Malaysian Primary Schools: How To Pick One For Your Child

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As my son approached primary school age, I realised that times had changed from my own school days. Then, the main criteria was that my siblings and I were sent to the government school nearest to our home. Now, there are many more options for education that is mandatory for children between the ages of seven and twelve. Here is an overview of where you could send your child for elementary education:

1) Public schools – Minimal costs in your neighbourhood

These are fully government-funded national schools and the government aided vernacular (Chinese and Tamil) schools offering the Malaysian Kurrikulum Standard Sekolah Rendah (KSSR) curriculum. The only difference being the medium of instruction – Bahasa Malaysia (BM) in the national schools, and Mandarin and Tamil respectively in the national-type schools.

The subjects of BM and English are compulsory subjects in all schools. Some mainstream national schools will also offer the option of your mother tongue (people’s own language) being taught as a subject. Schools which consistently attain high academic, co-curricular and sporting results are identified as cluster or high-performance schools. These may be popular and have larger class sizes. These schools are usually the ones that opt for the ‘Dual Language Programme’ (DLP). This means that the Mathematics and Science subjects can be taught in English. Public schools are in most neighbourhoods and city centres, and the costs are nominal yearly fees and the occasional optional donation.

2) Private schools – Personalised and varied facilities

Private schools offer the KSSR syllabus (some supplemented by Mathematics and Science in English) in BM, and tout small class sizes as well as extensive facilities for both academic and extra-curricular activities. There are usually more language and non-academic enrichment options available, with higher interaction between faculty and parents. These schools are in middle-income or suburban areas. Private schools will charge full fees for tuition, co-curricular and optional activities.

3) International and expatriate schools – Wide ranging curricula and premium facilities with prices to match

International schools follow curricula such as the International Baccalaureate or International Primary Curriculum, or from countries like the United Kingdom, America, India, Australia and Singapore. The medium of instruction is usually English, except for expatriate schools like the German, French or Japanese Schools.

Since international schools are now fully open to Malaysians as well as international students, many such schools have sprung up. Some private schools have even converted from the Malaysian to an international syllabus to cater for the increased demand.

International schools offer the same benefits as private schools. But they also offer lower student-to-teacher ratios and impressive academic and non-academic facilities. Creativity, technology and problem-solving exposure are usually encouraged. The international schools are mostly clustered around expatriate-friendly areas and new planned residential developments. Monthly costs can run from a couple of thousand ringgit to almost five digits, on top of admission fees.

Deciding on the type of school

With so many choices, how do you decide on the best option for your child?

  • First, decide on whether you want a more local foundation or an international curriculum. Choosing the latter could limit him or her from entering a Malaysian secondary school or tertiary institution and even a career in the local public sector.
  • The school’s approach, size and balance of academic and non-academic subjects should also be in line with your educational philosophy and the student’s aptitude.
  • The language of instruction will also be important. Whilst it would be useful for a child to be immersed in a second language, you would not want her or him to unduly struggle to learn in an unfamiliar language.
  • Delivery of the curriculum in a smaller class by a qualified teacher may also be desirable for certain children.
  • Location is another important factor, in order to minimise commuting time or to be close to after-school care or activities.
  • Cost, of course, is also a key consideration – bearing in mind educational costs would increase at higher levels.

See For Yourself

In my process of shortlisting schools, I found it helpful to research online and by word of mouth. I obtained as much information on the factors above, as well as feedback from students’ parents.

Most schools are also happy to bring you on a tour of their facilities. A few will allow you to observe a class and meet some teachers. It was also surprisingly easy to make appointments to meet up with the heads of public schools. Just avoid busy periods like orientations and exams.

Visit the schools and meet the staff. This will give you an idea of the commute and a taster of the interaction to expect in the future. Parents will also be able to ask how the school deals with matters of concern such as language difficulties, different learning styles, bullying and student misconduct. You could also enquire about teachers’ credentials and experience, class sizes, security, what they expect from students (and parents!), and see the facilities firsthand. It also allows you to observe the general school and classroom atmosphere, in order to gauge suitability for your child.

Gaining admission

Public Schools

Once you have decided on the school, the next step would be to apply for admission. For public schools in the Klang Valley this is (at the time of writing) via an online application with the Malaysian Ministry of Education (MOE) from March to April in the two years before the child turns seven years of age.

You can state your school of choice and will need to submit the application documents, identification papers, residential location proof and medical records to the school after application. Some high-performance schools will also have assessments the year before entry to gauge your child’s language and mathematics level. The school allocated will be announced in August of the year before entry. Parents may appeal any decisions after that.

Private and International Schools

With private and international schools, the process involves paying the registration fee and having an assessment (which ranges from an interview with a senior teacher or admissions personnel, language and numeracy tests, to attending a class for a few day). Upon a successful assessment, parents may need to pay admissions fees and deposits (note some charges may be non-refundable) as part of the enrolment.

Entrance would depend on when the next term starts and seat availability. Bear in mind that your child may be waitlisted for some schools with smaller class sizes, and international schools start primary education at younger ages – so you may want to start your school search early.

Aside from the traditional schools, there are a growing number of families taking their children out of the system. They are educating them at home, in learning centres or even ‘unschooling’ them. You may want to consider this option if you feel your child and family’s needs are best served by these alternatives.

In the end, it is important for parents to be comfortable with the school choice since much of the child’s attitude towards learning starts from home. Start exploring now and meet up with the educators to see which option will make an ideal educational partner for your family.

By Lu Sean

In her previous roles, Lu Sean killed it in arts management, PR, and law. She now herds two pre-schoolers and a cat. When not busy volunteering for a family support group, Lu Sean loves planning holidays while nursing a teh tarik.

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