Educate to Innovate: Malaysia must continue to build a high performing education system for success beyond 2020

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The World Bank has commended Malaysia on having made great strides on access to education.

The World Bank has commended Malaysia on having made great strides on access to education.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranking aside, we cannot deny that the Malaysian education system despite its shortcomings has succeeded in providing almost universal and equitable access to education – from preschool to secondary education, across urban and rural areas, and to children of diverse socio-economic standing and ethnic backgrounds. This was noted by the World Bank in its 2013 Economic Monitor for Malaysia.

Providing accessibility to basic education has been a constant focus despite the numerous changes in policies and, today, education is a priority sector, reflected in the size of federal funds allocated to it. Malaysia’s expenditure for basic education is among the highest in the ASEAN region.

For many, it was this accessibility that gave them the opportunity to better themselves and break the cycle of poverty.

The Blue Print for Reform

Malaysia first participated in PISA in 2009, at a time when more than half of the students failed to meet the required proficiency level in mathematics, science and reading. It was found that students were so accustomed to rote studying for exam purposes that they lacked the ability to be analytical and critical.

This was the wake-up call that made both policymakers and educators sit up and work on aggressive reforms for the system. This was also the reason for the Education Blue Print 2013-2025, which is focused on the development of higher order thinking skills in schools.

The blue print, launched in September last year, aspires for Malaysia to be in the top third of countries in terms of performance in international assessments, such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and PISA, within 15 years.

During the recent Global Malaysia Series (GMS) organised by the Economic Transformation Programme, the Performance Management and Delivery Unit (PEMANDU) Chief Executive Officer Senator Dato’ Sri Idris Jala pointed out that the education blue print will help create the highly skilled talent pool crucial for an innovation driven development post 2020.

The blue print, among others, focuses on revising curricula to embed skills and knowledge such as creative thinking, innovation, problem solving and leadership as well as the pedagogical approaches to nurturing these skills.

Under this reform, a great amount of effort is also being put into improving the quality of teachers. “This includes the effort to attract quality talents into the teaching profession through better incentive schemes,” said Dato’ Sri Idris Jala (pic).

He added that current initiatives include the Cambridge Placement test and remedial classes to increase the competency of all English teachers in the country.

Reforms to the education system had begun even before the launch of the blue print through programmes like i-Think, a joint initiative between the Education Ministry and Agensi Inovasi Malaysia (AIM) in 2011, which also looked at nurturing analytical, creative and critical thinking skills in schools. Ten schools were roped in for the pilot project in 2011. This year, 10,000 schools are expected to participate.

This would involve 5.2 million students and more than 400,000 teachers, said AIM executive vice-president Eddie Razak.

More Autonomy for Schools

While welcoming the education reforms by the Government, World Bank senior economist for Malaysia Dr Frederico Gil Sander, who was also a panel speaker at the recent GMS, said that prioritising and accelerating the decentralisation of the Malaysian education system is key to the effort to improve student performance.

In a report, the World Bank highlighted that most countries whose students perform well on international student achievement tests give their local authorities and schools substantial autonomy in adapting and implementing education content or allocating and managing human and financial resources.

“It is important for Malaysia to build a high performing education system to realise the country’s aspirations of becoming a high income, sustainable and inclusive economy,” said Sander.

“Both access to learning and the quality of learning matter greatly within today’s connected and globalised world.”

“Malaysia has made great strides on access to education,” he further said. “We found that official figures actually understate enrolment in secondary education. Just about every Malaysian child under 17 is in school, and this is no small feat. The main challenge, now, is to work on the quality of education.”

Dr Sander (pic) also called for greater involvement of parents as well as accountability on the part of the schools to provide school level information on performance and the use of resources.  This would allow stakeholders to hold the schools and local leadership accountable for delivering good quality education.

On improving teaching quality, apart from skills development of existing teachers, better incentives and increasing the selectivity in recruitment, the World Bank suggested for Malaysia to experiment with other options. For example, teachers could be hired on fixed contracts, with tenure contingent on performance. Trust schools may be a useful “laboratory” for such experiments, which should be carefully evaluated and scaled up if successful.

No child gets left behind

While improving the quality of education, the Education Blue Print also aspires to ensure complete access and full enrolment of all children from preschool through to upper secondary school.  It also looks at the development of facilities and equipment to create a supportive and conducive learning environment for children with physical and learning disabilities.

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