Spelling the blues over English ruling

If 100,000 students don’t make the grade in SPM English three years from now, they will leave school without an SPM certificate.

Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is right when he says that his proposal to make SPM English compulsory has received much support from parents and the public. If it worked with BM in the 1970s to get everyone to take the language seriously, why shouldn’t it work with English?

Leanne Goh, The Star

Our SPM students do best in Bahasa Malaysia and worst in English.

Going by last year’s SPM results, 23% of the candidates failed English and this group risks completing 11 years of schooling without that final paper qualification come 2016 when a pass in the language is made compulsory.

They number more than 105,000 out of the 459,118 candidates who sat for the exam last year.

And to compound the problem, there will be another compulsory pass next year (besides BM) – History. This core subject saw the biggest decline in passes in last year’s SPM – 19.7% failed compared to 16.7% the year before.

So, in the near future, low achieving students have to overcome three “hurdles” to obtain that SPM certificate or join the workforce without paper qualification. And we are talking about potentially a six-figure number.

This puts tremendous pressure on everyone. And no one knows it better that the Education Ministry as the mastermind of the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 which was launched on Friday.

For decades, the decline in English proficiency has been of serious concern to all and one of the most vocalised problems in the media.

The blueprint is set to address this issue, among many others. Generally seen as a no-holds barred master plan where, for the first time, the warts and all of our education system are revealed, it charts our path towards world class education.

It acknowledges, for example, that since 2006, poor English proficiency among fresh graduates has consistently ranked as one of the top five issues facing Malaysian employers.

We are also in the bottom third among 74 countries against international benchmarking. A comparison of scores shockingly reveals that 15-year-olds in Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Shanghai are performing as though they have had three or more years of schooling than their Malaysian counterparts.

The blueprint also highlights that only about a quarter of our SPM students achieved a minimum credit against Cambridge 1119 standards.

Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is right when he says that his proposal to make SPM English compulsory has received much support from parents and the public. If it worked with BM in the 1970s to get everyone to take the language seriously, why shouldn’t it work with English?

But there will be much pain before any gain, as circumstances have changed.

At the students’ level, how do we persuade them to see the relevance of English proficiency in their lives, especially among rural children? No one wants to learn something they don’t need, says an educator. Hence, the need to create that relevance.

Bumiputra students, according to statistics, perform the worst compared to the Chinese and Indians when it comes to English.

The ministry realises that the failure rate is high in certain states like Sabah, Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu – more than 40%.

It has also identified more than 1,000 schools as hot spots, mainly in the rural areas, and prioritising them for action.

Is increasing the teaching or contact hours the solution? The blueprint says the time is insufficient and the ministry is looking at extra contact hours after school.

But an education consultant shares that based on existing contact hours – 300 minutes in primary and 200 in secondary schools – students should have achieved the “independent user” band of B1/B2 (able to effectively express views and hold one’s own in social discourse) of an international benchmark.

“It’s not about the contact hours but the teaching and learning process,” she says.

One problem is that English is taught as a single subject with total disconnect with other subjects, thus limiting students’ perception of its relevance and their vocabulary.

Over the past week, there have been intense “labs” working on how to bring about the culture of wanting “an English experience”.

“We’ve been tasked with thinking of ways to help students soak the culture of English and to enjoy it as an experience. Unfortunately, the objective of getting an A often takes the fun out of learning,” shares an educationist.

With so many organisations involved in teacher training and curriculum development, the observation of a few who have been involved in the labs is that not everyone is on the same page.

Many are working in silos and not talking to each other.

“There is no clear direction and we’re not achieving the objectives. We have the corporate suits who are not educators dishing out management jargon like 3-feet plan, backfill, granular and syndication. And they have no clue about what really happens in schools,” he adds.

One heartening note from the blueprint is the Government’s plan to increase the number of Trust Schools to 500 by 2025. Trust schools are selected public schools that undergo “transformation” with private sector input.

The first batch of 10 schools in Johor and Sarawak, launched in December 2010, have seen tremendous positive changes at student and teacher levels and the school culture as a whole.

This is in large part due to the autonomy granted to the school to do as it sees fit with help from full-time education advisers with international experience. The aim is to raise the quality of the school’s education to global standards.

Those who have been to visit have come away gobsmacked by the transformation they see. Teachers put in longer hours but are happier and the kids are bursting with questions and confidence.

As one teacher puts it, Trust Schools are “sheltered from all the madness” that many public schools are subjected to, especially poor leadership and paperwork. In most schools, more effort and time are spent doing work outside the classroom than in.

The powers that be should seriously take note of the research findings in the blueprint that: only 50% of lessons are effectively delivered and high performing teachers can improve student outcomes by up to 50% over three years versus low performing peers.

Countries like Singapore and South Korea choose quality over quantity and willingly pay more for quality teachers.

We had a successful stint of producing more than 1,000 “standout” English teachers about 10 years ago under the “overseas linking programme” for Bachelor of Education in TESL (Teaching of English as a Second Language).

This five-year post-SPM programme that offered a two-year study at British universities managed to attract top scorers who would otherwise have not had the opportunity for a foreign education.

A lecturer involved in this programme shares that it has successfully put in schools teachers who make a difference. Unfortunately, the scheme came to an end when funds dried up in an economic downturn a few years later.

A civil servant friend with two bright daughters who graduated from this programme says there must be greater incentive to get the best brains into the teaching service.

“Getting the right person will solve many of the problems. She will want to motivate the kids, focus on the teaching and learning pro­cess, do her own research for best teaching practices, etc …” says a teacher who is about to throw in the towel.

After more than 30 years of teaching, she wants to call it a day as she does less teaching but more paperwork each year.

“And I can’t stand working under a pen­getua whose entire idea of education does not extend beyond the repainting of walls and retiling of floors, not to mention getting skirts for tables!”

And she will soon join the group of retirees that the ministry is trying – and failing – to rehire as they are among the last of the Mohicans with strong language skills.

Note: A frustrated teacher shares this with me: “Our schools are running on documentation. I can actually create a whole school on paper. I can give you attendance, records, photos, reports and even slip it by the authorities.”

And she’s not kidding!