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LAST_UPDATESat, 25 Nov 2017 9am

Malaysian Parents Choose International Schools Over National Schools These Days – What Are The Advantages?

MAKING a choice on which school your children should attend is a critical decision and it is no doubt that it can be challenging as it will affect their future. More often than not, parents would grapple at the multitude of factors that influence these decisions, as it is crucial to determine what kind of educational environment and experience you would want for your children, as well as your long-term educational goals for them.

Whether in the early years, or at the primary or secondary school level, the choices can be perplexing, especially with an array of private, international to vernacular and public schools available in the country. Just like our diverse cultural and ethnic landscape, the Malaysian education platform provides parents with an indeed tougher and wider range of options.

And speaking of options, the paradigm has now also been shifted from the norm − where parents once opted to send their children to national schools, it has now become a common scenario where more parents send their children to international schools.

This is proven with the rise in the numbers of student enrolment in international schools each year. According to the statistics provided by the Ministry of Education, 20,000 students were enrolled in international schools in 2013, compared to 15,000 the year before, as reported by iMoney.my.

Surprising, or not, this fact makes us question: Why are these numbers escalating? Have parents really lost confidence in our national education system? Is our national education system really poor in quality, resulting to the poor performance of local students as according to the Programme For International Student Assessment (PISA)'s ranking -- where Malaysia is languishing in a dismal position at 52 out of 72 countries, previously reported by Malaysian Digest? (read here)

International Schools Vs. Public Schools In Malaysia

In Malaysia, there are over ten thousand national schools strategically dispersed throughout the country. Oftentimes, these government-funded schools require parents to pay only minimal fees, ensuring that each and every Malaysian child will have access to education. The core curriculum in these educational environments emphasizes the national language of Bahasa Malaysia and the teaching of all subjects, except other languages, is done primarily in Bahasa Malaysia.

In 2012, the Ministry of Education implemented the Malaysian Education Blueprint with the aspiration to reduce the emphasis on examinations and rote learning, to focus more on continuous assessments and independent learning, as well as to promote active learning and nurturing well-rounded individuals.

While the move is worth praising, in essence, it means that for the children to whom this new structure applies, ultimately there will be no centralised assessments or examinations until they reach Form 5.

As for international schools, it is primarily populated by students from expatriate communities and there was previously a quota limiting the number of local students who could attend these institutions in Malaysia.

However, the Ministry of Education had recently lifted this restriction, making way for both Malaysian and international students to attend. Over the years, there has been a mushrooming of international schools throughout the country, due to the heightened interest in international education by Malaysians.

By definition, international schools refer to schools that promote international education in an international environment, either by adopting a curriculum such as that of the International Baccalaureate, Edexcel or Cambridge International Examinations or by following a national curriculum different from that of the school's country of residence.

Malaysian international schools which use English as its medium of instructions are well-known for offering a wider range of curriculum options -- from the American Curriculum to UK Curriculum from New South Wales to the Central Board of Secondary Education, the International Baccalaureate, and Islamic curriculum, among others.

Alice Smith School, Cempaka International School, Australian International School Malaysia, Ekhlass International School, Garden International School, Highlands International Boarding School, MAZ International School, Fairview International School, Mont'Kiara International School are among the popular choices of international schools here.

International Schools – For Better Or For Worse?

While it is an undeniable fact that both national and international schools in the country have done the inevitable to offer the most effective and highest quality education system in the nation's bid to produce a more all-rounded generation, efforts of the former seem to fall short as Malaysians now prefer sending their children to international schools which offer English-medium education instead.

Mr. Stuart Walker is the the Principal Of Garden International SchoolMr. Stuart Walker is the the Principal Of Garden International SchoolIn an interview with Malaysian Digest, Mr. Stuart Walker (pic), the Principal of Garden International School Kuala Lumpur said all parents want the best for their children, and that education is such an integral part of advancement in the Asian psyche, saying the path to a foreign university is less strewn with obstacles when students are studying an international curriculum.

“University degrees from colleges in Britain, Australia, the United States or Canada are in high demand and will tend to mean higher salaries for their holders when they return to Malaysia. It also opens the gateway to the world for young people. There is also a view that an education in an international school better prepares young people for the realities of our world,” he remarked.

Asked why the number of Malaysian parents sending their children to international schools are on the rise each year, Walker recounts, “There is a belief that the values that underpin an education at international schools are more in keeping with values of many families. We believe strongly in the student vision which places each child’s learning at the centre of all that we do.

“Most [international] schools provide a holistic education which incorporates the development of 21st century skills alongside the teaching of the content. In addition to broader co-curricular programmes, camps and outdoor educational all combine to create an education which provides students the opportunity to find those things about which they are passionate and pursue them to the highest level,” he said.

In Malaysia, it is a well-known fact that most international schools have smaller class sizes compared to national schools which comprise up to 20 students; therefore the teachers can devote more time to each student.

On whether the low student-teacher ratio can positively help the students to perform better academically, Walker said, “There is a strong research that indicates that class size has a negligible impact on learning outcomes. However, there is a point where classes can be too large or too small.

“In my experience here, we find that classes of around 23-25 in lower years to be optimal for effective group work as well as ensuring that the teacher is able to provide individual attention to every student. This, of course, varies when students take option classes such as Visual Arts, Music, Design and Technology, Drama as well as Modern Foreign Languages," he noted.

Commenting on the education programme available at international schools, he tells us, “All students will have to sit for a credential or examination based on International Baccalaureate (IB) Curriculum which is aimed at inducing their critical and thinking capability as well as promoting independent thinking. What's more, most international curricular include coursework into its final assessment.”

“We also try to teach transferable skills that are going to enable the graduates to be confident and effective so that they can constructively contribute to their communities," he said, adding that most international schools do not have to teach explicitly for a test as the school uses a teacher guided approach to learning so that the students can have an exciting learning experience.

Pros And Cons: Parents Weigh In

In order to get in-depth insights on how parents think and choose the best education platform for their children, Malaysian Digest reached out to parents to get their opinions on the matter.

Jayden Woong Boon Sik, 41, who sends two of his daughters to Fairview International School (Wangsa Maju campus), shared his views on the subject. 

“Most international schools in Malaysia, if not all, are comprised of students from around the world as they have diverse student bodies compared to public schools. I strongly believe this would expose the students to a culturally diverse environment, and simultaneously help them broaden their horizons.

“While I don’t deny the fact that public schools provide quality education, but in international schools, you would get better quality teachers. They are just more qualified and experienced, also passionate about their profession since most of them are hired through international job fairs,” said the father of two.

On whether it is worth the money to send children to international schools, Woong admits that, “It is undeniable that international school fees can be hefty, but you have to look at the bigger picture. In Malaysia, although curriculum in both public and international schools are praiseworthy, there is a distinguish difference between those offered in the international schools.”

“At international schools, the obvious difference you will find is the use of the English language, as it is a big focus. It’s one of the most important languages in the world and no one can deny its importance in our daily lives. Hence, exposing your children to the language at a young age definitely gives a competitive edge.

“Besides, the low student-teacher ratio in international schools, help students focus better as they get more attention in an environment that permits a more reasonable equation. Being in a smaller classroom definitely enables teachers to focus better on every student.

“Parents can also expect a healthier communication between teacher and student, as opposed to public schools which its system is often perceived as less personal,” he explained.

He further concluded on how, “Most international schools use International Baccalaureate (IB) Curriculum which focuses on the development of creative and critical thinking, and this would definitely prepare the students for their academic performance apart from participating in extramural activities available.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, Alif Azfar Mohammad Ramlee, 39, a bank officer who sends his three children to a public school in Seri Kembangan shared his stern opinions opposing the above statements.

“Personally, I don’t think sending children to international schools is necessary. First and foremost, I believe there is little cultural immersion since most international schools comprise of students from different parts of the world.

“Secondly, international schools are not cheap and not everyone can afford the exorbitant tuition fees. The annual cost of sending children to an international school can exceed that of even colleges or universities. This is certainly not a wise choice for those in the lower income group.

“Last but certainly not least, although it is something commendable that many international schools use English as its medium of teaching and learning, it has to be noted that our mother tongue, the Malay language, which is equally important, have been marginalised, and so have other native languages used like Mandarin and Tamil,” he stressed further.

The Choice Is Yours

While the debate is ongoing, the price still keeps increasing – so, is sending your child to an international school really worth every penny?

Every family is different and the answer to this oft-mentioned question is simple – it depends. Before making a decision, factors such as your family’s financial situation, cultural background and the school’s curriculum are certainly important points to consider.

In an age where competitive education becomes a prerequisite for a better future to see your child advance with flying colours in universities and colleges, it is also wise not to forget that later on in life, education alone may not always guarantee a profession in this current challenging job market, regardless international school or not.

And although some parents feel that children who have been to international schools have better personalities and exposure to the world, at the end of the day, a child’s personality may develop not only within the school’s environment but through friends, their home surroundings and other external factors, which may create an even more wholesome personality.

Quoting Walker, who shared: “When I was leading the United Nations International School in New York, I was invited by the Asia Pacific Forum to work with industry leaders and universities on the education required in today’s society. CEOs of some of the top companies in the U.S. all said the same things. While schools and universities were providing a good education, it was not what the companies needed.

“When they were recruiting, they did not worry about the university the applicant went to. They did not worry about the content either because that could be taught on the job. Instead, the focus was drawn on their ability to solve problems, through effective communication, and working in teams are also critical.

“The demands upon the young people who accept the mantle of leadership will be many and varied. The ability to embrace ambiguity in today’s constantly changing environment is of utmost importance,” he concluded.

- mD