Problems Facing Mission Schools
A Paper presented at the EPRD Seminar in Oct 2008
YAP KOK KEONG
Majlis Sekolah-Sekolah Kristian Malaya
SEMINAR HALA TUJU SEKOLAH BANTUAN KERAJAAN
29-31 OKTOBER 2009
Bahagian Perancangan dan Penyelidikan Dasar Pendidikan,
Kementerian Pelajaran Malaysia
PROBLEMS FACING MISSION SCHOOLS
Mission schools in Malaysia have had a long history of more than 150 years. The contribution of mission schools, both in the past and in the present, in the development of our multi-racial country is widely acknowledged. Many leaders of all ethnic origins who have greatly impacted all spheres of our national life have had their early education in mission schools. The alumni of mission schools, which number millions, remain quite influential in the communities where these schools are found. Whatever happens to mission schools and in mission schools today continue to generate a great deal of interest in the community and the nation at large because of the strong sentiments attached to these schools.
At present there are more than 350,000 children of all races in mission schools in Malaysia. Although this figure represents only slightly less than 8% of the school-going population receiving their primary and secondary education in 464 mission schools throughout Malaysia, nonetheless the number is still very significant. Moreover, some premier mission schools are still among the best schools in the country, helping to set standards of excellence which act as touchstones in the districts where these schools are found.
In spite of the sacrifices made by the Mission Authorities all these years in allowing their land and buildings to be usedwithout any rental by the government to fulfill its basic responsibility to educate its citizens, the mission authorities continue to face many challenging obstacles in its dealings with Ministry authorities. Goodwill and understanding built up through much effort are lost when officials are transferred or retired. Memoranda sent had little concrete follow through. What had been discussed at meetings were soon forgotten as minutes of meetings were not officially recorded or circulated. As a result there is growing frustration among leaders and members of the church, parents and alumni with regard to the direction that their mission schools are heading. The common perception is that Mission Authorities have failed to protect the character and ethos of mission schools, and failed to look after their welfare. Is the government primarily to be blamed in the way it has failed to respond to the problems faced by mission schools?
1. Progressive Loss of Control Over Mission Schools by Mission Authorities
Since the 1960’s there has been a gradual loss of control by Mission Authorities over our mission schools. Before the implementation of the Aziz Commission Report, 1971, the Board of Governors of a mission school had the power to hire and fire teachers, decide on the appointment of headmasters and had an authoritative say over the use of its premises and the way the school is managed. Today all these have progressively been eroded away. Naturally, with the loss of such powers came changes in the character and ethos of mission schools. Such character changes constitute the core of many of the problems presently faced by mission schools.
2. Progressive Loss of Multi-ethnic Character
The teaching staff and student enrolment no longer reflect the multi-ethnic character of the community where the schools are located.
One of the major contributions of mission schools to the nation is their multi-ethnic character and school activities where the children of all ethnic groups learn, eat, and play together, thus contributing to the understanding, harmony and unity of the nation as they grow into adults and take their place in society. Such goodwill, understanding and harmony are even more desperately needed today.
However, increasingly, the teaching staff in mission schools as well as the pupil enrolment, no longer reflect the multi-ethnic diversity of our multi-racial nation. Some mission schools have even taken on what is perceived to be an Islamic character. This trend and perception is causing more and more parents to send their children to vernacular schools thus compounding the problem of ethnic polarization. The Mission Authorities are very disturbed by this situation as they have always believed that mission schools should play a vital role in fostering racial harmony and unity among all its pupils for the good of the nation – a role they have played so well in the past and should be empowered to continue to do so. This is only possible if there is a multi-ethnic teaching staff as well as a multi-ethnic student enrolment that is reflective of the national population or community where the schools are located.
Please do everything possible to preserve the traditional multi-ethnic character of mission schools so that they are reflective of our multi-ethnic nation or of the locality where the mission schools are situated. This will enable mission schools to continue to play their role to meet the needs of students of all ethnic groups to enhance the process of integration, and nurture the spirit of understanding, co-operation, harmony and unity among school children during their vital formative years.
3. Progressive Loss of Dedicated Teaching Staff
Rapid staff changes through retirement and transfers have taken their toll on mission schools. Teachers who have served for many years and have helped to build up the traditions and reputation of a mission school are posted away. Some have retired early out of frustration. Fresh teachers who replaced them often do not remain long enough to build up loyalty to the school. This situation has resulted in a loss of public confidence in mission schools.
4. Difficulties faced in the implementation of the “Principle of Maximum Consultation” in the Appointment of Appropriate School Heads for Mission Schools
The headmaster or principal is the most critical factor in determining the direction, tone and general well-being of a school. Sometimes headmasters or principals who are appointed by the Ministry to head mission schools have little appreciation of the culture, traditions and ethos of the mission school and thus do not see much point in striving to maintain the traditions and ethos of these schools. Indeed some may actually undermine their character by removing religious symbols, changing time-honoured school mottos, school songs, school badges and sometimes even the names of “houses” are replaced. There were even instances where permanent religious structures were erected without consultation or obtaining prior approval from the Mission Authorities who are the land owners and are ultimately responsible to the Local Authorities.
Although the mission authorities have been repeatedly given assurances by Government leaders and officials during consultative meetings as well as through public statements in the local press that the essential “character and ethos” of mission schools in the country would be maintained, the reality on the ground tells another story. This matter is of grave concern to Mission Authorities as they are ultimately held accountable.
The fact is, even though the top officials may be sincere in their assurances and pronouncements, the officials at the lower levels continue to implement policies without much understanding or regard for the special character of the mission schools under their purview. Some may not even be aware of the principle of “maximum consultation” which was agreed upon when the mission authorities handed over their schools to become “conforming schools” at the time of the implementation of the Education Act of 1961.
Please ensure that the principle of maximum consultation which had been agreed upon, is properly understood and implemented by those with the authority to appoint school heads. Inform the Mission Authorities of any impending vacancy in their schools so that the Mission Authority can give the fullest co-operation to the Ministry to appoint the best candidate who would understand the traditions and ethos of the mission school concerned.
5. The formal and informal curriculum
Mission schools follow the formal curriculum completely and wholeheartedly. One clear weakness in the curriculum is that there is no provision for the spiritual development of non-Muslim pupils although spiritual development is one of the key objectives of the National Philosophy of Education. This represents a clear deficiency in the training of the young. The Moral Education subject for non-Muslims has generally been a great disappointment and considered by many to have failed in its objective. One cannot teach values in a spiritual vacuum. Why could not non-Muslims be taught their own religion in mission schools, especially in those schools in East Malaysia where the majority of pupils in the school belong to the same religion and suitable teachers are readily available? Such a provision will go a long way to fulfill the aspiration of our Rukunegara and produce better citizens for the country. Mission schools do not pose obstacles or a threat to any pupil from our diverse multi-ethnic and multi-religious background. They seek only to provide good holistic education to all and inculcate wholesome moral and universal spiritual values among all who attend the schools.
As such due consideration should also be given to the establishment of religious clubs and societies other than Islamic ones. While the circulars are clear on allowing the establishment and continuance of such clubs to meet the needs of our diverse student population, all sorts of obstacles are encountered by students and teacher advisors in establishing or running such clubs or societies. Considering that one of the objectives of the establishment of mission schools is to provide for the holistic education of members of the church, such restrictions are a great disappointment and viewed by mission school supporters as a betrayal of trust.
Please provide for the teaching of pupils’ own religion and the setting up of religious clubs or societies when 15 or more pupils or parents request for them. Allow for the use of general/universal prayers accepted by all wherever and whenever possible to reduce alienation and the spirit of exclusion. Policies on these matters must be clear and not open to the subjective interpretation of school heads or officials.
6. Diminishing Control over Enrolment
The labeling of some mission schools as “controlled schools” places admission almost completely under the control of the education department. This would not be altogether a bad thing if genuine poor and needy students of all races get to enter the school while an adequate portion of places are set aside for the children of alumni, loyal donors and members of the church who have helped to build up the school. However what we experience is that children from primary feeder schools no longer get to enter the secondary schools that carry the same name. Some of these children come from families that have been associated with the school for a few generations. There were occasions when even the children of members of the School Board found difficulty in getting admitted to the school! Such a rigid control on enrolment fractures the bonds and the support system upon which mission schools depend to do well. Consequently the Managing Authorities and the school heads of mission schools find themselves in an untenable position to answer their many critics.
The loss of control over mission schools makes the task of raising funds to maintain and upgrade mission schools an increasingly uphill task. Christians are reluctant to give financial support to the school because they fail to see how mission schools as they are today are different from fully aided government schools. Besides, church members feel that they are already paying taxes and justifiably expect school maintenance to be the duty of the Government especially when the annual budget for education by the Government is so huge. Besides this, mission schools also help the nation in providing facilities for the employment of teachers and general workers. Therefore it is only right that the Government look after the needs of mission schools in the same way as they do so for fully aided government schools.
Where mission schools are controlled schools, allow the Mission Authorities to have a voice in student enrolment. Set aside a certain portion of the available places for Mission Authorities to enable them to meet the needs, requests and aspirations of their church members who have children who are qualified to enter the mission schools that they have sacrificed so much to help.
7. The Problem of Funding Maintenance and Development
Maintaining a school is a costly business and becoming more so by the day. Furniture gets broken and must be replaced. A new coat of paint is needed once every few years. Old wiring becomes hazardous and must be replaced. Some mission schools especially in smaller towns and rural areas have stagnated in terms of development. Such schools generally take on a rather depressing run-down appearance. Structures are old, and may even be termite infested. Old wirings may be a source of danger to teachers and pupils. Such fate may befall more and more mission schools in the days ahead.
Sometimes the State Education Department may step in and provide some much needed allocations for urgent work. Sad to say, such allocations come with stipulations such as using the contractor provided by the Department. The resultant work is not worth the money allocated and is often shoddy, requiring the school to find ways to remedy the problem.
As standards rise and public expectations are greater than ever before, there is ever increasing demand for more and better facilities. Mission schools cannot keep pace with public expectations. Furthermore increasing enrolment means additional classrooms, toilets, etc are needed. Changes in the curriculum also require workshops, computer laboratories, etc. The list goes on and on. Where are the funds to come from? The churches have already made tremendous sacrifices for so many years. How can they continue to fund mission schools?
One of the sources of funds of a mission school is derived from the rental of school premises for needful purposes such as school canteen, bookshop; special facilities such as badminton courts, etc. Such income should not be considered as school or government income but income of the Mission Authority who owns the school. Such income should go back to the Mission Authority for maintenance and development and general welfare of the pupils of the respective schools. This just and reasonable principle is somehow not generally accepted and often becomes a point of contention, unnecessarily creating suspicion and ill-will among school heads, Mission Authorities and the Department.
The general trend is, with the rising costs and increasing apathy,that more and more mission schools will suffer neglect in the years ahead if the status quo with regard to funding for mission schools remains. Ultimately, school children will be the victims.
Please allocate more financial support for the maintenance and development of mission schools since their existence is only to serve the nation, Allow Mission Authorities/Boards of Governors to maximize the use of school facilities and rental income for maintenance and development and welfare of the pupils of the respective mission school.
8. Uncertainties with regard to mission schools on lease hold land
Land on which mission schools are built on generally belongs to two basic categories: leasehold, and freehold church land. Leasehold land in particular, are clearly stated for the purpose of education and nothing else.
The Government authorities often give the excuse that they could not do much as the land on which the mission schools are built on is private property. The truth of the matter is the land on which mission schools are erected are designated for education and the government has the final say as to how the land is used anyway. Therefore ownership is a fiction and a convenient excuse for not extending funding for maintenance and development.
When leases are up, applications for renewal are seldom successful. Such schools may be taken over when the leases expire without proper communication or consultation with the Mission Authorities. This is of course highly insensitive in view of the decades of association between the mission authorities and the school and the effort put in to develop and maintain it.
Consequently an unhealthy element of uncertainty hangs over mission schools on leasehold land. It would be unreasonable to expect the mission authorities to put in more effort and money enthusiastically to develop mission schools when leases are near expiring without a clear policy or indication of whether the leases will be renewed or not and what the premium would be.
Please renew the leases of mission schools with expiring leases and charge nominal premium to enable mission schools to continue to help the nation. Inform the Mission Authorities well in advance if their application for lease renewal is unsuccessful so that Mission Authorities are given due respect and can assist in the transition with regard to the change in status if any.
9. Falling Standards
The reality is that mission schools have changed so much since the 60s and 70s that today they are not much different from fully aided Government schools.
Except for pockets of excellence represented by some key mission schools, generally speaking, many mission schools are no longer the schools of choice as their standards have steadily fallen thorough the years. This is especially evident in primary schools. Maintaining and improving standards is a losing battle as so many factors are beyond the Mission Authorities’ control.
10. Special Unit for Mission Schools
The assurance that a special unit will be set up to handle the affairs and problems of mission schools just as for other conforming schools is most timely and greatly looked forward to by Mission Authorities. Such a unit must be led by persons who are aware and sympathetic to the needs of mission schools. There should be regular scheduled meetings or dialogue with Mission Authorities, and proper minutes taken for accountability and follow through. Such a mission school affairs unit will foster understanding and co-operation, resolve problems quickly and go a long way to strengthen mission schools and enable them to continue their role meaningfully to serve the nation.
It must be acknowledged that in spite of the odds and obstacles, mission schools have bravely soldiered on and some have continued to achieve high standards in every field of school endeavour. But the odds and burdens are getting greater and heavier by the day. Mission Authorities do not intend to abandon our 464 mission schools and will continue to persevere to maintain and preserve their noble traditions and culture to the best of our ability, with God’s help and the help of the Government, to serve our beloved nation. The Malayan Christian Schools Council, the representative body of the Mission Authorities, organized a symposium on 16th August 2008 for a representative cross section of mission school heads, alumni, parents, members of Board of Governors, Parent –Teachers Associations, teachers and church leaders on the theme: Mission Schools ~ Responding to the Needs of the Nation. The theme itself is indicative of the commitment of our Mission Authorities’ to ensure that the mission schools under their care would continue to play their vital role to respond to the needs of the nation especially at such a challenging time in its history. The symposium was well attended and much enthusiasm was shown by all present. The sympathetic tone and re-assurances conveyed in the keynote address by the Honourable Deputy Minister Dr. Wee Ka Siong were greatly appreciated. If the promises and assurances were followed through, they would go a long way to address many of the grievances and problems faced by mission schools; and would be a great source of encouragement to all stakeholders involved to work harder for mission schools to the benefit of future generations of Malaysians
YAP KOK KEONG
Majlis Sekolah-Sekolah Kristian Malaya