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Tamil school problems

   By S. Indramalar and Hariati Azizan
   The Star
   Sunday, March 12, 2000

BEING the poor neighbour can be very disheartening. When you have to attend classes in a run-down school while your peers less than a kilometre away are enjoying a spanking new building, life seems rather unfair.

Instead of having access to a large field, a school hall, science laboratories and a computer laboratory, the pupils of a Tamil (estate) school (located in the Klang Valley) have to cope with the bare necessities.

The school has an enrolment of 500 students but no field, no laboratory or
library, staff room for teachers or even proper toilets for students.
 
 This is not uncommon, though. Most Tamil schools face the same problem. In fact, many are worse off -- no canteen, no proper roofing, and sometimes, no classrooms even.

"It is very demotivating. Both the students and we teachers feel quite dispirited when we see the big disparity between the two schools.

"Our classrooms are separated by plywood. There are only two toilets for the 500 students and there is no field for sports.

"The premises were only meant to be temporary," lamented headmaster P.
Sreetharan (not his real name) who does not want his school to be disclosed
either.

Not enough funds

Established at the turn of the century with the setting up of plantations around the country, estate schools were meant to provide minimal education for children of immigrant labourers.

In the colonial period, these "schools" were just huts with broken furniture and untrained teachers, often clerks doubling up as teachers.

Unfortunately, not much progress has been achieved since then. Currently,
there are 530 Tamil schools in Malaysia, of which 360 are estate schools, with a track record of being backward.

While their urban counterparts moan about the lack of computers, these estate schools grapple with fundamental problems.

The crux of the problem is the status of these schools. As they are located on private estate land, they fall under the "model school" category which means that they are only partially aided by the Government.

Under the Education Act 1995, schools located on private land are not eligible for a full grant from the Government. As a result, these schools are forced to source their own funds for their basic infrastructure, including additional classrooms.

Sreetharan, a Tamil school teacher for more than 30 years, feels the
Government should not discriminate between national and national-type schools when it comes to funding.

  "It's been more than 40 years since independence. I do not see why there
should be a difference. Although ours is still regarded as an estate school, we are no longer in an estate.

 "The Government should look after the infrastructure of all schools equally. All schools should receive full aid from the Government.

"It appears that the national schools are favoured while we (Tamil schools) are like the stepchildren," he says.

This Catch 22 situation creates alearning environment which is not conducive, with the lack of adequate infrastructure and sufficient basic facilities.

MIC education bureau chief Datuk Dr A. Marimuthu concurs, adding: "The
obvious solution is for the community to buy the land but it is too poor. The
Government needs to review its policy. If other acts can be amended, why not the Education Act?"

The cramped conditions and poor facilities, Sreetharan adds, ultimately work against the students.

"Who feels like studying in an environment like this?" he says.

In a recent report, 22 national-type Tamil medium primary schools in Selangor recorded no passes in the last year's Primary School Achievement Test (UPSR).

Dr Marimuthu urges the Education Ministry to look into the matter.

"This is serious as it indicates a failure in all subjects. Although the research
was conducted only in Selangor, I am sure it reflects the rest of the country,"
he says.

Tamil schools in general perform poorly compared to the national and Chinese schools.

This is an inherent problem particularly among estate schools.

"These are underachieving schools that have the potential to improve but due to lack of opportunity and motivation and the prevalent bad conditions, they are not able to reach their full potential," he adds.

 The odds are against these children who come from poor homes and study at poor schools.

Teacher shortage

The pathetic state of Tamil education is worsened by the shortage of trained
teachers. It was reported last August that there were vacancies for more than 1,000 teachers in Tamil schools.

A ministry official confides that temporary teachers are recruited to overcome the problem -- Tamil schools have the highest number of temporary teachers.

The shortage problem is further intensified by the decrease in the number of
candidates sitting for Tamil in SPM and PMR.

"Not many have a good command of Tamil unless they've been to Tamil school themselves. The ministry needs to make Tamil a compulsory subject for SPM to increase the number of potential teacher trainees for Tamil medium schools," says Dr Marimuthu.

Family background

Sixty-five percent of Indian families are from the working class with 20% working as plantation workers.

"The parents are unable to provide sufficient motivation for their children, or act as education role models for them. Schools are supposed to compensate for the lack of facilities at home and the deficiencies in their lives, but what
happens when the schools are poor?," argues Dr Marimuthu.

Many of these children are poor and malnourished, he adds, making it difficult for them to concentrate in class.

Many of the pupils lose interest in school, and some eventually drop out. A few are even forced to leave school and work to help their family.

Struggling from the start

Estate children are further disadvantaged at entry level. Most do not have
pre-school basic education when they enter primary school. The limited
exposure to basic literacy skills handicaps the progress of these pupils in
primary school.

Their comprehension of certain subjects such as Geography and History is
poor, partly due to their isolation in the estate.

"Even the simple task of writing a composition is difficult," says Dr Marimuthu.

The lack of commitment from parents, says Sreetharan, is another problem.

"Most of the parents are labourers . . . both parents work and so they have little or no time to revise with their children.

"Often they do not even know about their children's performance in school.
Because of this, weaker students tend to get left behind and lose interest.

"If the child is from a poor family and receives no family support, it will be
difficult for him to cope in school," he says.

In full agreement is teacher G. Revathi.

"Some parents are not even aware when their children are not at school for
weeks on end. In fact, some of them encourage their children to go out and do odd-jobs to add to the family income.

"I have a handful of students who for the past year, have come in to class only two or three times each week.

"If the parents are not committed, the teacher's job is near impossible," she
says.

Aid on the way?

The Education Ministry has given assurance that it will improve the poor
academic performance in Tamil schools. Proposals include appointing a
supervisor for Tamil schools in each state.

A spokesperson from the Education Ministry says this will monitor the standard of teaching and implementation of the curriculum.

"Primary education should be made compulsory and meaningful to estate
children. Secondly, the ministry needs to ensure that the curriculum addresses the needs of the estate environment."

More importantly, he stresses, a revamp of Tamil school education is
necessary: "These schools need financial independence. The ministry needs to look into converting all Tamil schools into fully aided ones."

In the meantime, the MIC is helping the Indian community help themselves.
One strategy is to gather Tamil school heads and teachers for courses and
seminars to boost the quality of Tamil education by providing them with new
knowledge and skills, new ways of thinking, new methods of teaching and
learning.

Parents are the third target group. Meetings and seminars are held to increase parents' involvement in all areas which is essential to enhance the children's development.

As Dr Marimuthu sums it up: "Estate culture must change. Education must be set as the main priority. The estate community must be aware that education is its responsibility."
 

  Going to an estate school

   Sunday, March 12, 2000
   The Star
THE bell rings and the children make their way into the classrooms in a school in the middle of an old estate in Selangor.

The school is a sorry excuse of an education centre for the children of this
community. Dilapidated, the building lacks basic facilities such as classrooms, proper toilets, telephone and even a canteen.

About 30 pupils sit huddled in the stuffy, dark classroom. The desks and chairs show their age, rickety and close to fall apart.

Teacher Saroja Devi walks in and takes the attendance of her wards. Nine
absent -- and that's a good day. She whisks open her textbook and asks her pupils to follow suit.

She calls out for two students to stand in front of the classroom and read aloud as she walks to the back of the classroom. A few of her pupils can't follow the text being read because they didn't bring their books to school.

In a corner, two pupils are fighting over a textbook.

"This always happens in my class. It is not that they do not have the textbook, they all get bantuan (aid or textbook loan). They just have a bad attitude towards learning," says Saroja.

Elaborated headmistress Hema Malini, "One of the biggest problems we face is parents' attitude towards education. The literacy rate among parents is about 40%, so many are not aware of the importance of education or are even interested in the learning process of their children's academic development."

The lack of facilities and infrastructure in the school does not help. Hema tells that they are in need of at least another two classrooms but due to their "model school" status, they are unable to get government assistance for the
construction.

"The land is there, but it belongs to the estate. The private land makes us
ineligible for financial aid from the Government to build new classes. We also don't get enough funds from the Education Ministry, so whatever extra we need, we have to source ourselves on our own initiative."

The bulk of their aid, says Hema, comes from private donors, church
associations, and parents who are a poor source as 95% of them are poor
labourers.

Many of the 207 pupils in her school come from disadvantaged homes -- their parents are forced to hold extra jobs to make ends meet.

"This creates another set of problems. Childen left to their own devices are often not motivated to attend school," says Hema, adding that some pupils are tagged "regular absentees".

For A. Letchumi, 11, attending school is a luxury.

"My eldest brother had to quit school when he was 10. Now he's helping my parents by earning some money."

Pointing to her uniform and shoes, she adds: "My teacher gave me these but
now they are getting old. My father does not have enough money to get me new ones."

Her family's predicament is not unique in her community. Hema tells that this
used to be a serious problem for the estate community but it is less so now.

Instead, the biggest problem is the frequency with which families are relocated based on their parents' change of employment.

"This distrupts the pupils' learning process, but most parents do not care about that, "she says.

Yet, Letchumi braves the obstacles to break from the mould. With
determination shining through her troubled, far too mature eyes, she vows in
halting Bahasa:

"I like to go to school. I have many friends and I like learning. I hope that I can continue until secondary school."

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