Five reasons to appreciate Sungai Ara Primary School’s holistic approach to education

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Anil Netto explains why this school in Sungai Ara in Penang has broken new ground.

Ever since the Sungai Ara Tamil Primary School in Penang became the talk of the town for its innovative approach to education – which was heartily endorsed by Education Minister Maszlee Malik during his recent visit – it appears that some quarters are unhappy.

Maszlee spent a lot of time engaging with the pupils and talking to the principal, Sangga Sinnayah, during his much-anticipated visit to the school on 17 May. He obviously came away impressed – and he said as much to the press.

Yesterday, however, a Penang city councillor spoke out against the children’s participation in a climate change protest on 24 May. She felt that the pupils had been manipulated by participating NGOs to be critical of the Penang transport masterplan.

Others are believed to have lodged a report with the Education Department in Penang, which then sent officers to investigate.

It would seem that it is okay for the state government to encourage youths and children to support the Penang transport masterplan (PTMP) through its “Sayangi Penangku Hunt” last year (with its not-so-subtle messaging on their T-shirts #ILovePTMP) or for youths to participate in the Bersih rallies – but it is not okay for youths to be exposed to other views about the PTMP.

It is only okay to express love for PTMP?

It does appear that the children from the Sungai Ara school have a mind of their own and are able to think for themselves, given their education on and exposure to environmental issues.

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Here are five reasons why we should appreciate what the school is doing.

1. Its pupils represented Malaysia in both global climate strikes

The school did Malaysia proud by becoming the only school in the country to participate in both the recent global climate strikes.

In the first global climate strike on 15 March, 1.4 million children from over 2,000 cities worldwide participated. In the second global climate strike on 24 May, hundreds of thousands of pupils from 1,600 towns in at least 125 countries took part.

It is the pupils’ participation in the Penang leg of the second global event that the city councillor is unhappy about.

But the children who were participating in the outdoor global climate strike were not going in clueless. They had already developed a keen understanding of the environment. They had the approval of their parents. The school principal and the chairman of the school’s parent-teacher association were also present to keep an eye on them. How is this manipulation or abuse?

We should be grateful to these children for raising awareness among Malaysians of the need to do more to tackle the climate crisis. Let’s not forget that a teenager from Sweden has inspired children – and adults – around the world to take climate change seriously and demand action.

2. Its students learn from exposure to real-life activities

The Sungai Ara school is not big on homework. Instead it encourages the children to learn from experience by practical exposure especially on how to care for the environment. It encourages them to think by immersion into real-life activities such as helping out at the school’s organic farm.

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Photos above: Seameo.org

Indeed, the school has correctly highlighted to the pupils the greatest crisis of our time: climate change. I dare say, many of the children in this primary school know more about the environment and climate change than the average Malaysian adult.

3. It collaborates with schools from other language streams

The school has organised joint inter-ethnic activities with the neighbouring Islamic school – something Maszlee was clearly pleased with during his recent visit. If more schools could cross the ethnic and religious divide and work together, we would be putting in place the foundation for greater unity and a better tomorrow.

Bringing children from different school streams together

4. It makes learning cool and fun

Our education system badly needs a revamp. Here, we have a school doing so well with its enlightened teaching methods, we should be doing all we can to encourage those associated with the school to take it to new heights. Through its outdoor activities and immersion experiences, the school makes learning cool and fun. No wonder the pupils love the school. Visitors stepping into the school are likely to feel the infectious positive energy from the dedicated teachers and enthusiastic pupils.

Impressed by its innovative methods, Maszlee has held up the school as a potential model for other schools in the country.

5. It is punching above its weight despite limited resources

This small school is punching above its weight and has already won a regional award. In January, it bagged a special prize in the regional 2018 Seameo-Japan Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Awards. The award is supported by the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (Seameo) and Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology in cooperation with Unesco’s Asia Pacific regional bureau. It was one of only two schools to win the award in the category of schools with fewer than 250 pupils. It is also one of the top schools in Penang with a pass rate of 86% in the Primary School Achievement Test (UPSR). Clearly, the school must be doing something right.

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We should be doing all we can to encourage our students – from primary school right up to university – to think critically about the issues of the day and explore alternatives.

The Sungai Ara primary school – and other schools in the country – deserve the space to nurture their pupils to think, experience and analyse – and even to doubt. In this way, they can grow up into mature thinking adults, fully aware of the challenges facing society and equipped to respond to them.

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