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  • Writer's pictureBait Al-Amanah

Private tuition’s proliferation: a symptom of our waning education system

It is common practice in Malaysia to send one’s child for tuition. Out stereotypically kiasu (scared to lose out) and Tiger parenting culture packs Kumon classes and keeps tuition teachers busy. Anecdotally, my peers recall starting school at 7:30 in the morning, ending in the afternoon only to proceed to three hours of supplemental classes which don’t even include musical or sporting activities.

The average Malaysian student spends an average of around 6 hours in supplementary tuition classes a week. This comes in the form of internal (extra classes from school teachers) and external (outside tutors) tuition classes. When academics are the ultimate benchmark for a student’s worth here, can we really blame them for putting so much weight on academics? Oftentimes, these exams can feel like the end-all-be-all, especially for the SPM exam, which is the main determinant for entry into pre-university programmes and scholarships.

While extra tutoring already lessens a child’s leisure time, it also represents a cost to parents. Assuming that tuition for one subject is RM100 per month (a low estimate), 4 subjects alone could cost RM400, multiplied by however many children a parent sends for tuition. Notwithstanding the opportunity cost of forgone work from taking the time to send a kid to class, this represents a major barrier to equitable access to education. This is backed by a local study in Penang that showed that household income is a strong determinant of spending on private tutoring services, attributing to having the resources to do so and affixing an increased value to academic achievement.

Paradoxically, the students who need tuition the most are the ones who can’t afford it. Studies show that students from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds perform worse than their wealthier counterparts. Poorer children are more prone to stunting from insufficient nutrition which is strongly correlated to weaker cognitive skills and educational performance. These very children are also the ones whose parents are unlikely to have the educational attainment enough to help teach them, further widening this academic disparity. Failure in mastering these foundational skills (eg. basic mathematics and reading skills) are vital in one’s later education.

In the annual PISA test, Malaysia has consistently underperformed, ranking in the bottom half of tested countries. Most staggeringly, 58 per cent of our students (OECD average: 26 per cent) are unable to reach Level 2 reading in the test, the minimum level of proficiency that students should acquire by the end of secondary education. Compound this with the learning losses from school closures and distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we have an uncompetitive youth which will go on to become our workforce.

Thus, with the majority of Malaysian students undertaking some form of private tutoring, we have to ask ourselves if our education system is the problem. Looking at a study conducted in Manipur, India, we can see that many of the grievances abroad are shared among us Malaysians. Overcrowded classrooms, lack of individual attention, ineffective classroom teaching and curriculum and heavy stress on academic performance. Similarly, in Algeria where education is even free for up to 15-year-olds, high stake examinations, large class sizes and lack of experienced teachers are cited as the main reasons parents opt to send their kids for supplemental classes. It is eerie that despite being thousands of kilometres away, the same issues that plague an education system give rise to similar outcomes.

Now, I am not suggesting at all a blanket ban on tutoring services– being so heavy-handed would only serve to undermine freedom of choice and increase pressure on our public education system, not even considering how such a ban might be enforced. Instead, I implore us to see how the proliferation of tutoring services is symptomatic of our waning public education system.

Laudably, things have indeed been done to combat some of the above issues. High stakes examinations like UPSR and PT3 have been abolished, and more teachers have been hired to deal with overcrowded classrooms. However, constant changes in education policy and an uprooting have resulted in teachers, an indispensable part of the system, facing an uphill battle of multiple challenges.

Thus, as a start, one should begin at the attraction, development and retention of talent in the teaching profession.

The starting salary of a teacher at a public school is about RM2200 with a yearly increment of RM225. However, Malaysia’s poverty line income in 2022 was RM2589, meaning that new teachers automatically fall below the poverty line. The saying goes that teaching is a vocation and not a profession. But that doesn’t mean that we should take teachers for granted.

Beyond this, teachers are not compensated for overtime, even though many do work overtime. They mark exercises at home and supervise co-curricular activities for students, yet are not commensurately rewarded for their impactful work. The most memorable teachers in my life oftentimes gave us students gifts to reward good behaviour and performance, but the financial cost of these gifts came from their own pockets.

As such, a good first step would be to increase the remuneration packages for teachers. For one, teachers should be compensated for overtime (capped at a certain amount of hours). Meanwhile, schools should allocate a portion of discretionary funding to teachers in order to purchase supplementary materials like mahjong papers for group projects, reducing the financial burden in an already arduous process of lesson planning.

Within Malaysia, there also exists a schism between teaching pedagogy and the needs of the curriculum. As noted in the Malaysia Education Blueprint, there needs to be a paradigm shift towards the development of students’ higher-order thinking skills (HOTS) with the aim being for 50% of SPM questions to require HOTS. This reflects a wider need for these faculties as many employers cite incapabilities in critical thinking and independent learning to be shortcoming of our graduates. However, researchers found that most class practices involved passive listening with minimal HOTS being needed. 90 per cent of teachers relied heavily or only on the prescribed curriculum and all teachers in the study fell short with respect to drawing intra and interdisciplinary connections when the subject matter.

Currently, the MOE requires only 7 days of training per year, but 90 per cent of teachers engage in professional development 10 days per year. A possible avenue for change is in providing more and better quality training opportunities for our teachers. National pedagogy falls short in terms of engaging learners, emphasising the regurgitation of information. Instead, workshops should hone and diversify the skillsets of teachers helping them implement strategies such as group assignments, project-based learning and peer/self assessments. On this front, Teach For Malaysia has made efforts via its Program Duta Guru which aims to empower 4500 teachers by 2030 to become leaders in the their schooling ecosystems. However, for true change, stronger systemic pushes need to be made.

Looking forward, it is my hope that an enhanced focus on our teachers (and consequently, our youth) will help propel Malaysia forward into a trailblazer both regionally and globally.

Articles can be found on FMT , LUMINEWS and NST.

Photo credit : BERNAMA

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