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Plantation state keen to tap pupils' talent

MALAYSIA

Negeri Sembilan, one of Malaysia's agricultural states, has launched a drive to counter the underperformance of children in rural schools compared to their urban counterparts.

The education department programme, called Total Commitment, aims to unite teachers, parents and pupils in a bid to raise standards.

The target schools are those of the Felda communities, many of which were set up more than 20 years ago to develop agriculture in the remotest areas. For instance in Palang One, half-an-hour's drive from the nearest town, settlers in the 1960s were given a rudimentary house and 12 acres of new rubber trees to tap. Palang One has prospered and its 440 families now cultivate more than 5,500 acres of rubber plantation.

However, education department figures show that Felda children lag behind their urban contemporaries when it comes to exam results.

Lack of extra-curricular tuition is one cause - urban children may get several hours of extra classes a day. In addition, the remoteness of the Felda communities and the distance of schools from suitable lodgings has led to a high turnover of staff and thus problems with teaching quality.

The education department has started a rigorous programme of in-service training to improve leadership qualities in principals and senior teachers in the hope that the benefits will trickle down. They attend short courses on motivation, methodology and even IT and the use of multimedia.

Another aim is to promote better study methods. "We are getting master teachers and subject teachers to deliberate on subject content and come up with an effective strategy for pupils," says Haji Ibrahim Ismail, the department's deputy director. Pupils have their say and, controversially, are now asked to make annual assessments of teachers.

This year, Negeri Sembilan is also hoping to introduce a village tuition policy. Specialist teachers will be seconded from their own schools to provide extra lessons to Felda children outside of normal school hours.

* Malaysia's teachers' union has offered to do its bit for the country's financial crisis. It has proposed a token monthly reduction of 1 ringgit (about 15 pence) in its members' salaries.

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