Secondary School Education: Managing Their Academic Performance And Mental Health

Rather than stopping short at academic performance and co-curriculum activities, we should also take care of our youths’ mental health and enhance their resilience.

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Published by BusinessToday & AstroAwani, image by AstroAwani.

The time spent in primary school should ideally be filled with fun exploration and positivity, as it represents a golden period crucial for ensuring the proper and healthy development of a child. However, it is during secondary school that things begin to accelerate, becoming more challenging for our children to navigate.

The new curriculum, slated for introduction in 2027, has divided the five years of secondary school into two distinct levels. From Form 1 to 3, students will explore various fields of knowledge to help them recognise their interests. From Form 4 to 5, the focus will shift to learning, along with character building, which was said to be deeper and broader. Additionally, students will also be exposed to work experience via apprenticeship.

From the outline alone, it is difficult to discern any significant difference between the new curriculum and the current one, which follows a similar structure, with a wide range of general knowledge covered in the first three years, followed by students choosing specific streams for the upper secondary level.

One important fact is that our students have been slowly losing interest in STEM subjects. Even though we have a target of a 60:40 ratio, where 60% of students should enrol in STEM fields, the actual enrolment in 2023 stands at 45.73%, which is a far cry from our target.

If this is not addressed immediately, it could foil Malaysia’s plan of becoming a high-income nation, as we would require a significant amount of quality high-skilled workers in STEM fields to achieve our goal.

Academicians have identified some key reasons why students show less interest in STEM, mainly attributing these causes to weak foundations and rote learning practices.

These issues contributing to students’ lack of interest in STEM should be remedied by the new curriculum if properly implemented. With a new primary education curriculum aimed at addressing fundamental skills deficiencies (i.e. literacy and numeracy), alongside syllabi promoting critical thinking and creative learning focussed on key subjects, we should expect a rise in students’ interest in STEM, though the effects may not be fully realised until as late as 2036.

However, quantity should not be our sole focus; the quality of students is also a key factor that will heavily impact the future of our nation.

One of the more prominent elements in assessing the quality of students is mastery of the English language, aligning with the current job market’s demand for English proficiency. Furthermore, STEM subjects are generally best taught and understood in English — a notion supported by many experts. Yet, our students’ performance in English has stagnated, if not declined, over the year.

It is crucial for the government to emphasise the use of English as a medium to teach and learn STEM subjects. This approach would not only improve our students’ proficiency in English but also align with the global future developments in STEM, where English serves as the modern lingua franca.

The existence of the Dual Language Programme (DLP) has allowed schools to teach science and mathematics in English, a move deemed beneficial to our students by various organisations and parents. As of March 2024, 2,501 out of 10,224 public schools across Malaysia are participating in the DLP.

However, the Parent Action Group of Education (PAGE) has claimed that, in most cases, there is only one DLP class per level. They also suggest that the number of classes is being subtly reduced (The Star, 2024).

On top of that, despite widespread opposition from parent groups and alleged violations of DLP guidelines, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has pushed forward with mandating full DLP schools to open at least one non-DLP class, citing the lack of masteries in Malay and mother tongue as the reason.

Malay is undeniably important for us Malaysians, for it is our national language, and we must cherish it. However, there are better ways to improve proficiency in Malay than at the expense of English and, therefore, STEM.

With proper syllabi design, quality teachers, and effective teaching methods, we can enhance Malay proficiency among our students without impinging on their freedom to choose English as the medium for learning STEM subjects.

Another element that affects the quality of students in STEM fields is that some enrolments occur without prior consideration of students’ academic performance.

Experts have suggested that since the cancellation of the Form 3 public examination, students have been recklessly choosing their streams, which contributes to lower performance as their abilities did not allow them to catch up with the spike in difficulty in the curriculum.

However, examination is not the only way to identify if someone is fit for STEM. The decision of which stream a student should partake in is one of, if not the most important decisions of their life, and it should not be based solely on their academic performance. Similarly, personal interest should not be the only factor at play when making such an important decision.

Ideally, a student should balance their choice around both their academic performance and their interests. This ensures that they do not feel forced into something they have no interest in. Moreover, when they pursue something they are interested in, they can manage themselves effectively.

This situation calls for a competent school counsellor who can provide students with much-needed guidance.

As opposed to a teacher who already has their hands full with other non-teaching tasks, a school counsellor could be more effective in evaluating and balancing a student’s performance and interests, providing proper guidance for making rational decisions.

Nordin et al. (2021) have accurately summed up multiple past research studies that have proven school counselling to have a significant positive impact on our students. The service assisted students in choosing careers based on their interests, capabilities and unique talents, helped them to identify future opportunities, and, most importantly, improved students’ academic performance as well.

With a well-trained and competent school counsellor, the school-based assessments that we have adopted might have worked out a little bit better in identifying who fits better in STEM and who fits better in businesses or the arts.

Academic performance is not the only area where well-trained school counsellors play a role; they are also key in taking care of adolescents’ mental health.

According to the National Health & Morbidity Survey 2022 (NHMS 2022) focusing on adolescents, 26.9% of our adolescents are reportedly experiencing depression. Additionally, the rate of suicidal ideation among our adolescents is at 13.1%.

Furthermore, the prevalence of violent behaviour in our youth appears to be on the rise over the past few years (Refer to “Addressing the Escalating Crisis of Youth Violence in Malaysia”).

There are also situations where school counsellors are needed to step in and provide intervention.

In many universities, students are required to meet with their academic advisor at least once per semester. Perhaps, our secondary schools can implement a similar policy, where students are required to meet with a counsellor at least once per year. This way, they can discuss their mental health struggles or academic-related issues with the counsellor.

This would, however, require a significant number of school counsellors to be employed, which in itself is a huge challenge to overcome. According to 2022 report, the counsellor-to-individual ratio is 1 per 52,000 people, but the ideal ratio, according to the Ministry of Health (MOH), is 1 per 500.

Due to the immense shortage of counsellors, schools have begun to assign individuals who have no proper training and mastery of counselling to be school counsellors, and the end result could be catastrophic for the development of our youth.

While the number of counsellors can’t be increase overnight, the MOE and MOH should consider cooperating with each other, sending individuals who will be appointed as a school counsellor for quick training. This could serve as a short-term solution until we are able to resolve the issue of qualified counsellor shortages.

In EMIR Research’s previous publication titled “Urgent Need to Reform Malaysian Education System,” we have summarised nine common trends among global educational systems.

By strengthening and expanding the implementation of DLP and having competent school counsellors ready for students to consult, we are affirming two of the global trends: 1) focus on languages and exact science, and 2) providing individual attention to every student.

On top of that, competent counsellors are perfect facilitators for organising activities to teach students effective coping skills, such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), which was highlighted as one of the ways to reduce youth violence (Refer to “Addressing the Escalating Crisis of Youth Violence in Malaysia”).

If we want to evaluate our students holistically, then we should go for the full course. Rather than stopping short at academic performance and co-curriculum activities, we should also take care of our youths’ mental health and enhance their resilience.

Chia Chu Hang is a Research Assistant at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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