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Malaysia's schooling system: everything you need to know
By Talk Education
18 January 2022
Thinking of moving to Malaysia? Here’s everything you need to know about the international schools market…
The international schools market in Malaysia is big – and growing. A decade ago, the Malaysian government lifted a cap on the number of Malaysian students permitted to enrol at an international school, leading to immediate growth in demand from local students and families seeking English-language skills and access to a British curriculum. International schools have capitalised on this, with a wave of new openings across the country and a firm eye on catering not just for the expat market, but the domestic one too.
Malaysia’s international schools fall broadly into one of the following categories:
Well-established schools aimed at expat children (such as Alice Smith School and Garden International). These tend to sit at the top end of the price scale.
British brand names (such as Marlborough College Malaysia and Epsom College Malaysia), which are also at the top end of the price scale.
Purpose-built ‘new’ schools owned by property-developer groups (such as GEMS International and Taylor’s International). These are generally more mid-range.
Mission-based schools (such as St Joseph’s Institution International). These also sit in the middle-range.
Private schools that offer the English curriculum (such as Sri KDU), or private learning centres offering an international curriculum. These tend to sit at the lower-end of the price scale.
The standard of private education in Malaysia is incredibly high. Many private schools are active members of school groups or associations such as SEASAC (South-East Asia Student Activities Conference), FOBISIA (Federation of British International Schools in Asia) or AIMS (Association of International Malaysian Schools). These are all useful indicators of a high-quality education.
THE INTERNATIONAL SCHOOLS MARKET: KEY POINTS
The vast majority of Malaysia’s international schools are located within the state of
(which includes the federal territory of Kuala Lumpur). There are a few in the south of the country, close to Singapore; many expat families live here and commute across to Singapore for work.
The academic year tends to run from
August to June
, broken up into either three terms or two semesters. A few schools, such as the Australian International School, will run in line with the school calendar back home (so in this case, January to December).
Most schools follow either the
British year-group system
or the International Grades system.
The majority of international schools are
. Many are also
, running from nursery/kindergarten all the way through to Year 13/Grade 12. Some are also starting to open up as sixth-form-only options, such as Charterhouse Malaysia.
There is a
large domestic market
at Malaysian international schools. Around 45 per cent of the student body at top-end international schools are Malaysian; this figure increases to 65 per cent in the mid-market range. Other nationalities include South Korean, Indian and Chinese. If a school is linked to a specific country (such as the UK, US or Australia), there will naturally be a higher number of students of that nationality attending the school.
THE EDUCATIONAL JOURNEY
On the whole, pupils pass through various school sections seamlessly, with no exams needed to move between the primary and secondary stage. International students tend to stay in one school for as long as they are in Malaysia (unless, of course, the school is no longer deemed the right fit).
Schools at the top end feed on to the best-known universities in the UK, US, Europe, Australia and Asia.
Due to the transient nature of expat families, most international schools in Malaysia offer a
process. Thanks to the large domestic market, there are still a number of key entrance stages for primary, secondary and sixth-form students – but some schools do limit the number of local students they will take in order to free up enough rolling places for expats. Schools offering IGCSE and A-level/IB courses generally don’t allow entry after the start of Year 10/Grade 9 or Year 12/Grade 11.
Some schools may require prospective pupils to sit a series of
light assessments and interviews
to ensure they meet the necessary academic standards. Often, the main assessment is a test of English-language proficiency so the school can assess whether a student will need to join an EAL programme and at what level.
Admissions fees vary, but tend to be made up of:
A non-refundable application fee
A registration fee, paid to secure a place once it has been offered
A deposit (generally a term’s tuition fees, refunded on withdrawal or graduation)
Tuition fees (which often include a building/development fee)
Other fees for ICT, boarding, meals, transport, uniform, trips, etc.
Many schools also offer scholarships, waivers and discounts, so it is always worth enquiring.
The British curriculum is the most popular at international schools in Malaysia. Pupils sit very few exams before they reach the sixth form; at this stage, the IB and A-levels are the most popular academic pathways. Schools tied to a particular nationality (such as American or Australian) often offer their own national curriculum. As part of the Modern Foreign Languages curriculum, options tend to include Malay, Mandarin, French, Korean or Spanish.
English is the main language of teaching, and EAL programmes tend to be very strong. Schools at the top end tend to have a significant number of British national teachers; other teaching staff may come from North America, Australia and New Zealand. Mid-range schools usually have a higher number of Malaysian teachers, and this is one of the reasons for the price disparity: expat teachers require higher salaries in line with their knowledge and experience of the international curriculum. That said, most schools like having a number of Malaysian staff to help build cultural understanding and collaboration between different student nationalities. When looking at a school, we would advise questioning the proportion of expat teachers to local staff.
Boarding is offered at many international schools in the country – in part due to demand from domestic students looking for a more immersive experience, but also to attract students from across Asia.
In recent years, there has been a marked increase in the number of
students enrolling in Malaysia’s international schools – particularly Chinese students looking for a less restrictive education than the one offered in their own country.
Covid has put a temporary pause on international students enrolling in Malaysian schools, which are having to adapt and create new EAL programmes for local students. For the time being, this does mean that a school’s student cohort could look very different from what they originally anticipated.
Traffic can be terrible in Kuala Lumpur, so bear this in mind when you are choosing your school!