Tamil school problems
By S. Indramalar and Hariati Azizan
The Star Sunday, March 12, 2000
BEING the poor neighbour can be very disheartening. When you have to attend classes in a run-down school while your peers less than a kilometre away are enjoying a spanking new building, life seems rather unfair.
Instead of having access to a large field, a school hall, science laboratories and a computer laboratory, the pupils of a Tamil (estate) school (located in the Klang Valley) have to cope with the bare necessities.
The school has an enrolment of 500 students but no field, no laboratory or library, staff room for teachers or even proper toilets for students. This is not uncommon, though. Most Tamil schools face the same problem. In fact, many are worse off -- no canteen, no proper roofing, and sometimes, no classrooms even.
"It is very demotivating. Both the students and we teachers feel quite dispirited when we see the big disparity between the two schools.
"Our classrooms are separated by plywood. There are only two toilets for the 500 students and there is no field for sports.
"The premises were only meant to be temporary," lamented headmaster P. Sreetharan (not his real name) who does not want his school to be disclosed either.
Not enough funds
Established at the turn of the century with the setting up of plantations around the country, estate schools were meant to provide minimal education for children of immigrant labourers.
In the colonial period, these "schools" were just huts with broken furniture and untrained teachers, often clerks doubling up as teachers.
Unfortunately, not much progress has been achieved since then. Currently, there are 530 Tamil schools in Malaysia, of which 360 are estate schools, with a track record of being backward.
While their urban counterparts moan about the lack of computers, these estate schools grapple with fundamental problems.
The crux of the problem is the status of these schools. As they are located on private estate land, they fall under the "model school" category which means that they are only partially aided by the Government.
Under the Education Act 1995, schools located on private land are not eligible for a full grant from the Government. As a result, these schools are forced to source their own funds for their basic infrastructure, including additional classrooms.
Sreetharan, a Tamil school teacher for more than 30 years, feels the Government should not discriminate between national and national-type schools when it comes to funding.
"It's been more than 40 years since independence. I do not see why there should be a difference. Although ours is still regarded as an estate school, we are no longer in an estate.
"The Government should look after the infrastructure of all schools equally. All schools should receive full aid from the Government.
"It appears that the national schools are favoured while we (Tamil schools) are like the stepchildren," he says.
This Catch 22 situation creates alearning environment which is not conducive, with the lack of adequate infrastructure and sufficient basic facilities.
MIC education bureau chief Datuk Dr A. Marimuthu concurs, adding: "The obvious solution is for the community to buy the land but it is too poor. The Government needs to review its policy. If other acts can be amended, why not the Education Act?"
The cramped conditions and poor facilities, Sreetharan adds, ultimately work against the students.
"Who feels like studying in an environment like this?" he says.
In a recent report, 22 national-type Tamil medium primary schools in Selangor recorded no passes in the last year's Primary School Achievement Test (UPSR).
Dr Marimuthu urges the Education Ministry to look into the matter.
"This is serious as it indicates a failure in all subjects. Although the research was conducted only in Selangor, I am sure it reflects the rest of the country," he says.
Tamil schools in general perform poorly compared to the national and Chinese schools.
This is an inherent problem particularly among estate schools.
"These are underachieving schools that have the potential to improve but due to lack of opportunity and motivation and the prevalent bad conditions, they are not able to reach their full potential," he adds.
The odds are against these children who come from poor homes and study at poor schools.
The pathetic state of Tamil education is worsened by the shortage of trained teachers. It was reported last August that there were vacancies for more than 1,000 teachers in Tamil schools.
A ministry official confides that temporary teachers are recruited to overcome the problem -- Tamil schools have the highest number of temporary teachers.
The shortage problem is further intensified by the decrease in the number of candidates sitting for Tamil in SPM and PMR.
"Not many have a good command of Tamil unless they've been to Tamil school themselves. The ministry needs to make Tamil a compulsory subject for SPM to increase the number of potential teacher trainees for Tamil medium schools," says Dr Marimuthu.
Sixty-five percent of Indian families are from the working class with 20% working as plantation workers.
"The parents are unable to provide sufficient motivation for their children, or act as education role models for them. Schools are supposed to compensate for the lack of facilities at home and the deficiencies in their lives, but what happens when the schools are poor?," argues Dr Marimuthu.
Many of these children are poor and malnourished, he adds, making it difficult for them to concentrate in class.
Many of the pupils lose interest in school, and some eventually drop out. A few are even forced to leave school and work to help their family.
Struggling from the start
Estate children are further disadvantaged at entry level. Most do not have pre-school basic education when they enter primary school. The limited exposure to basic literacy skills handicaps the progress of these pupils in primary school.
Their comprehension of certain subjects such as Geography and History is poor, partly due to their isolation in the estate.
"Even the simple task of writing a composition is difficult," says Dr Marimuthu.
The lack of commitment from parents, says Sreetharan, is another problem.
"Most of the parents are labourers . . . both parents work and so they have little or no time to revise with their children.
"Often they do not even know about their children's performance in school. Because of this, weaker students tend to get left behind and lose interest.
"If the child is from a poor family and receives no family support, it will be difficult for him to cope in school," he says.
In full agreement is teacher G. Revathi.
"Some parents are not even aware when their children are not at school for weeks on end. In fact, some of them encourage their children to go out and do odd-jobs to add to the family income.
"I have a handful of students who for the past year, have come in to class only two or three times each week.
"If the parents are not committed, the teacher's job is near impossible," she says.
Aid on the way?
The Education Ministry has given assurance that it will improve the poor academic performance in Tamil schools. Proposals include appointing a supervisor for Tamil schools in each state.
A spokesperson from the Education Ministry says this will monitor the standard of teaching and implementation of the curriculum.
"Primary education should be made compulsory and meaningful to estate children. Secondly, the ministry needs to ensure that the curriculum addresses the needs of the estate environment."
More importantly, he stresses, a revamp of Tamil school education is necessary: "These schools need financial independence. The ministry needs to look into converting all Tamil schools into fully aided ones."
In the meantime, the MIC is helping the Indian community help themselves. One strategy is to gather Tamil school heads and teachers for courses and seminars to boost the quality of Tamil education by providing them with new knowledge and skills, new ways of thinking, new methods of teaching and learning.
Parents are the third target group. Meetings and seminars are held to increase parents' involvement in all areas which is essential to enhance the children's development.
As Dr Marimuthu sums it up: "Estate culture must change. Education must be set as the main priority. The estate community must be aware that education is its responsibility."