Are ALL children in Malaysia getting an education?

Are ALL children in Malaysia getting an education?

A KEY indicator for achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4 on quality education is that all children must complete primary and secondary education that is free and of high quality.

(Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, are 17 interconnected goals designed to serve as a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet”.)

To monitor Malaysia’s progress towards achieving this goal, the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM) recently shared the chart below showing impressive completion rates, with an increase in 2021 despite the Covid-19 pandemic and the shift to remote learning at the time. But do the numbers give a complete picture?

These DOSM statistics, obtained from the Ministry of Education (MOE) data, indicate that Malaysia is doing very well, with 99% of children completing primary education, 99.8% completing secondary education and 97.8% completing upper secondary education in 2021 completed.

These numbers are surprising given the anecdotal evidence that Malaysian children (as well as children worldwide) experienced enormous learning loss in the pandemic years, especially in the beginning, from 2020 to 2021.

A closer look

In principle, to address any shortcomings and improve Malaysia’s education system so that it provides quality access to education for all, it is firstly essential that the data we rely on is cross-checked and reviewed to ensure that it is accurate.

We started by reflecting on what the situation is for SDG indicator 4.1.2, based on data available in MOE’s Quick Facts 2022 and the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) data in Health Indicators 2022.

School attendance and dropout rates: Previous annual MOE Quick Facts documents show data for the same group of students at two points in time.

At face value, they confirm the trend highlighted by the DOSM statistics. However, upon further analysis, it is clear that dropout rates during transition years and the rates of non-enrollment of children at the beginning of the school year are not included, as can be seen by the following data.

Primary education –

> In 2017, 440,025 children enrolled in Year One.

> In 2022, 437,414 students enrolled in Year Six (the same group of students).

This means 2,611 students dropped out, giving a primary education completion rate of 99.4% for 2022, showing the increase noted by DOSM in 2021.

Similarly, we can see good secondary education completion rates from MOE’s Quick Facts.

Lower Secondary –

> In 2020, 386,695 students enrolled for Form One.

> In 2022, 387,160 students enrolled for Form Three.

higher secondary –

> In 2021, 373,943 students enrolled in Form Four.

> In 2022, 371,243 students enrolled in Form Five.

We noted that the data does not take into account the “life course” of the student and students who drop out between the years assessed (transition years). We then proceeded to calculate it from the raw data as follows:

> In 2021, 446,428 students enrolled in Year Six.

> In 2022, 406,504 students enrolled in Form One (with an additional 12,995 students enrolled in Remove Class).

With this simple calculation we noticed that, even with official figures, only 94% of children actually continued their studies from Year Six to Form One in 2022. In real numbers, this means that 26,929 children left school in 2022.

Overall, out of an average Year One enrollment of 450,000 students, only an average of 370,000 reached Form Five, i.e. 82.2%.

An average of 80,000 children, or 18% of those who attended MOE schools, dropped out.

By examining the ministry’s own figures, we realized that the way SDG indicator 4.1.2 was reflected was misleading, and that Malaysia’s achievement of this essential indicator was more limited than shown.

School attendance in non-MOE schools: Another crucial oversight is the fact that the DOSM data for SDG 4 does not account for or take into account the many children who do not attend MOE schools (ie government or government-aided schools). .

According to MOH’s Health Indicators 2022 data, there were 508,203 live births in 2016 – this would be the number of children expected to enter Year One in 2022.

However, MOE enrollment data in 2022 for Year One shows 454,530 students. There is therefore a deficit of 10.6% of children (53,673) who have not enrolled in MOE schools.

It can be assumed that most of these 53,673 children attend religious schools (tahfiz), private schools, international schools, home schools, etc.

MOE Quick Facts 2022 table 3.3 on primary level enrollment in private institutions and table 3.4 on primary level enrollment in institutions under other government agencies provide an indication of the number of children in these institutions.

Religious schools (tahfiz), private schools, international schools, home schools, etc. —

> In 2022, approximately 26,030 children attended Year One in these institutions, based on an average of six class years of attendance.

At this point, a question arises: given that these are not MOE institutions, what is the quality of education provided and how are dropout rates monitored?

Children not attending school: The data in MOE’s Quick Facts 2022, read together with MOH’s Health Indicators 2022 data on live births in 2016, as reviewed above, underlines the fact that in 2022, school options for 27,643 children not taken into account:

> 508,203 live births in 2016 minus 454,530 students enrolled in Year One in 2022 minus 26,030 students enrolled in non-MOE institutions = 27,643 children.

MOH data suggests that around 4,000 to 5,000 of these children would have died before the age of seven. That being said, one question still requires an answer: where do the remaining children who should be in school get their education? Are these stateless children, children in detention, children of migrants and refugees, or children with disabilities?

It appears that there are about 20,000-plus children that the system does not take into account each year and that are not captured in Malaysia’s SDG 4 data.

The bottom line

The real deficit in our education system is staggering: 4.5% of children do not attend any school and 18% drop out before reaching Form Five.

The above overview, based solely on data made available by the MOE and MOH, indicates a crisis in our education system — it is far from inclusive and equitable. The data calls for an urgent review of the quality of Malaysia’s education system and its accessibility to ensure that no child is left behind.

In May 2022, we highlighted Malaysian children’s enormous pandemic-induced learning loss, which is the highest among developing Asian nations and exceeds that of all ASEAN members except Myanmar, in “A National Emergency: Our Children’s Learning Loss.

We believe that this learning loss – which has yet to be officially recognized or adequately addressed by the MOE – together with the limited enrollment and significant dropout rates, has major economic and social implications for the nation and its economy. We cannot afford continued inaction that will produce a less skilled workforce and a higher mental health burden in the future.

Malaysia needs more robust data that enables the identification and channeling of resources to support children who do not receive formal education and those who drop out.

Given the above, we strongly recommend the following urgent measures for government action:

1. Review Malaysian data on SDG 4 (indicator 4.1.2) to reflect the reality on the ground. We can only overcome the crisis if we recognize that a crisis exists, accept the situation and work to find solutions and implement urgent corrective measures.

2. Strengthen comprehensive coverage and enable independent monitoring by the system for the collection and annual publication of data on:

(a) The quality of education and attendance at all primary and secondary education facilities.

(b) Attendance and enrollment, disaggregated by parameters such as region (rural-urban locations), ethnicity, disability, age and gender, as well as undocumented/refugee/migrant status.

(c) ALL children in Malaysia.

(d) ALL school settings in Malaysia.

3. Identify and reach out to dropouts to enable their return to school or to accelerate them into vocational skills training and employment.

4. Identify vulnerable children and schools that need more support, including financial aid, to enable those from poor families to return to school and complete schooling.

5. Enforce the implementation of a genuine no-refusal policy that allows all children, regardless of status, documented or undocumented, to attend school and complete schooling. This is a basic right enshrined in three conventions that Malaysia has ratified: the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as well as in the Sustainable Development Goals that Malaysia has committed to achieving.

Any loss of education in a child’s life is a loss to the child and to the nation. If we leave any child behind, we undermine the nation’s prospects. Just as “it takes a village to raise a child”, likewise, it takes each child to make the town — and the nation. We neglect our children’s education at our peril.


Consultant pediatrician and advisor, National Early Childhood Intervention Council


Honorary Senior Adviser (Disability Inclusion), Social Development Division, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific


Retired lecturer in Social Policy and Social Work, committee member, Sarawak Women for Women Society


Co-Chair, CRIB (Child Rights Innovation & Betterment) Foundation


Educator in special and inclusive education and project officer, National Early Childhood Intervention Council


PhD (Cognitive Science), Dyslexia Association of Sarawak

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