KUALA LUMPUR: Educationists and legal experts want the government to amend Section 29A of the Education Act 1996 to make schooling compulsory up to Form Five.
They said this would reduce dropout rates, and curb child marriages and child labour.
Education expert Dr Anuar Ahmad said the Education Act 1996 mandated parents to send their children only to primary schools.
"Parents keeping kids out of primary schools can also be charged under the Child Act 2001 as it is considered abuse, since education is one of the fundamental rights of children.
"However, the Education Act needs an urgent review, especially with the sharp rise in dropouts during the Covid-19 pandemic.
"When the law was enacted almost 30 years ago, the government could not make secondary education mandatory because rural areas and the interior parts of Sabah and Sarawak lacked secondary schools.
"So it would have been unfair to penalise parents if they did not send their kids to secondary schools.
"However, we have much better infrastructure now and there is no reason to hesitate making secondary education compulsory," he told the New Straits Times.
In December last year, Deputy Education Minister Datuk Dr Mah Hang Soon told the Dewan Rakyat that 21,316 students had quit school between March 2020 and July 2021.
On June 16, Education director-general Datuk Nor Zamani Abdol Hamid reported that 24,941 registered candidates did not sit the 2021 Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia examination.
The numbers suggested a dangerous trend, Anuar said.
Citing the "Families on the Edge" study by the United Nations Children's Fund Malaysia, he said: "The study in August 2020 found that B40 households in urban areas made massive cuts in terms of education as many lost their jobs or took pay cuts due to the pandemic.
"Parents in Kuala Lumpur, for instance, slashed almost 84 per cent of their children's education expenditure.
"This forced many children to quit school. Most of these children, who just turned 13 or 14, took up odd jobs to boost the household income.
If this is left unresolved, child labour will become more rampant, or even a norm, in our country."
Political and legal expert Professor Dr Nik Ahmad Kamal Nik Mahmod said the proposed amendments would deter parents from neglecting their children's education.
He said parents who did not enrol their children in primary education could be fined RM5,000 or jailed up to six months, or both.
He said the policy change would require discussions with stakeholders.
Former Human Rights Commission of Malaysia's children's commissioner, Professor Datuk Noor Aziah Mohd Awal, said keeping female adolescents in classrooms would prevent them from becoming child brides.
"As long as girls are in school, they are regarded as children, and not ready for marriage.
"So making secondary schooling compulsory will ensure girls get formal education and an SPM certificate.
"Under Article 28 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Malaysia is a signatory to, the government has an obligation to ensure that primary education is compulsory and free.
"Now the government must make secondary education compulsory and free as well."
However, Noor Aziah urged the government to build more schools and provide other facilities, such as school buses, tuition and food programmes for students, before making secondary education compulsory.