Spotlight on education in Malaysia

04 October 2012

The following article by Ann Puntis, Chief Executive of our exam board Cambridge International Examinations, appeared in SecEd - the UK’s only weekly publication that is dedicated exclusively to secondary education - on 4 October 2012. 

The extent to which UK educational practice can influence countries around the world can be shown by a review of Malaysia’s education system.

A huge country with long-established links with the UK and a tradition of students completing their higher education in this country, Malaysia is currently undergoing a number of significant educational reforms which have many resonances with our own. And some which don’t.

The very extent of educational change can seem challenging in the UK. As we start the next academic year teachers are coming to terms with the implications of the review of the national curriculum for primary schools, government plans to eventually scrap GCSE exams, and Ofqual consulting with schools about the shape of A Level reform.

Hardly a classroom in the country has been left untouched. But one dimension that we do not have to connect with in the UK as a whole is the question of the language of instruction.

With the exception of Welsh medium schools where there is recognition that many children will have English as an additional language and need additional support in mainstream education, in most UK schools there is no question that English provides the medium of instruction.

This is not the case in many other countries around the world where policy-makers struggle to balance their local language against a “global” language such as English.

One country caught in this dilemma is Malaysia. A country with an ambitious development agenda and a position of growing influence across the Islamic world, there is a need to address issues of national identity and social cohesion alongside the requirement for global competitiveness.

Language policy in Malaysia has gone through a number of development stages. Up until 30 years ago, the school system was based on teaching in English. Between the 1980s and 2002 the educational system dealt with a switch to Malay language medium in national schools. This switch was then replaced by a brief initiative to deliver maths and science in the medium of English. And now we come full circle in 2012 to a return to Malay medium.

So in any one school in Malaysia the teachers in their 40s and 50s will have been educated in English, while their younger colleagues will have experienced education in Malay. They will both have struggled over the last decade with managing a mixed-language educational environment.

They will probably continue to struggle with the return to Malay, given the diversity of Malaysia. If you are teaching in Kuala Lumpur, schools, teachers and parents are likely to be more resentful about the language switch. In a rural state, you probably never quite made it to teaching in English in the first place.

It is a no-win situation for the policy-maker. There are sound educational reasons for deciding to teach in either language, but less for frequently changing the policy.

We refer in a general way to “coherence” in the curriculum. Although we might not agree on its precise definition, most educators would probably agree that having an age-segmented teacher workforce with different levels of linguistic competence and a differentiated ability to deliver the curriculum is unlikely to meet this definition.

Tackling the language issue is not the only concern that Malaysian policy-makers have been dealing with. Teachers face enormous proposed change elsewhere in the system.

Currently, the transition between key stages of education is marked by external examinations. Outcomes matter and teachers, as elsewhere in the world, are challenged with the claim that they are teaching to the test. This has led to a review of the way external examinations in Malaysia operate.

So at the same time that the language of instruction changes so will the educational system’s assessment of student progress.

There is a strong move towards the use of internal assessment and formative assessment rather than a reliance on examination feedback. The end of primary stage and a key stage 3 equivalent examination will be substantially replaced by teacher assessments complemented by a proposed English language monitoring tool.

Many aspects of the Malay system are similar to that of the UK. The Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examinations are similar in many ways to O Levels and the Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM) to A Levels. In fact there is a read across between SPM and O Level in English, where Cambridge examiners work with their Malaysian colleagues to provide O Level certification for students who perform strongly in SPM English. There is also a debate that sounds familiar to the UK about the target percentage of the cohort that is able to access the O Level-equivalent standard and the ways in which the needs of other students might best be served.

The A Level-equivalent examination is taken by students over an 18 month period divided into three semesters. From November students in Malaysia will sit a new style of paper with many similarities to modular A Levels.

Students will be able to take one paper per syllabus in each semester of the programme and have the results aggregated at the end of the course. They will be able to re-sit first and second-term papers to improve results before aggregation in the third semester, and if necessary re-sit the final paper as well.

This flexibility is an intentional design feature of the country’s Educational Transformation Programme which aims to improve performance. Written examinations in the STPM are complemented by school-based assessments accounting for between 20 and 40 per cent of marks according to subject.

These coursework assessments, whether projects, fieldwork or practicals, are also conducted each semester and aggregated for the final examination grade. So as the UK looks to move away from modular A Levels with frequent re-sit opportunities along the way, Malaysia is about to embark on a revised examination which introduces many of its features.

The new structure for the A Level equivalent examination in Malaysia may of course prove different in impact to its comparator in the UK. Or, like here, its universities may increasingly refer to students arriving ill-prepared for undergraduate study, having lost the ability to synthesise across individual units of a programme.

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