In education, exciting possibilities lie ahead

SOME of the parents of pupils at SK Bukit Damansara, Kuala Lumpur, were beside themselves when it was named one of only 20 schools nationwide to be accorded high-performance status. How the children are taking it, however, I am not so sure.

SKBD is a primary school in an upper-middle class, if not affluent, neighbourhood. Most of the pupils come from within the area, although there are many, too, who come from far. The attraction being, it is said, that it is a “very good” school.

Some even go to the extent of describing it as a private school in a public school environment. I know the description is a bit of a stretch since 8-year-old Zuleika goes there.

It used to be that many neighbourhood parents, including prominent politicians, civil servants and businessmen, sent their children to the 20-year-old SKBD, but lately, many have decided against it.

Some cited the ever-changing education policy as a reason for not doing so, though I tend to believe the availability of choices, and money, are contributing factors, too.

There is, after all, a well-known private school half a kilometer away, a prominent Chinese school and several international schools a short drive away.

Incidentally, a large number of parents who could afford private education for their children are sticking to SKBD because they believe in the national school system. But they are getting fewer in number.

SKBD is also one of those schools these days that has a fairly good racial mix. Nevertheless, a thriving Chinese and private education system have affected enrolment of non-Malay pupils.

Just a couple of years ago, half of its student population were non-Malays, but now less. Regardless, based on national standards, it is a rarity.

Parents in the school overwhelmingly want this mix to continue, and are hoping that the high-performance school status would make others in the area give SKBD a re-look.

The school does have its pluses. If you get turned on by academic achievements, based on whispers going around, the school has consistently been “somewhere up there” in the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah nationwide ranking. This we may credit the teaching staff, as well as the extra preparation, in the form of tuition, for example, accorded by parents.

It also has a very strong co-curriculum programme, especially on environment-related issues and in the performing arts. However, it is so-so in sports. It is also one of the few primary schools that has annual elections for the head pupil.

All these largely, though not exclusively, are due to the involvement of parents, which some would describe also as bordering on kiasu-ness.

Parents are involved in many of the school’s non-academic programmes, such as driving the school teams to meets and training, helping pupils with recycling campaigns, or holding fairs and events for fund raising.

Parents also work with the school in getting teachers, trainers and coaches for after-hours programmes, ranging from computer, drama, and sports. Some parents used to be traffic wardens in the morning rush hour.
For the school annual drama club highlight, for example, I am made to understand that parents are heavily involved from buying/making costumes to selling tickets and booking the theatre for the show.

Detractors have complained on why the school, already having an economic leg-up — many of the pupils, for example, have gone abroad for vacations — should be accorded the privilege.

The argument being that the socio-economic background of most of the children’s families would have ensured opportunities made available to them. It would have been a high-performing school, regardless.

But the same argument could be applied, although from a different angle, on why some of the elite residential schools should be accorded the status, too.

Be that as it may, the status offers a relishing prospect of the re-invention of the national school, if not the education system. For now though, much of it is a guessing game. Parents speculate what could and could not be done. There are also enough cynicism that the autonomy promised may not be much, or even allowed.

Can the schools have different sets of uniforms for the children; extend school hours; hire teachers and trainers, including foreigners, as they wish; enrol international students; change the medium of instruction; build swimming pools; have school meals; charge school fees and institute entrance exams?

The uncertainty is worrying, as much as it is exciting.

Please do not use the money for concrete fencing, said one parent. Don’t spend too much money on study tours, said another.

One of the lessons from the SKBD experience, and presumably the other 19 schools, too, is that apart from the teachers, parents are also active.

Hence, the Ministry of Education must allow for greater participation of parents, for example, via boards of governors that are jointly made up of parents and teachers that will look into issues such as the direction of the schools, and how their extra money is to be spent.

The now suddenly-empowered schools should tap into the energy of parents, and get them to collaborate with the teachers.

The 20 schools may be the the tip of the wedge that would spearhead education reform, or if we dare to dream, revolution.

With the status comes riches, well not much when compared with some schools, but more importantly, the responsibility of living up to the expectations, and the hype.

It also offers the opportunity of exciting possibilities.

by Zainul Ariffin.

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