Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Freedom to Our Schools: Decentralisation and Autonomy

One interesting thing I noticed about the roundtable that the Education Ministry held to discuss the issue of teaching science and maths in English is that they mentioned decentralisation of the school system as a possible solution. In my column for The Malaysian Insider a couple of weeks back, I suggested that we let individual schools decide what languages to use in the classroom. Permitting schools to decide on an individual basis how to operate would let school administrators and educators tailor their approach to the needs of individual communities, and permit greater feedback from communities.

There are naturally some administrative difficulties involved in moving from a highly centralised school system such as ours to a less centralised one, but it is important that we give this issue some thought. Treating students the same wherever they are is not a very reasonable approach, and tying the hands of schools when it comes to responding to local needs is a very bad idea. While full decentralisation is almost certainly impossible, we need to start looking into giving our schools more independence and autonomy.

The Chinese schools are a pretty good example of how independent school governance might work. Because the federal government largely ignores them, the Chinese educationists have become adept at running schools and tailoring them to the needs of different communities. Independent school boards comprising respected figures hold administrators accountable for their performance.

So one way to free our schools would be to give principals a little more independence in structuring their curricula - the Education Ministry would still set some standards and list out the minimum material which must be covered, but principals would be allowed to decide how to cover them - what textbooks to use, and so forth. Instead of being accountable to a civil servant, principals would now be held accountable to elected school boards. While I am not sure how our present administrative framework would deal with this, if there was enough political will to devolve school administration, it would not be terribly difficult to accomplish. The school board idea is merely one possibility - there are others. The important thing is to somehow permit greater diversity in our school system.

How will the schools function? Well, the Education Ministry will still be in charge of setting standards for schools to meet. The SPM and other exams will still remain, but now schools will truly be free to approach different ways of preparing students for them. At the moment, we use almost the same textbooks throughout the country; this is a huge racket for the publishers of the textbooks, which are not very good, as you can tell from how almost any student with some money usually has supplementary books which cover the same material but in more effective ways. Likewise, teachers work more or less the same way throughout the nation, giving more or less the same lectures. If schools had some autonomy in these areas, we would see a more effective approach to teaching and learning, one adapted to the needs of specific students.

If we wanted to take this further, we would allow principals to hire and fire teachers, and maybe even vary the pay of teachers depending on ability. Instead of the Education Ministry maintaining a central pool of teachers which it allocates out to schools Soviet-style, we could let schools pick their own teachers. At the moment, the teaching profession is insulated from market forces, which is quite bad for everyone. Teachers are stuck with lousy pay doing a difficult job; schools can't reward excellent teachers or really get rid of people who have no business teaching. Permitting some freedom in the employment process would benefit everyone, since there is really no reason to be tying the wages of our teachers to the wages of civil servants.

Now, how would we prevent administrators from making bad decisions? After all, many will no doubt grouse, what's keeping a principal from picking lousy textbooks or hiring lousy teachers? This is where having an independent school board as a check comes in. The board should be allowed to overrule the principal's decisions, or potentially even hire and sack the principal. Assuming the board is elected by the community, or even just randomly selected from the parents of students at the school, it will do its best to make decisions for the good of the students and the school. If the board has teeth, the principal will be afraid of its bite, and in turn do the right thing.

The Education Ministry should still have a role to play, of course. But the primary purpose of the Education Ministry should be to facilitate good decision-making, not to impose centralised decisions. The Education Ministry could commission studies of different schools across the country and publish its findings as a list of best practices which schools could adopt or reject depending on suitability. It could publish rankings of schools based on different metrics so everyone would know where their local school stands compared to its peers. The Education Ministry should facilitate the flow of information so that good ideas can spread and bad ideas can be checked. But otherwise, its role in running schools should be limited as much as possible; parents and teachers will always be better judges of the kind of education their pupils need.

The only serious objection I can foresee to this admittedly wide-ranging proposal is that it seems a little too radical. We're far too used to a centralised school system, and this is not good. Why should a school in the mountains be conducting the same science experiments as a school near the beach, when they have acces to different ways of illustrating the same scientific principles? Why should a community of rich English-speaking kids have to teach its children in Malay or Chinese or Tamil, and why should a community of primarily poor Malay speakers have to teach its children in English? A centralised decision-making system treats every school and every student as the same, which is simply not sensible.

My proposal is not very likely to be taken up any time soon by the government, though I hope Tony or one of his colleagues can one day put it forward for serious consideration. But I think the principle behind it is sound: We must reduce the bureaucracy and centralisation choking innovation and adaptation in our school system. And if we can start by just letting schools decide for themselves whether to teach science and maths in English or the pupils' mother tongue, that would be good enough for me.

One retort to the suggestion that we let schools decide which language to use to teach science and maths was that schools would make the obviously wrong decision. This is essentially saying, "We're going to let parents throw their kids' lives away by teaching them in English/their mother tongue!" I don't think that is going to happen. Parents are the best judge of what is best for their children; if that is not so, then we should not be letting parents take care of their children. Make as much information available to parents as possible - bombard them with leaflets about the various pros and cons of English and mother tongue education. But let the parents and schools decide which approach will work best for them. It is clear that one single approach will not work for all.


Anonymous said...

I fully agree with you on this one as it is obvious that different parts of the country have different educational needs. A school in the interiors of Sabah will need a different curriculum and approach compared to one in Damansara for example. The exposure to much more information in the urban area itself contributes to the collective knowledge of students there.

Other thoughts include specialized subjects that will be useful for students in their locality without shortchanging them of a decent basic education. Students living close to the forest or along the rivers of Sarawak may be taught more about their environment and how to make full use of them.

The current one system for all is definitely not the way to go not because of modernization but merely because it assumes all students come from the same background and surroundings.

The obstacle to decentralisation would most likely be the many schoolheads and teachers already used to taking orders and carrying out with no questions asked that one wonders if they would take the time and crack their heads to find solutions and approaches that will work for their own school.

Anonymous said...

I don’t know how many times we have to tell the same thing again and again, please go and fight for a English school and leave us alone. Stop bullshit us on reasons like improve English and integration, we don’t buy that. Want us to write in Tamil?

Shawn Tan said...

Aside from just the administrative headaches that will result from such a system, there will also be a lot of other headaches. The system that you're suggesting will inevitably lead to more graft, corruption and abuse of power. You can already see the difference today, in the independent schools versus national schools.

So, let us take your idea further by not concentrating power in the principals or HMs. A school board alone is not enough, as is plainly clear in the system today.

Let the school administration take charge of the operational issues in a school. However, the teaching should be handled by the teachers and teachers alone. I can assure you that most parents do not know what is best for their children (this does not just apply in education).

So, we should have a system whereby the teaching, admin, and parents are all equally involved in running a school. A simple example might be - teachers decide what books to use and what to teach, administration ensures that classrooms are in good condition, parents ensure that the kids go to school and provide a feedback loop.

Of course, this will cause a terrible headache if nobody knows how to behave. :p

Anonymous said...

This is what I was trying to say in a number of posts before. It will do our country and us much more good than most people realise. If the schools are set free from the hands of the government, the English mission schools can get back to running the schools in ways they know how, which were much better than it is today. The Chinese schools can run the schools in ways they see fit. The same can be said of Malay and Tamail schools. Let parents have the choice to send their kids to schools they see fit for their children best. Help fund schools that have the greatest demand.
The education ministry's goal is to set fair and common exams (in different languages and converge to English for math and science at higher levels), judge the schools on results and their rate of improvement. Allocate funding based on student population, rate of improvement and results. The education department should set up a minimum set of basic requirements, and not try to burden the schools and misguide the schools. Once the system is set up, most schools should be self run and the ministry can then spend time on special cases, the rural schools that need extra help, special schools to nurture talent to enable exceptional kids to excel, so that we can be more competitive globally.
It is a good sign that people are becoming more open, in the 1980s, when the high tech executives from Silicon Valley were giving testimonies in front of the US congress, the most important message delivered to the politicians were "do no harm", we had many instances of policies formulated with good intentions, but end up harming the industry competitiveness. The same can be said of Malaysia. China's economic progress in the last 30 years were mainly due to freeing the people to pursue economic activities they see fit, not by greater control.
We have talent and natural resources, let us develop them and free them from the political burden, so that they can be more productive and better citizens.

Best regards,

Unknown said...

Allowing individual schools to make the decision in teaching of M+S will be the biggest mistake ever.

Our country is already full of "Little Napoleans", all claiming to be in charge but the reality is that no one is in charge of our country's future.

Is in still Pak Lah who will step down in 3 months time? Is in Najib who has yet to assend to the throne?

Who will step up when Najib in his absence until March. Will it be our own Mike Tyson @ Six Million Dollar Man or the Senior VP of UMNO who now wants Indons to walk to Malaysia instead of taking a tekong to cross the Straits of Malacca.

I pray whatever the decision is, it will not be up to individual schools to decide. That will sprak the end of whatever is left of our once glorious education system.

I want to write on this topic but its just too long, don't know when to start.

The basic issue is if you are good in Maths + Science, you are good in it, whatever the language.

The problem we have is not that the students don't understand M+S in a different language, is that the teaches don't know how to teach because they themselves are also half-past-six.

Unknown said...

We simply do not have the luxury of choice, there being a shortage of science and maths teachers who can really communicate effectively in English. Even in the English classes unqualified or so-called teachers are assigned to teach the English language. I am speaking as a senior English teacher who has been in the profession for more than twenty five years. So the focus should have been on how to teach English more effectively and how to get more qualified English teachers, NOT whether we should teach math or science or any other subject in English. We are barking up the wrong tree.


Anonymous said...

Good point Helen.

Problems is that there is some dreamer who thought the world is only circled around them and never want to take a look at the reality. This dreamer including Kian Ming and John Lee everyday talks about English, English and English and draw some stupid conclusion via some survey among student who are mostly from urban area or talk to the same batch of students who further their study in US, UK or Canada. Why don’t they try speaking to a average kid from kampung or new village and to those who choose to study in Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and Japan?

Until today I still can’t understand how the kid can learn math and science when they don’t have a basic understanding of English.

Listen here stupid Kian Ming and John Lee, just a simple example, the English book mention “take” and the science book mention “took” or “taken”, don’t you think it would confuse the kid rather then improve their English? I am not talking about kid who communicate with his parents everyday in English, I am talking about a kid who are at standard one never know a single English word.

So do you agree with me now when I said both of you are stupid?

m. said...

Anonymous, you're contradicting John's argument - that any student should be able to study in whichever system he feels comfortable in, which would be decided upon by the schooling administration that surely would have a good gauge of what language the majority of their student population is comfortable with.

I think that John's suggestion is idealistic, but it is a goal we should try to achieve. Not every child can fit into a universal system like the one currently implemented by Malaysia - hence why an education where their education is as tailored to as administratively possible to suit their needs would be undoubtedly a better option. Yes, it would be difficult to administer, but in all honesty, speaking as a Malaysian sutdent, it would be worth the hassle.

John Lee said...

To the anonymous posters, I'm not trying to force my views on the schools, because there are a lot of schools where English will work better, and a lot of schools where mother tongue education will work better. I think we should let individual communities decide what is best for their students. Why don't you lay off the middle class and urban communities, where English is often the better medium to use?

Shawn, good points all around. Corruption is a problem I considered, but as I mentioned, having some sort of independent check on school administrations should help address the problem. I'm not trying to tilt the balance in favour of one interest group; my proposal is meant to tilt the balance in favour of all three groups you mention, and away from the central government.

Also, I think we do underestimate how much corruption centralisation can cause. One greedy bureaucrat running seventy schools can do more damage than one greedy principal running one school. Decentralisation will have its problems with corruption, because humans are not perfect, but it will contain the effects instead of letting them spread. Monitoring by the Education Ministry should also help, since we're not looking to completely remove them from the picture.

I'm not sure why you say independent school boards will be insufficient. Few schools in Malaysia are run by school boards; in most, the principal is the main decider, with no check on his or her decisions, except for the district education department, which has dozens of schools to look after.

As for the issue of parents not knowing what is best for their children, I think the main problem is often information asymmetry rather than actually not having their children's best interest at heart. That's why I believe the Education Ministry should take an active role in disseminating information about best practices, and why I support using federal funds to spread information about the costs and benefits of different approaches, such as the usage of English and mother tongues. For example, the ministry could take out ads encouraging communities to weigh the following factors in their decision:

* Whether they believe students have the mental ability and learning resources to use English in certain classes at such an early age;
* Whether they believe students' proficiency in English will improve;
* Whether they believe teachers can handle using English in the classroom;
* The economic benefits of becoming proficient in different languages.

The final decision should be left to individual schools, based on feedback from parents, administrators and teachers - I think PTAs would probably be a very good mechanism for handling major decisions like this. The important thing is to ensure parents do not receive one-sided information, and understand what factors they must take into consideration.

Derek, the problem with "Little Napoleons" is not that they have power, but that there is no check on their usage of power. School boards and PTAs must be allowed to hold administrators accountable for their decisions. Concentrating power in the hands of a few only makes it easier for corruption to spread; it is easier to bribe one minister or twelve bureaucrats than it is to bribe a thousand principals.

Helen, that is exactly why I think schools should be allowed to choose. Some schools do have the luxury of using English because the conditions are right, and there is no reason to impose Malay or the mother tongue on them; many schools do not, and it is equally foolish to impose English on them. I also think that liberalising the teacher employment process would make the whole system more responsive to different needs, since the current system where the government allocates most teachers Soviet-syle insulates teachers and teaching institutions from changing conditions.

Anonymous said...


Even a student notice John suggestion is idealistic? Hence I don’t need to go on.


I always support the set up of English school. And you people should feel happy with Kebangsaan School that is now put in more effort to improve English through math and science. Can you please let the Chinese school to have the freedom to choose what we want? There is no contradiction between you and me as long as you don’t support the call to force Chinese school to learn math and science in English.

Unknown said...


Did you know that teachers who teach math and science in English are given an incentive payment? Those in the primary school get 10 % of their pay while secondary school teachers get 5%. This incentive payment is also given to English teachers. That is why teachers, including senior assistants and principals( who prior to this incentive payment had claimed they were too busy) are now very eager to include English, math or science in their timetable - never mind their level of English proficiency. Scrap the incentive payment and you will soon find the truth. Then we can see for ourselves whether there is a shortage of qualified teachers in the subjects mentioned.


John Lee said...


Did you not read anything I posted? I said exactly that - let individual schools, be they SKs, SRJK(C)s or SRJK(T)s, decide what language to use.


That explains a lot then. That incentive sounds poorly structured. I think it should be paid only to teachers who can pass certain tests of proficiency in English.
At the moment it's free money for anyone willing to sell out.

Anonymous said...

John, honestly i don't except this
"Great posting, Kian Ming - I completely agree."

John Lee said...

I assume you're referring to this?

If the only choice is to force everyone to teach in English or to force everyone to teach in the mother tongue, I maintain that English is the better option. It is far too disruptive to completely render redundant all the efforts we've made in switching over to English - efforts which will pay off in the long run, especially if we get serious about improving the quality of English among teachers.

The point I'm making now is that this is a false choice, because we can let schools which are not ready for the switch go back to the mother tongue, without harming schools that have successfully implemented the English policy. You're trying to force a false choice by insisting on a return to the original status quo ante.

Unknown said...

John, you have to look at the whole scheme of things. There are around thousands of schools in Malaysia. Since I don't have the exact number, assume its 1,000 schools.

Of these 1,000 schools, if you allow the individual schools to choose the method of teaching M+S, I dare say that only 5% (or 50) will be able to decide correctly the method of individual delivery. These schools will be in the urban areas or have very ethnic concentrated enrollment.

The rest of the 95% will just either revert back to teaching in Malay or have in-fighting and thus at the end of the day, its the students who will suffer.

Also, with this up to individual schools, parents will have to transfer their children who are teaching M+S in the language of their choice and will also lead to loads of logistical issues.

Just imagine this, can we have individual police stations determine what is "against the law". We can't as this will lead to chaos.

To allow individual schools to decide is either an idealistic or a very selfish decision.

I hope you guys are under the category of idealistic.

John Lee said...

Of these 1,000 schools, if you allow the individual schools to choose the method of teaching M+S, I dare say that only 5% (or 50) will be able to decide correctly the method of individual delivery. These schools will be in the urban areas or have very ethnic concentrated enrollment.

And where does this figure come from? How are you determining what the "correct" choice should be? It is not very hard to look at the composition of your student body and decide what language most of them would be most comfortable with. The difficulty comes in determining whether a school has sufficiently competent teachers to teach in English, and whether the pupils are generally adept enough to handle English material, and I maintain that a federal bureaucrat will never know enough about every school in the country to make the right decision in every case. Of course localising the decision would have its own problems, but that's assuming the present centralised situation is perfect. You know what's selfish and idealistic? Believing a handful of bureaucrats in the Education Ministry are so knowledgeable and wise and competent that they can decide on a single policy to be applied in every school throughout the country which will on the whole benefit everyone.

As far as I can tell, there's more consensus that we should be teaching in English at the secondary level, so the only issue is with primary schools. Most primary schools are already extremely ethnically segregated in the first place; most of the students in SKs are Malays, most in the SRJK(C)s are Chinese, and most in the SRJK(T)s are Indian. I suspect only a very small number of schools will be diverse enough to not have an obvious first choice. For the vast majority, there will only be two choices: Malay/Mandarin/Tamil or English. And it's not terribly difficult to make a decision if you know something about the population of the school and the teachers who will be implementing the decision. Forcing a one-size-fits-all policy on every school assumes that schools are too stupid and incompetent to make their own decisions, but if that's the case, why don't we just close them down?

The argument that some parents will be "forced" to transfer their kids is ridiculous. Let's say we keep the present system. I want to send my kid to a school which teaches in Tamil. What choice do I have? All schools teach in English. Let's say we revert to the old position and now I want my kid to learn in English. Again, what choice do I have? All schools teach in the mother tongue now. If we let each school determine their own policy, then parents will actually have a choice about their children's education; they won't be "forced" to transfer. If they would prefer their kid to learn in English but the only nearby school uses the mother tongue, then they have to decide whether the benefits of learning English outweigh the costs of transferring their child; nobody is forcing them to transfer or to stay, and nobody is forcing them to stick with one language or another. At least they have a choice. Under a one-size-fits-all policy, there is no such choice; you either take what the government gives you, or you leave it. How can you argue that giving parents a choice would be bad?

Give some specific examples of administrative difficulties which would arise under localising the language decision. What kind of "in-fighting" would be likely? As I said, most schools should have an obvious choice because their student bodies are not really diverse, so there would be nothing to quarrel about. A small handful of schools might make the wrong decision, leading to protests from parents, but the Education Ministry could easily intervene in such a case. The vast majority of schools should find the language decision a no-brainer; either their pupils and teachers are ready to teach in English, or they aren't.

Ultimately most arguments against this idea just boil down to claims that people are too stupid to decide for themselves. But when a school knows that 95% of its students are Malays from the fishing village, or Chinese from the squatter area, or rich kids from the upper class suburbs, and also knows the quality of the teachers it has, how hard is it to make the right choice? Most decisions should be clear-cut; those that aren't can be decided by an elected school board or by the Education Ministry if no decision at all can be reached. Most cases should not require government intervention simply because they are just plain obvious. And over time, parents will be able to compare the performance of nearby schools, seeing which methods work best. If it's clear English does not harm students' performance, then parents will push schools to switch; if it's clear we're not ready to use English yet, parents will push schools to avoid using English.

Unknown said...

Since this is partly your blog, I don't wish to go into a length discussion.

Obviously you are an idealis. Why stop at M+S. Why not let individual schools decide whether there should be any school rules, such as attending classes or what age you should take PMR/SPM/STPM.

If you extend the choices that can be given to individual schools, why even have an sort of national education system? Let each school decide whether they wish to follow the national syllabus or teach an international syllabus.

Choices once given can never be taken back. Ppl do not see choices as a privilige but rather as a "god given right", just like the "Never Ending Policy".

My sincere opinion is that if we give individual schools the choice, we will destroy whatever is left of our education system.

I am a product of the national school system when Anwar and later Najib was the Education Minister. Way before your time and about the same time as Tony.

I graduated from the University of Life so my views may not be as refined as yours or that of Tony / Kian Ming.

What we need is to improve our overall education system, not just M+S but the overall command of the English Language and also the mastery of M+S.

Our education system is getting worse by the day due to politicans and wrong Federal decisions. I don't dispute that.

That's why for those who can afford, they will send their children to International Schools.

For the rest of us who cannot afford International Schools, most send them to Chinese Schools, hoping that the Chinese Schools will instill good values and discpline.

If Chinese Schools truly have the best interest of their pupils, they will also want their students to master English and also Malay not to be so "Nationalistic".

Dong Jiao Zong should not have lend their voice for M+S to be taught in Mother Tongue as this will definately provoke UMNO to ask M+S to be taught in Malay and once again, the race card is played.

True, its not easy to master 3 Languages but since we are in Malaysia, we cannot afford to ignore Malay and of course, English is still the international Language.

The best option is to continue to teach M+S in English, ie "status quo" and not let individual schools to decide.

Happy new year to you.

Anonymous said...

To John,
decentralization and autonomy may be a good idea, but in practice there may be a lot of problems. A lot of time autonomy=financial independence especially if it involves independent hiring of teachers for school etc. As i know in USA, the public schools(elementary+middle+high school) are supported by local tax of that school district and parents could really decide what should be taught to their children in the school. And it is illegal to send your children to the school in different school district in which you do not pay the local tax. i am not sure whether this will work or not in malaysia since malaysia and USA are totally different in terms of culture + tax structure + money + .....

Anonymous said...


This discussion has lost its focus again. At the end of the day, we should ask ourselves this : what do I want for my children/ students / future leaders of Malaysia (assuming they will not migrate) ?

Do we want them to be able to communicate effectively in English? Do we want them to excel in math and science? Do we want them to have careers and be productive citizens? All these discussions about whether to teach math and science in English (or any other subject) is relevant when the educational standards and examination systems are failing most of our school-leavers and even graduates. I recently advertised a vacancy for a clerk and, to my surprise, received applications from degree-holders for this humble position. Needless to say, their letters of application are littered with grammatical mistakes.

Can the government please focus on producing more employable school-leavers and graduates? Shouldn't that be the top priority of schools and universities?

Shouldn't we look at the forest rather than the trees?


Anonymous said...

DJZ is not a political party. Umno is. Can't see the difference?

Anonymous said...

Hi!Everyone. OK, some may find John's ideas too far-fetched but at least he's concerned enough to come up with possible solutions. There's certainly no need to be hostile over discussions like that and after all do we want our kids to speak like that and have that kind of attitude?(you know what I mean) Let's put our kids first as every change will affect them. There should not be anymore drastic changes for now. Smaller steps should be taken. Math concepts should be taught using numerals and symbols first in early years and gradually with shorter sentences. Books from U.S. for teaching of English as Second Language, teaching method for foreigners/immigrants should be studied as they have been established over so many years. The MOE should look into the root of the problem and I believe a lot lies in the teaching materials ( even teachers find it difficult)Math problems need not be too wordy in the early years. Yes, some kids from rural areas did well eventhough their parents don't speak a word of English. After all many of us did not know much B.M./English when we started school. The need to make the books, teaching material, teaching method more interesting for the kids cannot be over-emphasized.

Unknown said...

Yes I totally agree with Mr. that Dubai being the Switzerland of the Middle East. Dubai have the higher skyscraper in the world almost completed on his elevation yes am talking about Burj dubai tallest tower in the world. The burj dubai tower willbe one the most visited attraction in the world with restaurant, business corporate floor, view room.
It’s a big difference now, investors are quickly reducing prices,” adds Imran Aslam, agent at Dubai-based property broker AAA. “They are also finding they have too many properties, so they want to sell. At the moment, there are no stable prices in the market.”
This discussion has lost its focus again. At the end of the day, we should ask ourselves this : what do I want for my children/ students / future leaders of Malaysia (assuming they will not migrate) ?

Do we want them to be able to communicate effectively in English? Do we want them to excel in math and science? Do we want them to have careers and be productive citizens? All these discussions about whether to teach math and science in English (or any other subject) is relevant when the educational standards and examination systems are failing most of our school-leavers and even graduates. I recently advertised a vacancy for a clerk and, to my surprise, received applications from degree-holders for this humble position. Needless to say, their letters of application are littered with grammatical mistakes.

Can the government please focus on producing more employable school-leavers and graduates? Shouldn't that be the top priority of schools and universities?

Shouldn't we look at the forest rather than the trees?