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New scheme to save Malaysia's 'lost boys'

Valen Sinnaya hopes to become a wireman. Photo by ST

Publication Date : 24-09-2012


With girls continuing to outnumber and outshine boys at secondary school and university, Malaysia has launched a pilot programme for vocational training in a bid to save the "lost boys".

As part of an effort to keep boys in school, 15 schools began a "taster programme" this year to expose academically weak pupils starting from the age of 13 to vocational skills in areas such as carpentry and electrical wiring.

"We are trying to catch potential dropouts before they fall out of the system," Deputy Education Minister Wee Ka Siong told The Straits Times.

The goal is to teach them work and life skills, and keep them in school long enough that they do not end up on the streets.

Wee said those in the scheme earn certificates for each year of study completed, with the Form Four certificate being the vocational equivalent of the usual Form Five school certificate.

The "lost boys" phenomenon was raised in the National Education Blueprint, launched a week ago to overhaul a weak school system. The report warned that Malaysia runs the risk of creating a "community of educationally marginalised young Malaysian men".

"Alienated youth are a source of great social and political instability, as has been seen across the world in the recent past," the report said.

It said interviews with parents and teachers suggest that some boys struggle with mainstream academic curricula and would benefit from vocational training.

According to a Unicef report last year, from 2005 to 2009, about 17,000 of the half a million primary pupils a year in Malaysia did not move on to secondary school. Most were boys, with 85 per cent from poor families.

At some universities, girls now make up 70 per cent of the intake. Girls also perform better in school examinations from primary school onwards.

Dr Abdul Jalil Ali, an educationist at University Sains Malaysia's school of educational studies, said shifting towards vocational education could be one way to ensure that all young Malaysians learn some useful skills.

"Not everyone thrives in the academic world. The country also needs highly skilled workers," he said.

He said the government also needs to review teaching methods to keep boys interested as research has shown that girls and boys learn differently. Girls tend to learn well in classrooms while boys are less likely to enjoy passive learning.

S. Pasupathi, the director of MySkills Foundation in Port Klang, a non-profit organisation that helps school dropouts, said the problem is serious - many dropouts end up in crime because of poverty and gang influence.

He said the problem has long been neglected because the education system focuses on high achievers.

Opened two years ago, MySkills now has 300 students, aged 15 to 19, of whom boys number 240. They come from around the country - problematic students who did badly in school.

The boys are being taught electrical wiring, welding and mechatronics, while the girls are trained in legal secretarial work. They also learn life management skills such as how to save money and soft skills such as how to manage anger.

"These students come to us very hard-headed, and some are involved in gangs. We need to connect with them before they will learn anything," said executive director S. Selvamalar.

Some like Valen Sinnaya, 17, could not even read or write. He had been expelled from five schools by the time he was 14. He was working as a cleaner in low-cost flats for 400 ringgit (US$130) a month.

"I didn't like school - we just copied down everything the teacher said. I slept in class," he said. "But I like the practical class here - it's interesting. And the teachers care about us."

Valen has 31 siblings, the offspring of his late father's five wives. He now hopes to find a job as a wireman, and to run his own business some day.

The government hopes to replicate this model in its schools.

Wee said more schools will offer the vocational programme next year. Under the scheme, 70 per cent of the focus will be on practical skills, while the remainder will be on soft skills such as communication.

He said the ministry was working with businesses in industries such as furniture-making to tailor the courses so they can meet the demand for skilled workers.


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