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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.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #47

Chapter 7: Strengthening the Schools (Cont'd)

Charter and Private Schools

Presently there is minimal private sector participation in the school system apart from preschools. Schools are essentially government monopoly, except for some private secular and religious schools. There are few private international schools but Malaysians are specifically excluded except under very unusual circumstances requiring ministerial permission.

Within the last few years MOE is relaxing its prohibition against private schools. Thus far these private schools are operated by or extensions of existing private colleges. They still have to follow the national curriculum, so there is no innovation in that area. The only changes are these schools are less crowded and have better facilities and longer hours. Like the private colleges, these schools are also dangerously segregated racially and socially. MOE does not require that they be more inclusive.

There is a definite role for the private sector. If we have private schools along the lines of international schools it would give Malaysians some choices. These schools would also give public schools much needed competition. To be effective and contribute their fair share, these schools should be more inclusive and not become enclaves of a particular social class or race. They should adhere to certain minimum academic, enrollment, and safety standards.

There are two ways in which the private sector could participate – one as a joint public and private venture in the form of charter schools, and the other as purely private schools receiving no state support. Charter schools are popular in America. The underlying concept is to empower the ultimate consumers of schools – students and their parents – by taking control away from the central bureaucracy and giving it to the schools. The ministry would be concerned only with monitoring the quality, compliance with rules and regulations, and setting the standards.

Well designed, charter schools would lead to greater integration of students; improve the level of English; involve the private sector in the education system; and most importantly, introduce much-needed competition to the present state monopoly. Such competition would enhance quality and encourage innovation.

To gain their charter such schools would have to meet certain conditions. Their graduates would have to demonstrate competency in the national language. Their curriculum would have the same four core subjects, with the school free to fill in the rest of the day. These schools would have to recognize the uniqueness and special sensitivity of Malaysian society. Their student body must therefore reflect the community. Exceptions would be rare; a school in Ulu Kelantan could have fewer non-Bumiputras.

In return these schools would get state funding – the same amount it would have cost the government to educate these pupils in its present system. Additionally the state would guarantee loans for capital expenses. The actual lending would be done by private sources.

Because of the guarantee, the interest rate should be favorable. The schools could also charge additional tuition. Any entity, local or foreign, could establish such schools provided they meet enrolment requirements stipulated earlier as well as those that would prevent them from becoming either the one-teacher school or the giant educational factories. Further, parents and teachers should constitute the majority of the governing board to ensure that the school’s mission would not be subverted. The board would have total control, including choosing the medium of instruction and the setting of fees. The board would be accountable to the students and parents; they would monitor the school better than any government official.

As added precaution, these schools must post performance bonds to repay the government’s grants as well as reimburse the students should the school be closed. Such schools should have clearly stated objectives. They could prepare students for any matriculating examination. Some could emphasize the fine arts, others, foreign languages or the sciences. These schools could look to their leading counterparts abroad as their model. Schools preparing students for American universities could emulate Groton and Exeter. Such schools would also attract foreign students and be a source of valuable foreign earnings.

For the non-college bound, there could be vocational charter schools started by private companies. Proton could have one to train automotive and body mechanics; a consortium of construction companies could start one to train plumbers, electricians, and other skilled workers. A group of hotels could start one to train workers for their industry. Industry, not the ministry, would set the curriculum. If there is a demand there could be schools preparing students for Arabic and Chinese universities. Such schools must of course meet the enrolment mix stipulated earlier.

Charter schools would lead to greater integration, as students would take classes and do extra curricular activities together, an improvement over the present vision schools or the Pupil Integration Plan. To prevent such schools from becoming enclaves of the rich, they would have to provide scholarships for the poor. They should also provide hostel facilities so students from rural areas would not be excluded. The schools should also have adequate facilities (playing fields, auditoriums) to preclude their being set up above shop lots.

Private schools on the other hand would not get any state funding. Like charter schools, they would still have to post performance bonds to protect their consumers. To make sure that they play their proper role in nation building and in fostering national unity, these schools should also have a student body that reflects society. The only curricular requirement is that their students must demonstrate competence in Malay and the subject should be taught daily. The students would also have to sit for the same national examination in Malay language as students in national schools. Private schools would thus have greater autonomy than charter schools, as befits their status in not getting any public funds.

Adopting charter and private schools would require a major shift in thinking and attitude on the part of the education establishment; a paradigm shift, to use the current cliché. They must also disabuse themselves from the ingrained idea that innovations and pedagogical wisdom are the exclusive preserve of ministry bureaucrats or that the government is the only entity that can provide quality education.

Malaysia should start small, by granting charters to about 20-25 primary schools and 10-12 at the secondary level, and the same number for totally private schools. After a few years carefully evaluate the program with a view of enhancing it. Malaysia benefited immensely by allowing private sector involvement at the tertiary level. It would also benefit by having the private sector be involved in the schools. If Malaysia could reach the stage where Chile is today with nearly half the students opting for non-public schools, imagine the lessening of the load on MOE. It could then pay more attention to those who really need its help.

Next: Testing! Testing!…I, 2, 3!


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