been put into the ministry’s decision-making process. If 10% of schools were unable to open by Jan 4 or 5, it would have meant the other unaffected 90% could have started on schedule and contributed towards productivity.

These schools should have been allowed to proceed on schedule, but directed to run flood-awareness programmes for their students, at the very least. (In any event, schools have been known to stay open even when 20% of teachers are absent on courses, competitions or meetings.)

The flood-awareness programmes could have been initiated on a class-by-class basis, and with uniformed bodies as extra-curricular activities. Students could have put together an exhibition on the phenomenon of flooding in the country and around the world by availing themselves of the wide media coverage. Pictures speak a thousand words, they say.

The unaffected schools could adopt their flood-stricken counterparts in Kelantan or Terengganu, for instance, as the start of a longer-term relationship of exchange and collaboration. Students could put their heads together to help their adopted school or even the village that their teacher is from, making it even more meaningful.

They could donate pre-loved items such as stationery, books, bags, uniforms and shoes they have outgrown. These would be truly appreciated by the students who have nothing but the clothes on their backs after the strong waters ripped apart their homes. This is empathy.

At the last minute, I managed to secure a seat on a bus taking the students of Sri Cempaka, a private school in the Klang Valley, to Bera, Pahang, led by its founder, the feisty Datuk Frieda Pilus. Upon arrival, teachers, students and parents immediately rolled up their sleeves, slipped on their rubber boots and gloves and helped clean and make liveable again the homes that were in disrepair and hopelessness.

It meant stripping the homes that were still standing, after being flood-soaked for days, of all their contents — clothes, furniture, books and appliances. What could be saved were items of metal and glass — all else had to be discarded.

This was the ultimate that any school could have done to help with the floods — help another school.

It is this kind of administrative autonomy the ministry must be willing to part with so that individual schools can take the initiative and excel, so says Pisa. But this autonomy must be carefully managed by good leaders and not merely principals who are promoted based on seniority and marking time prior to retirement.

These must be dynamic individuals who want to make a difference, excel and create an impact. Effective appraisals and firm exit policies must be put in place to highlight the outstanding leaders who need to be developed and to weed out the weaklings who will do more harm than good if they continue to stay.

Then watch the schools excel, at speed.

Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is chairman of Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia. Page serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other education stakeholders.

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 19 - 25, 2015.