Overhaul nation's education policy


THERE are many ways to interpret the Education Ministry's latest solution to its controversial policy with regard to the teaching of Mathematics and Science in schools.

Many parents would applaud the ministry's decision to allow children currently learning the two core subjects in English to continue doing so until they reach Form Five.

The "soft-landing" approach may be the best way out of this contentious issue and gradually pave the way for Bahasa Malaysia to be fully reinstated by 2016 at the primary school level and 2021 at the secondary school level.

This could be enough to avert the anger of parents and pressure groups who are opposed to the removal of the Teaching of Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI) policy. In essence, the policy stays for now.    

Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who went to great lengths to explain to editors on Friday why the six-year-old policy was unsustainable, insisted that the soft-landing approach was necessary.    

"It is a fair decision. We are very considerate," he said.

But he stressed that the interests of the children must come first in the move to gradually abandon the PPSMI.

"We are talking about three million students (who are under PPSMI) who are neither here nor there."

The findings released by his ministry on Friday were telling.

 Since the policy was adopted in 2003, only six to seven per cent of classrooms across the country used English entirely for the two subjects.

This meant that the majority of schools did not even switch to PPSMI as the ministry had proposed  because of  problems ranging from lack of competent teachers and the failure of schoolchildren to grasp English, let alone Maths and Science being taught in a language not familiar to them.   

 In other words, there could be flaws in the implementation of the policy, rather than the policy itself.

So, do we have to undo the policy or should we allow both the PPSMI and its successor, the MBMMBI (upholding the Malay language and strengthening the command of English  policy), to exist side by side after, of course, addressing the weaknesses?

 Some say it is not beyond the government's ability to allow both to co-exist.

Proponents of PPSMI argued that the policy was never about mastering the English language. It was about mastering Science and Maths using a universal language.

By 2016 and beyond, the use of English around the world would be even more widespread. Doing away with the PPSMI now could be a short-sighted policy, they said.   

As former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who introduced the PPSMI and finds the policy reversal  a step backwards, puts it: "When it comes to the future of our country, I have to be practical and make the necessary decision.... If we cannot master the knowledge of science, we will not progress."

While parents could eventually rally behind the government over the phasing out of PPSMI, they would like to see the Education Ministry keep its promise to strengthen the teaching of English as a subject in schools.

Muhyiddin has listed out various initiatives to enhance the teaching of English, including plans to bring in more than 300 teachers from the United States as teaching assistants in schools which are weak in the subject.

There are already 47,447 English-language teachers in schools across the country. Thousands more are undergoing training.

The raging polemics on the medium of instruction for Maths and Science appear to distract us from the real issue of the standards of education in Malaysia.

What is more pressing is the need for deeper reforms to our education system to put us back on a par or even higher than some of our close competitors.

The problem is not just peculiar to Malaysia. Even United Kingdom  schools have fallen behind Estonia and Slovenia, based on worldwide rankings comparing standards of reading, Maths and Science in 65 developed countries.

Figures released by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development  late last year showed that the UK dropped from 24th place in 2007 to 28th in world education rankings for Maths and for Science, it dropped to 16th from 14th place.  

So, it's more than just a question of teaching these two subjects in English. An overhaul of our education policy should be on the cards.

The whole system -- from teacher training to school infrastructure and curriculum -- will require a review to help in efforts to benchmark our schools to global standards.    

Proponents of PPSMI feel that doing away with the policy now could be a short-sighted move as by 2016, the use of English around the world will be even more widespread. — File picture

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