What is the purpose of putting our children through this assembly line of an education system when more than half of them are at risk of failing to integrate into the labour market and society in general when they leave school?
The objective of getting an education is so that students can make good of themselves, find good jobs, support their families and be good citizens of the country. But statistics provided by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the World Bank show that the capability of the human capital produced by our assembly line leaves much to be desired.
Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik must know that Malaysians are looking to his leadership to turn around our national schools, which are still producing defective goods, although he inherited this problem.
That he is an academician, a religious scholar schooled in both Middle Eastern and Western philosophy works to his advantage. His qualities make him the best candidate to navigate and mediate between the conservative religious group and the progressive Western-thinking religious group as well as those from a diverse background.
He would be the key player in troubleshooting and undoing the complications that are plaguing our education system where Islamic studies are concerned. Of utmost concern to Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad is that our national schools have become religious schools, turning the people away from them. A balance must be struck between religious education and education for progress. Much of the discussion is also about the kind of Islamic teaching in the schools today, which is currently under review.
There must be a clear path in order to start repairing our education system to ensure that problems that can and will hinder its progress are kept in check.
Nevertheless, efforts to improve our education system should prioritise how to get the low performers who lag in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills to perform at a level that will enable them to fully participate in the modern world. This should always be the mission. Some 51.8% of Malaysian students tested in PISA 2012 would be at a disadvantage when they enter higher education and the labour market. By comparison, in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, the average rate of those facing such problems is 23%.
While reducing the number of low performers in our education system, we should also look at narrowing their gap with the high performers.
Improving student outcomes through better teaching methods must be seriously looked into. Are the current training programmes for in-service teachers effective? Are the teachers implementing the good training they received in the long run?
The Trust School programme highlights the fact that the buddy system, mentoring and guidance improve a teacher’s ability to teach. Teachers must receive the right support, mentoring and guidance from school administrators and district education offices as well as the state education department. But these personnel beyond the schools must themselves receive proper training, mentoring and guidance to ensure that they are up to date with the tools that are required to manufacture Malaysian human capital that is holistically 21st century. Indeed, some of the checks and balances do not require extra budgetary resources. So, we should begin with a proper stock-taking and recalibration of the machinery of the Ministry of Education.
In this day and age, the mission of education as an equaliser seems to be much more complex and challenging. While good teaching in the classroom is a determinant of the success of students’ learning, one factor that is not as easy to remedy is the household income and socioeconomic status of the parents. Many First World nations too are grappling with stagnant wages and a huge income disparity between the top 10% of the workforce and the average wage earner.
We know that our country has socioeconomic and low household income issues to tackle. Children living in poverty face challenges in their learning ability with even the most gifted losing their potential. What will become of our children, knowing full well that many of them come from disadvantaged families and the education provided to them entraps in this disadvantaged state?
There is no alternative to high-quality national education. Let us begin by getting the factory right.
Tunku Munawirah Putra is honorary secretary of PAGE Malaysia