Unequal opportunity: the learning environment for B40 children in PPRs

Unequal opportunity: the learning environment for B40 children in PPRs

Unequal opportunity: the learning environment for B40 children in PPRs

Education has a significant influence on the future household income of a family and on a broader scale, a community’s potential to break the poverty cycle. However, the education pathway lines up differently for the children of PPRs than it does for their peers outside the system.

Poverty and social class affect access to learning support systems, which can stack the odds against their progression. These children often start a step behind, and without help, they are rarely able to make up lost ground.

Teach For Malaysia (TFM), an independent non-governmental organisation (NGO) championing excellence in education, pointed out that the education gap existed even prior to the pandemic, but the turbulence of the multiple lockdowns widened it.

The NGO observed that children at the PPRs fell short in exposure to technology, personal growth opportunities, and rarely experience the world outside their PPR and its surroundings. However, they harboured the same ambitions and goals their peers do as they demonstrated the skills and aptitude to accomplish it.

TFM found that a significant challenge to their focus in education is the lack of adult supervision, which means the children ‘bring themselves up’ since parents work long hours to fulfil the family’s financial needs.


Pandemic learning loss

Over the past two years, pandemic learning loss has resulted in many children from the PPR being academically behind their contemporaries, requiring coaching and extra support to catch up.

Adab Youth Garage (AYG), an NGO focused on youth and local community development,  estimates at least half the children in upper primary and lower secondary had reading difficulties. Prevalence is higher among the lower primary students.

AYG runs six centres at various PPRs equipped with learning facilities and dedicated youth workers. The NGO’s aim is to provide a safe learning space for the children with supervision and guidance for studies.  

Adab Youth Garage’s Children’s Learning Centre at PPR Hicom

At PPR Kg. Baru Hicom, Noor Hayati Ismail, secretary of PERWACOM Prihatin, found that many of the children who were behind in their studies had missed out on online learning during the pandemic due to insufficient gadgets and connectivity issues.

PERWACOM Prihatin is a resident-led NGO that looks at the welfare and wellbeing of the residents at PPR Hicom.

Seven out of 14 children at PPR HICOM who took the SPM examinations in 2021, were behind in their studies. Additionally, 11 of the 32 children scheduled for the SPM examinations this year are academically behind their peers.

Gadgets are often prioritised for the children sitting for SPM examination, leading to the younger children missing out on online classes. As it is, learning is difficult with poor Wi-Fi connectivity and living conditions with too many occupants per household.  AYG shared how a father of 10 observed that his older children were only able to commence studies when their younger siblings went to bed.


Empowering the community to drive the education focus

Recognising the fundamental challenge of keeping the children focused on their education pursuits, a significant pillar in education is strengthening the community. Fostering a deeper connection among the community to take ownership of the learning activities is perhaps the first step towards achieving positive education outcome.

Students at the PPRs are also in need of coaching and extra support to help them cope with studies, especially pandemic learning loss. TFM found a disturbing pattern of poor literacy among the younger children at the PPRs, glaringly among the students in Standards 1 and 2.

TFM’s pilot programme ‘Program Komuniti Perkasa’ was introduced at two PPRs taking a threepronged approach to develop students’ self-empowerment skills, create community engagement and support and work with foundations for targeted content and research.

The programme rolled out workshops to develop students’ self-empowerment and self-learning skills by encouraging learning and increasing awareness of materials available. The workshops were also extended to involve the parents and the community to enable them to support the children’s learning.

The programmes equip students with goal setting skills, concentrating on how to set a target for themselves, break it down into smaller steps, obtain resources to achieve it and brainstorm when challenges arise. These activities are intended to train students’ executive functions so they perform better in school. TFM also runs parent workshops to equip the parents with skills on how to set routines for their children, effectively communicate with them and instil a growth mindset.

At these workshops, parents are taught how to create a more positive learning environment at home, despite the cramped conditions and the importance of setting routines for their children. The parents are also exposed to basic coaching skills to support learning and to build a positive relationship with their children.

TFM found that at the end of the first phase of the programme 25% of the students were able to achieve the learning goal they set for themselves and 69% were able to achieve at least half their goals.

While schools do provide Catch-Up Plans, children of PPRs require more personalised attention, a resource allocation many schools do not have. TFM and AYG stress the importance of zeroing-in on lower primary students who are illiterate and on subjects with weaker grasp – English and Mathematics.


Bridging the imbalance for brighter prospects

AYG’s presence at PPRs provides safe and conducive spaces for children to study, supervised by a Youth Worker who guides the children with their homework and studies. Through their interaction with the students, AYG discovered that at least 79 out of 100 children they worked with were weak in the 3M skills of reading, writing and counting (Menulis, Membaca, Mengira). This led to collaborations with other NGOs to provide modules and teaching assistance focusing on these areas.

According to the NGO, once the PPR children reach secondary school, their chances of dropping out are higher. However, those who made it into boarding schools tend to go on to pursue higher education and vocational education.

TFM’s observation also concurred that the PPR children who are sent to boarding secondary schools, away from home tend to ‘make it’ and have a better chance of breaking the poverty cycle.

The facilities available at boarding schools, strict regimes and a more academic focus wired the children to succeed – as opposed to their peers who remained within the PPR system.

AYG pointed out that the lack of opportunities and hurdles due to their social class contributed to extensive unmet needs and thus untapped talent among the youth and children at PPRs.

To provide broader opportunities and unlock the children’s potential, AYG started supplementary enhancement programmes as a form of informal learning to develop non-cognitive skills. One such is a collaboration with local community colleges to conduct workshops in Canva designing, a freeware online graphic design tool.

The pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in the education system that must be urgently remedied. The inequality in access to education, exacerbated by the income gap in the society reveals the potential emergence of a generation of illiterate children, who are struggling to catch up with their peers. While numerous government and non-governmental bodies are taking action to reverse the decline, policy changes in favour of more equitable and equal access to education must be investigated to present better education opportunities for all Malaysians.