The rise of private education

NOVEMBER 9 — An education revolution is afoot in the country, and it is operating in the shadows, as a silhouette of equally tantalising and frightening possibilities for the future.

Iconic Convent Light Street and Convent Pulau Tikus in Penang’s George Town took a radical turn and will be private schools again. The reversion is only the tip of the iceberg.

Prior, the Methodist Schools System set an identical course with the imminent opening of a private school in Penang and an upgrade of their Sentul operations to match the gentrified zone’s incoming occupants. St John Institution has an international school on its old city centre campus, and there will be more announcements with time.

This is not to say only missionary schools are seizing the opportunity — though their size, finances, history and international ties allows them to lead the reversion campaign — as more of the traditional English schools with alumni support and influence will follow.

All eyes will be on Penang Free School and Kuala Lumpur’s Victoria Institution, as to what will happen next.

When the next batch of Standard One students join the conveyor belt — private or public — in 2018, they will wait till at least 2030 when they begin to secure tertiary qualifications. It would be unsurprising if the education landscape then — primary, secondary and university — is utterly unrecognisable to many of us today.    

Parents are forewarned.

A non-debated development

The reason why so much of what’s simmering in national education is foreign to Malaysians themselves, is down to historical anomalies.

Malaysian education policies are surrogate battlegrounds for so many political groups, the last thing prioritised in the exchanges is providing education.

They ambulate around these concerns:

Are Chinese and Tamil schools in good shape?

Which is alternative speak about whether MCA and MIC have done enough — when compared to DAP and PKR — to protect the interests of the communities, therefore winning votes for the Barisan Nasional coalition.

How many per cent of the schools are religious schools, and how much are the states funding private religious institutions?

Which is the dipstick to measure the extent in which Umno concerns itself with prioritising the faith. The states are also in different permutations of pander; for instance, in Terengganu, it is about winning the religious hearts of the people as Umno and PAS try to up their respective spiritual credentials, and in Penang it is about how to underline DAP’s Islamic spine by being generous with grants, emoluments and one-off payments.

Which examinations and qualifications to recognise?

Whether it is the often-maligned UEC (Unified Examination Certificate) or the latest Russian medical school, it is all about community initiatives versus nationalised paths.

The UEC challenges already established standards according to the ministry, which is double speak that Dong Zhong, the Federation of Private Chinese Schools’ Board, must follow the ministry’s way or find the highway.

While it is all about ratios — when speaking of medical graduates — of locally-trained doctors plus government sponsored overseas scholars versus the privately-funded candidates in recognised schools and seemingly-exotic schools near and far.

The latter being the cheap enough road to a MD and disturbs a carefully managed balance, thus the dispute to recognise.

Truth be told, the putrid manner of the arguing back and forth is likelier to put everyone off the idea of any education.

Since most education policies are contentious and divisive, steeped in politics, in the last two decades other initiatives have quietly accelerated ahead under the radar. The politicians were distracted by the traditional issues and paid scant attention to new players.

And boy, how they have arrived!

Private schools. International schools. Home schools. Refugee schools. Progressive Islamic schools with emphasis on English. Indeed now, the return of the private English schools.

It appears it was the only way to do it without being dragged into the toxicity of the mainstream education issues. However, it has developed without public scrutiny, even if owners, parents and teaching professionals within those schools have worked to improve the schools’ efficacy.

What now?

The two niggling questions are; how many new private players will operate eventually in the field, and second, how to decide which works best?

The democratisation of education in Malaysia has been on steroid, evidenced by the break-neck speed for start-ups. The only limit appears to be fees.

But since many parents today themselves attended private tuition while studying in public schools, they are not averse to paying. The challenge is matching fees to middle-class incomes. 

The second is a more difficult choice.

In countries like the US and Philippines, private education is so established that advancement is difficult without it. Private school students get better grades.

For now, public education feels exulted because access to public universities for instance is largely contained to its graduates.  But with more students in the private realm, it would be difficult for the government to deny them places if they perform.

But education is education, and the most attractive part about private education is the failing public schools. The system is overly bureaucratic, resistant to decentralisation, overly political as teachers form a large vote base and slow to adopt modern methods.

Which leaves parents in an unenviable position.

Parents can choose. Worse, parents are forced to choose, because one education path picked excludes the possibility of another. When their seven-year-old attends Standard One, they must figure out how to pay for 11 years of private school, if that is their choice.

And even if they can manage the cost, they are still forced to choose from the swath of private options. They are expected to possess greater knowledge literacy to determine their children’s futures.

What will become of public schools?

In a reformed space, public schools must also change.

With a reduced ratio of the population attending them, public schools may now spend more per student if facilities are re-rationalised. 

Honestly, in a realistic world those with resources would choose the new international schools and overseas branches of famous foreign schools. 

None of the private schools are in dispute over language, religion or recognition.

If leadership is not forthcoming to balance the interests of public and private schools, rather than leave everything to market forces and organic changes to the demographics, there is a risk of surrendering the future of millions in public schools to chance.

While I wish all the luck to private initiatives, boldly picking paths, however I remind those in authority, the departures of the schools are signs that not all is well with our public schools. A little tending would not be out of order.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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