Holistic approach needed from MoE to address learning loss among primary school students, say experts | Malaysia

A student is pictured entering Sekolah Kebangsaan Semenyih, as schools reopened in Selangor January 10, 2022. — Picture by Devan Manuel

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 12 — Farah Alina P. Ramli is relieved schools have reopened and her son Qawiem Fuadi Shahrul Hazli can return to face-to-face teaching and learning sessions.

The eight-year-old boy, who is a pupil of Sekolah Kebangsaan (Felda) Serting in Bandar Seri Jempol, Negri Sembilan, has spent over 200 days since March 2020 trying to master the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) via home-based teaching and learning (PdPR) sessions but has made little progress.

Qawiem Fuadi, who will enter Year Three when the new academic year begins in March this year, cannot read and spell simple two- or three-syllable words. His predicament is shared by hundreds of other pupils nationwide who experienced learning loss due to the closure of schools following the enforcement of movement control to stem the transmission of Covid-19.

Learning loss refers to any specific or general loss of knowledge and skills or a reversal in academic progress due to disruptions in formal schooling.

Farah Alina, 36, a public-sector employee, told Bernama that PdPR has been very challenging for her and her son as it demanded a high level of commitment.  

“It’s not that I didn’t try to help my son (with his PdPR sessions) but I’ve my own career and another two children to take care of, including my youngest who is still nursing,” she said, adding that she is relieved schools reopened this week for the third term of the 2021/2022 school year.

“I’m worried about Qawiem being left behind in his studies as he still can’t read and we can’t afford to hire a tutor for him.”

Year One students most impacted

Education experts, meanwhile, said the issue of children not being able to read or write or master the three Rs — due to the disruption in their schooling — is a critical matter that needs to be addressed immediately by the Ministry of Education (MoE).

This is because children who are most impacted by learning loss are those who enrolled in school as Year One pupils in 2020 when the pandemic emerged and will enter Year Three this March.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) Centre for Research on Educational Leadership and Policy chairman Associate Prof Dr Azlin Norhaini Mansor said the failure to master the three basic learning tools will affect these pupils’ learning process at the higher level resulting in them lagging behind if no intervention measures are implemented.

She said studies conducted overseas have shown that even an eight-week school shutdown can cause learning loss that can affect their comprehension skills.

In Malaysia, schools remained shut for over 200 days in 2020 and 2021. There are about 198 school days each year.

“So, imagine the effects of this disrupted learning over the last two years… what will the quality of our human capital be in the next 10 to 15 years to come?” asked Azlin Norhaini.

She said according to Unesco (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) estimates, 50 percent of children worldwide did not attend school at all during the pandemic.

“We don’t have clear data on the situation in Malaysia but I think the same thing must have happened here. As for students who participated in PdPR, the exact percentage of those who actually benefited from the sessions can be worrying as well.  

“I’m not worried about students who are sitting for public examinations such as SPM (Sijil Pelajaraan Malaysia) because I expect the dropout rate among them to be more controlled as MoE is paying more attention to them. I’m more concerned about the students from non-examination classes who did not at all or only partly participated in PdPR.

“My question now is what are the strategies MoE has lined up to help students who have lost nearly two years of schooling?”

She opined that the MoE cannot afford to come up with one-off or short-term measures, stressing that any strategy to address this issue should include mitigation and intervention programmes with short-term and long-term goals.


Overcrowding in classrooms


Azlin Norhaini said what concerns her most is that the effects of learning loss among primary schoolchildren nationwide will only be evident much later when they sit for their SPM examination.

“This is because UPSR (for Year Six students) and PT3 (Form Three) have been abolished. As such, there is no public examination for them until they turn 17 and sit for SPM and later join the job market,” she said.

As of now, only Johor has provided data on the impact of the Covid-19-induced school shutdown on children, with a recent media report stating that about 20 per cent of 131,281 Level One (Year One to Three) pupils are facing difficulty in mastering the three Rs.

Another expert, meanwhile, contended that the MOE’s move to extend the current school year to February 2022 can do little to improve their command of the 3Rs.

UKM Centre for Research on Community Education and Well-being lecturer Dr Anuar Ahmad said this is because most classrooms have over 40 pupils each which make it difficult for teachers to give their attention to every child.

“The issue of overcrowding in classrooms is critical and has existed for a long time. And, the situation will worsen now with the projected increase in the number of children not being able to read due to the disruptions in their learning process during the pandemic,” he said.

According to studies, the academic performance of pupils who were not able to master the three Rs in Level One of primary school deteriorated when they moved up to Level Two (Year Four to Year Six) and eventually led to them dropping out of school at the secondary school level, he added.

Bridging learning loss and gaps

Having recognised that the closure of schools during the pandemic has resulted in learning loss and gaps, especially among pupils and students from the B40 group, the MoE implemented various measures to address these issues, among them being PerkasaKU, a curriculum empowerment programme.

This programme, which started on Sept 1, 2021, and will go on until Feb 28, 2022, involves pupils and students from Year One to Form Five.

Anuar, however, felt that the programme may not prove effective in bridging learning gaps or preventing students from dropping out of the education system as it is neither comprehensive nor has clear objectives.

“Furthermore, the programme is only up to the end of next month. We need a programme that is far more comprehensive and aimed at resolving the issue of students dropping out from the education system due to the pandemic.

“It’s important to address this because missing out on lessons continuously over a long period when schools were closed can lead to dropping out from the school system due to loss of motivation and, in the case of B40 students, poverty,” he said.

The MoE reportedly said that 21,316 students had dropped out of school between March 2020 and July 2021.

Annuar said B40 children were among the groups that were badly affected by the pandemic as they were at risk of dropping out of the education system.

“Children in other parts of the world were in the same situation too. A World Bank study dated Oct 29, 2021, revealed that in low- and medium-income nations, more than 70 percent of children were at risk of dropping out of school during the pandemic,” he added. — Bernama