By Dato’ Dr Amar-Singh HSS, Consultant Paediatrician and Advisor, National Early Childhood Intervention Council (NECIC); Dr Ong Puay-Hoon, PhD (Cognitive Science), Dyslexia Association of Sarawak; Gill Raja, MSc (Social Administration and Social Work Studies), Committee Member, Sarawak Women for Women Society; Srividhya Ganapathy, Co-Chairperson, CRIB Foundation; Ng Lai-Thin, Educator in Special and Inclusive Education and Project Officer for NECIC; and Yuenwah San, Honorary Senior Advisor (Disability Inclusion), Social Development Division, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).
The World Bank estimates that Malaysia’s learning poverty is already high and that unless swift and bold action is taken, it will worsen. Malaysia has had one of the highest learning losses among Asian developing nations and exceeds losses of all ASEAN members, except Myanmar (Asian Development Bank April 2021).
With school closures of more than 40 weeks, most children in Malaysia have had a major loss in education progress. As many as 40% have not been able to participate in online classes due to the lack of digital devices or internet connection. Many who could connect found learning online suboptimal. Certain groups of children are at higher risk of worse educational outcomes: children with disabilities, children living in poverty, those in remote areas of Sabah and Sarawak, from indigenous communities, stateless children, refugees and those in detention centres.
The number of children who have dropped out of school is uncertain. We lack concrete data on the number of preschoolers who did not start primary school or the number of primary sixers who did not continue with secondary education. A 2021 UNICEF study in Malaysia showed that 20% of inner-city children have lost interest in schooling and do not plan to return.
Without lifesaving investments into the preschool sector (including children with learning disabilities), the ongoing education crisis will continue to be perpetuated for a number of years, as 25% of all preschool child services have closed. We now have many children entering Standard 1 with no reading or writing skills.
While most teachers have worked hard to support their students, they have received little of the additional resources and training support that they need. There have been limited remedial lessons for those failing to catch up. Students who move on, unprepared, to the next grade are missing key building blocks of knowledge for success (e.g., reading, writing and mathematics). Furthermore, children are being incorrectly categorised as having learning difficulties.
The enormous disruption in schooling and loss of social interaction have had a serious impact on the mental health of our children, including a fear of falling behind in studies and concerns whether, as schools open, they will be safe from the virus. In addition, there will be students grieving for lost loved ones and struggling with all the resulting changes in their lives.
The following are the key significant implications we can expect, if we do not act boldly, quickly and comprehensively:
- Higher rate of early education drop-out;
- Less skilled labour force;
- Serious impact on long-term workforce productivity;
- Economic downturn;
- Increased social problems;
- Higher rates of suicide and mental health pathology that will strain the health services.
Education poverty will have enormous lifetime implications, not just on children, but also on the Malaysian economy.
This post-pandemic learning loss is global – but other countries have been working on solutions to this since 2020 and early 2021.
Our children are being left behind.
There is an urgent need for a national education recovery plan to rehabilitate students with learning losses – post-pandemic.
We have written on a Path to Post-COVID-19 School Recovery in Malaysia, which is a plan offering key suggestions and initiatives, taken from the best evidence and practice currently available internationally and adapted to the Malaysian situation (link to full document here: https://bit.ly/3kQws7K).
The key post-COVID-19 rehabilitation measures for education are outlined in the document.
The key initiatives suggested include:
- Undertake rapid assessment of all students to understand each child’s situation and status.
- Identify vulnerable children and schools that require more support, including financial aid to enable those from poor families to return to school.
- Provide additional temporary teachers/teaching support, especially in Standards 1 and 2 and the transition years, to aid children who have not been prepared for school or are struggling to continue.
- Allocate significant financial support to restore the preschool sector (kindergartens and early childhood intervention/learning disability services for children) to prevent a prolongation of the crisis.
- Identify and reach out to school drop-outs to enable their return to schooling or vocational skills training and employment.
- Be aware of and address the mental health needs of students by identifying children affected and offer support with the participation of mental health professionals and associations.
It is important to emphasize that no one-size national solution will work for all children. Any national plan must be adapted to suit local-level conditions, taking into account the specific context, culture and variable issues/resources. Each region should be encouraged to identify schools requiring additional support, including those experiencing high dropout rates. The Ministry of Education (MOE) could enlist the help of parents, civil society organizations (CSOs) and other agencies to support local initiatives.
To ensure that no child is left behind, the focus should be broader than inclusion and academic achievement. Schooling should give each child a sense of mastery, in tandem with developing confidence, self-worth and life skills. Teachers and schools will require support and additional resources. Any recovery initiative requires good data on attendance and enrolment data that are disaggregated by student subgroups.
Our children’s today, our nation’s future requires our bold, decisive action now.