A Royal Commission on Education needs to be established to review the national education curriculum, experts tell CHOK SUAT LING
It apparently thinks so, going by its assessment in the ministry's recently-released report card. However, the public, whose feedback the ministry is now seeking on its report card, does not seem to agree.
Going by the various problems across the entire system, from the curriculum to a largely mono-ethnic teaching profession, many feel it deserves, at the very best, a "D".
The most crucial determinant of any education system's success is the curriculum.
Besides the looming possibility of the teaching of Science and Mathematics reverting to Bahasa Malaysia from English at the end of this year, many parents have complained about the "difficulty level" of school subjects.
They claim that students are taught concepts unsuitable for their age group.
Housewife Toh Beng Chin, who sends her 7-year-old daughter to a national school in Cheras, is facing an uphill task assisting the girl with her homework.
She was shocked to see how advanced the curriculum was.
"For example, in Bahasa Malaysia, the children have to learn penjodoh bilangan (quantifiers) and imbuhan (prefixes and suffixes), read passages and answer questions. All these are really tough for children who have just emerged from the pre-school cocoon.
"I am amazed at the speed with which they are introduced to new concepts. Shouldn't they master reading first at least?" wonders Toh.
Despite her Bachelor of Laws degree, Toh says she is sometimes unable to help with schoolwork. She brought the matter up with the headmaster but the answer was: "It is part of the syllabus."
The situation apparently does not get any better as the child goes further up in the system. Senior marketing manager Asmah Othman says her children in Years Four and Five have it worse.
"My daughter does not understand many of the things taught and my son is perpetually confused. Could it be that my children are not as intelligent as others or is there something wrong with the curriculum? Middle-level primary school- children are doing the kind of work we used to do in Form Two."
A senior primary school teacher in Kuala Lumpur says many teachers are in an equally confused state.
"The problem is that every time a new director is appointed in district or state education departments, they will come up with what they feel are better ideas. Revisions and tweaks will then be made to the curriculum after the higher-ups agree.
"It is not fair to the teachers and students. Before we can even adapt to a new development, more changes are made and we are sent for further courses. If we are confused, can you imagine how our students must feel?"
She explains that for Year One Bahasa Malaysia, for example, the curriculum used to stress mastery of the alphabet and words but now it whizzes past that to the construction of sentences.
"A large chunk of the student population will inevitably get left behind. And they will continue to fall further back, or even out of the system, unless there is intervention."
Another source of concern is how the Arabic language is now compulsory for Muslims, with non-Muslims encouraged to take it in some national schools.
Some find this galling when the Pupil's Own Language continues to be placed on a low rung of importance.
There are also rumblings about how schools now have to schedule and juggle J-Qaf into the school roster, resulting in some schools dismissing Muslim students at a late hour.
In many schools, Muslim students attend J-Qaf at the expense of co-curricular activities.
Besides Arabic, J-Qaf involves khatam Quran (completion of al-Quran recital), Jawi and fardhu ain (basic religious knowledge). It was introduced to counter complaints that there is insufficient focus on Islamic education in schools.
Parents are now saying that the ministry has gone to the other extreme.
"Besides our children missing out on co-curricular activities as a result of J-Qaf, we see that there are now more Agama periods in the time-table compared to even Science," notes businessman Abdul Malek Hassan, who has two children in primary school.
A headmistress of a Smart school in the Klang Valley admits there are problems with scheduling.
"J-Qaf is quite a new directive and we are still struggling to fit it into the roster.
"We neither want to disrupt the other subjects nor do we want students to come to school on weekends. We are trying our best. I hope parents will bear with us."
Parents are, however, not about to put up with the melange of problems related to the school curriculum. They insist that the complexities be resolved, and fast.
National Parent-Teacher Council president Professor Dr Mohd Ali Hassan proposes the establishment of a Royal Commission on Education to find definitive solutions.
The blueprint, he opines, is too near-sighted.
"What's going to happen after 2010? Policies should be for the longer term."
He feels the curriculum now puts too much stress on aca-demic intelligence, and not enough on a child's social and emotional quotient: "It is still too examination-oriented."
He notes that despite the difficult curriculum, the obsession for students to excel is much greater now than before. Students are pushed incessantly to get a sackful of As. With the excessive pressure exerted on them, many manage to.
"But for what?" asks Mohd Ali. "Academic achievement does not guarantee anyone anything. There is also not enough emphasis on integration, resulting in society becoming more racially polarised. In Malaysia, the curriculum should play an important role in the formation of fundamental attitudes and images and in promoting national unity and integration. There is insufficient focus on values and the moral dimension."
The call for a commission on education is not new. Former unionist Datuk N. Siva Subramaniam recalls making such a proposal in the 1990s when he was secretary-general of the National Union of the Teaching Profession. In fact, the recommendation for such a commission to look into problems related to the curriculum and teachers' service conditions was raised many times over the years.
Unfortunately, the response from the ministry has been tepid.
Siva Subramaniam agrees that more and more elements are being added to the curriculum: "Proposals come from all over. Pressure groups ask for even road safety to be included. Is it all necessary?" asks the former headmaster.
"In those days, the most important thing was to ensure that pupils mastered the 3Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic first. Now, the curriculum is so advanced and there is not enough focus on reading and writing."
Nothing short of a major overhaul is necessary to correct the deficiencies in the curriculum, he notes.
But before this can be done, the ministry needs to talk to all stakeholders to get a clearer picture of what is happening on the ground.
The New Straits Times Online: 1 Jun 2008