The slow, quiet death of our public education and an invitation to the funeral

JUNE 27 — Thirty years ago, International School Kuala Lumpur (ISKL) competed in the state inter-school football competition.

Back then, ISKL meant a stream of Caucasian children being trashed on the football pitch.

International schools were for foreigners and general private schools were for misfits, which was how it seemed to the dominant public schools’ students. That was then. A vastly different past.

Today it’s a rainbow of private educational organisations, and they rapidly grow. Chempaka, Rizq, Tenby, Aman Integrated School, Alice Smith and King Henry VIII College among others.

Religious, American, British, home-school or eastern depending on each set of parents' appetite and wallet size. This column reflected their ascension before.

No more a sliver of Malaysia’s student population, since locals are allowed in and the number of schools — day-only and boarding — burgeoned; they are formidable. Only the fees prevent further influx of students and schools.

Yet it's the loser in this race which causes this article, the public schools.

How the new dynamics affect public schools, their current conditions and whether they retain quality education inside their walls.

It is about private schools (international schools) versus public schools.

Those who claim the latter can be the school of choice after mild corrections are deluded.  

There is no competition. The private sector whips the state sector.

Misfortune compounds as a key factor works against the free system.

The policy makers and influencing class (corporate captains, professional leaders and uber rich) when it comes to their children opt away from public schools. They have money.

Tricky to ask the privileged class to decide for the children of the modest incomed while they have no skin in the game. As such, their self-interest is calculated and cold.

They court populism which means choose votes over educational results.

They abhor discontent therefore they carefully avoid controversy by upholding continuity rather than reform.

Desperate to appear empathetic they distribute alms to all educational efforts, regardless of how they impact the core public education delivery.

To them, public education is to be managed, not raised to the stratosphere. In a cruel twist of fate, as the British used the public schools to train support staff for colonial rule, our present ruling class designates most public schools as incubators to generate workers for their offspring’s turn in power. Minions to the privately educated.

Cognisant of these realities — the top billing for private schools, a lack of enthusiasm from policy makers and the diluted levels of delivery due to a split public schooling system — only rear-guard action can recharge our free spaces to galvanise personal freedom.

One, pool resources — bang for buck — and two, prioritise needs rather than headlines. Free education either does what it can with the money available or raise taxes to have the money to spend.

Malaysia is saddled with a fixed quantum unlikely to rise but with every chance to depreciate.

Want a perspective, to compare private education’s edge over public education?

Given most Malaysian households earn incomes below RM3,000, two families need to starve for a year and live on rainwater to enter one child in a high-quality international school.

How’s that food for thought?

Limited war

Resources refer to teachers, support staff, equipment and facilities.

Reallocations steeped in shock — perhaps not as much horror — are necessary in the public system.

Right off the bat, this would inadvertently affect the multi-medium structure of public schools. No way around. It’s unjustifiable to overextend resources in order to create unique environments to protect lingua-cultural hegemony or religious pivots.

A single public school divided by geography most certainly, but surely not subdivide further by religion, race or language. The ministry of education, and only them, must oversee delivery. Other ministries which dabble through their tentacles do more damage than good.

One nation, one public school structure and one deliverer of public education. Those in opposition, can choose private education.

Semi-autonomous schools reliant on negotiated subsidies must either go private or embrace the single public schooling ethos.

Hybrid schools; boarding schools and MRSMs (he Mara science colleges) either become day schools or go private. Housing, national selection processes and extended support concerns only distract from a standardised delivery. 

Detractors might point to select schools performing admirably, cornering results in national exams. They are verily accompanied by evidence of institutes already receiving top performers within the zone, excess funding via Khazanah’s high-performance programmes for instance, concentration of suburban population — parental support as being those from upper echelon of M40 — and alumni network.

In a pick and choose exercise, the gap between private and selected public institutions is not deplorable. It is when the public system’s median is set side by side with the private system’s result that things become sticky.

Non-suburb public schools teach English badly, even as a second language. An alarming number of students can’t speak in English. Their futures are effectively compromised.

Correction requires greater resource allocations for these schools, many in the east coast and Borneo.

Facilities and their management must improve, and that’s resources. Not volume of infrastructure, but quality of what’s available.

Computer labs without hardware procurements or technicians to monitor equipment, or software updates as necessary or instructors upgraded to the content will end up as rooms with junk collecting dust.

There’s no pride in possessing four schools in a single locality, all of them with sub-par facilities except for the Chinese school which has additional community funding.

The re-rationalisation will bear a stronger single facility fit to train our young for the challenges of a globalised world.

The last one, this column struggles to swallow. All public schools turn co-ed if they have not yet. Gender desegregation halves the total schools necessary.

Those affected will be long-standing schools like Penang Free, Victoria Institution and Malacca High School.

These steps reduce the number of schools per area, focus resources within their walls and deliver an undistracted single education delivery. The best return on investment unhindered by complexities of layers.

It’s not vendetta, it’s survival. The gap between private and public can’t grow any further. Pooling resources is the adult decision to make.

Otherwise, public education risks being piecemealed into obscurity.

Add-ons

A focused and reinforced system can offer more when there are limited units and the absence of unending partition of funds.

The age-old problems of junk food and stunted growth can be confronted with free lunches in schools. That, and free busing, which is possible when students need not travel from across the city to get to a “better” public school.

Two neglected components can be resuscitated, sports and music. Complemented by class trips and other life-skill programmes.

A larger campus can accommodate a swimming pool and the education minister's desire of water survival skills.

The little guys

Public education is not triage. To accept the tragic inheritances, play to the gallery, have sweet spots where most if any of the talents emerge from and leave the masses, the majority who don’t know their role in the mess to live with our choice to ignore them.

Is it harder to run schools in the backwaters? Yes, and it costs more to have these facilities because public education is about best choices for all without wilfully leaving anyone behind.

Instead, our education debates are crowded by possible defences of historical constructs along with communal panders. They are filled by the toxicity of protecting turfs rather than the future of our children.

Educationists speak today about how a child starting school today demands a system which prepares him for an economic structure unrealised today.

Unfortunately, that adult of the future can’t dictate his education today especially when he’s from a modest income family dependent on public education.

He looks to the adults today to decide best for him. He can’t blame us for the limited resources, that’s the birth lottery.

But he has every right to be aggrieved by our unwillingness to pool resources and focus on known options rather than slice up our cake to serve all interests until it dwindles to insignificance in most instances.

The biggest thing missing in Malaysian education is courage. Too many hide behind convenient excuses and point to the Gordian Knot which chokes our public school system.

Or worse than that, far more insidious, leverage the haze and noise to get more for their faction with no care for overall Malaysia.

All in all, they claim it’s better to adjust only and not rock the boat. Even when the boat is about to fall off the cliff because they’ve already bought private education lifeboats for themselves.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.