Reforming Education


The Education Blueprint falls short on many counts. Perhaps we should take a lesson from the Finns.

Man of Mathematics was the title of the book, a parting gift from Mr Paul Pommel, my father’s secondary school teacher who finished his term as a Peace Corp volunteer in rural Kuala Terengganu in 1968. Today, my father is a mathematics professor. Was it the book that influenced him, or Pommel? Or was it the simple experience of getting a gift from his teacher that propelled him to where he is today? (Pommel later died in the Vietnam War.)

Regardless of which it was, it cannot be denied that education was the key. Numerous academic papers have been written about the importance of education; about how it reduces social and economic disparity, thus allowing progress to be shared equally. In developing countries, education is viewed as a means for alleviating poverty and engineering social change.

The critical role that education plays in creating human capital is what makes investments in education an economics study on its own. Even Adam Smith in his book The Wealth of Nations (1776) argued for the importance of education in raising the productive capacity of society. Today, human capital is properly recognised as a main component in the engine of economic growth.

However, education is not just about studying and getting straight A’s, nor is it about getting into Ivy Leagues or Oxbridge; those are merely effects of a good education. Education provides the critical skills and tools that help people better provide for themselves, and also gives a person the ability to differentiate between right and wrong. According to a study done by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in 2011, the production of university degrees and R&D activities of educational institutions are tied to the growth of human capital in the areas in which they are located1. So clearly, education is not only good for the individual, but also the community – education is the basis of a civilised and structured society.

Cover of the National Education Blueprint.

Hence, it is no surprise that education is such a critical issue to Malaysians. The country has been investing heavily in education since independence. Not only does it take up the largest chunk of the national budget, Malaysiais also among the countries in the world with the highest investment in education. This is why it is rather distressing to learn that, based on the 2010 World Bank report, our returns on the investment have been disastrously low. Malaysia has registered poor international performance in three consecutive Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS) and Programme for International Student Assessments (Pisa). A high number of local graduates is not marketable or industry-ready, not to mention the free fall in their command of English. Numerous explanations have been given without any solid empirical data to back them up.

Some quarters feel the Blueprint will quietly kill off vernacular schools.

In response to the public outcry on the state of national education, the Ministry of Education recently finalised and published the National Education Blueprint, which will now be the guiding document for improving national education.

The National Education Blueprint is a document driven by international best practices and 11 programmes called “shifts” that were proposed and have worked in other countries. In essence, the document is “politically correct”– what it proposes sounds perfectly reasonable. However, it is assumed that by implementing these 11 shifts, we will be able to fix the education system.

Reactions to the Blueprint have seen very few positive and constructive comments. Some quarters fear that it will quietly kill off Chinese and Indian vernacular schools, while others condemn it for not containing any Bumiputera agenda. Now, no Blueprint can appease everyone, and this fact should be accepted. However, there are several issues with the Blueprint that need to be highlighted and taken seriously.

First, while the Blueprint made clear the challenges and problems in our education system, it does not support them with empirical evidence. This means that the solutions it proposes seem more assumptive than evidence-based. A good public policy needs to be driven by evidence and not short-term political pressures. Policies should be forward-looking and should deal concretely with the problems being faced. But how can this be done without strong supporting data? The implementation of public policies which are not based on evidence can cost billions of Ringgit and yet fail to address critical problems, and may end up victimising more people than intended.

Reviews conducted by Unesco and the World Bank have stated that the problem with the Malaysian education system is structural, and this is mostly due to the complex nature of how the Education Ministry is run and how its policies are implemented. It has become apparent that policies and new initiatives are undertaken by the Ministry with few references to empirical data, which leads to concerns about their long-term implications. The Blueprint does not in any way explain or justify why the 11 shifts are seen as key criteria for improving our education system. For instance, where is the empirical data that proves that the factors taken up in “Shift 3: Develop value-driven Malaysians” and “Shift 4: Transform teaching into a profession of choice” are important? Where is the evidence to support this argument?

Muhyiddin with other officials during the launch of the Education Blueprint.

The Blueprint states that international best practices prove that teacher quality is the most significant school-based factor in determining student outcomes – this we can all agree on. It continues to show that only 50% of current lessons in Malaysian schools are being delivered in an effective manner. The Blueprint then goes on to state that:

“Teaching will be a prestigious, elite profession that only recruits from the top 30% of graduates in the country. Teachers will receive the best training possible, from the time they enter their teacher training programmes, through to the point of retirement. They will have access to exciting career development opportunities across several distinct pathways, with progression based on competency and performance, not tenure. There will be a peer-led culture of excellence wherein teachers mentor one another, develop and share best practices and hold their peers accountable for meeting professional standards.”

That may be so, but what the Blueprint fails to discuss is how current problems with our existing teachers have resulted in them failing to meet the basic requirements of teaching. It further fails to provide information on how long the situation has been festering and how many students have suffered from this failure so far. If this has been going on for years, then the situation is dire and a major structural change is desperately needed. Just providing means to upgrade already overworked teachers will not do.

Such structural changes need to be done in tandem with a paradigm shift in the mindset of the existing workforce. Malaysia’s education policy as well as its workforce are entrenched in the old New Economic Policy (NEP) mindset, even after the recent introduction of the New Economic Model (NEM). Under the NEP, the objective of education was to increase access to education as well as reduce racial inequality. Although we have made enormous strides in providing access to education, our education system today may no longer be congruent with current realities. A shift from simply increasing access to education to improving the quality of education is needed, which means more stress on merit with limited targeting to ensure that the bottom 40% of the population would not be left behind.

This requires a whole different skill-set and perspective, not just through encouraging our best and brightest to become teachers, but also through reviewing our entire teacher training and staffing system as well as the management policy. We need to address longstanding structural weaknesses in the system and the negative side-effects of the NEP such as mediocrity, dependency and racial polarisation throughout the education system.

Decentralising education

One much needed change which was only lightly touched on in the Blueprint is decentralisation. Increasing the local autonomy of schools and districts as proposed by the Blueprint is only a short-term measure: the current global trend is to decentralise education systems. The process transfers decision-making powers from central ministries to state governments, local governments, communities and schools. The extent of the transfer varies but of course it does result in the de-concentration of administration as well as the transfer of financial control to regional or local levels.

This will allow schools or local authorities to have more say in the management, budget and staffing of their own schools without having to go through a central authority’s bureaucracy.

Looking at our current highly centralised system which is experiencing pitfalls such as administrative and fiscal inefficiency as well as poor quality of service especially from the teaching staff, the advantages of decentralisation are appealing. In general, the process of decentralisation can substantially improve efficiency, transparency and accountability. It will also better reflect local priorities, encourage the participation of all stakeholders such as parents and local communities, and, eventually, improve quality. What the federal government really needs to do is to revisit its role as an education provider. Perhaps it should only limit itself to monitoring, evaluating and developing policies.

In wanting to be the best internationally, Malaysia focused its national policies on producing “gifted and talented” students. This is evident in the pursuit of A’s in national examinations and the continuous praises that the Ministry and politicians heap upon themselves for producing students who achieved many A’s. There is a fundamental problem with this; while it is good that we celebrate our most gifted students, an education policy that focuses on this takes attention away from the rest. A holistic education system does not set its goals on the amount of straight-A students it has nor on how many “geniuses” it produces, but through ensuring that no student fails.

We have come to evaluate our education process solely on national examinations. To its credit, the Blueprint attempts to address this by introducing “assessments” under the new Kurikulum Standard Sekolah Rendah (KSSR) for primary schools, which will be implemented nationwide by 2016, and the Kurikulum Standard Sekolah Menengah (KSSM) for secondary schools, which is still currently being designed. The idea is to replace the UPSR and PMR with school-based assessment programmes to empower students and teachers by giving them more autonomy on teaching and learning. How this will be implemented remains to be seen.

Currently, rewards to students, teachers and schools are still based on examination outcomes. Salary increments and school rankings are based on national examinations, which, though not wrong, can distort priorities. Teachers and schools should be evaluated on numerous criteria, such as decrease in dropout rates or increase of students maintaining their entire secondary schooling performance. But how can that be done when student records and report cards hold no value? Report cards that show the progress of a student’s academic life are crucial. They not only indicate whether students have passed their examinations, but also how they are faring. Most importantly, they can be used to detect whether a student needs intervention or assistance. Unfortunately our current system is not using them, so a paradigm shift on how education is evaluated is vital.

It is of course difficult to provide constructive criticism when there is no clear empirical data – and the Ministry continues to remain secretive. For instance, inspectorate reports are not disclosed or even shared within the Ministry, and the examination board does not make public its data on examinations. We are left to assume that passing marks are the same every year; the examination analysis that the Ministry does make public in truth only tells us how many students earned straight A’s – it does not deliver a proper critique on student performances. Disappointingly, the public is forced to accept this low quality of work as conclusive. Clarity is needed on where the real problems lie in the education system. Making random guesses and assumptions are costly and resources are always limited.

Finnish girl in Helsinki.

The Finns

International best practices are always a good benchmark to work with, and one of the best education systems in the world belongs to the Finns. They have gone through economic and cultural transitions, moving from a mono-cultural, agrarian and peripheral society to a multicultural, high-tech knowledge economy. Their education system successfully combines quality with widespread equity and social cohesion through reasonable public finance2.

Finland’s success as a nation has often been explained by its relatively homogeneous society. While its population of 5.3 million may not be as diverse as in some other European nations (although migration trends since the early 1990s indicate that Finland is rapidly transforming into a multicultural society), its education system continues to perform exceptionally well3. Has Finland’s education system always been so robust and dynamic?

The Finnish education system was never really affected by the global education reforms of the 1980s (see Table 1). Its policies today are the result of decades of systematic, mostly intentional development that has created a culture of diversity, trust and respect.

Source: Sahlberg, P.

As Table 1 shows, the policies that Finland adopted during an era of global education reforms were markedly unique. This is not to say that other experts were wrong, but rather that Finland’s success has been the result of policymakers who pursued reform in ways that went beyond optimising existing structures, policies and practices, moving instead towards fundamentally transforming paradigms and beliefs that underlie educational policy and practice4. In the 1990s, the discourse in education policy went through further changes and Finland was not immune to outside development; it reviewed its policy based on the current neo-liberal system but in the end, it still remained true to its fundamentals.

The bedrock of the Finnish education policy is based on sustainable leadership established through values that are grounded in equity, equitable distribution of resources rather than competition, intensive early childhood intervention, an equal head start for all and building gradual trust between education practitioners (especially teachers) and other stakeholders such as parents and communities. As Finland’s policy design was based on their needs, they did not have a problem revamping the entire system when it became irrelevant.

Real reforms needed in Malaysia

The Malaysian education system is at a crossroads. The government has announced one reform plan after another and its education philosophy has been reviewed many times. Yet, year after year, the same mediocre results are achieved. Accountability and transparency are much needed if the education system is to be truly reformed. Simply mimicking other systems will not be sufficient in addressing the system’s inherent problems. Japan, after all, did not become a First World country by mimicking the West – it took their techniques and policies and redesigned them in its own image.

Finnish classrooms.

It is evident that Malaysia needs strong and healthy human capital to prosper, and education is the key. However, it is doubtful that the few proposals laid on top of existing policies will transform the education system. The Malaysian government needs to make bold decisions and design policies based on empirical data. It needs to own up to its past mistakes before the country can move on.

1 “Do Colleges and Universities Increase Their Region’s Human Capital?”,
2 Sahlberg, P., “Education policies for raising student learning: the Finnish approach”, Journal of Education Policy, Vol. 22, No. 2, March 2007, pp. 147-171.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.

Altaf Deviyati is a senior analyst with the Political and Social Analysis Unit at the Penang Institute, working in the areas of social inclusion.

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