By Opalyn Mok
GEORGE TOWN, Aug 6 — It is often said that education is the path to knowledge, and a good education is the direct path to success.
It is no surprise then that parents in the middle- and upper-income groups in Penang are forking out between RM3,000 and RM12,000 per term for their children’s education, effectively creating a huge demand for international schools in this northern state with a population of only 1.6 million.
However, this increase in demand for international education by the local community was not a gradual thing or even the norm in the past. In fact, the state only had a few international schools before the millennium.
The very first international school, the International School of Penang (Uplands School), first opened its campus on Penang Hill to cater to expatriates and missionaries in 1955. Two other international schools opened within the following two decades after Uplands, St Christopher’s International Primary School (1963) and Dalat International School (1971).
It was only in recent years, from 2005 onwards — a good 34 years since the opening of Dalat in Tanjung Bungah — that Penang saw the addition of new international schools. The birth of these schools opened doors for locals to send their children to an English-medium school based on the British education syllabus.
Still, the demand was not overwhelming. In fact, it could be said that the scrapping of the Teaching of Science and Maths in English (PPSMI) policy last year spurred a sudden demand for English-medium schools locally.
Also, the recent abolishment of the 40 per cent quota for enrolment of local students in international schools could have blown apart the whole market, with middle- to upper-class parents scrambling to send their children to international schools.
Since last year, two international schools have opened here while a reputable private school here has also decided to branch out to offer international education using the British syllabus. This brings the number of international schools in the state to a grand total of eight.
The Prince of Wales Island International School opened its doors in the sleepy hollow of Balik Pulau only last year and this year new kid on the education front, Straits International School (SIS), decided to join the race to grab as much of the market share as possible.
According to SIS chief executive officer Lita Nasyitah Goh Abdullah, there is a huge untapped market in Penang and it hopes to capture as much of it as possible. Quoting the scrapping of the PPSMI policy as one of the main reasons that many parents now seek international education for their children, she said even before the school opened its doors it had already received numerous enquiries from interested parents.
SIS, which will commence its first semester later this month (August 27), is temporarily housed in a building in Bayan Lepas but construction of its permanent campuses, both on the island and the mainland, is now under way. It is obvious that SIS is confident of being welcomed by parents, local or otherwise, as it has already invested approximately RM100 million in both campuses, which are expected to be completed by 2014.
SIS aims to enrol Malaysians to make up at least 70 per cent of its maximum capacity of 2,400 students in both campuses. The school will also be offering scholarships to deserving Malaysian students.
“The government’s decision to remove the quota of locals in international schools is a good thing as it allows more Malaysians to send their children to an international school of their choice,” she said.
Will SIS be the last international school to set up here? Probably not, as according to Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, the state government aims to promote Penang as a top regional education hub and he is certain that more international schools will take root in the state, not only to provide international education to locals but also to attract students from neighbouring countries such as Indonesia and Thailand.
“This will help to make Penang more attractive to investors and locals alike. The opening of SIS is surely in line with our vision to transform this state into a world-class education site that continuously produces human talents,” he said.
Though Lim’s statement sounded optimistic, eight international schools are not enough to turn the state into a premier education hub but perhaps it is a move in the right direction. It could encourage more international schools to set up campuses here in the years to come and this can only bode well for Penang folk in more ways than one.
This, of course, will also be good news for parents like Cynthia Gooi who has three children. She has enrolled her youngest daughter, Luvlynn Kaur, in SIS. Prior to that Luvlynn was studying in another international school.
“My two older children were educated in government-run local schools and I find that they did a lot of rote learning and memorising which is not that good so I decided to let my youngest one go to an international school for a different education system,” she said.
Gooi does not regret her decision and was glad that she and her husband decided to fork out extra money to send their youngest child to an international school. “We find that compared to her older siblings, her command of English is superb, she learned more and her education is not only confined to memorising from textbooks but includes a more holistic approach that helped build her character,” she said.
As for Munu Samy, his 12-year-old daughter Thievya was studying in a local primary school before he changed her to an international school when the PPSMI policy was scrapped last year. “Even in such a short period of studying at an international school, I felt that my daughter has improved by leaps and bounds in terms of her education, her self-confidence and her self-motivation,” he said.
“I’d rather pay for expensive school fees if it means providing my daughter with a solid education background that will let her go far in future to achieve success in all that she does,” he said.
While the increasing number of international schools in the state may not severely affect the number of students attending national and national-type schools due to the small intake in these schools, it will surely take a large chunk out of the private schools’ market here, thus explaining renowned English-medium private school Sri Pelita’s move to establish the Pelita International School.
While the affluent and those in the higher-income group can easily send their children to international schools, surely, in time, parents in the middle- to lower-income groups who cannot afford to do so will start clamouring for an education system that is on par with that of these international schools.
Then and only then can Penang and even Malaysia as a whole lay claim to be a world-class education hub.