Centralised decentralisation: Oxymoron that is Malaysia’s education system

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Using a centrally decided system not only burdens the teachers with the bureaucracy but also limits their freedom to design the assessment model, say Nicholas Chan.

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Although the finalised Malaysia Education Blueprint has just been released recently, some of the programmes as deliberated in the blueprint have been kick-started seeing that 2013 is supposed to be the inception year of the 12-year transformation plan.

Among these initiatives are expanding accessibility to pre-school education, LINUS testing for literacy and numeracy skills and the roll-out of 1Bestari.net for integrating ICT into day-to-day teaching. With such massive undertakings underway, resistance is expected and one of them I would like to talk about is the rejection of the school-based assessment system (PBS) by the National Union of Teaching Profession (NUTP), basically the union for teachers in Malaysia.

The urge for school-based assessments is really new in the discourse for education in Malaysia, and it is not a bad thing either. Long have we heard laments about how our national examination-centric education system has failed to produce holistic, competitive and market-ready graduates. In the meantime, it also strains social mobility efforts because under the quantitative “quasi-meritocratic” system, students who don’t excel academically in initial stages will likely persist so while going through the system, impeding access to better life chances.

PBS is actually a part of the plan to tackle such shortcomings; with schools being able to take charge of their own assessments, it is hoped that an exam-centric culture will be abolished with more emphasis given to the learning experience instead of grading. It also seeks to enhance the accuracy of student assessments by handing them to the people who know the students best, the teachers.

So far, so good; so why does the NUTP opposes it? Mainly because the implementation of the PBS requires the teachers to key in student achievement assessments and other complicated information through the online system, which is reportedly said to be ravaged by technical problems. Even school principals and deputy principals are expected to submit teacher performance assessments online.

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This increase of laborious desk work is said to have burdened the teachers unnecessarily, distracting them from classroom commitments which is supposed to have been a teacher’s greatest focus. While some may say it’s just a technical issue solvable by better IT tools or even having administrative clerks to handle the “keyboard” work, the matter actually reflects a more worrisome fact: the age-old structural problems of our education system are still not being addressed.

The PBS, which will replace PMR in 2014 and be factored into UPSR by 2016, illustrates the aspirations of the government in decentralising education, at least on paper. This only serves right as international best practices (e.g. see Finland’s school-based and teacher-centric model) and review (World Bank’s 2011 expenses review on Malaysia’s education) have lauded decentralisation as one of the best approaches to take to improve learning outcomes and administrative efficiency. The entire ruckus about this PBS thing reveals that despite us subscribing to the concept of decentralisation, we are not implementing it in the same spirit.

Autonomy in a heavily centralised system?

Decentralisation is always equated with autonomy, meaning that schools should be given the freedom in decision making, and in the case of the PBS, the best way to assess its students. Using a centrally decided system not only burdens the teachers with the bureaucracy (which is counter-intuitive to the whole idea of decentralisation), but also limits the freedom in which the teachers can exercise on designing the assessment model.

The inability of the Education Ministry to adjust to the new era of decentralised decision-making is highlighted by the verbose nature of the blueprint, to the extent that it has to outline all the four components of the new PBS (school assessment, central assessment, psychometric assessment and physical activities, sports and co-curricular assessment). Coupled with the need for the teachers and even the school admistration to report constantly to the Ministry about student and even teachers’ assessments, it is doubtful whether any space still exists for school autonomy.

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This oxymoron of a centralised decentralised system will pose a great structural and operational threat to a system we all placed great hopes in reforming. Firstly, we are still clinging to an exam-centric system where the life chances of the students and even the promotion of the teachers depends on it. If that is the case, having PBS makes it worse as teachers and principals will abuse the “autonomy” by reporting burnished results to please the higher officials for their career interests, negating the fact that learning outcomes should never be based around assessments. Simply said, getting good grades should be the result but not the focus of a good education system.

Moreover, although it is commendable the Ministry is moving in to control teachers’ quality by stricter assessments, such roles should be delegated to state, district and even school administrators in the spirit of decentralisation. Thus, there is no need to place such great impetus and emphasis on top-down, centralised network systems for data management.

One of the greatest benefits of decentralisation is it enables trust to be built between society and the schools. If the government wishes to realise that, it has to start by trusting the schools by giving them more power and even resources, not dictating what should they do in a point by point, KPI by KPI basis.

Firm but loose guidelines should be set but the implementation of it should be decided at the state, district and school levels. To think that quality assurance involves micromanagement is definitely a fallacy. And by the way, the clerical work of the collation of data for the review of the Ministry should be rightfully done by the immense number of officers we have within the public service, not the teachers.

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Breaking free our education from the shackles of an over-centralised bureaucracy that is deemed too inept to adapt to global and local needs requires more than substituting its elements with savvy ICT tools and quantitative but lifeless markers that seek more to judge than to assess learning outcomes.

If we have determined that decentralisation is the way to go (it does seem so although the blueprint cleverly avoid any mention of “decentralisation” by using terms like reorganisation), we should have respect for the fundamentals of it. As can be seen in the hallmark case of Johor’s tremendous improvement in its schools’ performance, giving trust instead of checklists to lower education departments and schools may work better in reforming our education and uplifting its standards.

The Ministry in Putrajaya does not need to worry about running out of things to do; it certainly has many. For starters, reform, synchronise (we have a parallel system consisting of Teacher Training Institutes (IPGs) and Universities) and reinforce teacher training.

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ShakrinaLIkram
24 Nov 2013 2.59pm

Sirs, I ahve many enquiries from educationists BUT the problem is their grasp of English is not as polished as Nicholas Tan here. And I am of the old school, too much English and hardly Malay in all aspects, please can someone translate this post in BM.
Much obliged!
Look like we have a GOM that has frittered RM (20 + 270) million hasn’t it!
Neither here no there between 2013 and 2025 and the teachers’ pay checks and time and patience, stretched beyond human tolerance! I know, my sister felt that the GBs tend to be so worked up that she at times became hard slave- drivers during her stint in both Secondary and Primary schools for 25 years.
Minisiters of Education came and went, think they are more locked on to the next stop – Premiership!

Mark
Mark
22 Nov 2013 11.12am

The education ministry people only know how to talk but when come to actions,they suck! The ministry spends millions of dollars(like the case of spending RM20mil to engage consultant to prepare the education blueprint and another project which is IT based),but when come to implementation,it is any body’s guess. Why can’t they do a better job in view that we have the highest proportion of civil servants to population? Are they just ‘makan gaji buta’?