From Dr Amar-Singh HSS, Ong Puay-Hoon, Gill Raja, Srividhya Ganapathy, Ng Lai-Thin & Yuenwah San.
A key indicator towards meeting Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) on quality education is that all children complete primary and secondary education, and that these are free and of high quality.
To monitor the country’s progress, the statistics department (DoSM) recently shared the purple graphic below showing impressive rates of completion, with an increase in 2021 despite the pandemic. But, do they give a complete picture?
These statistics, sourced from the education ministry’s data, suggest that Malaysia is doing very well with 99% of children completing primary education, 99.8% completing secondary education and 97.8% completing upper secondary education for the year 2021.
These numbers are surprising, given the anecdotal evidence that Malaysian children (as well as children from other jurisdictions) had experienced enormous learning loss during the pandemic.
Intrigued, we took a closer look at the statistics. In principle, to address any shortfalls and improve our education system and provide quality access to education for all, it is first essential that the data we rely on is cross-checked, reviewed and accurate.
We started off by reflecting on what the situation is for indicator 4.1.2 based on data available in the education ministry’s Quick Facts 2022 and the health ministry’s data available in its Health Indicators 2022.
School attendance and dropouts in government schools
Previous annual Quick Facts documents by the education ministry show data for the same batch of students at two points in time within their schools. At face value, they confirm the trend highlighted by the statistics department.
However, with further analysis, it is apparent that dropout rates during transition years and the rates of non-enrolment of children at the beginning of the school year have not been included, as can be seen by the following data.
- Year 2017: 440,025 students enrolled in Standard 1;
- Year 2022: 437,414 students enrolled in Standard 6 (the same batch of students).
This means 2,611 students dropped out, giving a primary education completion rate of 99.4% for 2022 which shows the increase noted by the statistics department in 2021.
Similarly, we can see good secondary education completion rates from the education ministry’s Quick Facts below.
- Year 2020: 386,695 in Form 1;
- Year 2022: 387,160 in Form 3.
- Year 2021: 373,943 in Form 4;
- Year 2022: 371,243 in Form 5.
We noted that the data does not take into consideration the “life course” of the student and students that drop out between the years assessed (transition years). We proceeded to calculate this from the raw data as shown below:
- Year 2021: 446,428 students in Standard 6;
- Year 2022: 406,504 students in Form 1 (with an additional 12,995 students in remove classes).
With this simple calculation, we noted that, even with these official figures, only 94% of children continued their studies from Standard 6 to Form 1 in 2022. In real numbers, these figures mean that 26,929 children dropped out of school in 2022.
Overall, out of an average enrolment at Standard 1 of 450,000 students, only an average of 370,000 reached Form 5, which works out to 82.2%.
An average of 80,000 children, or 18% of those who attended government schools, dropped out.
Just relying on selected figures provided by the education ministry, we realised that the way that SDG indicator 4.1.2 has been reflected is misleading and that our achievement of this vital indicator is more limited than shown.
School attendance in non-government schools
Another crucial oversight is that the statistics department’s data for SDG 4 does not account for or take into consideration the many children who do not attend government schools.
Using the Health Indicators 2022 data on live births for the year 2016 (in other words, children expected to enter Standard 1 in 2022) it is apparent that there were 508,203 live births in 2016.
Year 2022 education ministry enrolment data for Standard 1 shows 454,530 students. Hence, there is a shortfall of 10.6% of children (53,673) who are not enrolled in government or government-aided schools under the education ministry.
It may be assumed that most of these 53,673 children are enrolled in religious schools (tahfiz), private schools, international schools, home schools, etc.
The Quick Facts 2022, Tables 3.3 on Enrolment at Primary Level in Private Institutions (2022) and 3.4 on Enrolment at Primary Level in Institutions under Other Government Agencies (2022) offer some indication of the total number of children in these institutions.
Religious schools (tahfiz), private schools, international schools, home schools, etc:
- Year 2022: 26,030 is the approximate total number attending Standard 1 in these institutions based on an average of six class years of attendance.
This raises the question – given that these are not institutions under the ministry, how are the quality of education and dropout rates of children enrolled in such institutions monitored?
Children who do not attend school
The data (in Quick Facts 2022, read together with Health Indicators 2022 data on live births for the year 2016), as scrutinised above, underscore the fact that, in 2022, the schooling options for 27,643 children are not accounted for:
From the 508,203 live births in 2016, if we minus the 454,530 students enrolled in Year 1 in 2022 and take away the 26,030 students enrolled in institutions not under the education ministry, we are left with 27,643 children.
The health ministry’s data would suggest that about 4,000 to 5,000 of these children would have died before the age of seven.
So the question that needs to be answered is: where are the remaining children who ought to be in school getting educated?
Are these stateless children, children in detention, children of migrants and refugees, or children with disabilities? It appears that there are some 20,000-plus children that the system has not accounted for each year and who are not captured in Malaysia’s SDG 4 data.
The bottom line
The true shortfall in our education system is staggering – children not attending any school (4.5%) or dropping out of school before reaching Form 5 (18%).
The above review, based purely on data made available by the education and health ministries, indicates a crisis in our education system: it is far from being inclusive and equitable. The data calls for an urgent review of the quality of Malaysia’s education system and its accessibility so that no child is left behind.
We have found that our children’s enormous learning loss due to the pandemic is the highest among Asian developing nations and exceeds that of all Asean members, except Myanmar.
We believe that this learning loss, which is still to be officially acknowledged by the education ministry or addressed adequately, coupled with the limited enrolment and significant dropout rates, has huge economic and social implications for the nation and its economy.
We cannot afford continued inaction that will yield a less skilled labour force and higher mental health burden.
Malaysia needs more robust data that enables the identification and channelling of resources to support children who are not receiving formal education and those who drop out.
Given the above, we strongly recommend the following urgent measures for government action:
1. Revise Malaysian data on SDG 4 (indicator 4.1.2) to reflect the reality on the ground. We can only overcome the crisis if we acknowledge that a crisis exists, accept the situation, and work towards finding solutions and implementing urgent remedial measures.
2. Strengthen comprehensive coverage and enable independent monitoring by the system for collecting and annually publishing data on:
(a) The quality of education and attendance at all primary and secondary education facilities;
(b) Attendance and enrolment, disaggregated by parameters, such as region/rural-urban location, ethnicity, disability, age, gender, and other parameters, such as undocumented, refugee/migrant status:
(c) All children in Malaysia;
(d) All school environments in Malaysia.
3. Identify and reach out to school dropouts to enable their return to schooling or fast-track them to vocational skills training and employment.
4. Identify vulnerable children and schools that require more support, including financial aid, in order to enable those from poor families to return to school and complete schooling.
5. Enforce the implementation of a genuine no-reject-policy that allows all children, regardless of status, documented or undocumented, to attend school and complete schooling.
This is a basic right enshrined in three conventions that Malaysia has ratified – namely, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as well as in the Sustainable Development Goals that Malaysia has committed to fulfilling.
Any loss of education in a child’s life is a loss for the child and for the nation. If we leave any child behind, we are undermining our nation’s prospects. Just as “it takes a village to raise a child,” similarly, it takes every child to make the village and the nation.
We neglect our children’s education at our own peril.
Dr Amar-Singh HSS is a consultant paediatrician and adviser to the National Early Childhood Intervention Council (NECIC).
Ong Puay-Hoon is with the Dyslexia Association of Sarawak.
Gill Raja is a committee member of the Sarawak Women for Women Society.
Srividhya Ganapathy is the co-chair of CRIB Foundation.
Ng Lai-Thin is an educator in special and inclusive education and a project officer with NECIC.
Yuenwah San is honorary senior adviser (Disability Inclusion) to the Social Development Division, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).
The views expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.