Saturday, June 13, 2015

Schools: Rebuild system first, English language next

Schools: Rebuild system first, English language next — Ravinder Singh

JUNE 13 — Will reversing the clock and resurrecting the former English medium schools that were converted into National schools in the 70’s, bring back the glory of those English medium schools and the kind of society that they created?
Perceptionally, yes; but practically, NO, unless the whole education system is first rebuilt, literally from scratch. Perceptions are formed by looking at the English medium schools in Singapore, our immediate and closest neighbour, and in the case of the senior citizens, also looking back at our own English medium schools that were set up by the British and left behind for us to manage. We see very rosy pictures of English medium schools when we look at these.
Our political leaders bungled in the management of the excellent schools of the 50’s and 60’s, blinded by ‘nationalism’. They forgot that English is an important international language. They forgot or did not care that English is the language of knowledge as the volume of knowledge available in English far surpasses that available in Malay. In short, they messed up the education system to a state which can be aptly described by the Malay proverb ‘nasi sudah jadi bubur’ — the rice has become broth.
In the situation that our mainstream education system is today, resurrecting the former English medium schools is not going to do what people perceive it will do. This is because the glory of the English medium schools of the 50’s and 60’s had nothing much to do with the language medium per se, but with the school culture, the quality of teachers, school heads and all those responsible for the system from the top to the bottom.  
Due to blind ‘nationalism’, meritocracy was thrown out the window. School headships, for instance, became rewards for those active in politics of the ruling party, regardless of merit. Paper qualifications became more important than decades of classroom experience. Human rightism blinded education policy makers to the vast difference between the concepts of ‘child discipline’ and ‘child abuse’ resulting in prohibiting teachers using light canes as an effective disciplinary tool (when other methods fail) to maintain school discipline. The light cane was a standard disciplinary tool in the English medium schools of the 50’s and 60’s.
No study has been made to determine the deterioration of our schools. For instance, the
Sekolah Kebangsaan Tunku Abdul Halim in Alor Setar, Kedah used to be the top primary school in the district year after year in the 50’s and 60’s. By the late 80’s, it had deteriorated to being one of the worst primary schools in the district. Why? How? Head teachers of the 50’s and 60’s who were ‘master teachers’ had been replace by heads who were anything but master teachers. Child discipline had been allowed to deteriorate to a state of mayhem. When teachers couldn’t even control the children (just primary school children, mind you), how could any effective teaching take place?
In education, among other things, continuity is very important. Continuity of a proven system; continuity of meritocracy, continuity of a good school culture which in turn requires continuity of teachers. In the 80’s a teacher training college principal, returning from a study tour to Scotland, told his staff how he had told the education authorities there that Malaysia had introduced the 3R system (3M in Malay — Mengira, Menulis, Membaca) and asked them about theirs. He was stunned with the answer — they have been using the 3R system for the past 200 years.  
The education ministry proudly points to the Blue Book — the education review that was carried out a few years ago at a cost of tens of millions, as the panacea to the system. It is not. The ‘experts’ who prepared the book do not seem to have seen the ills of the schools and the system. Were they really ‘experts’ in education? Why didn’t they mention anything about the rampant indiscipline in the schools and the co-relationship between discipline and academic performance of schools? What practical measures did they propose for checking the deplorable state of discipline? None. But they spoke of schools that would produce well cultured persons!
The Malaysian education ‘ship’ so to speak is so corroded that charting courses for it on paper is not going to take it to the lofty ideals in the blue book. A re-building of the whole ship is required if it is to take the children of the Malaysian man-in-the-street anywhere meaningful.
Merely reviving the English medium schools is not going to bring us back to the educational standards of the 50’s and 60’s. With unending political interference in education; without ‘master teachers’ running and manning the whole system from ministry level to classroom level, i.e. from making policies, designing curriculum, training teachers, administering schools with discipline given its rightful priority. With teachers burdened with a hundred and one non-teaching duties, with standard one children carrying heavier loads of books to school than the form 5 students of the 50’s,  English medium schools, if they do come about, will be no better than the national schools.   
We cannot compare our national schools with those of Singapore based just on the medium of instruction there and on our own hindsight of the English medium schools in the then Malaya. There is much more to it than meets the eye.
Educating children is a complex matter. It is an area that needs special skills, not just book knowledge and degrees. A majority of the master teachers of the Malaya era were not degree holders, let alone Masters or Phd holders. Yet they were excellent teachers who consistently maintained discipline and produced good academic results and all-rounded young adults. The whole system and a lot of manpower must change, not just the medium of instruction, if we want to truly educate our children and not just teach them a little bit of reading, writing and counting without any character development.  
Does moving forward not allow for looking back at what was good and reverting to the time tested and proven system? Education is not something to be experimented with like has been going on in this country, not for any better, but for the worse.
First the authorities have to get out of the denial mode and stop the propaganda that our education system can be counted among the best in the world. Can they even give an honest post-mortem report on Sekolah Kebangsaan Tunku Abdul Halim, Alor Setar from its top position in the 50’s and 60’s to its bottom or near bottom position in the late 80’s?
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