Education in Malaysia may be obtained from government-sponsored schools, private schools, or through homeschooling. The education system is highly centralised, particularly for primary and secondary schools, with state and local governments having little say in the curriculum or other major aspects of education. Standardised tests are a common feature.
Education in Malaysia broadly consists of a set of stages which are:
- Primary Education
- Secondary Education
- Tertiary Education
Only Primary Education in Malaysia is mandated by law, hence it is not a criminal offence to neglect the educational needs of a child after six years of Primary Education.
Primary and secondary education in government schools is handled by the Ministry of Education, but policies regarding tertiary education are handled by the Ministry of Higher Education, created in 2004.
Attendance in a pre-school programme is not universal and generally only affluent families can afford to send their children to private, for profit pre-schools.
The government has no formal pre-school programme except "aid" based programmes in more rural parts of the country or in rural enclaves within the cities.
Other pre-school programmes are run by religious groups. No formal training or certification is required to start a pre-school. Additionally pre-schools are not subject to zoning regulations and many of them can be found in residential buildings which have been converted for this purpose. Some private schools have pre-school sections.
Primary education consists of six years of education, referred to as Year 1 to Year 6 (also known as Standard 1 to Standard 6). Year 1 to Year 3 are classified as Level One (Tahap Satu in Malay) while Year 4 to Year 6 are considered as Level Two (Tahap Dua). Primary education begins at the age of 6 and ends at 12. Students are promoted to the next year, regardless of their academic performance.
Until 2000, the Penilaian Tahap Satu (PTS) or the Level One Evaluation was administered to Year 3 students. Excellence in this test allowed students to skip Year 4 and attend Year 5 instead. However, the test was removed from 2001 onwards due to concerns that parents and teachers were unduly pressuring students to pass the exam.
At the end of primary education, students in national schools are required to undergo a standardised test known as the Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) or Primary School Evaluation Test. The subjects tested are Malay comprehension, written Malay, English, Science and Mathematics. Previously, Chinese and Tamil comprehension along with written Chinese and Tamil are optional subjects for Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools.
The primary education system is divided into the national schools (Sekolah Kebangsaan) and vernacular schools (Sekolah Rendah Jenis Kebangsaan; literally national-type school). Both are public schools while not all vernacular schools are public. In January 2003, a mixed medium of instruction was introduced so that in Standard 1, Science and Mathematics are taught in English whilst other subjects are taught in Malay. Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools generally conduct classes in Mandarin and Tamil respectively. Recently, Tamil schools have also begun to employ English for teaching Science and Mathematics and currently, Chinese schools teach Science and Mathematics in both English and Chinese. Participation in the UPSR is not compulsory, but all vernacular schools also administer the UPSR to their students as this allows for re-integration of their students into national schools for secondary education.
Secondary Education consists of 5 years of schooling referred to as Form 1 to Form 5.
Public secondary schools are regarded as extensions of the national schools. At the end of Form 3, the Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR) or Lower Secondary Evaluation is taken by students. (This was formerly known as Sijil Pelajaran Rendah [SRP] or the Lower Certificate of Education [LCE].) Based on results, they will be streamed into either the Science stream or Arts stream. The Science stream is generally more desirable. Students are allowed to shift to the Arts stream from the Science stream, but not vice-versa.
At the end of Form 5, students are required to take the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) or Malaysian Certificate of Education examination, before graduating from secondary school. The SPM was based on the old British ‘School Certificate’ examination before it became General Certificate of Education 'O' Levels examination, which became the GCSE (General Certificate of School Education). As of 2006, students — in addition to the normal English SPM paper — students are given a GCE 'O' Level grade for their English paper as well. This separate grade is given based on the marks of the essay-writing component of the English paper. The essay section of the English paper is remarked under the supervision of officials from British 'O' Levels examination . Although not part of their final certificates, the 'O' Level grade is included on their results slip.
After the SPM, students would have a choice of either studying Form 6 or the matriculation (pre-university). Should they choose to continue studying in Form 6, they will also take the Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia or Malaysian Higher School Certificate examination (its British equivalent is the General Certificate of Education 'A' Levels examination or internationally, the Higher School Certificate). Form 6 consists of two years of study which is known as Lower 6 (Tingkatan Enam Rendah) and Upper 6 (Tingkatan Enam Atas). Though the STPM is generally taken by those desiring to attend a public university, it is internationally recognised and may also be used, though rarely required, to enter private local universities for undergraduate courses.
Additionally all students may apply for admission to matriculation which is a one-year programme run by the Ministry of Education. Not all applicants for matriculation are admitted and the selection criteria are not publicly declared, which has led to speculation that any criteria existing may not be adhered to. A race-based quota is applied on the admission process, with 90% of the places being reserved for the bumiputeras, and the other 10% for the non-bumiputeras. The matriculation programme is only 1 year long and not as rigorous as the STPM. The matriculation programme has come under some criticism as it is the general consensus that this programme is much easier than the sixth form programme leading to the STPM and serves to help Bumiputeras enter the public university easily. It is considered easier because in the matriculation program the teachers set and mark the final exams that their students sit, whereas in the STPM the final exam is standardised and exam papers are exchanged between schools in different states to ensure unbiased marking.
Some students undertake their pre-university studies in private colleges. They may opt for programmes such as the British 'A' Levels programme, the Canadian matriculation programme or the equivalent of other national systems - namely the Australian NSW Board of Studies Higher School Certificate and the American High School Diploma with AP subjects. More recently, the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme is becoming more popular as a pre-university option.
Tertiary education in the public universities is heavily subsidised by the government. Applicants to public universities must have completed the matriculation program or have an STPM grade. Excellence in these examinations does not guarantee a place in a public university. The selection criteria are largely opaque as no strictly enforced defined guidelines exist.