The physical state of schools in Sarawak and the equally vital importance of the quality of education have been the subject of some debate lately. This happened especially since the state government more or less took matters into its own hands with the creation of a state Ministry of Education when Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg made a state Cabinet reshuffle soon after he took office earlier in the year.

Assistant Minister of Education, Science and Technological Research Dr Annuar Rapaee made some startling revelations last month. “There are 1,020 dilapidated schools in Sarawak, of which 415 are under Category 3, 210 in Category 2 and 395 in Category 1. Category 3 is the worst category (for state of disrepair).

“Hence it is the right time for the state’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Research to take charge, especially in maintenance and refurbishment as well as development (of these schools), and not depending on federal contractors,” he said on Sept 10.

Not only are many of the schools in a deplorable physical state, some are even unsafe and pose physical danger to students and teachers.

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi acknowledged as much on a visit to inspect some of these schools on Sept 14. He noted that under the 11th Malaysia Plan, 30 school redevelopment projects had been approved for Sarawak. However, given the shocking scale of the problem at hand, what Zahid revealed seems hardly adequate.

As with most things, at the end of the day, everything boils down to funding and how much priority those in authority attach to providing decently safe and conducive buildings for our school-going children.

The state government is proposing that it undertakes the repair and redevelopment work as a matter of urgent priority first and bill the federal government later. While not actually indicating whether Putrajaya agrees with such an idea or not, Zahid did suggest that both state and federal officials come forward with a finance package for this.

But while this may indeed be a major concern and the state government deserves praise for highlighting it, other issues also bedevil the state of public education in Sarawak.

Apart from the deplorable condition of school buildings, some schools also suffer from low enrolment. It has been revealed that some schools, including Chinese-medium and Christian missionary schools, have as few as 150 students.

State Minister of Education, Science and Technological Research Datuk Seri Michael Manyin recently said there are 651 schools in Sarawak with fewer than 150 pupils each and over 1,000 with fewer than 300 students.

“The optimal sizes of schools for them to be effective are 300 to 400 pupils for primary school, and 600 to 1,000 for secondary school,” observed Manyin. It stands to reason, as the minister suggested, that schools with low enrolment will be at a distinct disadvantage in marshalling the resources required to ensure not just quality education but that they even perform at par.

Rural schools which, unsurprisingly, are the worst off, lag well behind, particularly where the teaching of Science and Mathematics is concerned. Again, as the minister himself has noted: “The performances or achievements of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programmes in the state (among secondary schools) is low at only 23%.”

Enrolment in the science stream further dipped below 20% at sixth form and shockingly at less than 10% at tertiary level in Sarawak. “There is a great concern on how we can achieve the national target of 60% enrolment for STEM-major in universities,” said Manyin, when 70-80% of future jobs are expected to be engineering- and science-based.

One solution the state government is looking at is the construction of centralised schools and the state minister indicated he wants to get the ball rolling as early as next year, with RM1 bil having been set aside by the state for this.

It may well be that providing the funding will be the least of the problems the state will face, going forward. Concomitant with setting up these centralised schools must be achieving buy-in by both parents of pupils and administrators of low-enrolment schools and other vested interests which may stand in the way.

United Chinese School Committees Association of Malaysia (Dong Zong) chairman Datuk Vincent Lau, for example, recently ruled out the closing down of any Chinese independent secondary school even if they ran into financial difficulties.

So far, the state government is pursuing the path of persuasion. It is encouraging small Chinese and missionary schools to at least merge among themselves. In a dialogue with the managements of these schools in early September, Manyin had said: “Our concern is to provide our young Sarawakians with better school facilities and for them to be taught by specialist teachers so that we can improve the state’s overall academic performance.”

If such state-led encouragement and persuasion fail, the state government must hope its own initiatives such as better-equipped centralised schools prove to be such an irresistible draw that under-resourced and under-enrolled schools will have little choice but to merge or close down altogether.

Such a major thrust in the field of education by the state government is a worthy, right and commendable emphasis and it cannot have come at a more opportune moment as public educational institutions, including universities, seem to be facing a funding crunch.

While proactive intervention by the state authorities is timely, it needs to be a well-thought-through intervention based on a thoroughly considered strategic plan which seeks to supplement and complement federal efforts rather than supplant them.

The bulk of funding for education purposes will still have to be sourced from the federal budget and nobody will be served unless state and federal efforts in this regard are well coordinated and hopefully, properly synchronised.

Both state and federal education officials must work on the assumption that their efforts will all contribute to greater added value to public education in Sarawak. The efforts of one or the other should not be a zero-sum exercise overall.

John Teo is based in Kuching.

Comments: editor@focusmalaysia.my

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 254.

[Source: “Sarawak takes key initiatives in education” published by FocusMalaysia.my]

Photo Credits: FocusMalaysia.my

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