State education has failed to meet expectations of middle class families
Posted by page-azimah on December 31 2015 22:16:01
December 2, 2015 10:00 pm JST
Malaysian education
Failing state schools prompt parents to go private
KATE MAYBERRY, Contributing writer

But policy flip-flops, particularly over the teaching of English -- long the target of nationalist critics who fear that championing English will mean the decline of Malay -- continue to undermine parents' confidence. In November, the ministry back-pedaled on a commitment to require a mandatory pass in English in the country's state high school exams.
Extended News
December 2, 2015 10:00 pm JST
Malaysian education
Failing state schools prompt parents to go private

KATE MAYBERRY, Contributing writer

But policy flip-flops, particularly over the teaching of English -- long the target of nationalist critics who fear that championing English will mean the decline of Malay -- continue to undermine parents' confidence. In November, the ministry back-pedaled on a commitment to require a mandatory pass in English in the country's state high school exams.

The government has also made the expansion of private education a key part of its economic reforms -- to provide schools for expatriates and for Malaysians returning home from abroad, and to put pressure on state schools to improve by giving parents greater choice. In 2012, limits on foreign ownership for international schools were removed and tax incentives introduced. The government estimated 777.8 million Malaysian ringgit ($183.2 million) would be spent between 2013 and 2015 to upgrade and build international schools.

It has also sought to address concerns about standards, after some schools were opened in shop houses, which are built to house ground floor shops with living space above. Rules have been tightened in relation to campus size, and each operator must meet requirements established by both the government and local authorities. Schools that want to enroll foreign students or hire international staff must also get government approval.

To differentiate themselves, more established schools have sought accreditation from bodies such as the Federation of British International Schools in Asia, but the biggest problem is finding classroom staff.

"There's a growing shortage of teachers worldwide," said Roger Schultz, head of school at Alice Smith, Malaysia's oldest international school, which was founded in 1946 for British children when Malaysia -- then called Malaya -- was a British colony. "More teachers are leaving the profession than are entering the profession," said Schultz.

Struggling to retain staff

Teachers' salaries make up about 70% of each school's costs and are directly linked to the fees paid by parents -- the higher the fees, the greater the proportion of expatriate or native English speaking teachers. Nearly all teachers at Alice Smith, where tuition fees in the first year are 48,090 ringgit, are expatriates. About 70% of students are foreigners.

A parent in discussions at a recent school fair in Kuala Lumpur (Photo by Kate Mayberry)

Many schools -- particularly those whose fees are lower -- are struggling to find and retain talented staff. At Tenby Schools, established in 1960 in the former tin-mining center of Ipoh and named after the founder's hometown in Wales -- administrators are looking to minimize staff turnover by providing in-house training and the opportunity to gain an internationally recognized teaching degree. The first 10 candidates on its teaching course at Queen's University in Belfast have just graduated.

Tenby's first-year tuition fees start at 15,120 ringgit and about 70% of the 4,700 children at its five schools are Malaysian. While teachers remain the group's biggest single cost, the expansion and upgrading of buildings and equipment also requires substantial, and regular, investment.

"We are small and in a very capital-intensive business," said group executive director Lim Si Boon. "We need scale. And we need to develop teachers."

In March, Lim sold 70% of Tenby to state-owned private equity company Ekuiti Nasional (Ekuinas) for about 70 million ringgit. Ekuinas, which has a second international school chain in its portfolio as well as some higher education colleges, has renamed its education division Ilmu and is exploring ways to develop a local teaching pool.

Foreign-owned English-medium schools are also investing in Malaysia, which has about a fifth of all the international schools in the region, according to the ISC. British-based GEMS Education opened its first international school in the country in September and has a second planned for 2017. More exclusive British independent schools such as Epsom College and Marlborough College have also established Malaysian campuses. ISC said some 40 licenses have been issued for new schools to open over the next five years.

St. Joseph's Institution International, an offshoot of a renowned Singapore school established by missionaries in the 19th century, will open in September 2016. SJII's fees will start at 53,100 ringgit for the first year.

The school has spent 230 million ringgit on a new campus in Kuala Lumpur, hoping that its affiliation to a top school in Singapore, its quality teachers and its Catholic ethos will differentiate it from the competition.

The British Council, an independent U.K. education and cultural organization, will also open an international school next year, in a partnership with developer YTL Land & Development. Targeted at Malaysians and with a focus on multicultural and multilingual learning, the school will be the British Council's second in the world, following one in Madrid.

Education consultants warn that the slowing economy is likely to mean tougher competition at the top of the market, especially if companies retrench expatriate staff and there is a consequent drop-off in the number of foreign students. Malaysia's gross domestic product is forecast by the World Bank to grow by 5% in 2016 as oil revenues shrink -- well below the bank's 6.7% forecast for East Asia and the Pacific as a whole. However, demand from Malaysian parents is expected to remain strong.

Even with the recent expansion, the number of Malaysians attending private schools remains low by international standards -- there are 5 million school-aged children and only about 3% are at fee-paying schools, compared with about 7% in the U.K.

Nevertheless, state education has failed to meet the expectations of the hundreds of middle class families weighing up their options at the fair. Many have already decided that they will have to pay for their children to get a good education.

"If the government schools got their act together, we'd be out of business," said Nina Adlan Disney, who became chief executive of Ekuinas-owned Asia Pacific Schools five months ago, having earlier spent more than two decades as an education consultant. "But it's going to be difficult for them to win back the confidence of the middle classes."

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