One of the least acknowledged issues in the government school system, teacher truancy or absenteeism, was highlighted in a recent court case in Kota Kinabalu.
Three former secondary students from SMK Taun Gusi in Kota Belud, Sabah, won a civil case in the High Court against the school’s former headmaster Suid Hanapi, the director-general of education, minister of education and federal government.
The case involved their former teacher, Jainal Jamran, who was assigned to teach English for three hours a week, but was absent from class for seven months from January to October 2017.
Also exposed during the trial were issues of general corruption and nepotism within the school system. There was an attempt by a former education director distantly related to Jainal to cover up the truancy by backdating the teacher’s class attendance books.
The case also publicly exposed the use of death threats against one of Jainal’s fellow teachers, whistleblower Nurhaizah Ejab, who also had her car tyres slashed in retaliation.
One of the more amazing observations arising from this case was how the education ministry (MOE) defended the case so stringently.
This landmark case opened up one of the major problems within the secondary school system, and attempts to cover it up.
Undoubtedly, teacher absenteeism from classes in both primary and secondary schools is far more widespread than what most outsiders believe.
It could be a major factor in the underperformance of many students, particularly in poor rural areas across Malaysia.
Extent of the problem
Teacher absenteeism cases in Malaysia have not been reported for over 14 years. According to Tiada Guru, an NGO in Sabah, an OECD report back in 2009 indicated that 19.5 percent of Malaysian school principals had reported teacher absenteeism.
As mentioned earlier, much of the problem remains unreported due to deliberate cover ups among staff, falsifying records, and nepotism.
There is a culture of fear that prevents school students reporting teacher absenteeism, due to the massively unequal power between students and teachers in Malaysia.
Perhaps the most telling statistic is that between 2010 and 2017, 55.4% of disciplinary cases heard by the MOE ministry involved teacher absence from duty.
What are the major consequences?
Teacher absenteeism is just as much a problem in schools, as are curriculum, pedagogy, and class size issues.
It puts students who must perform well in exams to gain a tertiary qualification at a great disadvantage.
According to Tiada Guru, this problem tends to happen more in poor rural settings, than in urban environments, and contributes to the continuing cycle of poverty.
Lower exam passes directly affect income. A diploma holder earns 1.4 times more than someone with only SPM, while a degree holder earns 2.3 times more. Literacy rates remain much lower in rural than urban areas.
Teacher absenteeism is therefore more than an education issue. It perpetuates the incidence of poverty in rural families.
Teacher absenteeism also contributes to student truancy. When there is no supervisory teacher in class, students will wonder away or not turn up to class at all.
Many students come from homes where the parents work and want their children to assist with home duties, or family enterprises. Unlucky ones may go astray outside of class, and become involved in using narcotics due to boredom.
There is a massive youth drug dependency problem in rural Malaysia today. Teacher absenteeism must be eliminated so it does not contribute to the problem.
A poor reflection on the profession
Teacher absenteeism is a symptom of dissatisfaction within elements of the teaching profession. Many have low motivation levels. Others are just not suited for the profession. Some others use the time dishonestly to undertake other income earning activities.
Teacher motivation is an issue the MOE must look closely at.
Nothing being done about the problem
Teacher absenteeism has been kept a secret at school level, away from the MOE to protect reputations.
The school management culture is to engage in cover-ups, with staff problems kept “inhouse”, outside the ministry disciplinary system. Unfortunately, much more than teacher absenteeism is also covered up. This includes theft, rape, and molestation.
Former deputy chief (prevention) Shamshun Jamil of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) was reported as saying only 0.01% of the nation’s civil servants are brave enough to report corrupt practices to authorities. Having heard the stories of intimidation which were revealed in the Kota Kinabalu sessions court, this is very understandable.
Teacher absenteeism is a major impediment on education standards. Disciplinary rules are not being enforced to prevent this. The solution is there but not utilised.
This issue deeply affects the standard of school education in Malaysia and must be tackled head on. One absent teacher affects up to 50 students.
It must be solved before any other reforms are even thought about.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.