What does it mean when an education system envisions enhancing equity and equality? The Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (MEB) lists five key aspirations for our education system — access, quality, equity, unity and efficiency. But according to a world-renowned education reformer, the only aspiration that matters and should be the focus of education reform is equity. Equity is about enhancing equality in an education system.
Kudos to BFM 89.9 for its interview with Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and former director-general of education in Finland. He now goes around the world advising ministries of education on what is required for good education reform and shares the success stories of Finland, which has one of the most-talked-about education systems in the world.
Indeed, it was a good discussion between Sahlberg, who has a bird’s-eye view of the Malaysian education system, and Ezra Zaid, who kept the dialogue relevant and applicable to the Malaysian context.
The Finland concept of enhancing equality focuses on children who need more time and help than others to succeed. It recognises that not all students are the same. Some may have learning difficulties, behavioural problems and various other issues that could hamper their learning.
In fact, Finland has the most number of special education teachers who specialise in early intervention than anywhere else in the world. The country not only employs the best and brightest for the teaching profession but has also made equity the cornerstone of its education reform since the 1970s. This objective made the country realise that it needed teachers who were better educated and prepared to take on the task. It redesigned teacher education and required that preschool and primary school teachers have a relevant master’s degree. Thus, it is not enough to just have quality teachers but they also have to be trained to serve a specific need.
Finland did not aim to be at the top of international rankings. In fact, Sahlberg remarked, “If you don’t aim to be high in the international ranking, you’d actually do better than those who have systematic plans to be in the top five.”
Malaysia wants to be in the top five but has done little to improve what it outlines as an aspiration — equity. Instead, it focuses on ensuring that the schools and students involved in international tests get help in mastering test-taking in addition to revising the syllabus to include higher order thinking skills, which happen to be the basis of the international tests. What Malaysia is doing will only produce short-term gain. What it needs is a longer-term plan and a holistic approach to enhancing equality in education. It took Finland 40 years to see the real, organic net effect of its transformation.
Focusing on Malaysian children who need more attention than others early in life in order to succeed must be made a priority. This is not included in the first of the 11 shifts under the five aspirations of the MEB, which is to “provide equal access to quality education of an international standard”. According to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 revealed that 51.8% of 15-year-old Malaysian students failed to reach the baseline level of proficiency in mathematics. This means that they can only handle the simplest and obvious tasks and most are expected not to continue beyond compulsory schooling. OECD classifies them as “at risk of later failing to successfully integrate into the labour market and society more generally”.
Equity cannot be achieved where a significant number of students fall behind. On a positive note, the Literacy and Numeracy Screening (LINUS) programme — introduced as a form of early intervention to ensure that children below 10 acquire basic literacy and numeracy skills — is laudable. However, it is limited by age, basic language and numbers.
As an OECD model country, Finland has in place early detection mechanisms, periodic assessments by several teachers and the identification of specific subjects that students struggle with. The affected students are then given the necessary support so that they can keep up with their peers.
There was a minor uproar when Harvard University’s Professor Lant Pritchett was “misquoted” as saying that the literacy of Malaysian and Indonesian graduates was comparable to that of a Danish school dropout based on the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies — the adult equivalent of PISA. However, this is still worrying.
Indonesia may have been one of the worst performers in PISA 2012 but Malaysia was not far behind. As a comparison, 55.2% of Indonesian and 52.7% of Malaysian 15-year-old students failed to reach the baseline level of proficiency in reading. This is a grave concern that must be addressed. The alarm bells are ringing.
The bottom line is, equity can be achieved by giving low-performing and struggling students the necessary guidance, intervention and support. Our education system needs to go through a transformation and recognise that schools are the nuclei of learning. Can we take that leap into true 21st century learning? Equity in education must be made an agenda of Transformasi Nasional 2050, which means we have 33 years to make a turnaround.
Tunku Munawirah Putra is honorary secretary of Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) Malaysia