Who pays the price?

I FELT sad but vindicated when I read the opinion letter ‘Teacher asks: What went wrong in 2016?’ by ‘Stressed Beyond Limits, BSB’ published on April 1, 2017.

A few years ago I wrote a piece on the limitations and constraints of the then “new” National Education System for the 21st Century (SPN21). It was based on the titah of His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam, commenting about the shortcomings of the system. This showed that the monarch was watching the system with interest and concern.

An expatriate teacher replied saying “embrace change”. However, I wasn’t worried about the changes but on the impact of changes on the students. Change is good if it brings about a positive improvement – not otherwise. I was also concerned that the children were being used as test subjects for some unproven experiment. Even if the system changed why the method of teaching had to change?

Bruneian students are used to being told what to do by their parents. That is simply the Asian way. Anyone who tries to tamper with this doesn’t appreciate the resilience of the Brunei/Asian culture. There is very little experimental learning from the early days. Failure still results in a stigma.

Much has been said about the dangers of rote learning but they did deliver the goods in language training. Suppose you learn Malay, you must learn the rules of grammar and must memorise the vocabulary and how you string it into sentences. In Chinese schools, when students do presentations or make public speaking in Malay language, they memorise their speeches word by word. If you do a history test for the ‘O’ Level Cambridge exams, the examiner will want to know that you know the dates and the facts and can write an English essay. Failure to do this will cause a failure. He might not be so concerned with “learning outcome”, desirable though they are. The kid is not at Cambridge. What the examiner sees is an examination script in front of him and will give marks accordingly.

At university, I have watched UK medical students learn by rote in their anatomy lessons. What nerves are these? What muscles? What bones? What do they all do in coordination? They either know the stuff or they will fail. In UK pharmacy courses, I have watched how students literally burn the midnight oil until 5am and then do the pharmacy examinations the same morning and write what they spent many weeks rote learning. They either know the formulae and what the drugs are for or they will fail. Many got first class honours degrees doing just this.

Now we read that since the SPN system was introduced in 2009, the PSR results had consistently declined. 2013 was the year when the SPN system converged at secondary level – Year 11. So after four years in 2017 it is appropriate to take stock of what really happened.

The honest answer is clear from the letter of ‘Stressed Beyond Limits, BSB’, in which she said that students’ hearts were broken and futures ruined. Later she said that “the whole system is a complete failure”. I felt very sad, but a little vindicated reading her letter for the impact on the students. Less ‘O’ Level passes, means less ‘A’ Level passes, less students able to go to university, less local university graduates in all disciplines and less teachers. And is that a successful outcome that we can be proud off? I wonder why no one raised such a highly significant issue at the recent Legislative Council meeting.

Why tamper with a proven good system which even encourages Malaysian and Filipino parents to work in Brunei so that their kids can be educated in English language under the bilingual British education system here. In the past, this system was the best among Asean countries and produced countless local graduates (doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers etc) over the years. I am all for fine-tuning the system to make it better. I doubt any educationist can say honestly that he is proud of the current outcome.

Who pays the price when the system fails? The answer is clear – the clients – the innocent children.

– Former Local Student