Looking to old ways to lift education levels

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The SK Ba Kelalan may be short of amenities but not in community spirit in raising academic achievement despite being a remote school (Photo credit: Carolyn Hong)

The SK Ba Kelalan may be short of amenities but not in community spirit in raising academic achievement despite being a remote school (Photo credit: Carolyn Hong)

By Carolyn Hong

Sited in a tranquil valley ringed by mountains in north Sarawak, Sekolah Kebangsaan Ba Kelalan is one of the more remote schools in Malaysia. Its buildings are basic, and everything looks more makeshift than sleek.

But it’s this makeshift appearance that is the secret of its success: it has the active participation of the community.

Ba Kelalan is a settlement of nine villages with about 1,000 people in the Sarawak highlands. It is accessible by a thrice-weekly flight on the 18-seater Twin Otters or a four-hour ride on a logging road from Lawas. It has one primary school with 109 pupils.

This school was once a typical school in the interior of Sabah and Sarawak. Academic achievement was low, school attendance was desultory, and neither the pupils nor their parents were too keen on school.  It suffered the same problems as many interior schools: the lack of basic amenities such as electricity, poverty among the pupils, and limited access to the outside world.

Things have improved, of course, from the days when children had to fetch firewood from the forest and bring rice from home. The school now has electricity through a generator, and Internet access arrived some years ago but is still limited.  But still, it’s no city school. There are no bookshops or any shop for that matter. Tuition classes are unheard of. Children still walk to school or live in the hostel from a young age.

It was not surprising that its pass rate for the Year Six UPSR exam was just 20 per cent in the 1990s. But in recent years, this has risen to a consistent 90-plus per cent.  The huge improvement was given recognition by the Education Ministry, and the Commonwealth Secretariat also honoured the school in 2009 for its good practices.

Its senior teacher Sang Sigar said the improvement was the result of a gradual change in the school philosophy. ”It was a progressive effort, not a short-term thing,” he said. ”We adopted a family approach to running the school.”

He said that, while its buildings and amenities were rundown, the head teacher Pudun Tadam, who will retire soon, took that as a challenge. He persuaded the villages to adopt the school, and promised that the teachers would work to raise its standing from the bottom 10 in the district to the top 10.

Each village adopted one section of the school which it maintained and beautified. It was done as a gotong-royong or ‘musang’ in the local Lun Bawang language.

“When he revived this concept of ‘musang’, the people knew exactly what to do. They knew they will not be paid except with a meal,” said Sang.

Their efforts may not look sleek but the community participation has got the local people engaged in the school and committed to its efforts and, in turn, raised the commitment of the teachers and pupils.

The teaching environment was made informal like home. As the children are used to sitting on the floor at home, they are allowed to sit on the floor of the classroom as if they were in their living room. Some of the younger children lean on their teacher as they would do with their parents.

“It is just like a parent-child relationship so that the children do not have a mental block with the lessons,” he said. “The relationship comes before the teaching.”

Today, the school continues to face the problems of a remote school. But it is known more for its resourcefulness in getting community participation to overcome the inherent disadvantages of being in a remote area.

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