Education in Sarawak: An Outsider Looking In (or Why I Quit My Job)

It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education – Albert Einstein

It’s the superficial differences you notice first, of course. Sarawakian schools are better landscaped; British schools are better resourced. British schools have a greater sense of structure; Sarawakian schools have a greater sense of community.

There are superficial similarities, too – it seems that teachers all over the world have parallel concerns about government interference and volumes of paperwork. But after 18 months mentoring English teachers here in Sarawak under the new KSSR curriculum, I hope I’ve started to get (ever so) slightly under the skin of the primary education system here, and as an outsider looking in, this is what I’ve learnt about…

…classroom pedagogy

KSSR classrooms are pedagogically chaotic. Sadly that is not to say that teachers are reflectively experimenting with different approaches, but that nobody seems to know what to do for the best with the incoherent textbooks and conflicting advice foisted upon them since January last year.

The KSSR was intended to help teachers move away from chalking-and-talking by introducing contemporary methodologies such as synthetic phonics and communicative language teaching, but teachers were given no training, and the textbook authors often seem as confused as the teachers.

My favourite Year Two speaking activity reads, bafflingly: “A chicken gives us meat and eggs. Talk about camels and ostriches.”

Having a ‘native speaker’ (many of us are native-level rather than native speakers but the assumption endures) in their classrooms has barely helped my mentees to untangle the mess of the KSSR. How can it? Teachers are being asked to embrace a 180-degree culture change by spending two to three hours a week with a mad foreigner banging on about group work. What I’ve actually done for the last year and a half is deliver a piecemeal CELTA course in an attempt to compensate for the lack of theoretical foundations laid down by the MoE – but intensive four-week CELTAs (or their equivalent) could and should have been delivered by qualified local tutors before the KSSR was rolled out. That way, I might have been more of a mentor than an instructor. It’s a shame.

It’s also a shame that those in power don’t recognise that constantly using teachers as political guinea pigs makes huge dents in morale. Which leads me to…


I’ve met some fantastically hard-working teachers in Sarawak who take their professional development seriously and who really care what happens to their charges. I’ve also met some unpardonably poor ones who’ve long since lost the will to teach, who arrive late to class or not at all, who never plan lessons and whose classroom management skills extend only to wielding (and occasionally using) a cane.

Cane aside – corporal punishment in state schools has been illegal in the UK since 1987 – I wouldn’t suggest for a second that British teachers don’t also fall into these two camps, and many in between. The difference in Sarawak seems to be that, once you’ve entered the teaching profession, it’s almost impossible to be dismissed. Incompetent teachers might receive verbal or written warnings, or be unhelpfully shunted to another school, but fired? No.

In rural areas especially, legends of sacked teachers and petrol bombs abound, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the system is clogged with poorly-performing staff who do nothing to merit their salaries. But education reform is not possible without a workforce of committed educators.

Children shouldn’t move through any school system encountering just a handful of dedicated, capable teachers. The best I’ve worked with, here and in other countries, have been intrinsically motivated. They (we) enjoy their (our) work and see the value of it. Carrots such as bonuses, and sticks such as unpaid suspension of duties, are often rubbished as ineffective, short-term solutions to a lack of employee motivation, but in this context the absence of sticks is disastrous.

Let those who are jaded (for nobody could blame you), those who would rather be somewhere else, be somewhere else. And let those who can, teach.



From the moment you enter a school and see the huge display board counting down the days to the UPSR examination, it’s clear that education in Sarawak is driven by testing. Sadly, this drive swiftly and routinely breaks down the natural inquisitiveness that new pupils and new teachers bring to the classroom, and without it barely any real learning can take place. Teachers say; pupils repeat. Teachers write; pupils copy. Scoring highly on the UPSR English paper requires very little in the way of understanding.

Although the MoE has wisely recommended (rather than mandated… or has it? A definitive answer is hard to find) that testing should be abolished under the KSSR and replaced with continuous assessment, this is not happening. Why?

In addition to the lack of ministerial clarity on the subject, the data entry requirements of the fledgling continuous assessment system are arduous, and at present there’s a disconnect between the communicative focus of the KSSR and the grammatical focus of the UPSR.

There also seems to exist amongst headteachers an unshakeable belief that parents will not accept any means of progress testing other than, well, tests.

The UK is hardly more sensible on this front, with children sitting standardised tests at four ‘Key Stages’ during their school careers (at ages seven, 11, 14 and 16). Finland, however, widely accepted as having one of the most successful education systems in the world and from whom many of the KSSR’s principles were appropriated, does not test its students at all until the end of their final year of secondary school.

Until practice follows policy here in Sarawak, children continue to be force-fed information they can parrot but not manipulate.

the broader learning culture

The behaviour we expect from children must be modelled by the adults around them.

We expect children to read, yet a 2012 straw poll of teachers in the Padawan district (where I’ve been working) revealed that, in the last year, only one person of 30 had read a whole book for pleasure themselves and only two had read stories to their kids.

National statistics suggest that the average Malaysian reads just two books per year.

We also expect children to develop critical thinking skills, yet schools offer scant opportunities for them to do so. The hidden curriculum of the Sarawakian education system teaches pupils over and over again that unquestioning adherence to hierarchy – being silent or speaking (reciting) only at the command of someone higher up the food chain – is the single acceptable model of behaviour, and that deviation from this ‘norm’ is likely to land you in hot water.

On a related note, we expect parents to take an active interest in their children’s learning but insult their intelligence at every turn. Whilst a lack of parental engagement is the commonest reason offered for low student attainment, parents’ imagined beliefs are still allowed to dictate educational practice. Pupils must complete every exercise on every page of their workbooks, even those with nonsensical instructions and grammatical errors (there are several), otherwise parents will complain. Pupils must take monthly tests and have letter grades on their report cards otherwise parents will complain.

Has there been a consultation? Are Sarawakian mothers and fathers really so immovable on these pedagogical matters in which they allegedly take no interest? It doesn’t make sense.

the learning environment

Environment affects learning. It’s certainly not the most critical thing, but when you have a class of fifty in a crowded room with no soundproofing, a fan that only works between 10:45 and 11:10 on a Tuesday, nothing on the walls and holes in the floor, it’s much harder for learning to take place. Sarawakian school architecture seems not to have changed in the last thirty or forty years, although a growing body of research suggests that both teachers’ and students’ achievement is linked to the buildings in which they work. What to do?

Lack of finances is the oft-cited explanation for crumbling classrooms, but it appears that money can always be found for projects such as ours with which political points can be scored, and for the fountain of 1Malaysia chocolate milk which never seems to run dry. Cynicism aside, I’m not doubting the budgetary constraints at both government and school level, but a more even allocation of whatever meagre budget there is would go a long way towards improving the environment of most schools.

The real business of a school is teaching and learning and this is surely where money needs to be directed. Style is consistently prioritised over substance – in the cultivation of immaculate gardens while classrooms remain unfit for purpose, for example. Of course it’s not realistic to expect interactive whiteboards (or even whiteboards) in every room, but there ought to be sufficient time and money for staff to make attractive, educational decorations for their schools.

Displaying pupils’ work, especially, is motivating and requires almost no effort on the part of teachers, but audible encouragement is needed from the top for teachers to spend less time on, say, testing, and more on creating places where kids are excited to learn.


Perhaps what you’ve learnt about me from this article is that I’m some neo-colonialist busybody who’d do well to go back to England and stop meddling in your education system. I’ve heard it before, and I’d struggle to argue with you at this point.

But the most significant thing I’d say I’ve learnt about myself from my experience here is that I’m a teacher first and a mentor, trainer, whatever else second.

Being an outsider looking in to other people’s classrooms has fuelled my desire to get back inside one like nothing else in the past nine years, which is why I’ve left the project in spite of a deep-seated affection for Sarawak.

I’d like to thank you for having me, apologise for the very little impact I’ve been able to make, and I hope for everyone’s sake that my successor is a vocation mentor with a fondness for chocolate milk.

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Laura Phelps is an English language teacher, trainer and materials writer. She worked for the British Council on the English Language Teacher Development Project from 2011-12 in Sarawak, Malaysia, and has previously worked in the UK, Sri Lanka and China. She is an enthusiastic reader, traveller, online idler, visitor of museums and consumer of popcorn. All views expressed are her own.

Posted on 10 August 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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