Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Freedom to Our Schools: Decentralisation and Autonomy

Written by johnleemk on 6:12:30 pm Jan 7, 2009.

One interesting thing I noticed about the roundtable that the Education Ministry held to discuss the issue of teaching science and maths in English is that they mentioned decentralisation of the school system as a possible solution. In my column for The Malaysian Insider a couple of weeks back, I suggested that we let individual schools decide what languages to use in the classroom. Permitting schools to decide on an individual basis how to operate would let school administrators and educators tailor their approach to the needs of individual communities, and permit greater feedback from communities.

There are naturally some administrative difficulties involved in moving from a highly centralised school system such as ours to a less centralised one, but it is important that we give this issue some thought. Treating students the same wherever they are is not a very reasonable approach, and tying the hands of schools when it comes to responding to local needs is a very bad idea. While full decentralisation is almost certainly impossible, we need to start looking into giving our schools more independence and autonomy.

The Chinese schools are a pretty good example of how independent school governance might work. Because the federal government largely ignores them, the Chinese educationists have become adept at running schools and tailoring them to the needs of different communities. Independent school boards comprising respected figures hold administrators accountable for their performance.

So one way to free our schools would be to give principals a little more independence in structuring their curricula - the Education Ministry would still set some standards and list out the minimum material which must be covered, but principals would be allowed to decide how to cover them - what textbooks to use, and so forth. Instead of being accountable to a civil servant, principals would now be held accountable to elected school boards. While I am not sure how our present administrative framework would deal with this, if there was enough political will to devolve school administration, it would not be terribly difficult to accomplish. The school board idea is merely one possibility - there are others. The important thing is to somehow permit greater diversity in our school system.

How will the schools function? Well, the Education Ministry will still be in charge of setting standards for schools to meet. The SPM and other exams will still remain, but now schools will truly be free to approach different ways of preparing students for them. At the moment, we use almost the same textbooks throughout the country; this is a huge racket for the publishers of the textbooks, which are not very good, as you can tell from how almost any student with some money usually has supplementary books which cover the same material but in more effective ways. Likewise, teachers work more or less the same way throughout the nation, giving more or less the same lectures. If schools had some autonomy in these areas, we would see a more effective approach to teaching and learning, one adapted to the needs of specific students.

If we wanted to take this further, we would allow principals to hire and fire teachers, and maybe even vary the pay of teachers depending on ability. Instead of the Education Ministry maintaining a central pool of teachers which it allocates out to schools Soviet-style, we could let schools pick their own teachers. At the moment, the teaching profession is insulated from market forces, which is quite bad for everyone. Teachers are stuck with lousy pay doing a difficult job; schools can't reward excellent teachers or really get rid of people who have no business teaching. Permitting some freedom in the employment process would benefit everyone, since there is really no reason to be tying the wages of our teachers to the wages of civil servants.

Now, how would we prevent administrators from making bad decisions? After all, many will no doubt grouse, what's keeping a principal from picking lousy textbooks or hiring lousy teachers? This is where having an independent school board as a check comes in. The board should be allowed to overrule the principal's decisions, or potentially even hire and sack the principal. Assuming the board is elected by the community, or even just randomly selected from the parents of students at the school, it will do its best to make decisions for the good of the students and the school. If the board has teeth, the principal will be afraid of its bite, and in turn do the right thing.

The Education Ministry should still have a role to play, of course. But the primary purpose of the Education Ministry should be to facilitate good decision-making, not to impose centralised decisions. The Education Ministry could commission studies of different schools across the country and publish its findings as a list of best practices which schools could adopt or reject depending on suitability. It could publish rankings of schools based on different metrics so everyone would know where their local school stands compared to its peers. The Education Ministry should facilitate the flow of information so that good ideas can spread and bad ideas can be checked. But otherwise, its role in running schools should be limited as much as possible; parents and teachers will always be better judges of the kind of education their pupils need.

The only serious objection I can foresee to this admittedly wide-ranging proposal is that it seems a little too radical. We're far too used to a centralised school system, and this is not good. Why should a school in the mountains be conducting the same science experiments as a school near the beach, when they have acces to different ways of illustrating the same scientific principles? Why should a community of rich English-speaking kids have to teach its children in Malay or Chinese or Tamil, and why should a community of primarily poor Malay speakers have to teach its children in English? A centralised decision-making system treats every school and every student as the same, which is simply not sensible.

My proposal is not very likely to be taken up any time soon by the government, though I hope Tony or one of his colleagues can one day put it forward for serious consideration. But I think the principle behind it is sound: We must reduce the bureaucracy and centralisation choking innovation and adaptation in our school system. And if we can start by just letting schools decide for themselves whether to teach science and maths in English or the pupils' mother tongue, that would be good enough for me.

One retort to the suggestion that we let schools decide which language to use to teach science and maths was that schools would make the obviously wrong decision. This is essentially saying, "We're going to let parents throw their kids' lives away by teaching them in English/their mother tongue!" I don't think that is going to happen. Parents are the best judge of what is best for their children; if that is not so, then we should not be letting parents take care of their children. Make as much information available to parents as possible - bombard them with leaflets about the various pros and cons of English and mother tongue education. But let the parents and schools decide which approach will work best for them. It is clear that one single approach will not work for all.

First published in Education in Malaysia.

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