Teaching of science and maths in English
DATIN Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is no stranger to those who have been following the on-going — and of-times, highly emotional and political – debate on the teaching of science and mathematics in English in Malaysian schools. To the many parents, students, and educational interest groups in favour of it, she is a welcomed and valued ally. For others who oppose it, she is a formidable adversary.
A professional accountant by training, she has worked in Bank Negara, Price Waterhouse Associates and Rashid Hussain Securities, and holds a post-graduate Certificate in Financial Planning (CFP).
She left the corporate arena to raise her children and be involved in matters of education, having held the positions of PTA chairperson of SK Bukit Damansara and vice chairperson of SMK Seri Hartamas.
In 2008, at the height of the debate on the Teaching and Learning of Science and Mathematics in English, she and a group of like-minded parents founded the Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE), a national society, to defend and ultimately ensure “pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents,” as stated in the Education Act 1996.
Regardless of where one stands, Noor Azimah, currently the chair for PAGE, comes across as articulate, detailed, level-headed and above all, tenacious. One would expect no less from this accomplished lady who has won much public support by using facts and reasons to answer criticisms which often times, can be highly and emotionally charged.
PAGE has been invited to speak at prestigious forums organised by, among others, the Education Ministry, the Perdana Leadership Foundation CEO Forum, ASLI, the Asian World Education Summit, FCCMSM, Microsoft Malaysia, ILKAP and the Malaysian Students’ Societies of the universities of Oxford and Edinburgh, MELTA and Edu Coop.
PAGE also sits on the Education Committee of Academy Sciences Malaysia and the Project Advisory Group of IDEAS. They have collaborated with SafeGov.org of the US in a worldwide survey on ‘data mining’ and have had other liaisons with UNESCO, ISIS, MDec and Performance Management and Delivery Unit (PEMANDU) among many.
Noor Azimah will be in Sibu on Aug 14 to speak at a public lecture on “English, what next?”
In an interview with thesundaypost, she shares her thoughts on how far PAGE has and the challenges it continues to face as well as explains why she is upbeat about the progress the Malaysian education system has made in recent years.
She also talks about the importance of parents taking an active role in engaging with education policy makers and providing constructive feedback to decision-makers, even if it seems that their concerns are not being addressed.
Q: Raising the quality of the Malaysian education system and its students is no easy task, what more speaking up in favour of an education policy some have tried to paint as a threat. Since PAGE was established in 2009, it has been unflinching in its appeal for the teaching and learning of science and mathematics to be in English as an indefinite option in national primary and secondary schools. Now, six years on, how much closer or further do you think PAGE is to its goal?
A: We are quite close. It is closer than you can think. And more than one dares to imagine. So sit back, continue to guide your children, keep check and be patient.
Q: What are the major challenges and/or factors which have affected your organisation’s work – for better or for worse? Do you feel, as the face of PAGE, that you are still very much a voice in the wilderness?
A: I would like to think that PAGE had an indirect hand in shaping the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (MEB) as far as English language is concerned. Wave 1 is coming to an end and Wave 2 is going to proceed in 2016 with a bang as the respective departments of the Ministry of Education (MOE) come together to return quality to the education system. This will be supervised under the watchful eye of PADU, its implementation unit, strongly backed by SISC+ as well as SiPartner+, a vital component of the District Transformation Programme.
There is even a possibility that PEMANDU (Performance Delivery Unit) of the Prime Minister’s Office will oversee. This is how crucial it is for Wave 2 to succeed. In the process, all potential weak spots have been identified and plugged.
The major challenge which has been from the start till today and will continue for a long time, is the resistance towards English education by the ultra-nationalists who believe Bahasa Melayu (and not even Bahasa Malaysia) will be unfairly and unjustifiably relegated to a language of mediocrity. It is far from it.
We believe Bahasa Malaysia, as it should be referred to, is a beautiful language and has its rightful place in the Federal Constitution where its sovereignty is enshrined and protected and which every Malaysian has a responsibility towards. The MEB even speaks with fortitude of proceeding with and ensuring that the national language becomes a language of knowledge. However, we believe it should and must not be at the expense of the English language. The irony of it is that these very ultras have no qualms with Mandarin or Tamil.
While we may have started off as a voice in the wilderness, I believe we have now become a voice to be reckoned with. Much of the credit goes to the English media like the Borneo Post that have supported us through thick and thin because together we believe its benefits are tremendous.
Q: Do you think there is now greater awareness among parents and other stakeholders (eg teachers) of the pros and cons of returning to the teaching of science and maths in English, or has the divide between those in favour and those against only gotten wider and more antagonistic? It certainly seems like the latter based on the comments made by politicians and leaders from within the government.
A: The announcement to abolish the policy was made in 2009 to take place in 2012 but its subsequent Soft Landing announced in November 2011 was made to cushion the impact. School leaders were urged to appreciate the “spirit of the Soft Landing which was to not impose the teaching of these two core subjects in Bahasa Malaysia” but instead allow the “students who started in English to finish in English.” Many overzealous school leaders imposed Bahasa Malaysia on their students regardless of students’ preferences and pleas. The Soft Landing hard-crashed and caused many students much anxiety.
Parents are very much aware of the benefits of teaching science and maths in English but most are too afraid to speak out for fear of reprisal.
Even more horrifying is that Vietnam has overtaken us in rankings. This is even more unacceptable. This more than anything has jumpstarted the process of change in the entire system.
Great efforts have been made and will continue to be made by the MOE to address English teachers’ proficiency and we are more ready than ever to take the challenge.
Q: During an interview with Astro Awani last year, you were quoted as saying “In the past, English medium schools brought the races together. There was no question of being separated, everybody went to the same school. Since its abolition, each race attends its own type of school.”
Some parties argue BM is better suited for this purpose as there are inadequate teaching resources and manpower to teach English as a subject just by itself, especially in rural schools. Do you think a middle ground can be found for both languages to complement each other as unifying forces in schools?
A: Let’s face it. English medium schools, as we know it, will not happen at the national school level and definitely not the way the Sultan of Johor has envisaged. Can you imagine the outrage if Islamic Studies is taught in English? It is blasphemy. There will be too much resistance and it will be politically suicidal.
The MEB, however, has acknowledged that “international research also indicates that Malaysia’s 15-20 per cent instructional time in English language may be insufficient for students to build operational proficiency.” While Wave 1 would have addressed the proficiency factor at every level perceivable, including the redeployment of teachers who do not meet the minimum level required, these gaps will be promptly filled. With this firm foundation, Wave 2 can be embarked upon to introduce structural change, including a marked bilingual medium of instruction.
Q: Bearing in mind that revamping the national education system is a process that will take decades, how much progress do you think Malaysia has made in recent years to improve the general standards of education in schools and institutes of higher learning compared to its self-set goals (eg the National Education Blueprint)?
A: The MEB has set out in a comprehensive manner the revamp so desperately needed by our education system. It is then supported by regular advertorials and annual reports which keep stakeholders abreast of developments, appreciating that communication is vital for its successful implementation.
It is up to stakeholders, especially parents who engage themselves in their children’s education, to provide feedback in order for kinks, if any, to be ironed out or areas of weaknesses which need to be highlighted, addressed and put right. There must be teamwork from all parties concerned.
Q: Growing concern and cynicism among parents about declining standards of education has led many (usually those who can afford it) to take their children out of national schools and place them in private schools locally or overseas. Others have taken up home-schooling. As a vocal advocate for better education and a parent yourself, what are your thoughts on this? Do you feel such moves are justified?
A: When international schools were liberalised, the MOE claimed it would provide competition between the national and the international school systems. We, instead, expressed concern this move would create yet another divide called the class divide. And we believe this has happened. The better and wealthy students have left the national for the private or international school system, leaving behind a small degree, if any at all, of the perceived competition intended.
We believe national schools with support from parents are still able to produce outstanding students as our children continue to breach the stiff grades for entry into universities abroad albeit in a smaller number possibly due to the overwhelming fees rather than competency.
Q: Given the current scenario where critical voices towards Malaysian education do not seem to be welcomed, what more can parents and other public stakeholders do to make sure their voices are heard by those who make and implement education policies?
A: We believe parents are being heard by MOE. At every opportunity, we stress upon the Education Act 1996 which states “pupils should be educated according to the wishes of their parents.” For the MOE to listen and take into consideration concerns of parents especially, we must rationalise and offer possible solutions. Any negativity directed towards them will surely be ignored.
Q: Public trust in the integrity and transparency of the education system has only gotten more shaky, especially in light of how the recent UPSR exam leaks have been handled. On the one hand, Malaysia is very much an exam-oriented education system (some would say results-obsessed) but yet, on the other hand, we don’t seem to put as much effort into improving its integrity, fairness and objectivity. Is this a justified perception?
A: We believe the MOE is as concerned about integrity as every stakeholder is. The recent UPSR fiasco most definitely had shaken up the entire education system, prompting immediate and stern measures to be taken. While it appears those found implicated have gone scot-free, it is not the case as the law and the courts will take their course, I am told. Nonetheless, it is coming to a year now since the leaks took place and parents do wonder what became of the investigations and if everyone did get away with the loot. The silence is deafening and in time, questions again will be asked as UPSR approaches.
Q: It has been six years. What keeps you and PAGE going?
A: PAGE was formed in the school canteen of SK Bukit Damansara in September 2008 at the height of the debate on the teaching and learning of science and maths in English policy by the committee members of its PTA. We were registered as a national society in 2010. As we gained momentum, we were joined in by parents from other schools. What keeps us going, I suppose, is the mere fact that our maiden cause, which is to initially see the policy remain indefinitely in 2009, has now become its reinstatement in 2017.
In fact, for those who know renowned educator Professor Dato Dr Ibrahim Ahmad Bajunid, he had earlier in the year announced at an education forum that “PAGE has changed the landscape of education.” Of course, we were elated by the surprise.
But it is also the man/woman/parent/student in the street who stops me in my tracks — be it at the market, supermarket, restaurant, forum such as this or at open houses — to congratulate us on our consistent stand, perseverance and determination.This is what keeps us going.
To conclude, much has taken place under the watch of the former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, and we thank him for his foresight and leadership in taking the education system to its rightful place. It is our hope the new Minister of Education, Dato Seri Mahadzir Khalid will continue to support the initiatives, effort and programmes lined up particularly for English in the impending wave of the MEB.
For more information on PAGE, visit them on www.pagemalaysia.org , follow them on Twitter @pagemalaysia or write to them at [email protected] .