The Rise of Private School and What It Means for Malaysian Education

1. My eldest is turning 7 next year. I was told by my parents that it used to be quite simple, really — you register with the Ministry of Education, and you get the school nearest to your residence. Everyone goes there, basically.

2. But it’s really a sign of our times that I now have a wide range of choices available for primary education. There’s the classic national school system (SRK, SRJKC etc), religious boarding schools and the new-new private education options separated into private KBSR and private International (although often housed and served by the same private education group).

3. Let’s just put it this way — private education IS expensive. To put things into perspective, one of the cheapest in the Klang Valley charges more per year for a Standard 1 education (KBSR stream) than it cost me for my 5.5 years to get a degree (albeit, it’s UiTM…).

4. By my calculation, it would cost more than RM 300,000 (at the lower end of the scale) to finish all the way to SPM for one child. Going International is even more expensive. Best part? There’s NO guarantee that your kids will score in the exams.

4. Yet, the business is growing — which means despite the price point, demand is exceeding supply. We went and surveyed 4 different schools. Each had plans to expand — whether adding buildings or opening another campus.

5. This is a worrying trend primarily because it creates further segregation by way of class/wealth. It is not guaranteed but kind of implied that private education is better than public education. Kids who get better education will generally turn out better than those who don’t. They get better paying jobs, better job security etc. That is not even including the various cross-learning and character-building the kids will be missing from mixing with people wealthier or poorer than them.

6. A corollary to Point 5 is that by virtue of the unequal distribution of wealth here in Malaysia among races, the rise of private school will further cause racial divide. I can say that of all the private schools I visited, almost 90% of the student population are non-Malays. It can be implied that if the private schools and SJKC are filled with Chinese students, there will be less of them in the regular SRKs — and this is exactly what is happening even in places as demographically diverse as Subang Jaya.

7. Racial segregation at school is already happening unwittingly by way of geography — a whole township can be built where the residents are almost exclusively from one race. Naturally, the SRK nearby would also be filled of people of the same race. You’d be hard-pressed to find an Indian or Chinese student at any public school in central Shah Alam, for example.

8. I personally feel that children should be exposed to different culture and way of thinking from an early age. If I remember correctly, I would have been the 1st or 2nd in my classes IF there were only Malays. Alas, the non-Malays (primarily Chinese) would grab the top 3 spots. This, for me, is a good example of healthy competition — essential for the kids to know real life don’t care whether you’re brown, black, yellow, white.

9. Another point is that private education creates an imbalance economic incentive for teachers, further sucking talent out of the public school system. I mean, why should they stick around for less pay, more paperwork and more students when they could offer their services to the private sector? As more and more private schools pop-up, you will see less experienced teachers at public school. The quality gap between private and public education will be EVEN worse, drawing even more demand for private education, starting another debilitating downward spiral for public education.

10. Finally, as the quality gap increases, so does the financial pressure on parents. Huge sums of money have to be put aside just so they could keep up with their peers who can afford private education. After all, 80% is good but not if others are getting 95%. The reality of life is as such.

Why Is This Happening?

11. It’s pretty “happening” to be blaming the Government for everything and I hoped you guys don’t see this post as such but the reality is that education policy, strategic direction, implementation and quality is under the purview of the Government.

12. I personally feel that there is a failure to even identify the critical issues with our education system. Instead, we tend to harp on the “trends” in education without understanding the cause and effect. A prime example is this shift away from exams to assessments purportedly as a measure to create more “thinking” graduates. The reality is that a culture that promotes transparency, freedom of speech, access to information will create these so called “critical thinkers” better than any formal education system. You can’t employ Scandinavian education methodologies while at the same time expect your students not to be critical of issues that affect the nation, to kow-tow to religious views without questioning etc.

13. Culturally speaking, we are similar to our fellow Asian countries. Singapore, South Korea, Japan and China are prime examples of exam-oriented education system yet capable of producing world beaters. Why try to reinvent the wheel when the problem is not the bicycle but the person riding it?

14. There are perhaps more examples of Government’s intervention that readers could highlight on. My point is that Government’s efforts thus far has been haphazard, and changes according to the whims of the political class at the expense of our children’s future.

15. If there is a failure to identify the actual complaints, causes and effects, how could one trust that the quality of our public education will not further deteriorate? And a good barometer of public confidence in our public education is private education enrollment!

Is There A Better Way?

16. The goal is not to eliminate private education, but to ensure that the quality gap is not too wide — especially in critical areas — to public education. In this way, the choice would be a simple matter of wanting a more comfortable environment, more personalized education for your child rather than a “smart or stupid” one.

17. Towards that end, and this is a drastic one, I propose that Education should be led by professionals, not politicians. It should be led by a statutory body reporting directly to Parliament — there would be no need for an Education Minister. Instead, a committee comprising of various education experts would drive the Education Body and ensure whatever plans or blueprint would receive widespread acceptance from the legislature, and continuance of the plans and blueprint despite changes to Government. Drastic, yes, but a necessary first step.

18. Technically, I would like to propose a radical shift from two-session arrangement to a new single-session system. This is to allow for the running of a morning-to-evening syllabus. The morning session runs as per current but without Agama or Pendidikan Moral. Instead, 2pm-4pm session is appropriated daily for “cultural education”. This includes Pendidikan Islam for the Muslims, and the respective language and cultural classes for the non-Muslims. This is the only time that students are separated by way of their race/religion.

19. Allocate 2 hours (4–6 pm) every day towards “human capital development” programs such as arts, music, debates, sports. This for me is a better solution than trying to teach them maths and then assessing them based on subjective standards. If you want to promote creativity, let them be creative. Not ask them to be creative in a non-creative subjective.

20. The daily cultural education program is important as the next critical step is to integrate the SRJKs, sekolah agamas and more into the present SRK. Malaysia is perhaps unique in that the Government has to support so many different streams of public education. This creates wastage and inefficiency. The solution is to show SRKs CAN promote Chinese education, Islamic education or whatever in a more holistic manner.

21. Let teachers be teachers. They shouldn’t fill in paperwork or participate in administrative matters. They should be allowed significant leeway in teaching methodology BUT should be rated and rewarded based on a set standard (so yeah, none of that subjective assessment crap). Compensation structure must tally with performance of students and they could be re-assigned even removed for poor-performance. In exchange for this, pay teachers the market rate. Hire professional administrators to manage operational matters.

22. Do NOT abandon exams. Do NOT spend money on pointless computer programs. Do NOT create “cluster schools” that only heightens the impression that some schools are given more priority than others. Every school should be given the best opportunity to thrive.

23. We could probably think of more technical suggestions — like abandoning blanket subsidies on public education and charging parents based on their wages — but it should be grounded by more data, of which I have none.

In fact, this entire piece is purely anecdotal. It is hoped that some rich Arab patron would read this, be impressed, and donate some money to my personal account (I prefer Maybank by the way). I’ll settle for USD 7 million, thanks.