Education Minister Maszlee Malik is known to be an admirer of the education system in Finland. But Anil Netto thinks he should first visit this school in Penang to see what can be done, right here, right now.
No homework for pupils. Wholesome all-round education. A school farm where pupils can experience and learn living science. No extra classes or tuition for pupils. Little emphasis on exams. And yet commendable academic results.
Sounds like a school in Finland, whose education system consistently tops global rankings – except it isn’t.
Education Minister Maszlee Malik, known to be an admirer of the Finland education system, need not look so far. He should first check out the Sungai Ara Tamil primary school in Penang to find out how a small school – with just a dozen committed teachers and 130 pupils – can do wonders with limited resources.
Principal Sangga Sinnayah and his teachers have done an amazing job in transforming the school since he took over in 2011. It helps that the head is an educator of his time and place, instilling in his pupils a love for nature and the need to protect the ecology.
“We are implementing United Nations sustainable development goals. (Out of the) 17 goals, we implement eight goals in our school. One of these is farming some bananas and other vegetables – and we also take care of some chickens.”
An idle strip of river reserve land between the Sungai Ara River and the school premises has been turned into a lush school organic farm. The farm serves two purposes – as a living science learning platform and as a source of income for the school (the harvest has earned the school about RM600 a month).
Indeed, the half-acre plot is bursting with fruit and vegetables, 30 chickens – and even a few turkeys. Here the school grows mulberry, basel, guava, mango, bananas, murunga (moringa), papayas and sirih hitam (black betel). Some bananas are also left in the open to feed several friendly visiting squirrels.
“In class they (the pupils) are very bored. (So) we come out and in this open place, they can learn,” says Sangga. Some parents actually drop their children in school during holidays to work in the school farm.
Across the Sungai Ara river, another plot of barren land a few acres wide appears set to be used as a storage site for construction or scrap materials for a controversial major highway project.
The contrast with the idyllic green farm on this side of the river bank could not be more stark.
Inside the school, pupils are taught the importance of reducing waste to a minimum. For a start, there are no waste bins in the school. The total leftover food after over a hundred children and staff have had their meals in the canteen is not more than half a kilogram daily.
The school ensures that students are served food that is healthier than the usual canteen fare. Pupils are also encouraged to reduce their consumption of meat and stay away from unhealthy fast food.
“We have even ‘unfriended’ parents from the school’s Facebook if they share photos of fast food meals. If they do that, they are not friends of the school anyway,” says Sangga.
Last year, the school carried out a project with the theme “Embrace our culture for environmental conservation”.
As part of the programme, teachers instructed pupils how to develop organic farming in the school farm. They showed pupils how to collect resources for natural fertilisers and harvest organic vegetables and fruit.
Pupils were also shown how to maintain and inspect neem seedlings. A fully grown neem tree soars majestically at one corner of the school premises serving as a source of inspiration.
The use of banana leaves from trees grown by the school was encouraged instead of plastic plates.
A clay pot water dispenser was installed in the canteen to provide cool drinking water to the pupils, who were in turn taught how to clean and maintain these dispensers.
For its efforts, the school bagged a special prize in January in the regional 2018 Seameo-Japan Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Awards. It was one of only two schools to win the award in the category of schools with fewer than 250 pupils.
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.
And yesterday, the school became the first in Malaysia to join in the global Youth Strike for Climate campaign.
It is not just environmental awareness that the school is interested in. Students are encouraged to develop IT skills. The school provides 15 personal computers with wi-fi access in the school hall for the pupils to use, even outside school hours. Sangga himself practically camps in the school even during weekends to supervise the pupils.
The school has no gangsterism problem, said a visiting police officer responsible for overseeing the school.
Instead, if there are any disciplinary problems, Sangga asks those at fault to do the tedious work of stuffing discarded plastic bags into used plastic bottles to make “eco-bricks”, which can then be used to build stuff like chairs. “So they will be doing something useful,” he laughs.
“My school has no tuition programme; we have no extra classes,” adds the principal.
“In this school, the speciality is no homework. We give online work. If they want to do it, they can do it. If they don’t want to do it, never mind. When they are free, they can do it.
“They enjoy the learning. So this is the philosophy of our school.”
It is an enlightened and progressive philosophy – but, as many parents would no doubt want to know, where does the school stand in terms of academic performance?
“Because we have practical lessons like this, the students’ results are very good. We have sustained (the results) for the last three years. Our GPS (Gred Purata Sekolah or School Average Grade) also increased and the (pass rate) has increased to 86%.
“We are among the top schools in Penang. Our result has proven that.”
In fact, several of the pupils bagged more A’s than a few of the teachers’ own children who had gone for tuition, chuckles Sangga.
Not a bad feat for a small school in Sungai Ara with a distinctly Finnish flavour – something for Mazlee and the Ministry of Education to mull over.