Let the Schools Decide
The language debate has polarised the country yet again. Today, front and centre is the issue of education: what language should we teach our children in? The government has been pushing for pro-English reforms, while prominent educationist groups have been pushing back. One insists on a uniform pro-English policy; the other insists on a uniform pro-mother tongue policy. But if you ask me, it seems silly to expect one policy to be as effective in one place as it is in another; each community has different needs, and different priorities. Why not let each school decide on an individual basis how and where to use English?
That local control has been considered as a possibility is apparent: at a roundtable meeting of Education Ministry and NGO representatives, one alternative policy mentioned was to permit different primary schools to set their own policies on the teaching of science and mathematics in English. I have to say I am rather disappointed it seems that this unusual proposal was not looked into further. It strikes me as the most sensible and workable compromise to the variety of perplexing problems we face.
Realistically, any cookie-cutter policy we decide on is going to be harmful to somebody. Let's say 99% of all communities in the country would be positively affected by the teaching of science and maths in English, and 1% would be negatively affected. Making everyone learn science and maths in English would negatively affect that 1%. You can also look at it the other way round; if 99% of all communities benefit from teaching science and maths in the mother tongue, and 1% do not, then the 1% loses out. But if we give each school the freedom to choose what language to teach in, we circumvent this problem: the 99% for whom it is beneficial will adopt the policy themselves, and the 1% for whom it is not will take the other route—and everyone wins.
The only reason you would not want to do this is if you believe individual schools either do not have the best interests of students at heart, or are too stupid to pick the policy which would benefit the most students. The solution to this would be greater accountability. At the moment, Parent-Teacher Associations aren't much beyond fundraising groups and figureheads in most schools; they could be an effective outlet for conveying parents' sentiments to the administration. The Education Ministry also ought to play a more proactive role in disciplining school administrators who do not pay attention to the problems parents bring to their attention. Combined, these provide a powerful incentive for schools to pick the policy which is best for their students: there is every reason to believe that giving schools a choice would ultimately benefit more students than settling on one uniform policy for every school in the country.
If you are not convinced, let's think about this further: there are many pros and cons to teaching science and maths in a particular language. However, the applicability of these pros and cons will vary from school to school and student to student. In some schools, the parents and teachers will find using English in science and maths conducive to enhancing students' command of the English language; in other schools, parents and teachers might find it a hindrance instead. Some parents believe strongly in the importance of English, while others dismiss it as not very useful. Both sets of parents can have their way if the language policy is determined on a school-by-school basis.
You might see this as a wishy-washy compromise because it avoids passing judgement on who is right; it lets individual schools decide on what works best for them. But that is the whole beauty of the idea: it acknowledges that God makes each of us as different people, with different beliefs, different abilities, different personalities, and different styles of learning. What is right for you may be wrong for me; one man's meat is another man's poison.
And there is no reason to limit school autonomy to just the issue of teaching science and maths in English; I believe most of our public schools could do with a lot more freedom. I think a commonly-overlooked potential reason for the educational success of Chinese schools—and why they have such fanatic defenders—is the nature of how they are governed. Because they are run by independent school boards and accountable to the community they serve, they have a much greater incentive to respond to the demands and desires of parents, creating better educational outcomes. There is no reason we cannot replicate this governance structure in our other public schools.
We tout our diversity all the time, but rarely do our policies and politicians actually try to deal with diversity. Pushing the same old cookie-cutter policies, which work by assuming what is good for one must be good for all, will not accomplish very much in a society as plural as ours. Every community and every individual in this country has different wants and needs. Isn't it time we had an educational policy which tried to cater to these differences, instead of ignoring them?
First published in The Malaysian Insider.