Categorised | Commentary, News

Whither national education?

IN this final of a four-part series on education, The Nut Graph attempts to examine the problems that have become entrenched in the national school system. While public schools were reliable and multi-racial centres of education for Malaysian children not too long ago, today, parents who can afford it are sending their children to private schools. Those who can’t, opt for Chinese vernacular schools. There also seems to be a growing trend towards home schooling.

Do these trends indicate that the public school system is failing us? How did it come to this? And what needs to be done to stem the decline? Deborah Loh and Koh Lay Chin attempt to answer these questions.


MALAYSIA’s development has been top-down instead of bottom-up. Under Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, development was imposed through big infrastructure projects and by creating a nouveau riche class. Under Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi‘s administration, he tried to return the focus to building human capital. Now, Datuk Seri Najib Razak is working to shape his legacy around a New Economic Model (NEM) besides plans to make Malaysia a high-income nation.

High-income, knowledge-economy, escaping the middle-income trap, lifting subsidies, competitiveness — these are the buzzwords that we’ve been hearing, and will continue to hear, in coming discussions about the NEM when it’s finally unveiled.

One wishes that economic planning would also include revamps of the education system. The reasons why public schools are no longer schools of first choice — as spelt out in The Nut Graph’s series on vernacular, private, and home-school education — are the same factors that define Malaysia’s problems as a mediocre, middle-income economy.

Surely the government sees the link. National schools aren’t producing a mass enough number of quality students who in turn become quality graduates at local universities. Add to that race quotas which limit the number of truly bright and deserving students in local institutions, and which dictate just who is “qualified” to receive government scholarships. The brain drain of students educated overseas who prefer to remain and work abroad shouldn’t be surprising. Overall, it seems that the public education system from start to finish sends the best minds away instead of retaining them.

Repairing the system

What needs to be fixed? Many things, but let’s start by looking at the basic complaints about public schools as highlighted in The Nut Graph’s education series, and what they spell for the economy.

Lack of quality teachers 

signs advertising tuition classes
Signs advertising private tuition classes

Early childhood education expert and National Human Rights (Suhakam) commissioner Datuk Dr Chiam Heng Keng has acknowledged that the “vast majority of teachers are not dedicated to the profession”. Also, not enough people are making teaching a “first career choice”.

Classrooms in public schools have high student to teacher ratios. They are run by overworked teachers who must juggle between teaching and administrative work. And they are peopled by pupils lacking individual attention. All these make for an uninspiring education system that doesn’t promote a culture of learning and exploring.

We see the effects in university graduates who may be text book smart but know little about the world around them.

Too exam-oriented

teacher saying 'now memorise the definitions for over thirty moral values'
Moral studies in Malaysia require rote learning (public domain | Wiki Commons)

Even the government admits this. Apart from being a structural policy flaw, over-emphasis on academic performance is perpetuated by the first problem above. When there aren’t enough teachers, there isn’t the luxury of time to indulge in more creative ways of teaching.

As such, mass rote learning and assessment through exams becomes easier to implement. Student performance is easier to measure this way, even if it isn’t the most holistic method.

Lack of creativity and teaching of soft skills

Points 1) and 2) together contribute to a teaching culture that discourages students from thinking outside the box and trains them to give only the “right” textbook answer.

Such a top-down teaching method discourages critique and questioning. By extension, students who are discouraged from questioning or offering their views are students who lack confidence in speaking or articulating themselves. No wonder common complaints by employers are that graduates lack English competency, communication and problem solving skills, and general knowledge.

Ethnic polarisation

While the Education Ministry maintains that national schools are necessary for ethnic integration and national harmony, it hasn’t addressed the fact that student and teacher populations in most public schools have become dominated by one race.

Parents worry about overzealous Malay Malaysian teachers imposing Muslim preferences on all pupils. Some Muslim parents even prefer a more multicultural environment for their children and deliberately place them in international or private schools for that reason.

While parents like these feel the need to prepare their children for a globalised world, the majority of students are at risk of being insular and uncompetitive, unless their parents make special efforts to ensure otherwise outside of school.

Policy flip-flops

The national education system is already notorious for policy changes every time a new minister helms the portfolio. But reversing the teaching of Mathematics and Science in English was noted as the last straw for parents interviewed by The Nut Graph. So was ambivalence over the maximum number of Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia subjects that a student was allowed to take.

From then on it seemed that interest in private, vernacular and home schools increased. Parents consider it a lack of government vision as to what public education should achieve with regards to the country’s needs. There’s also a lack of contiguous planning for students to transit from secondary to tertiary education and eventually, the workforce. Hence, employers complain that graduates lack industry-relevant skills and the high number of unemployed graduates are an on-going concern.

As of 2009, only 23% of Malaysia‘s labour force had tertiary education. It indicates that our economic sectors are still low-skilled and labour-intensive driven. To become a high-income nation, is the workforce first capable of earning higher wages? To become an economy based on skilled and knowledge workers, are our students first being adequately prepared at the pre-school and primary levels? Are we equipping students who can make the transition from manufacturing and assembly to creating and innovating?

It doesn’t seem so from the woes parents have about public schools. And if their children are in alternative education systems that ultimately send and keep them abroad, it leaves Malaysia with a dearth of home-grown expertise and skills.

So has the public education system failed us? We can’t deny its successes in providing basic education for every child, producing high literacy rates, and helping in the country’s move from agriculture to industry.

However, this is no longer enough. Bolder revamps to public schools and tertiary institutions are needed.

Start with de-politicising education. Let education be holistic and creative instead of imposing cultural, religious or political agendas through subjects like Moral and History. Let teaching staff be multiracial, with more public funds invested in their salaries and welfare rather than ill-planned infrastructure projects. More importantly, ensure that teacher promotions are based on meritocracy, not a failed quota system that only entrenches mediocrity.

Let alternative education systems like home-schooling and independent Chinese medium high schools be accepted for local public university entry.

Indeed, what is needed to free the national education system from being defined by ethnic and political considerations is courage and long-term planning. And unless there is that, moving beyond the middle to sustaining our future dream economy is building castles in the air. favicon

See also:

Going private
Chinese medium schools to the rescue
 
The home schooling option

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26 Responses to “Whither national education?”

  1. Ellese A says:

    The writer’s analysis does not make sense. Its non sequitur if you follow the previous articles.

    I cannot follow the argument that people go to vernacular school because of these five reasons. Would not all these reasons be applicable to vernacular schools as well. Let me elaborate.

    I cannot follow the argument that parents prefer Chinese medium schools because it is less exam oriented, have better creativity and teach more soft skills. I cannot fathom how a rote method of learning typically in Chinese medium schools creates creativity and teaches soft skills. Singapore has in fact acknowledged this and clearly articulated that this traditional method is not the way forward. The writer could have suggested that schools adopting PBL (problem based learning) system is creative and enhances soft skills but to suggest that Chinese medium schools are less exam oriented and more creative is ludicrous.

    Similarly the reason on the flip flop policy on science and maths. I cannot fathom why parents who want English in Maths and Science thinks that by sending their children to Chinese medium schools they can get Maths and Science taught in English or will have an improvement in their children’s proficiency in the English language. Chinese educationists have all the while opposed teaching in English and it is unfathomable why this flip flop policy could cause the parents to go to Chinese medium schools.

    The same is with the issue on ethnic polarisation. If parents are concerned with ethnic polarity how does sending a child to a “CHINESE” school eradicate ethnic polarisation? I can easily argue to the contrary.

    I think the article is very shallow. It shows a lack of depth in the field of educational system. I have met with some educationists which are mostly passionate about education and the writer could at least meet a few of them. To do a cover story like this is misleading and does not offer solutions at all. A number of the main challenges like getting the brightest into becoming teachers and the low teacher salaries are not mentioned at all. There are intellectual and academic papers on this which the writer could have alluded to. If these had been done we would probably have a more accurate enlightened view.

  2. DLai says:

    I think every parent in Malaysia is aware where our education system is going. There is not one parent I have spoken to recently who is comfortable with Malaysia’s current state of affairs. But what can we do, our hands are tied!! Either we continue to stay here and survive or move out!

  3. Complaints! says:

    I grew up in a family of teachers, and my complaint about Malaysians is that they often address ‘problems of the educational system’ without going to the core: namely, the teachers themselves.

    How can people — whether it be well-meaning critics or ministers in high places — ‘mend the system’ when they don’t know anything about the system? Did The Nut Graph consider interviewing teachers for this series, or is it simply inviting more disenchanted discontentment from people who have no insider knowledge of how public schools are run in the country?

    You have, for example, a quote from the Suhakam commissioner. Who is she when it comes to speaking about the life and hardship of public system teachers? She lists her claim to expertise from her background in ‘early childhood education’. But is she a teacher — in this case, is she a teacher in a public school? Being knowledgeable about a field does not mean that you are knowledgeable about the administration of a school.

  4. frags says:

    Replying to Ellesse’s comment,

    I don’t think the writer forced the idea that vernacular schools and home schooling as a solution to these problems. It was simply demonstrating the loss of confidence in the national education system in the eyes of parents.

    While vernacular schools still operate in the same domain as the national education system, home schooling is the most radical of choices for parents to have taken. [It exemplifies] the desperateness of parents as well as the just how critical the situation is now.

  5. KW Mak says:

    @ Complaints!

    I have often found it difficult to get teachers to talk on record back when I was a reporter, even when the subject matter was about fund raising for the school in question.

    I find this inherent fear in making public statements also present among local government staff. After all, no one wants to be singled out by their peers.

    Anyway, this is the internet and teachers who would like to comment anonymously may do so. Perhaps you could offer an insight into the problems faced by the teachers and provide solutions to the issues discussed as well.

  6. Sloane Mak says:

    I actually liked the comments more than the article. I had the exact points Ellese A pointed out even before halfway through the article. I can’t help noticing that the writing voice is the result of the same education system criticized here.

    OK, not as if I can write any better but I’m open to criticism :D . It’s just that a website like this has a lot of potential to really inform and nail the issues and galvanize a mental revolution. I guess I’m just disappointed at every lost opportunity in MSM or alternative media to really, really grind the issues in, making a really in-depth series and having the sort of commitment to see a breakthrough, the sort of commitment the writer says teachers don’t have.

    I get angry a lot too at teachers but I always find it in me to remember that it’s the System that made them and it’s the System that will break the best of them. I have to keep reminding myself the only reason I can open my mouth and talk the way I do is because I am no longer a teacher. Yes, our teachers are incompetent but they are not bad people. They do not have the intention to be incompetent. The only ones who do are the Chinese vernacular school teachers who have no shame teaching hours and hours of tuition on the exact same subjects to mostly the same pupils they meet in school. If anyone has to teach something so easy as primary school work twice or thrice over on top of school time, you have to be really, really, really incompetent.

    I was an ESL teacher and I understand very well the issues of English competency and teacher training – how to achieve them and why we keep failing. I feel so sorry for the poor teachers forced to teach English and the poor teacher trainers tasked to train them. To be really good in learning and to be really good at training requires one to be so counter-intuitive according to the rules set by the System. (Premise: all industrial systems minimise autonomy. Autonomy and innate motivation / freewill is crucial to learning.)

    My only grouse is that so many people are still focusing their energy on what’s wrong with the System without awakening to the fact that these “bugs” were built into the program from the beginning including the problems we have with English competency. The answer is simple : what worked in the 19th Century didn’t in the 20th, what did in the 20th won’t in the 21st. The 20th System was built to remove Outliers and make everything standard. Until and unless people become open to what makes one an Outlier and learn how they succeed in their area not because of but IN SPITE OF the 20th Century System, can we truly build a new one for 21st Century needs – an exciting century exploding with Outliers.

  7. Martyn says:

    Malaysians, just face it, our education system is going down, just accept it. If you can not place your children at a better place, then don’t complaint, next election, place your vote in the right place.

  8. Concerned Parent says:

    The picture on Moral Studies says it all. Why memorise 30 Moral values (long sentences too) and be tested on it? Anyone will find this senseless. How come the Ministry can’t see it?

  9. faith04 says:

    Mr/Ms Complaints:

    Are you sure under the current Official Secrets Act, teachers can freely express their views? I don’t know, may be some wise readers can enlighten us.

  10. Paul for Democracy says:

    Sincerely, there is a lot that needs to be done to REALLY bring the education plans of our country to some semblance of real interest to improve the youth of tomorrow.

    There is a great difference between what we learnt “in those days” compared with what the young of today are learning.

    The standard Of English, Mathematics, science Geography,History and Literature have deteriorated to levels unheard of.

    There are teachers who “fight” for the chance to teach Mathematics and Science because teachers of these subjects are offered “critical allowance(s)” for teaching these subjects. Well and good.

    However, the trouble is, these teachers do not know enough of the subjects they “fight to teach”.

    [...]

    Then there is the eternal problem of too many pupils in each class, making it difficult for teachers to give proper attention on topics that demand proper knowledge on the part of the teacher in order for the topic to be well taught.

    Teachers teaching “special” subjects should know enough of the subject(s) they are entrusted to teach in order to deliver well.

    I hope these suggestions are given serious consideration.

  11. Andrew I says:

    @ Sloane Mak.

    Quote: The only ones who do are the Chinese vernacular school teachers who have no shame teaching hours and hours of tuition on the exact same subjects to mostly the same pupils they meet in school. If anyone has to teach something so easy as primary school work twice or thrice over on top of school time, you have to be really, really, really incompetent.

    Not to mention(again), entrepreneurial. One can only hope that there will be some add ons if one is paying for it.

    In that case, it would be a fine example of saving the best…from the rest.

  12. Sloane says:

    @Andrew : It is unethical to give add-ons in private tuition! You have to give your ALL in any chosen career, in this case the classroom. Education is supposed to be the great equalizer. If a student has a language competency in MT and Second Language in the 50th percentile, it takes barely a month out of each secondary school year to teach the format for exams. The rest of the time should be to increase language competency for those below 50th percentile.

    If paying for extras separates the best from the rest then schooling has failed those who need it the most.Those who can afford the extras are being taught an early life lesson : you get ahead because you can afford to cheat and get ‘tips’. Either way, schooling has failed us all.

    Teachers who are unable to increase language competency through content learning matter in-class will also be unable to provide “add-ons” unless you’re talking about outright cheating, i.e. drilling them to spot questions.

  13. Yoyo says:

    Malaysia’s population is about 27 million today. 30 years ago, it was half of that. You can build a lot of schools in that span of time but no way could any system have trained enough teachers.

    The world experienced a population boom and the challenges of education are no longer simply an issue for teachers, parents, and the government. Corporations and communities need to step in and bear more of the responsibility of educating children and teenagers.

    ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ – so goes an old African proverb.

  14. phtan10 says:

    @Ellese A,

    I don’t understand why you said this article doesn’t make sense.

    In 1989, there were 17,309 non-Chinese students in Chinese primary schools. In 1999, that number increase to 65,000. In 2008, the number is 80,000.

    So, I believe at least 160,000 non-Chinese parents understand that it make sense to send their children to Chinese primary schools.

  15. Andrew I says:

    N’est-ce pas, Sloane?

    Someone should try telling that to the nouveau riche. I don’t think they’d listen to a nouveau pauvre like myself.

  16. Rhan says:

    @Ellese A:

    “Its non sequitur if you follow the previous articles.”
    I agree, it was written by different author anyway.

    “I cannot fathom how a rote method of learning typically in Chinese medium schools creates creativity and teaches soft skills. Singapore has in fact acknowledged this and clearly articulated that this traditional method is not the way forward. “
    — Any fact to substantiate that the rote method can’t create creativity? Are Singaporeans that creative?

    “Similarly the reason on the flip flop policy on science and maths.”
    — First of all, try to understand what is a Chinese medium school. It is not a place for you all to have your every wish; our stand is very clear in the beginning until now and into the future. If you want Maths and Science in English or whatever language, please go ahead with your choice, but don’t impose your wish on Chinese medium schools. I presume what the author means by “flip-flop policy” is that although a Chinese medium school has to enforce what is introduced by our government, the school’s stand and principles remain firm and the same.

    “The same is with the issue on ethnic polarisation. If parents are concerned with ethnic polarity how does sending a child to a CHINESE school eradicate ethnic polarisation? I can easily argue to the contrary.”
    — Read again what the author wrote, don’t simply put words in others’ mouths.

    “I think the article is very shallow. It shows a lack of depth in the field of educational system.”
    — You can think what you want [...]

    “I have met with some educationists which are mostly passionate about education and the writer could at least meet a few of them. To do a cover story like this is misleading and does not offer solutions at all. A number of the main challenges like getting the brightest into becoming teachers and the low teacher salaries are not mentioned at all. There are intellectual and academic papers on this which the writer could have alluded to. If these had been done we would probably have a more accurate enlightened view.”
    — Instead of harping on what is insufficient, perhaps it would be wiser to get the “passionate educationist” to present their views and ideas. We are all curious to know how their story could turn into a solution.

  17. passer says:

    Oh, please use Malaysian school photo. I don’t think there is Moral Studies in Cambodian school.

  18. reasonable person says:

    @Ellese A

    Reasons of “poor teaching standards” and Islamisation of national schools, and the benefit of learning Mandarin may be enough of a reason to choose Chinese schools. As for its flaws in rote learning — well, not every parent has the means to pay for private schooling, and maybe they’re just afraid that their kids might end up being snobs.

    Nowhere did the writer suggest that Chinese schools are more creative. The flaws are all there, and parents take these into consideration in deciding. Parent make decisions based on their limitations. I think that’s obvious enough and should make sense for most people to follow.

    In looking at all push and pull factors to make national schools better, it is right that the writer should highlight all its weakness, not just the reasons why parents should send their kids to Chinese schools, ignoring flaws on all sides.

  19. Bless says:

    @ Martyn

    Put my vote at which right place exactly? Only the most deluded would believe the fantasy that voting someone else in will magically cure our education system. Do you actually believe that placing someone else in power will suddenly make our teachers better and our students smarter? What fool-proof implementable plan of action have they promised to realize this dream?

    @ The original authors of this article

    Did you deliberately and conveniently decide to leave out the ills of non-national school education? Or are we to naively assume that they have none? Private schools and vernacular schools DO exacerbate the problem of economic and racial polarization. Furthermore, private schools are managed as businesses first. Point out just one private school that will happily provide free education to students once their parents can no longer afford to pay for school fees.

    And can the authors honestly say with evidence that all your suggestions in the conclusion of the article of the article HAVE NOT already been part of the national education policy or the national school curriculum?

  20. Rhan says:

    @Bless
    “Only the most deluded would believe the fantasy that voting someone else in will magically cure our education system.”

    – I think Martyn didn’t say anything like magically cure and never hinted who mwe shall vote. What he and the rest of folks like us want to do is to make use of our votes to let the people’s representatives acknowledge our wish to have an excellent education system. And under a democratic society, the people make decisions on how we are being governed, and the opportunity to correct the governance mistakes, in due course. So pray tell how this process of election relating to our wants is delusional and a fantasy?

    “Did you deliberately……”
    “And can the authors honestly say…”

    –In order to find out the answer, a more relevant question you shall ask yourself is why national schools are getting less and less popular, to the extent whereby many parents know the fact that private schools are blood suckers but still have no hesitation to let their kids enroll in the exorbitant private schools.

    I personally don’t think national schools are inferior in terms of performance, however the government reserves the best national schools for the selected few. In short, the discriminatory national school policy fails to attract the Chinese-educated ones, and now pushes away the Anglophile types.

  21. Rhan says:

    Dear admin,
    Thank you for the correction on mistake likes grammar, structure and to delete what you think is ad hominem in nature. However, would that not take up too much of your time and work? I really feel sorry about it and now a bit stressed to make too much comment.

    ===

    Dear Rhan,

    Thanks for your concern, but no, it’s all part of the job :-) We want to maintain a high standard of ethical and fair debate here, and that goes for comments as well as articles. Sorry about your stress, but have you consulted our commenting guidelines? Moderating comments is a human process, so feel free to discuss with us any questions or considerations you have – you are welcome to send your thoughts to [email protected].

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  22. Paul for Democracy says:

    There is a lot of repair work to be done in the field of educating the future youth of Malaysia. Our ministers and “inner circle” personalities of the “ruling class” send their children overseas for more substantial education leaving children here to be taught by teacher/s (who wish to teach Science and Mathematics in English but later claim that the work load is “making me/them mad). Are these the people who are going to form the minds of the citizens of tomorrow?

    They fought to teach Mathematics and Science because of the critical allowance given, NOT because they knew enough to teach!!

    There should be some real “soul searching” to get teachers who know the subject/s well enough to really deliver the required information.

    Classes at the moment, and for that matter over the last forty years or so, have too many pupils.

    It is not necessary to employ people from Australia, or the UK to come and help improve our teachers.

    There are lots of retired teachers and lecturers who can help a great deal if they were to be given the opportunity to do so.

    There should be a study done on students who score A+ in English but cannot converse in the language for FIVE MINUTES without using a vernacular or Bahasa Malaysia word mixed into the [conversation].

    We REALLY NEED TO DO SOMETHING SOLID to help improve the ability of the citizens of tomorrow to be able to survive in the world of the future!

    I have, in my time, many Malay [Malaysian] fellow students who came from the sekolah melayu kampung. They then went through S.M.C. (Special Malay Classes) and have become proficient in English as well as Bahasa Malaysia.

    Let’s go back to the old Malay idiom:
    “Hendak, seribi daya..
    Tak hendak .. seribu daleh!!”

  23. nadia says:

    How about residential schools though? From my five years of experience in residential school, I found that the teachers were all dedicated to make sure we graduated with flying colours; we were pushed to push the limits of our creativity; and besides academic, we were trained to get involved in extracurricular activities.

    Of course, there was pressure to be on top, and I think that’s good. We were pressured in all ways in everything that we did, be that in drama or orchestra or debate competition. One way or another, we actually learnt how to cope with stress, and not just see the academic as the only thing in school. But I’m not sure of the policy now, since we have cluster schools.

    Regarding ethnic polarisation, I don’t remember being taught about race preferences although it was all-Malay school. And no, residential schools are not for rich people only.

  24. Flipflops says:

    Sorry, but the issues highlighted in the article have been reiterated a thousand times over. Tell us something we don’t already know.

  25. Rhan says:

    “Regarding ethnic polarisation, I don’t remember being taught about race preferences although it was all-Malay school. “

    -It depends on your perspective or view point, micro or macro. And what is your understanding of ethnic polarisation. [If we say that there is] no ethnic polarisation in Chinese primary school, many will disagree. [If we also say that] 95% of Chinese primary school students enroll in national school when they move to secondary school, some will still insist that we are the cause of polarisation. Isn’t that comical after reading what you have written?

    “And no, residential schools are not for rich people only.”

    -Hmmm, who says residential schools are for the rich?

    “Sorry, but the issues highlighted in the article have been reiterated a thousand times over. Tell us something we don’t already know.”

    -If there are no solutions and no action to improve, we shall non-stop reiterate the same things a millions times over. [Didn't] your teachers ever teach you with such a simple tactic in school? And pray tell what you already know, so we can work hand in hand to recommend the editor what not to publish in future, of course we must first presume that the world is about you and me only.

  26. Arlene Tan says:

    I believe that there’s a solution for an education fit for every Malaysian. This article is rather shallow in addressing the need for a diverse, current and progressive education that Malaysians need. I think the problems that the author addressed are true, but the article is not in-depth enough in looking into more pressing and deep-rooted problems.

    A good article must also bring something new to the table, instead of merely harping on the current mess of our education (which is not new to any of us). I suggest that anyone that interested in reforming our education system should read Bakri Musa’s book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia. Very enlightening.

    I am a product of a Chinese medium school. Whether vernacular national, residential or private, each has its own set of demons that needs to be rid of. We need to look beyond the arguments about teaching quality, what language to teach, etc. and start focusing on the need for our children to be educated. What can we do to enhance the new generation, to enable them to function collectively, and at the same nurture their individual talents, skills and career prospects?

    The best way to free our education is to free the schools. Education MUST be decentralised, to reflect the different needs of all kids. Education should be free from politics; thus it would be better if an Education Commission were formed.

    Education is dynamic, fluid and constantly changing with time. The commission should be a research body to provide a core guideline for what kids should learn. The school should make learning exciting and fun, and enhance the different learning abilities and talents. Exams should be optional, based on the needs of the students. The only major exam should perhaps be the SPM, but it must only be a minor part of the indicator for university entrance. The SPM syllabus itself should have open-ended questions, to encourage problem solving, decision making skills, etc.

    I could go on, but detaching education from politics, creating an education commission, decentralising the method of learning, and creating a competitive yet fun learning environment in schools should be our main aims for reform.


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