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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Movement Towards School-Based Management

Movement Towards School-Based Management (SBM)

Two recent announcements concerning our schools give me hope. Education Minister Hishamuddin proposed granting autonomy to our leading schools, while Raja Nazrin, Chairman of the Board of Malay College, suggested that its students sit for the International Baccalaureate. If followed through, both would be positive developments.

Currently, the Education Ministry resembles the old Soviet system, with its strict top-down and central command-and-control structure. Even the Russians have abandoned it. Our schools and other educational institutions suffer unnecessarily from such strictures. Any loosening of that grip should be welcomed.

The challenges facing Malay College are very different from those of SMK Ulu Kelantan. Those closest to the problems – headmasters, teachers, parents, and governing boards – would be in the best position to solve them, not those distant bureaucrats in the capital city.

This is the rationale for school-based management (SBM), with power devolved from the central authority to the local institutions. This is the guiding principle of school reforms in Chile, America, New Zealand, and elsewhere.

Like the old Soviet system, if we were to liberalize our schools overnight, there would be chaos. School boards would be the new arenas for aspiring local politicians. If SBM were to be introduced to the average school that does not have a tradition for excellence, there will be no end of conflict among the board members and teachers, to the detriment of the pupils.

Restricting SBM only to leading schools, at least initially, makes sense. They must be already doing something right, so reward them by granting them greater freedom so they could blossom. That would also encourage others to excel.


Effective School-Based Management

School-based management is not a new concept or practice. Malaysia does not have to reinvent the wheel. Suffice that it learns from the best practices elsewhere.

The best model, pardon my bias, would be America. There is little that could be learned from Chile, New Zealand, or even Singapore. Those countries do not have the diversity issues Malaysia faces. Singapore would like to consider itself multiracial but it is essentially Chinese. It is not exactly the best model on how to treat minorities. The schools in New Zealand that may offer relevant lessons for Malaysia would be those located near Maori settlements or have significant number of their students. Such schools face the same dilemma that Malaysian schools have.

The elite American schools, like its elite colleges, have a conscious policy of ensuring that its enrollment reflects the greater society. They have no trouble filling their slots with rich White students but purposely and aggressively recruit minorities. These schools fervently believe that a culturally diverse classroom enhances the learning environment.

The problem for Malaysia would be how to ensure that the student body adequately represents all races and socioeconomic status. Then there would be still issues regarding preferences (geographic proximity, siblings of current students, children of staff members and old boys). I have no objection as long those preferences are not large and are explicitly declared. These are issues for the board to decide.
Meaningful autonomy must go beyond budgetary freedom. The governing board must have full authority to hire and fire the headmaster, teachers, and other staff members, select and discipline the students, and to design the curriculum and choose the textbooks.

The Board is accountable to the major stakeholders, including and especially the parents, and to the Ministry. The Board must therefore have sufficient representation from parents, teachers, former students, and community members. Malaysia is fortunate to have many well-educated citizens living in small towns like Kuala Kangsar. Co-opting them to be board members should pose minimal problem. There is no point appointing luminaries residing hundreds of miles away.

The ministry would set only broad guidelines and allocate an annual global operating budget and let the schools decide how to spend it. There should be a separate capital budget upon approval by the ministry. If the school could raise its own funds for capital expansion, then it would not need ministry’s approval.

Granting these schools greater autonomy would encourage others to seek excellence so they too could enjoy the freedom. With autonomy comes accountability. The school – its board, teachers, and headmaster – would be responsible for its performance. Failure to perform would be reason to withdraw that freedom. The converse, excelling would result in incentive grants.

SBM is the best antidote to the increasingly bloated education bureaucracy. Even if a small proportion of our schools were independently managed, imagine how much smaller the ministry would be! The savings in overhead could be diverted to the schools to benefit the pupils directly.

SBM would result in headmasterships becoming terminal appointments. There will be no more headmasters warming their seats while waiting to be promoted up the bureaucracy. One Malay College headmaster stayed barely a few months, just enough for an entry on his resume.


International Baccalaureate

Malaysia’s best should compete with the world’s best. The National Academy of Science regards the IB as one of the two top programs to prepare students to pursue the sciences in college, the other being the American Advanced Placement (AP) program.

IB combines breath with depth; it is much superior to the GCE A Level which while rigorous, lacks breadth. Many leading universities give first year credits based on the IB and AP results.

Currently Malay College does not prepare its students for any matriculating examination; its students have to go elsewhere for that. The College is now reduced to being a glorified middle school. What a disgrace to a once proud tradition. Following up on Raja Nazrin’s suggestion would go a long way towards redeeming that heritage.

When we set a high bar our young will respond. For years Mara College at Banting has had a successful IB program. When I was teaching young surgeons in Malaysia, I insisted that they sit for recognized foreign qualifications like the FRACS and FRCS instead of the local Master’s program. This was not the residuum of colonial thinking or lack of faith in local institutions, rather that in this era of globalization, we must measure ourselves against internationally recognized yardsticks.

Today, good enough for Malaysia isn’t; Malaysians demand global standards. The decisions of the Minister and Raja Nazrin bring Malaysia closer towards this goal.

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