Q&A: Jasmine Ong (Inspiros International School) discusses private schooling

Jasmine Ong, Head of Learning and Development at Inspiros International School, has experience working in both private and public schools in Malaysia. She has a Master’s in Education Management from King’s College, London.

In this post, she shares some reflections about this month’s Dialog Pendidikan topic: “What does the growth of private schooling mean for Malaysia?

Please tell us a little bit about your involvement in both public and private schools.

My formal involvement with the public (government schools) was through the Teach For Malaysia (TFM) Fellowship where I taught English for 2 years. After the Fellowship, I went on to help start a privately-owned international school located in Puchong. I served as the former Head of Operations from 2014–2017 and took a break for my master’s. I returned as the Head of Learning and Development where I am focusing on teacher development and school improvement strategies.

Apart from that, I am also involved with the EngagED program via RITE Education and supported by the MCII and Credit Suisse. The program aims to support in-service teachers in targeted government schools in Klang. I do occasionally help out in schools where Teach For Malaysia teaching alumni are involved, but my involvement is limited to one-day workshops or talks for teacher’s professional development.

In your opinion, what factors have spurred the growth of private schools in the past few years?

The short answer would be there has been a significant demand for private/international schooling in recent years. Private/international schools are more accessible these days. Of course, the longer answer and perhaps a more nuanced reason would be that the demand seems to be driven by layers of inter-linked issues ranging from the gaps in Malaysian education policy and the regulation of the private school industry, accessibility to information, cultural fit, varying visions of what education means to each parent and also the socio-emotional wellbeing of the student themselves.

A general consensus would show you that the demand is mostly driven/created because parents want alternatives and choices. They would often look at the learning environment of the school and how it can best fit the needs of their child. This could mean wanting to have better-equipped schools, air-conditioned classrooms, access to technology and even the mix of students. International schools have a higher population of international students and parents want their children to have that culturally diverse exposure and help bring the world to their children faster. In my experience, the most common reason as to why parents decide to switch to my school revolves around the student’s inability to cope with their existing school system anymore. This may mean academically or even socially. A majority of my students come from highly dense classrooms in the SJKCs with a strong examination culture or some who prefer English as their main medium of study.

International schools also provide stronger support for students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), and are generally more inclusive or boast better facilities to accommodate students with such needs. With the growing understanding and move towards inclusivity, this has become an important push factor for many. Not necessarily just for SEND students but to be inclusive to all types of learners as well. I also know of a few schools who are strong in performing arts, entrepreneurship, arts education, and STEM education. Most of these areas are not necessarily covered by the national schools. This gap may be one of the reasons that spurred the demand for private education.

We could then move on to the curriculum choice offered, parents feel that there is superiority in the alternative curriculum or that it is more balanced compared to the Malaysian one. In some senses, they feel that graduating with a foreign qualification gives their child a leg up in tertiary education or even prepares them better for the job market later on. A small minority of them who aim to migrate to western countries find the international curriculum helpful in preparing their children for the education system over there.

What do you think the growth of private schooling means for Malaysia?

Echoing Ngee Derk’s article, from an economic and financial point of view, there is definitely big money in private/international education. Fees do not come cheap with some costing up to RM 100,000 a year for secondary education. This may help stimulate the economy by creating new jobs in the school as well as monetary investments to the state via taxation, building cost, and land cost. Even outfitting the school would give vendors the opportunity to make money.

I do see these schools playing a bigger role in contributing to the economic landscape in Malaysia one day. Often, these schools try to attract foreign students from China, Korea, and most ASEAN countries. I have also seen schools travel as far as the Middle East to participate in education fairs. Should these schools be successful, they may generate a big enough industry that may potentially be viewed as a form of foreign investment to the country. I do think that Malaysia is quite strategic in terms of our location. It wouldn’t be entirely out of the question that the private/international schools network in Malaysia will become a million-dollar industry, very much like the higher education industry in the UK and US.

Apart from that, there may be a good contribution to the teacher training and education sector in Malaysia. I do believe that there is a potential for skills transfer as well as an opportunity to learn from different teaching/learning styles of these foreign systems. This means there may be an indirect way of upskilling our teachers, improving their outcomes, and ultimately putting more diversely skilled educators in front of our students. Seeing that these schools already adopt a foreign system and that they are already in Malaysia, it is a good opportunity for collaboration either at a policy level with our Ministry of Education or even working in partnership with our public schools to further learn from each other’s best practices.

Unfortunately, the growth of private schooling also signals an underlying problem with the national education system. The demand may be an implicit statement by the people of their discontent or distrust towards the existing system. How true this is has yet to be quantified. However, from the nuggets of thoughts put out by the people I meet, it seems to be quite a theme. Having said that, from a social aspect, if the trend continues, our communities may experience a higher level of social stratification. National schools will soon serve only the communities who cannot afford the fees, and this may create a bigger divide between the rich from the poor. From this aspect, there is much to discuss and it is a discussion that should be held on its own.

How do you think private schools complement the public schooling system?

I think I’ve mentioned above that it helps fill in the gaps where the public schooling system cannot. Resources are ultimately finite and there is only so much a government can give or do. Therefore, in the short to medium term, it helps offload some of the burden on the public school system. I could say that it may even help free up some resources for public schools that are in need.

How do you think we can ensure a check and balance exists between public and private schooling?

This is something that I have been actively asking myself. At the surface level, I do believe that a stronger and more transparent inspection policy from the Ministry of Education needs to be put in place. This does not mean creating extra layers or stripping the autonomy from the schools. What I am saying is that the MoE should firstly ask for international schools to be certified by their respective quality assurance bodies, for example, Ofqual or Ofsted (England’s national school inspectorate for the British curriculum-based schools), just as how our public schools are inspected by our national school inspectorate (Jemaah Nazir, JNJK).

Supporting that inspection would be of course the full publication of the framework and guidelines prior to the inspection and educating the schools on how to use it. The key element here is the publication of the results to the public. I think that the people (parents, students, teachers, stakeholders) should know how the school is performing.

I personally feel that the framework/guidelines are there as a soft KPI to be met. It should never be punitive, but it should lead the school towards a collective vision of what an excellent school should look or feel like. This is perhaps a utopian view as countless research studies have shown that schools that undergo inspection often “window dress” for the day. Teachers get overly stressed and it becomes another box-ticking exercise. Sadly, this ultimately defeats the purpose of the entire check and balance system. Also, in arguing for school autonomy and heading towards the professionalization of teaching, perhaps having an Orwellian approach to this may not be the best way forward. Perhaps there’s a balance to strike? One that would have the schools engage their parents/community as their checkers instead of a statewide system.

If someone asked you those questions, how would you answer? Share your thoughts below, and please remember to follow our comments policy. (It is not compulsory to include your name, email, and website in order to comment.)

For an introduction to some of the big issues about private schooling in Malaysia, see our Pengenalan post from the beginning of this month. And for a few quotes with different perspectives on private schooling, see our Apa Kata post. You can also find our posts on our Facebook page. 🙂

And look out for our synopsis post next week. Thank you!

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