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Should Preschool Education be made Compulsory in Malaysia?

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Making preschool education compulsory was the aspiration of the Malaysia Education Blueprint (2013-2025) to be achieved by 2020. The target remains unmet due to challenges such as the lack of awareness of the importance of preschool education for the 4+ and 5+, inaccessibility in certain geographic areas and communities, and affordability, as cited by the Comprehensive Review of Preschool Education in Malaysia report by World Bank last year.1

Associate Professor Dr Lydia Foong

Malaysian preschools have been in existence since the 1940s with 64 per cent of preschools operated by multiple government agencies such as the Community Development Department (KEMAS) under the Ministry of National and Rural Development, and the Department of National Unity and Integration (JPNIN) under the Ministry of National Unity and Social Development. The other 36 percent of preschools are privately owned or funded by non-governmental organisations.2

The importance of preschool education is indisputable based on neuro-scientific studies that highlight the impact of children’s first five years of experiences on brain development, early childhood education research findings, as well as social and economic factors.

Providing quality preschool education is also crucial in meeting Sustainable Development Goal 4 that ensures inclusive and equitable quality education, and readiness for primary education. But to make it compulsory for all children, our ecosystem must be ready for it. The key consideration is quality, rather than quantity alone.

The question is, do we have the funds, resources, conducive learning environments, qualified and professional teachers, and an effective and efficient governance system?

Malaysia’s expenditure on pre-primary education of 0.15 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017 is relatively low compared to other upper-middle and high-income countries. According to the World Bank 2023 report, this is significantly lower than the recommended 1 per cent of GDP by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

James Heckman, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, and an expert in the Economics of Human Development has suggested that early childhood education is a cost-effective strategy for economic and workforce development. Malaysia needs a substantial increase in public investment for preschool education, particularly for the marginalised communities, as it is an infrastructure component for economic development with long-term benefits not only limited to the child and family but a positive externality that will ‘spill over’ to society as a whole.

The federal and state governments can play a more active role in providing affordable and effective solutions, adequate resources, facilities, and qualified teaching staff in every district to cater to preschool children. This can be achieved by providing targeted funding for preschools in geographical areas that are not accessible or when investment is not possible. The government’s effort to reduce socioeconomic disparities through widening access to preschools must also ensure that the expanded coverage does not compromise its quality.

Having a single coordinating agency to manage the registration, governance, and monitoring of preschools in Malaysia could be a feasible solution. The proposed agency will not just serve as a reference point on policy matters and quality assurance processes but also serve as a service hub that connects stakeholders to the relevant childcare and preschool education services. This can prevent duplication of resources and formulate a more integrated system that encompasses all the essentials ranging from registration to training and administration.

To make preschool education compulsory, we need a bolder and more drastic approach to tackling the preschool education issues in Malaysia.

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1 https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/malaysia/publication/shapingfirststeps
2 https://www.moe.gov.my/muat-turun/penerbitan-dan-jurnal/terbitan/buku-perangkaan-pendidikan-malaysia

Passionate about education around the world, Associate Professor Dr Lydia Foong Yoke Yean is the Director of Curriculum Innovation and Development at the Centre for Future Learning, Taylor’s University. After having held various positions as an early years principal and lecturer, and as an active panellist and researcher for various ECCE topics, Dr Lydia also serves as the secretary of the Professional Development Board, ECCE Council Malaysia, and former Executive Committee member of the National Association of Early Childhood Education Malaysia.

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