By Wan Saiful Wan Jan, for The Edge 1 January 2012. Around this time last year I asked several contacts if they would be interested to partner with us to hold a national conference on ‘school choice’. All of them responded with a question: “What do you mean by school choice?”. Not many people are familiar with the meaning of the phrase. School choice is a concept that we in Malaysia don’t usually talk about. In broad terms, it is about giving parents ownership and responsibility to choose and manage school education for their children.
The philosophy behind this concept is rather straightforward. We as parents are the ones responsible for the education of our own children. Therefore it is us who must make the decision on which school our child will go to. This is actually one of the most important decisions we have to make because the school environment will produce a big impact on the future of our children.
Not only must we be given the right to decide, we also have the responsibility to decide. How ironic is it that, while we would never allow a stranger to hold our children’s hands to cross the road, we are indifferent when surrendering all powers to strangers in Putrajaya to decide about the eleven years of education that our children will experience.
But, assuming that we do want to be responsible parents, we are actually still powerless. It does not matter how much we love our children. If we live in the wrong area, we have no option but to send to children to a bad school. As a result, children in affluent areas usually get better schools than those in rural ones. The current policy of forcing a postcode lottery is cruel and immoral. By denying parents the right to choose schools, we perpetuate education inequity.
Unless we can afford private school fees, our children are completely at the mercy of the Putrajaya strangers. Perhaps the existence of private schools does provide a level of choice. But apart from some Islamic schools, almost all private schools in Malaysia use differentiation as their business strategy. I have not found any private school that takes the cost-leadership path. As result, school fees are generally beyond the reach of the average Malaysians. Children from poor families who desperately need better quality schools are automatically excluded.
I have visited India twice to look for a potential solution. Back in February I visited two private schools in the slums of New Delhi. And last month I attended the School Choice National Conference in New Delhi, organised by India’s Centre for Civil Society. Both trips reinforce my belief that private education can be made to work for those at the bottom half of the pyramid.
At the school choice conference, I heard case studies on how low cost private schools have improved access to education for children from poor tribes in north east India as well as for those in slum areas. I also spoke to several operators of low cost private schools, who told me that many poor parents they serve do have access to free government schools. But they are willing to spend quite a big chunk of their monthly income for private school fees because the government schools are not as good.
Of course it would be wrong to blindly assume that all private schools are better than government ones. The point I am trying to make here is that some parents in rural and slum areas of India actually have more choice, and exercise greater responsibility, than the average Malaysian parents. Most of us simply accept whatever school the government says our children must go to. But many poor Indian parents, out of love and care for their own children, actively take things into their own hands. They refuse to be dependent on government.
James Tooley, professor of education policy at Newcastle University, was also at the conference. As a world-renowned researcher-practitioner, he combines his work with running a chain of low cost private school in India and Ghana. When I asked him if the low-cost model can be sustainable, he didn’t just affirm the sustainability of the model, but also its profitability.
With all the challenges facing our school system, and the dire need to improve the quality of schools in rural areas, I am curious what is actually preventing Malaysian private school operators from looking at the low-cost model. Why do we not yet have the equivalent of Air Asia and Mydin among our private schools?
And why is the government not looking at the private sector as a potential partner to address education inequality in the school system? The Entry Point Projects in the ETP are focused mainly on creating more premium private schools. What will happen to the poor in rural areas, as well as other financially excluded children such as those who are stateless and refugee? Is there not a business opportunity to provide them with better quality education?
I firmly believe there are rooms in the Malaysian market for low cost, for profit private school model. Several colleagues and I are actively looking into this matter, and we are learning from the experiences of our friends in India and other countries.
More school choice will be created if we can develop a model that charges just 20-30 percent less that today’s average private school fee. At that level, the fee may not be low enough for the poorest in society. But it is only the very first step. Once market competition kicks in, I suspect the potential market size for the low-cost private school model will be significant.
Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my)