Going private

PRIVATE schools used to be the unpopular choice and "last resort" for Malaysian parents, but they may now be leading the pack of education options, educators say. "Ten years ago, parents rarely considered private schools, but now they are shopping around," Sekolah Sri KDU marketing manager Rina Thiagu-Kler says.

This trend seems to indicate a growing disenchantment with national schools, when once upon a time public schools were the natural choice for parents. Just how serious is the problem, and what is the increased interest in private schools telling us?

Significant increases

For certain, the statistics indicate that a significant number of Malaysians seem to be losing faith in Malaysia's public school system.

For instance, there is clearly growing demand for private education. The number of private kindergartens, for example, went up from 263,307 in 2004 to 668,287 in just two years, according to statistics from the Education Ministry's Private Education Department.

Enrolment in international schools, meanwhile, rose from 5,069 students in 2000 to 8,341 the following year.

And within seven years, the number of students enrolled in private primary schools nationwide increased more than 22% from 7,234 students in 2000 to 16,190.

Private education in Malaysia only began to flourish in the early 1990s, and even then the establishment of private schools tended to be concentrated at the pre-school, secondary and post-secondary levels.

Today, the private primary school figures are also ratcheting up, says Sri Kuala Lumpur chief executive officer Hanif Othman Merican. "We have waiting lists for almost every year and form in our school, and there is now a higher demand for parents to place their children in the primary schools first so that they have a better chance of continuing at our secondary school," he tells The Nut Graph.

Push factor

Parents seemed even more interested after recent changes in the education system, such as the reversal of the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI) to Bahasa Malaysia, Sekolah Sri KDU's Rina says. "They were calling right after that announcement was made."

Hanif says the PPSMI ruling was the "straw that broke the camel's back". But many parents were unhappy about the situation in government schools in general and were looking for better options.

They were concerned about principals who were not qualified to head schools, as well as Islamisation, ethnic polarisation and the decline of standards in these schools, he says.

It is not just non-Muslims seeking private education for fear of growing Islamisation. "There are actually a number of Malay [Malaysian] parents who are looking for a secular education, even if they want their children to also go for Islamic classes. But they firmly believe in a secular educational system, and that is what we provide," Hanif says.

One anecdote that surfaced during the interviewing for this feature told of how a private school sacked an ustazah after she demanded that her students cover up during physical education.

Indeed, with growing distrust and suspicion among parents now about public schools because of Islamisation, such an environment within private schools would be a pull factor.

Special needs

There are other reasons. For younger Malay Malaysian parents like Nadiah Tajuddin, national schools were not an option for her son, who was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder at age four, and later dyslexia at age six.

He now goes to Itqan, a private Islamic integrated school which follows a mainly Singaporean syllabus and has English as its medium of instruction. She is very pleased with the school, and intends to send her two younger children there as well.

"I think that the national school system does not cater to kids with learning and behavioural difficulties, and I sincerely believe that Anuar would be labelled as a lazy and problematic kid by teachers or friends who may not know much better.

"I also believe that there the teacher-student ratio in national classrooms is too high for Anuar to thrive in such an environment," she says.

Hanif says many educators acknowledge that the national curriculum is "inherently sound". But the educational system is "bad to the core", resulting in poor teaching, educational standards and racial polarisation.

He notes that racial cliques also exist in private schools, a reflection of Malaysia at large. "And if you get that in a school like ours, what more will it be like in the government schools?" Hanif says.

For him, then, private schools provide a better option than the public education system.

The parents who spoke to The Nut Graph all came from the national education system, and had warm memories about their schools. But times have changed.

Parent Alicia Jackson says she is sad she cannot consider national schools, which are the most affordable, for her son. Cynthia Lim, who sends her 10-year-old to a private school and her eight-year-old to a Chinese-medium school, says she never once considered national schools. "Everything in the national education system is now going backwards," she says.

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