The Star 16 March 2014

IT IS widely acknowledged that education can play a pivotal role in improving social mobility.

Yet for students born in lower-income families, their parents are less likely to be able to spend on their education.

Although the performance gap between students from lower-income families and those from higher-income families is not well documented, it is believed that those from higher-income families are more likely to have extra help from tuition classes as their parents have the income to pay for the classes.

In the nationwide Giving Voice to the Poor survey carried out by the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) on 1,207 samples from the bottom 40% of the income level in Malaysia, 44% of the respondents said they did not have the means to pay for tuition classes although 60% of them believe that their children need the extra help.

A huge portion of education expenses went towards buying school necessities such as school uniforms and stationery, which would add up to RM100 per child on average at the beginning of the school year.

The samples were collected from Kedah, the Klang Valley, Terengganu, Johor, Sabah and Sarawak while the mean monthly income of each respondent according to state did not exceed the following amount— Kedah (RM800), the Klang Valley (RM2,300), Terengganu (RM850), Johor (RM1,200), Sabah (RM800) and Sarawak (RM950).

During the presentation of the survey results on Tuesday, Ideas senior reseacher Tamanna Patel highlighted that awareness on the government aid available was mediocre among parents.

“Almost all parents were aware about the Textbook Loan Scheme but fewer were aware about the Poor Students’ Trust Fund (62%) and Tuition Aid Scheme (26%).” said Patel.

Of the 33% who applied for the Poor Students’ Trust Fund, only 15% received the aid. The fund, distributed by the Education Ministry, is eligible for students with “poor” and “hardcore poor” status in the eKasih registry.

Primary school pupils with the “poor” status receive RM25 per month while “hardcore poor” pupils get RM50. Meanwhile, “poor” secondary school students receive RM30 per month while RM60 is given to those who are registered as “hardcore poor”.

Patel revealed that a small number of the respondents replied that teachers provided them with financial assistance; a heartwarming gesture that brought relief to the families.

The role of parents

There were five focal points in the findings of the survey — information gap, accessibility to education aid, dropouts, education expenses and school accessibility.

Speaking on information gap, Patel pointed out that 90% of the respondents were unaware of the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 which was launched last year.

“This is quite significant considering that the blueprint would have the most impact on this segment of population,” said Patel.

On the other hand, results of the survey also painted a conflicting picture — 89% of the respondents thought that teachers in school delivered their lessons well although 60% of them later said that their children could do better with tuition classes.

Close to a third of the respondents were also of the opinion that not enough emphasis was placed on English in the current curriculum.

As the survey also measured parents’ participation in their children’s education, Patel noted that mothers were largely responsible in looking after the education needs of their children.

Even then, parent-school interaction was kept to the minimum of once or twice a year, and 67% of the parents said they did not wish for more frequent communication with teachers.

The reasons cited for this include the belief that teachers knew better about how to educate their children (87%), parents were adequately informed about the school from their children (43%), and unfriendly teachers who did not welcome the parents (2%).

Social entrepreneur Nik Mohd Fahmee Nik Hussin defended the respondents’ ignorance of the education blueprint, saying that many parents from the urban area were equally ill-informed.

“The very fact that the parents participated in the survey is indicative that they are concerned about their children’s education,” said the director and founder of Arise Asia Sdn Bhd. He suggested that parents from the lower income bracket were often too busy earning a living and had little time to spare on their children’s education.

Teach For Malaysia strategy and operations director Tan Shie Haur shared his views on how the socio-economic background of students affected their performance in school.

“Some of the poor students are hungry and their brains cannot function well in the classroom; there are also others who have to deal with abusive parents,” said Tan.

He added that having parents who could help out with homework was another factor that could make a huge impact on their performance in school.

Left behind

Out of 1,207 samples in the survey, 151 respondents had children who dropped out from school with 94% of them having completed primary school.

Lack of interest (72%) was mentioned as the main factor for dropping out; other reasons include financial difficulties and students having to work to support their families.

Patel said the survey findings showed that around 68% of the dropouts were not working or studying while most of the employed dropouts work as unskilled blue collar workers.

Ideas chief operating officer Tricia Yeoh agreed with the suggestion by Serdang MP Dr Ong Kian Ming that feedback from the dropouts should be included in the survey.

“We have to ask the students why school is not interesting to them,” he said. Another panelist Cempaka Schools founder Datuk Freida Pilus threw out the idea that transportation problems contributed to students’ absenteeism in school.

Her point of view corresponded with the answers from 64% of the respondents who said that the choice of school was based solely on its accessibility.

The survey revealed that 40% of respondents from Sabah spent between RM301 to RM350 annually on transportation to send their children to school. It was a significant amount in comparison to the average monthly income in the state which wavered around RM593.

Yeoh said the survey was one-of-a-kind which provided a useful insight into the state of affairs of the education system and the challenges faced by lower-income households.

“We want to give the opportunity to others to make use of the data; at the same time, we want to encourage non-state players to work together with the government to resolve education issues.”

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