Are we ready for back-to-school

The problems with Malaysia's education system
After countless lockdowns and missteps, schools in Malaysia are finally set to reopen in stages next month. But not only has the pandemic resulted in loss of education for many children, it’s also exposed the gaps and cracks in our education system long hidden from sight.

In The BIG Question, Between The Lines speaks with CHERYL ANN FERNANDO, the CEO of PEMIMPIN GSL — a non-profit dedicated to training and improving school leadership — on kids’ return to school, what’s ailing our education system, and what can be done to fix it.



For parents, teachers and students, the past year and a half in the shadow of the pandemic has been marked by the shutting and reopening of schools and having to navigate the world of online learning. One of the major concerns is the learning gap and learning loss among school kids. Based on your observation and experience, how severe is this situation in Malaysia?

CAF: Firstly, I think we must acknowledge that schools in Malaysia are doing their best to reach out to as many students as they can for online teaching and learning. Compared to last year, our teachers this year are much more prepared, have equipped themselves with various digital skills and are going beyond their duty to ensure no child is left behind.

However, I think the biggest issue is still the lack of access to data or devices for the students. Students who are not connected to the Internet or without a device struggle to keep up with lessons.

Therefore, this leads to a gap in their learning, and given that we’ve had over 40 weeks of school closure, it’s very worrying to think about where these students are and how they’ll be able to catch up when school reopens.



Do you think the Malaysian government is doing enough to tackle this problem and put our kids back on track, or is this a lost year for students?

CAF: I think the government’s recent announcement to open schools in phases and to extend the school year is fair considering we’ve been out of school for more than 40 weeks now.

In many other countries, schools are the last to close and first to open. However, this is not the case in Malaysia. 

I would’ve liked to see other solutions besides blanket closures of schools, perhaps allowing students who do not have access to data or devices to use the computer labs, or to allow schools who are in the green zone to open first. But, I also acknowledge that being in a centralised education system makes these decisions a bit harder to make. 

In terms of dealing with learning loss, the ministry recently announced a new programme that’ll last till February next year called PerkasaKu. Through this, it is hoped that students will be able to catch up on what they have missed throughout these 40 weeks of school closure.



What else should’ve been done to empower the education system throughout the pandemic?

CAF: While I think the ministry is great at coming up with short-term plans and immediate solutions for the pandemic, I wish there were more progressive plans in place to look at reforms in the education system.

If anything, the pandemic gives us a perfect time to reform towards a more digitalised system, a less centralised one and even one that focuses on building teacher and student empowerment.

Our teachers have made great progress in terms of using tech to teach and we should be taking this into account as we’re planning for reforms. How do we make our education system more robust and pandemic proof?

I think this still falls short and perhaps in due time, the ministry will come up with better reforms.



On the flip side, what has the government done well with regards to our education system during the pandemic?

CAF: Last year, when schools reopened, the Education Ministry prepared very clear SOPs for schools to follow which was great because it helped to ensure teachers and students knew what to do in school.

I also think the recent announcement from the minister (Mohd Radzi Md Jidin) took into account reopening schools for special education and preschoolers. This is certainly welcomed given that these groups have been struggling throughout the school closure period.

Allowing hybrid learning is also quite fair. However, I think there still needs to be some clarity as to how teachers can manage the burden of teaching both online and face-to-face classes simultaneously.



With the #MakeSchoolSafeAgain campaign gaining traction following the Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam “rape joke” incident and the debasing period spot check practice in public schools, how can we make schools safe for our children? What are the roles of the government, teachers, parents and society in this regard?

CAF: When I was speaking to a few school leaders on the issue, I realised that more than them not wanting to do anything is the fact they do not know what to do. 

At times, they lack the language, skill or knowledge on what to do should they be faced with such issues. 

Therefore, I think it’s important, firstly, for teachers and school leaders to be trained on how to ensure schools are safer for our students, and that teachers act professionally at all times.

We must invest more in the training and development of teachers so that they’re able to better monitor a school’s progress, in line with the needs of our new generation of students.



Some problems with our education system (such as education inequity and access, race/culture-divide) began long before Covid-19 and will likely continue, worsen, and be compounded once regular schooling resumes.

You’ve mentioned that you hope for the education minister to engage with teachers and with previous minister Maszlee Malik to bring changes to the system. How dire is this need and what should the ministry’s immediate priorities be?

CAF: I saw recently that YB Radzi held various sessions with parents, district officers and teachers, and this is a great start.

Policymakers must hear from teachers who are on the ground facing numerous challenges on possible changes in policies or rules that could help them do their jobs better, as well as to reach out and help students. 

On the question of what are the urgent problems, for now, they’re definitely the learning loss and the gap between students who have been studying online and those who don’t have access to data or devices.

In some instances, students are also dropping out of school to help support their families. The ministry can do a study to find out how many of these students are at risk and then provide teachers and schools with interventive or remedial actions they can implement to help these at-risk students. We cannot let them continue to fall off the radar but must put in place stronger plans and reforms to ensure no child is left behind.

Because of the size and structure of the education ecosystem in Malaysia, the problems at hand are also very complex and there’s no silver bullet to trying to solve this.

But, I’m of the opinion that one way we can start is to decentralize the system by allowing teachers and schools to make decisions that are best for them, instead of waiting on the ministry to decide.

This way, schools, especially underperforming schools, will be able to address the issues at hand and provide solutions that are the best for their students.

Cheryl Ann Fernando is the CEO of PEMIMPIN GSL. She previously was a teacher under Teach for Malaysia and her story inspired ‘Adiwiraku’, the inspirational, award-winning 2017 movie. Cheryl was also part of the Jawatankuasa Kajian Dasar Pendidikan Negara in 2018/2019.

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