New National Education Blueprint 2013-2025 leaves many crucial policy questions unanswered

The Preliminary Report of the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 was launched with much fanfare on Tuesday. This document, written by expensive consultants at taxpayers’ expense, although seemingly comprehensive, in actual fact still leaves many crucial policy questions unanswered.

If these gaping holes are not addressed, this blueprint will suffer the same fate as all the other education blueprints that have been launched by previous Prime Ministers and Education Ministers.

Firstly, this blueprint does not contain any indication that the Ministry of Education has learnt from mistakes in the past.

Many of the initiatives announced under this new Blueprint are recycled ideas and past unfulfilled promises. For example, the Education Development Master Plan (Pelan Induk Pembangunan Pendidikan) 2006 to 2010 promised that any existing education gaps would be closed by continuing to provide necessary basic infrastructure necessities on a continuous basis.

But still, despite spending RM16 billion on physical infrastructure development from 2006 to 2010 under the 9th Malaysian Plan, there are still 1,500 (or 15%) of the 10,000 schools which do not have access to water suitable for drinking and 300 schools which still lack access to 24-hour electricity.

Today, we still hear many stories about schools promised but never built especially in the rural areas. At the same time, some poor quality schools are built at many times their cost price, to the benefit of political cronies.

In 2005, there were 2,768 schools without computer labs. In 2011, there were 2,700 schools without computer labs. In 2005, there were 1664 schools without functioning science labs. In 2011, there were 2,000 schools without functioning science labs. In other words, the number of schools without functioning science labs have actually increased by more than 300 and the number schools without computer labs decreased by only 68 despite the almost RM3 billion spent on IT and related infrastructure from 2006 to 2010 under the 9th MP.

In 2005, the SchoolNet project was supposed to have connected 9,285 schools to the internet even though only 8,900 schools had 24 hour electricity supply. Under this new blueprint, all 10,000 schools are supposed to have 4G internet access via the 1Bestarinet initiative. This project, which includes the provision of a virtual learning environment (VLE), is estimated to cost RM1.5 billion and was awarded to YTL Communications, a company with no track record for managing a project of this scale.

Without a transparent and comprehensive audit into past expenditure which failed to deliver the desired outcomes, such large scale development expenditure plans are likely to fall into the same cycle of mismanagement of resources and corruption.

Secondly, there are some serious policy omissions in this blueprint which need to be highlighted.

For example, there is scarcely any mention of any plans to strengthen the quality of teaching and infrastructure in vernacular and religious schools despite these schools having almost a quarter of total primary school enrollment.

There is no mention of any commitment on the part of the government to increase the number of vernacular and religious schools, which are in high demand in some areas, as reflected by the large class sizes, sometimes numbering more than 50 in urban areas such as Subang Jaya.

In addition, although the fact that the gender gap is widening was highlighted – including the fact that female students comprise up to 70% of incoming cohorts in some universities – there were no concrete proposals raised in order to address this very serious and growing problem. There was no mention, for example, of the incorporation of alternative teaching methods which would be more appealing to boys compared to girls, especially in areas with a higher number of boys dropping out of school.

Furthermore, despite identifying Sabah and Sarawak as having the districts with the highest number of low performing schools and pupils and also the highest number of dropouts, there were no concrete plans identified in this blueprint to tackle the unique problems faced by students in both states.

There was no mention of, for example, any strategies to target high performing Sabah and Sarawak Bumiputera natives to go back to their communities as teachers and agents for change.

Thirdly, there are some policies in this blueprint which are not ambitious enough in its scope and scale.

For example, while the policy to decentralize the scope and responsibilities of the Ministry of Education at the federal level to the state and district levels is an encouraging step, especially if capacity is also increased at the local level, this policy does not go far enough.

It does not, for example, give any leeway for the establishment of English medium schools, for example, which is a popular choice among many, especially in the urban areas.

Fourthly, specific strategies need to be identified for certain policies to work effectively.

For example, the goal of recruiting from the ranks of the top 30% of a cohort into the teaching profession is a laudable one which should have been implemented many years ago.

But according to the Ministry of Education’s own statistics, top academic performers comprised only 1% of applicants into the Bachelor of Education program in 2009 and this was only recently increased to 9% of total applicants in 2011.

To raise this figure to 30% would require pro-active strategies to target these top performers. The experience of Teach for Malaysia (TfM) to target 50 high performing fellows to become teachers for two years shows that top performers can be effectively enticed to become teachers. But without the identification of these targeting strategies, the top 30% goal will be an elusive one.

In addition, the call to recruit among the top 30% was not accompanied by the acknowledgement for the need for more aggressive recruitment strategies among the non-Bumiputeras especially in the national schools.

The Ministry’s own statistics shows that the percentage of Bumiputera teachers in national schools have increased from 78% in 2001 to 81% in 2011 while the percentage of Indian teachers have remained at 5% with the percentage of Chinese teachers dropping from 17% to 14%.

Targeting the top 30% of any cohort should result in a representative distribution of recruits. Given the current aversion of high performing non-Bumiputeras, it is disappointing that this blueprint does not outline any new recruiting strategies to overcome this historical aversion among non-Bumiputeras to see teaching as a meaningful and rewarding career.

One proposal, which DAP supports unreservedly, is the recognition of the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) for entry into public universities and the civil service, which would mean that more non-Malays who are in Chinese independent schools would be able to apply to be teachers for all subjects, and not just for Mandarin. Unfortunately, this has been totally omitted in the blueprint.

There were also no new strategies outlined in the blueprint on how to increase the appeal of vocational and technical education as attractive educational pathways.

Despite RM577 million of development expenditure pumped in during the 9th Malaysia Plan for technical and vocational education and training, the number of students enrolled in vocational education actually fell from 62,200 in 2008 to 51,500 in 2011, a fall from 2.7% to 2.2% of total students in secondary schools.

At the same time, the number of students enrolled in technical schools has barely budged, currently numbering 20,000 or less than 1% of total secondary school students.

Identifying new strategies to make technical and vocational education more attractive is key to increasing intake and will likely reduce the male dropout rate by ensuring that a larger number of males who are not ‘academically inclined’ will stay in secondary education.

Fifthly, while we welcome the commitment promised in the blueprint that the Ministry will publish annual reports to track the various KPIs and to conduct comprehensive five year reviews in 2015, 2020 and 2025, we also express our initial reservations about the seriousness of this commitment.

We have seen how the statistics and achievements announced under the Government Transformation Program (GTP) and the Economic Transformation Program (ETP) were manipulated in order to artificially boost these KPIs.

The crime figures under the GTP and the progress of selected Entry Point Projects (EPPs) are notable examples. We have seen the same propensity of grade inflation in our education system where statistics from the Examination Syndicate show that 50% of Form 5 students would have failed to achieve minimum standards in the English language Cambridge assessments compared to only 20% under the SPM examination.

If the Ministry of Education is serious in making its progress transparent, it should make detailed data publicly available including UPSR, PMR and SPM results of each primary and secondary school so that the stakeholders such as parents and academics can evaluate this progress for themselves.

There is still time for the government to address these shortcomings. If the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, who is also the Education Minister, are serious about education reform, they should address these and other shortcomings during the public consultation period before the blueprint is finalized in December.

Lim Kit Siang DAP Parliamentary Leader & MP for Ipoh Timur