But jokes aside, lest some of the authorities remain in a state of denial, there are sufficient illiterate students in the country to populate more than 200 primary schools in the country. The humongous number of illiterate students have been admitted by the Deputy Minister of Education, Datuk Noh Omar, and reported by the New Straits Times last Thursday.
As a result, from this year, the ministry had introduced the "early intervention classes for reading and writing (KIA 2M) to provide basic skills for Standard One pupils in national and vernacular schools.”
I believe that the intervention classes are critical. These classes are most important to identify those students who are actually handicapped in reading and writing, a disability better known as dyslexia and ensure that they are sent to special schools to deal with such disability.
However, it is in my guess that dyslexia probably accounts for less than 10% of the illiterates in the country. What then is wrong with our education system such that the remainder of some 150,000 students are unable to read and write, some even after they are preparing to sit for the Form 3 examinations, Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR)? Given that our primary and lower secondary school enrollment accounted for only 4.4 million students, that's a very significant 3.6% illiteracy level.
I remember some 20 years back, the Government (if I don't recall wrongly) with Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as the Minister of Education, seeked to improve basic literacy levels with the 3M (Membaca, Menulis & Mengira) programmes. The syllabus for primary and lower secondary school students were revised significantly to focus on promoting 3R. Essentially, what I thought the government did, even as a secondary school student then in Singapore, was to dilute the difficulty level of the relevant subjects and reduce the number of subjects which students have to take.
Older gents like me will remember the primary school syllabus with subjects such as Sejarah (History) and Geografi (Geography) being taught from Standard 4 to 6. I thought that was fun. But everything was revamped when the “new” Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) came into the picture later.
While I do not have the necessary comparative data to compare between then and now, it does indicate that the Government's programme to improve basic literacy levels have not been particularly successful.
It is hence extremely important for the Ministry of Education to figure out the reason for the dramatic failure of our education system in ensuring basic literacy levels. My biggest fear, based on the Government's action of the past, is to continue to pretend that its the issue of the nature of the syllabus or the examination-based system. Hence, all we'll get is really another revamped syllabus supposedly better to improve literacy levels or a diluted examination system which supposedly produces less stress (and hence better performance).
While I do not like the fact that there's no longer history and geography at primary school levels, it is not the syllabus which determines literacy levels. In Singapore, there's only 4 examinable subjects at Primary School levels – English and a 2nd Language, Mathematics and Science. Yet, there are no issues of literacy in the country.
The key difference lies in our delivery system. And key to our education delivery system are our teachers and the framework and environment in which they operate. This is a subject which will probably require a thesis in itself to study, hence I won't dwell with them in detail on this post. However, the 2 key questions to ask will be:
- Are the teachers selected to teach our young ones of the right quality and in possession of the necessary attributes? And if they are, have they been given the proper and necessary training to carry out their all-important duties?
- Is the environment in which they operate conducive and incentivised for them to carry out their duties diligently and conscientiously? The environment will include the benefits structure, the ministry of education officials, promotion prospects and supporting educational facilities.