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Improving quality in all areas of education

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BIG LEAP: The much-awaited blueprint of the National Education Development masterplan will be unveiled by the prime minister on Tuesday.

Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin provides a glimpse of what the blueprint will contain to Chok Suat Ling, Chandra Devi Renganayar and P. Selvarani

Question: Tan Sri, what is the difference between this review and previous education reports? Answer: In the past, reports to improve the education system were more like statements of intent. They were broad, but this report is more specific. For example, what needs to be done, the timeline, scope and what to implement. This is more of an action plan actually.

Every year, we will release reports to the public on (the) steps taken and what have been implemented and achieved.

Sceptics will ask this question: Can it be done? Even I ask this question. Can we do it? The important thing is to have the political will. Our prime minister had said this must be done and he had promised he would give his support and to ensure personally whatever it takes, be it human resource or allocation to implement the National Education Development masterplan.

This review is important (if we want) to increase the quality of our education so that we can be among the best, be competitive and not be left out in the global race.

Question: What does this report entail?

Answer: There are nine areas which the interim plan will look into. There are upholding the teaching profession, enhancing the leadership of schools, enhancing the quality of schools, strengthening the curriculum and assessment standards, enhancing proficiency in various languages, getting the involvement of parents, the private and social sectors as partners, making students better prepared for higher education and the job market, improving the competency and effectiveness of our resources and to build up the potential and ability of the delivery system.

Question: Why will it take 15 years to implement?

Answer: Out of the 74 countries, which took part in the Programme For International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009, Malaysian students fell in the bottom one-third in reading, mathematics and science. The countries which are in the top one-third category are Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore.

The results show that our students lack higher-order thinking skills which is the ability to be analytical and critical, and to apply their knowledge to solve problems.

Our target is to elevate our students from the bottom one-third to the top one-third of the ranking within the next 13 years. This is a major challenge for us considering that it took the other countries more than 20 years to leap from the bottom one-third category to the top one-third. We hope the implementation of the national education blueprint will propel our students from the bottom to the top.

Question: Will there be drastic changes to the existing education system? Answer: There are several aspects. Besides the nine areas that I mentioned earlier, there will be a major shift in 11 areas which I will announce at the launch.

Besides these, there will be focus areas that will be given priority. For example, on the type of students that we want to develop.

Yes, compared with the existing system, it is definitely a big leap.

For example, in the area of administrative functions. The focus of the ministry in the area of quality of learning will now shift (from the ministry) to the district Education Offices (PPDs). The ministry will be involved in developing the policies, but the implementation will be at the school level and those responsible will be PPD officers.

Their function is just to supervise, but they don't have the jurisdiction to intervene in certain aspects. Also, PPDs are currently understaffed to operate effectively. Based on the current structure, there are 10,000 officers in the ministry and only 6,000 at the state and district levels.

We want to change it to make the ministry lean and to strengthen the staffing at the district level with better qualified and well-trained officers, who will be able to manage administrative and leadership issues, and assess the performance of schools in their districts.

Question: What is the most important aspect of this review?

Answer: I will say quality. We already have a system, but public feedback has indicated that the quality of education is not on a par with other developed countries. How to improve quality in all areas of the education system will be the core undertaking of the review.

Question: Is quality the main issue that was brought up during the National Education Dialogue sessions? Answer: Yes. Be it directly or indirectly, the main issue identified was quality. And the key aspect was the quality of teachers in the system.

Teachers are the frontliners in educating students and play a key role in shaping them. The quality of students that we develop will depend on the way teachers teach and deliver knowledge. More importantly, are they able to develop critical- thinking skills in students?

Hence, we need to take a more in-depth approach. So our focus is to improve the quality of our teachers. We have about 400,000 teachers and almost 60 per cent will remain in the system for the next 20 years. To enhance this group, there needs to be up-skilling and re-training.

For the new intake (of teacher trainees), there will be stringent entry requirements. For instance, if we previously recruited those with 4As, 5As or 6As, now it will be 8As or 9As. We will only take the cream of the crop into the system.

Improving the quality of teachers will be the priority under the new system.

Question: Tan Sri, how do you hope to attract the cream of the crop into the profession?

Answer: We want to make teaching an attractive profession. In fact, in terms of the present salary scheme, career scope and opportunities for promotions, teaching is an attractive choice for many compared with other jobs in the public sector. But these are not enough. We want, if possible, only the best to be in this profession.

That is why, since the beginning of this year, we have introduced strict entry requirements for trainee teachers. Only students, who have obtained 8As or 9As, will be eligible to enter the profession. With this, the public can be assured that teachers are made up of top performing students, who will undergo four to five years of training to become teachers.

Question: Will it be just academic qualifications, or are there other factors which will be considered in selecting trainee teachers?

Answer: No, it is not just academic qualifications. They must have an interest in the profession. It cannot be a second-career option for them, or they apply only when other job applications have been rejected. Candidates will sit through an interview where only those who have a real interest in the profession will be selected.

For existing in-service teachers who make up a large number, courses will be provided to enhance their quality of teaching and they will be trained to teach thinking skills.

We will also address the problem of subject specialist teachers not being utilised to teach the subjects they are trained in, especially English-language teachers.

Question: What about the problem of teachers being burdened by administrative functions and having less time to teach? How will this be addressed?

Answer: We have always given consideration to the welfare of teachers, as well as their workload.

With several more approaches to be implemented, we hope teachers will no longer be burdened. We will look into the number of subjects, teaching hours and other details to ease their workload. This is a continuing effort. We will emphasise the use of technology to address this issue. We have begun to implement BestariNet (the project which provides Internet access and a virtual learning platform to schools) and will revise the content of the curriculum to ease their workload.

Also, the committee (that was set up) two years ago to look into reducing the burden of teachers has outlined several approaches and these have been implemented. An example is the recruitment of administrative assistants to carry out administrative functions, enabling teachers to focus on teaching.

Question: Tan Sri, we understand there have been recommendations to phase out under-performing teachers. Will there be a mechanism to implement this?

Answer: There are proposals for an exit plan for such teachers. For teachers who are not interested in teaching, maybe they could be given a non-teaching role. On how it is to be implemented, it has to be discussed with the National Union of the Teaching Profession.

The teachers will be assessed yearly on their competency. If they do not perform in their area of expertise, we cannot allow them to continue as it will affect the students. However, this has not been finalised.

Question: What about the shortage of teachers?

Answer: Well, this is not a policy issue. We have taken steps to address such issues. The shortage of teachers will always be an issue as teachers retire and new teachers have to be recruited. There will always be a gap, a period of time where there will be vacancies. The important thing is it shouldn't be for too long.

Even before this plan, I have instructed for a review of the status of teachers in the system and an update on their profile.

Sometimes problems arise due to the poor implementation of policies rather than the policies themselves. Take the number of English-language teachers for instance. The total teacher density is there, but these teachers at times do not want to be transferred to schools in certain areas. So the shortage is because some teachers do not want to serve in certain areas due to various personal reasons.

If we look at our teacher-student ratio, it is one teacher to 13 students, which is a much better ratio than those in developed countries which is at 1:16 or 1:17. So the problem is an imbalance in the distribution of teachers -- some schools have 2,000 students, but few teachers, while some under-enrolled schools with four students have seven teachers!

We have to address this unequal distribution of teachers and also distribution based on their area of expertise. In some schools, teachers who are not qualified to teach English are forced to teach the subject, whereas in other schools, there is an excess of English-language teachers. There is a school where the Agama teacher has to teach English because there is no English-language teacher!

This has been going on for some time and we have to look for ways to bring them back to teach in their area of expertise. It will take time for us to address this problem in terms of re-organising the distribution of teachers, re-training them and filling up the vacancies. As to how long it will take for us to solve this problem, we hope to address it within the three phases of the National Education Development Plan.

Question: Tan Sri, what about the unequal proportion of male and female teachers?

Answer: Based on selecting only the best for the profession, gender will not be a factor. However, the situation is such now that even in universities there are more female than male students.

We will not discriminate, but there have been views that the gender imbalance does impact the quality of learning and personality of students. In certain areas, we need women because of their maternal instinct and in other areas like sports, we need the involvement of male teachers.

At present, we have 70 per cent female and 30 per cent male teachers and it will take some time before we can find balance. We will try to see what we can do.

Question: Tan Sri, will a teachers commission be included in the blueprint?

Answer: Not a commission, but a teachers council has been proposed. We have not decided yet on this because teachers under the ministry's system are currently appointed by the Education Service Commission. So this makes them officers under the purview of the ministry.

If it is intended to improve the quality of teachers, the question is: Do we need a council for this purpose? Some people are of the opinion that it will provide freedom for the council to act just like the Bar Council. This is not the same. What is important and cannot be denied is that our teachers must be of a high standard.

Question: Will the new education masterplan guarantee the existence of vernacular schools, as in the current system?

Answer: Yes. Although, it is clear in our National Education Policy that Bahasa Malaysia is the medium of instruction in all national schools, I have suggested that the status of vernacular schools be maintained. The plan is to take a holistic approach to upgrade the quality of all schools under the system - national, Chinese and Tamil schools.

This is because vernacular schools are a part of the system, which accepts a variety of education forms.

Question: Tan Sri, since the system accepts a variety of education forms, does this mean that English-medium schools can be set-up?

Answer: This was brought up during the dialogue sessions, but when we reviewed the proposal we found it was not in line with our education policy. It is like going backwards. We have dropped that system for almost 50 years and we should not backtrack now.

Yes, we know why this suggestion came about; that they (stakeholders) are not happy with the quality of the teaching and learning of the English language. Even graduates, based on feedback from employers, are not proficient in communicating in English. We acknowledge this fact.

If this is the key issue, what do we do? Should we bring back English-medium schools, or focus on improving the learning of the subject? We are already doing this: we have brought in native speakers as English teachers, English-language experts, changed the curriculum and provided more contact time to use the language in class to communicate and read in English.

At present, students find it difficult to speak in English. If this is the problem, then we have to go back to the basics. And that is how we can improve students' proficiency. We are thinking of ways, such as increasing the number of hours for English lessons and maybe, reduce the time taken for less important subjects. If the purpose is to strengthen English language proficiency, this (bringing back English-medium schools) is not the way to go.

Question: Is there a possibility that the PPSMI (Teaching of Science and Mathematics in English) policy will be re-introduced? Was it suggested by stakeholders during the dialogue sessions?

Answer: I don't think we should flip then flop and flip again on this issue for the same reasons that I have mentioned. Yes, it was brought up and we accepted. We know why certain groups like PAGE (Parents Action Group for Education) brought it up.

But as we have explained previously, is it appropriate to implement the PPSMI, or focus on improving the teaching of the English language? It is not about maths and science. It is about English that people are more concerned about.

Even PAGE said it was about the quality of English, but they thought that the way to do it is through maths and science.

We have done studies repeatedly and we have found that there is a lack of English teachers. It is not the English-language teachers who are teaching maths and science in English. So because of this, the delivery method was not effective and it affected (the) performance (of the students).

The second reason is that when students did not understand, the teachers reverted to using Bahasa Malaysia to teach the subjects. This was the reality. So, the key here is to improve the learning of English and enhance students' competency in the language.

Question: Will the teaching of a third language, besides BM and English, be implemented in schools?

Answer: We emphasise on dual-language proficiency, mainly BM and English, but we also encourage proficiency in a third language. More importantly, we will address ways to improve the learning of Bahasa Malaysia. Also included in the plan is ways to improve proficiency in English, such as the introduction of English Literature.

Question: Will more public examinations be abolished under the review?

Answer: Students will only go through two exams, that is the Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah and Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia. The Penilaian Menengah Rendah examination will be done away with. If the present mandatory education is six years of primary education, we are making it 11 years of compulsory education for all, including five years in secondary school. We want to ensure every child has at least 11 years of schooling.

Question: Following the implementation of the blueprint, will there be monitoring and annual reports published to inform stakeholders about the progress?

Answer: Yes. For that we will set up the Education Delivery Unit (EDU). Officers in this unit will conduct assessments, present annual progress reports and further action plans to be taken. Besides the ministry, the EDU will be responsible for supervising and carrying out the proposals  in the blueprint.

Question: Tan Sri, what is your biggest challenge as education minister? Is it that everything (the ministry does) is politicised?

Answer: Yes. It should not be politicised.  Although I am a politician and deputy prime minister, I don't politicise education.  I have my own children in school. My granddaughters are all in school. I know. They all (my family) talk about the quality of our education system. My daughter-in-law, my son talk about this and that.

When we have lunch or dinner, they will talk about education. So, it is of interest to me, too. But I don't politicise it. I act as the minister of education. It is the other side (the opposition) that politicises it. Why do they politicise? Because it's time to grab the support of the Chinese.

Question:  So, do you feel relieved now that this exercise is over?

Answer: Relief?  My concern is that (although) the good things are all here, there will be people who will want to pick and choose (on certain issues).

This will be blown up (and) the good things will be set aside. The big one is 99.9 per cent, (but) it's the 0.1 per cent that will be blown up. THAT is my concern. So you negate the real thing you want to do -- the good thing.      
 You submit a proposal, but it's something beyond imagination or something unusual and when the government says it cannot do it, then you say: "Ah there! You don't accept my proposal." You can't do that.

    You minta dunia, bulan, bintang, matahari. Saya bagi cuma bintang. Matahari tak dapat, bulan tak dapat, you hentam. Mana boleh? (You ask for the world, the moon, the stars and the sun. I give you only the stars. But when you don't get the sun and the moon, you lambast me. This can't be.)

   There are limitations. You have to act within the boundaries of what we can do and what we cannot do.

We want to have a system which is good and that will give a lot of things for all Malaysians, not just one or two parties. We must have a balance in terms of needs.

 


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