Reforming Education: Enhancing Residential Schools
M. Bakri Musa
Fourth of Six Parts
My first three essays dealt with the challenges facing kampong schools and how we could leverage technology to alleviate those problems. I discussed enhancing the educational opportunities through improving the schools, recruiting superior teachers, and enriching the curriculum. Failure to do so would doom these unfortunate students to perpetual mediocrity and poverty, with dire consequences for them as well as the rest of Malaysia. This essay explores ways of maximizing the potential of residential schools. Again here as with kampong schools, we are dealing primarily with Malay students.
Our residential schools get the top students, have the best teachers, and consume more than their fair share of resources. Yet their aggregate performance has been underwhelming. When I visit top American campuses, the Malaysians I meet there are from other than our supposedly elite residential schools. That is the most telling indicator.
Malaysia’s oldest residential school, Malay College Kuala Kangsar, only recently (June 2011) started a matriculation program, the International Baccalaureate. Despite the luminaries on its board and the institution’s special status, it took a full decade to implement the program. Imagine the glacial pace at lesser institutions!
Prior to the IB, MCKK students had to go elsewhere for their matriculation, reducing the school (and others like it) to nothing more than a glorified middle school, and a very expensive one at that. This has not always been the case. Up till the late 1960s, MCKK still had its Sixth Form. For over the past 40 years – two generations – the institution has been emasculated academically; the same with Tunku Kurshiah College and other residential schools. What a colossal lost opportunity for Malays, one that cannot be readily quantified. My surprise is that Malay leaders, especially the Perkasa types, are totally oblivious of this loss.
The issues with residential schools are principally with reducing their cost and enhancing the output.
The comparable cost for private schools in Malaysia ranges from about RM25-45K annually for tuition, plus another RM15-20K for full boarding per student. The facilities (academic and non-academic) at MCKK and other government residential schools are nowhere comparable to such private ones like Tuanku Jaafar College, so I would put a lower figure, conservatively at RM40K per student. That is still at least 8-10 times more expensive than the regular government day school.
The government bears the entire cost regardless of the families’ economic status. Thus one quick way to reduce cost would simply have parents bear the costs based on a sliding scale, depending on income and assets. Beyond a certain level they would have to pay the full cost; below that, nothing, the students effectively on full scholarship. With the extra revenue the schools could enhance their curriculum and facilities.
The immediate impact would be to discourage well-to-do Malays from enrolling their children at these schools, preferring the much superior private ones instead. That would effectively free up more slots for children of the poor.
Another way of reducing costs would be to make these schools only partially residential, restricting hostel facilities only to those from out of town. Another would be to limit the intake of students from within the state or adjacent ones, thus reducing transportation costs, although that is only a minor component.
With the increasing urbanization of Malays I would build these schools in the cities to cater to poor urban families. Then with most of the students coming from nearby areas, this would obviate the need for full hostel facilities.
Increasing and Enhancing The Output
As our residential schools get the best students, we must ensure that the output of these schools must be superior both in quantity as well as quality. At a minimum all their students must qualify for university; anything less would be a failure both for the students as well as the institution. It would also be a loss for Malays.
Again, because they get our best, these schools must be challenged and compared with the best in the region, and not to SMK Ulu Kelantan. If today we were to compare MCKK to Kolej Tuanku Jaafar or KYUEM, the results would be embarrassing.
By far the most effective way of reducing cost and at the same time increase the output would be to eliminate the lower forms. Focus only on the last four years, meaning, take in students only after Form Three. Resources and facilities currently devoted to the lower forms could now be diverted to the all-important upper forms.
MCKK takes in over 100 pupils at Form One, but five years later fewer than 50 would be in its IB program. I would rather get rid of Forms One to Three and double up on the IB class. That would boost both the quality as well as quantity of the output.
Another way of increasing the quality would be for these schools to offer specialized programs. Some schools could for example, emphasize the sciences, others foreign languages, performing arts, or sports. Or these schools could admit only boys (as with MCKK) or girls (TKC). The government recently started one specifically for the children of FELDA settlers. There could be one catering only to children of Orang Asli, or those who would be the first in their family to enter college.
I would also have the headmastership of these schools be a terminal appointment. Let it be the job he or she will retire in (contingent upon performance of course). That would be the incentive for the individual to strive for a significant legacy. During the tenure, superior performance would be recognized by increasing the pay, and not, as is the current practice, by being promoted and transferred out.
It is a crying shame that Malay College had nearly twice as many headmasters during the past 47 years when locals took over than in its first 60. One local headmaster stayed barely a few months, just enough time to put an entry on his resume, before being promoted to be a functionary at the ministry. Then we wonder why MCKK has slid so far behind.
Other schools in Malaysia trumpet their students who are being accepted to top universities, but MCKK and other residential schools are still obsessed with and fixated over their students’ SPM scores, with their graduation exercises (“Speech Day”) attended by sultans and ministers. That, more than anything else, reveals the standards as well as aspirations of these students, their teachers, and our society.
The government is building many more residential schools. However each new one merely replicates and is being run like existing ones. There is little innovation in curriculum, management or philosophy. Consequently the same mistakes get repeated, and they call that experience!
Next: Fifth of Six Parts: Post-Form Five Options