The country may be looking at over 130,000 students failing to get their Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) certificate every year if English is made a “must pass” subject in the examination.
With the current rate of one in four students failing the English SPM paper every year, educationists are estimating that making the language a compulsory subject to pass will mean around 30 per cent of SPM candidates walking away without a certificate.
While the Education Ministry is getting feedback from the public on whether it should make English a compulsory pass subject, many are cautioning against the move.
They want the issue to be addressed holistically and supported by additional measures to strengthen English proficiency.
Sources said the ministry was already facing a problem with students unable to pass the Bahasa Malaysia paper leading to many failing to get
In 2006 for example, of the 21 per cent who failed to get a certificate, 90 per cent failed Bahasa
a student must pass.
Deputy Education Minister Datuk Dr Wee Ka Siong said that even if it was true that around 30 per cent of all SPM candidates (numbering around 440,000 every year) were to fail English and could not obtain a certificate, this figure would not necessarily hold true in future.
"It will only remain so if we do nothing. People should not simply assume that we will not take measures and action to complement the move and enhance students' proficiency in the English Language," he told the New Sunday Times yesterday.
Educationists have also pointed out that if around 30 per cent of candidates failed to obtain their certificate, the country would be looking at thousands of students who may find it difficult to find jobs.
Many menial and clerical jobs, such as despatch clerks, require the SPM certificate as a minimum. As such, there is concern that those who are not high-achievers could be walking away after 11 years of schooling, with nothing to show for it.
Ahmad Ikmail Ismail, former Umno Youth education bureau chairman, said he was in support of the move to make the subject compulsory, but that a support system for rural students and those without the certificate was paramount.
"By making the subject compulsory, students would know that they must improve. They would know that they have to have basic English to pass, and if we push them, they will be able to perform.
"However, there should be a safety net or second chance for those who fail English, such as a provisional certificate or allowing them to re-sit the paper."
Parents and teachers have also pointed out that compulsory or not, English Language proficiency would remain low because standards were currently low.
A fail means obtaining 44 marks and below (G9 grade), but a student scoring A1 in English may only actually be scoring a B for their O-Levels 1119 paper.
A former education official said the concerns over making English a must-pass subject were basically the same as those related to the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI).
Worrying about the performance of rural students, or those coming from vernacular schools, was essentially a common theme for the two issues, except that the emotions and anger associated with mother-tongue languages like Bahasa Malaysia or Mandarin were not included.
"But the main issues are the same, and that is the ministry still has to deal with problems like the lack of good English teachers and the efficiency of teacher training.
"Until those important issues are resolved, working around PPSMI or compulsory passing will not yield the results we want."
MIC education bureau head Datuk T. Marimuthu said that while he was personally for the move to make the subject compulsory, he acknowledged that the language would be difficult for students coming from Tamil schools.
"We see around 36 per cent of pupils failing English for Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah at primary level. So, it does mean that there will be a third of them who lack proficiency in the language."
However, he said the trend for SPM results over the years was that English was not so much of a worry for secondary students, and that a compulsory pass would be greater motivation for them to learn the language.
For students coming from Chinese vernacular schools, there was a 20 per cent failure rate for English language when they went on to secondary education, said Dong Jiao Xong member Ng Chai Heng.
Heng, who is also Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Cina Yoke Nam parent-teacher association chairman, said although it was generally known that students who failed the paper scored very low marks, there was no actual survey as to how SPM students from the vernacular background were faring in English.
"Since the Education Department did not segregate the data as such, it is very difficult to say. I am not sure as to my feelings about making English a compulsory pass, but I definitely agree that the teaching of English as a whole needs to be improved."
Wee said it was important for all parties to understand that the ministry would be considering all concerns and possible consequences before making a decision, and that even if the subject was made compulsory, there would be a grace period before implementation.