This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on March 17, 2014

KUALA LUMPUR: A survey showed that 74% of Malaysian parents from the poorest two-fifths of households would send their children to private schools if the government paid the fees.

If fees were affordable, 45% said they would choose private schools. Currently, 51% said they cannot afford to pay private school fees and 26% said they could only afford fees below RM100.

The survey by the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) revealed that the majority of respondents believed private schools are better equipped to help their children speak better English (78%), have better teachers (75%), and more extra-curricular activities (71%), and ethnic diversity (62%).

Of the 1,207 parents interviewed, only 17% were concerned over the education ministry’s recognition of private schools.

The think tank, which calls itself independent, is known to favour a voucher system in which the government allocates money for each student’s schooling. It is up to parents where they send their children, be they public schools, not-for-profit private schools, or private schools run for profit.

The survey’s results were released last Tuesday at a roundtable discussion. It collects the views of low-income parents on education ­— a group which chief operating officer Tricia Yeoh said were not represented in consultations for the Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2025.

Some 90% of the respondents said they were not aware of the blueprint.

On the quality of schools, 92% believed schools have effective administration and management, 89% said teachers know their subjects very well and ensured their students succeed in their studies.

The survey showed that 67% of the parents do not wish for more frequent communication with teachers and headmasters because they trust teachers know better about educating their children. Of those who do wish for more frequent communication, 80% said they do not have the time to talk to school authorities.

Serdang MP Ong Kian Ming, who was present at the discussion, said the results could have implications for the school-based assessment system “since most of [these] parents [do not] engage with teachers or with their children”.

“One of the strengths of this system is … ongoing evaluation of students and parents are supposed to play some part in this.”

Meanwhile, 77% of respondents said the curriculum has the right content. However,32% said there is not enough emphasis on English.

On school choice, 97% said they managed to enroll their children in schools they liked even though the options for such schools were usually severely limited [to one]. Schools were chosen because they were accessible (64%) and received allocations from the government (46%).

“In essence, [parents] have really no choice. Accessibility to schools is one of the key [factors in] choice,” said Tamanna Patel, Ideas’ senior researcher on education.

Only 61% said their schools are accessible from their homes.

Ong said since 27% of secondary school students among low-income households have to travel more than 9km to attend school, “this is where the private sector and NGOs can [play a part] by starting more schools”.

The survey also found 151 school dropouts, even though 98% of the parents agree that education is important in securing a good job and future.

Of the dropouts, 68% were neither working nor studying. Of those working, 47% are blue-collar workers and 28% are working in sales.

Lack of interest was cited as the reason for their children dropping out of school for 70% of the parents, with 33% saying their inability to pay for their children’s schooling led to students leaving school. Only 5% of them benefited from the government’s poor students’ trust fund.

Contrary to the view that many parents hold little regard for vocational and technical schools, only 13% said they would not send their children to such schools. More than 80% said [these schools] provide useful life skills and high quality education, with 77% agreeing that vocational education provides a gateway to good jobs and incomes.

The survey covered parents earning incomes below 40% of their median state income. Their mean income is RM919. Respondents comprised mainly blue-collar workers, hawkers, the self-employed and agricultural workers.


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