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National vs. International Schools in Malaysia: Which is Better?

National vs. International Schools in Malaysia: Which is Better?


Public or private school? This is the big question many parents ask before their kids are even ready for pre-school! The choice of your child’s early education can determine his or her future pathways and career opportunities. Should you go for the more locally immersive, affordable option or an international education within globalized settings? Much will depend on your overall priorities and long-term aspirations for your child, but here are eight key areas to consider to help arrive at the conclusion:

1. What’s the main language of instruction?

The core curriculum in national or public schools emphasizes the national language of Bahasa Malaysia. All lessons are carried out primarily in Bahasa Malaysia, with English as a compulsory secondary language. Students who wish to gain entry into universities outside Malaysia would need to acquire additional English language qualifications such as the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) or Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

Because international schools use English as the main medium of instruction, the reality remains that English standards of international students who have completed both primary and secondary education are commonly higher. At the end of the day, parents need to decide which mode of instruction is best for their school-going children based on their long-term goals. If you aim to send your child abroad for higher education or move back to your homeland after a temporary foreign working stint in Malaysia, international school may be the better choice.

2. What is your budget?

In the past, Malaysians didn’t have much of a choice as there was a quota set for local student enrolment at international schools. The simplest and most affordable route for the majority of Malaysian parents was to send their children to government schools nearby and trust the national education system to carry out its good work. In 2012 however, the Malaysian Ministry of Education lifted this quota and since then, Malaysian parents (who have the financial means) have access to more education options. This liberalization by the Government also gave rise to increased competition and better fee options for parents.

The fees for international schools are, for some families, expensive. Some premium international schools charge annual tuition fees exceeding RM100,000, while other mid-range ones can range between RM25,000 and RM50,000. Parents should decide between public or vernacular schools, or private or international schools based on their available means, requirements, and what’s ultimately best for them and their children.

The good news is that international school students save by not paying for additional tuition classes or activities outside of school due to their holistic nature. In urban Malaysia, it is estimated that a family with national school-going children spend an average of RM500 per month per child on additional tuition to help with academic performance, or join other co-curricular activities like music, dancing, sports, computer classes, etc. That’s about RM5,000 over the course of a school year! Parents can expect to save on these expenses at an international school as they are usually part and parcel of the international schools’ package.

3. When do you want your child to start school?

In Malaysia, children start going to national schools (public or private) at age seven, or Primary One. On the other hand, most international schools begin education when the child is six years old. This means your child will gain a year should you choose the latter. It also means he or she will finish O Levels (or its equivalent) faster at the age of 16, and can proceed with tertiary studies right after. Is your child ready at age six to start a formal education? Each child is different and parents need to assess their unique learning capabilities to determine their true readiness.

4. Would smaller classes make a real difference for your child?

Most international schools in Malaysia have smaller class sizes compared to public schools comprising up to 20 students. In national schools, class sizes can vary anywhere between 30 to 40 plus students. While research indicates that class size has negligible outcomes, certain parents may strongly feel that their children require more attention in a more contained, interactive environment where they are encouraged to speak their mind. The lower student-to-teacher ratios in international schools allow teachers to pay more personal attention to each student and encourage effective group work.

5. Is cultural immersion important for your child or international exposure?

For many Malaysians, cultural immersion is important, and the use of their mother tongue (the Malay language), or other native languages like Mandarin and Tamil—equally so. National or private vernacular schools encourage such communication, on top of active independent learning and nurturing of well-rounded individuals with a reduced emphasis on examinations and rote learning (based on the Malaysian Education Blueprint implemented in 2012).

International schools on the other hand comprise of students from around the world and diverse student bodies, which would expose students to a culturally diverse environment and help them broaden their horizons. While the school fees may be far higher, an increasing number of Malaysian parents are beginning to see that an international school education could also better prepare their children for the world.

6. Do you prioritize balance of academic knowledge and non-academic activities?

A well-balanced education goes beyond merely textbook learning to inculcate a healthy dose of physical and social activities in an environment that cultivates critical thinking. International schools are renowned for producing well-rounded individuals who excel both academically or non-academically (sports scholarships, arts major, etc.). Many parents are willing to pay a premium for better sports facilities, tech laboratories, and space for the artistically inclined to flourish. Parents who want their child to explore a wider array of possibilities and figure out what they’re intrinsically good at, as opposed to what’s spoon-fed to them or expected of them, tend to select international or private schools over public schools.

7. What is the standard and quality of teachers?

In national school systems, teachers are rotated based on the school’s requirements and parents must settle with what the system provides, in terms of who teaches your child. While there is no denying that public schools provide quality education, some parents argue that they get better quality teachers who are more passionate about their professions at international schools since most of them are hired through international job fairs. Parents are able to visit the schools beforehand to talk to the teachers and assess them prior to making a decision. For parents who can afford to do so—this is a huge advantage that greatly influences their decision-making process.

8. When is best to make the transfer to an international school for my child?

The transfer tends to be the tricky part for most parents! Parents who have the necessary means are advised to start their child at an international school from as early as Primary One. For parents who face limitations in their finances though, it’s also possible to transfer your child from a national school education using the Malaysian curriculum to an international school upon finishing Primary Six. If this is still not possible, you may make that transfer during their final two years of secondary school in Form 4 or Form 5 as a last option, as most international schools do accept students at these levels. Bear in mind that your child may be required to pass an entrance test for entry into an international school.