The Public Schooling System - for Primary, Secondary and Post-secondary Levels


The Ministry of Education (MOE) is responsible for the provision of education at pre-tertiary level (i.e. pre-school, primary, secondary and post-secondary levels, but does not include tertiary level) for children of schooling age. The law that regulates the provision of this level of education is the Education Act 1996.

(Note: Tertiary education at higher educational institutions in Malaysia is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Higher Education)

MOE sets in place a comprehensive schooling system from pre-school to secondary education, apart from its responsibilities of regulating the operations of all public and private-funded schools and educational institutions. The strategies to enhance education excellence to a higher level are spelt out in the National Education Blueprint 2006-2010.

Under the national education system, a child's education begins at pre-school at the age of four and admittance to the first year of the 6-year compulsory primary education when the child reaches the age of six as at the first day of January of the current school year. Most schools at this level are government or government-aided schools. However, the number of private schools are growing to meet the demand of more affluent parents in the city.

The government provides 11 years of free primary and secondary education in public schools. Education at private schools and international schools are provided at a fee.

Primary schooling is mandatory for all children. Thus, children between the ages of seven and 12 have to register and enrol at primary schools. Home schooling or home-based teaching, i.e. teaching children at home, is allowed but permission must be sought from MOE.

The school term starts in January and ends in November. All students from both public and private schools under the national education system study the same national curriculum and sit for common public examinations at the end of the primary, lower secondary, upper secondary and sixth form levels.

The first three levels of examination are conducted by the examination body, namely, the Examination Syndicate of the MOE whereas the final level. i.e. the sixth form examination is conducted by another examination body, namely, the Malaysian Examination Council.

Within the education structure in Malaysia, there are also foreign schools (i.e. international schools and expatriate schools) that use foreign curriculum and languages to teach students. These foreign schools are unique as they are not governed by the Education Act 1996 and do not need to conduct the Malaysian National Curriculum.

The Education Act 1996

The Education Act 1996 which repealed the Education Act 1961, is the education legislation that provides for pre-school education, primary school education, secondary school education, post-secondary education, teacher education, special education, religious teaching, private education, and technical education (but does not include education in foreign system schools i.e. expatriate schools or international schools). The Act stipulates the use of the national language (Bahasa Melayu) as a medium of instruction in all educational institutions in the national education system except nationaltype schools or any other educational institutions exempted by the Ministry. The Act also requires all schools to use a national curriculum and to prepare pupils for common public examinations, unless or otherwise exempted.

National Curriculum - Section 18 of the Education Act

Section 18 of the Education Act 1996 stipulates the use of the national curriculum by all schools (including pre-schools/kindergartens, primary and secondary schools but excluding international and expatriate schools) under the national education system:

18(1) : The Minister shall prescribe a curriculum known as the National Curriculum which, subject to subsection (3), shall be used by all schools in the National Educational System (Note: The prescribed curriculum for kindergartens is known as National Pre-school Curriculum)

18(2) : The National Curriculum prescribed under subsection (1) shall specify the knowledge, skills and values that are expected to be acquired by pupils at the end of their respective periods of schooling and shall include the core subjects as set out in the Schedule and other subjects that may be prescribed.

18(3) : In the case of private schools (excluding international and expatriate schools), subsection (1) shall be deemed to have been complied with, if the core subjects of the National Curriculum as set out in the Schedule are taught in the schools.

18(4) : The Minister may from time to time by order publish in the Gazette to amend or alter the Schedule.

The National Curriculum prescribes a list of subjects for all levels of schooling. The subjects and their meaning are categorised as:

  • 'core subjects' which are defined as subjects that must be learned by all pupils in government and government-aided schools and private schools.
  • 'compulsory subjects' which include all subjects other than the core subjects that must be learned by all pupils in government and government-aided schools.
  • 'additional subjects' which are subjects taught in accordance with the Act in government and government-aided schools.
  • 'elective subjects' which are subjects other than the compulsory and core subjects that are chosen by pupils in government and governmentaided schools according to their interest, talent, ability and potential.

(Note: In the context of this directory, 'private schools' refer to private-funded schools registered under the Education Act 1996 and do not include expatriate schools or international schools)

Education Providers

Public-funded and private-funded educational institutions co-exist in the education system. Primary and secondary school education in the public sector is free but not in the private sector. It is estimated that 95% of the primary and secondary school education in Malaysia is provided by the government (public schools) while the private sector plays a more important role at the pre-school and tertiary levels.

The private sector plays a vital part in pre-tertiary education particularly at pre-school levels and actively offers pre-school, primary and secondary education in urban areas. The private sector or self-funded providers cater to parents who can afford education for their children at a fee.

There are three categories of educational institutions providing pre-tertiary education under the Education Act and are delineated below:

  • government educational institutions
  • government-aided educational institutions
  • private educational institutions

(Note: The other category of private-funded education institution is the foreign system schools which include international schools and expatriate schools. They are not governed by the Education Act 1996 and are exempted from conducting the Malaysian National Curriculum.)

Pre-Tertiary Education Structure

Under the Education Act 1996, pre-tertiary education for schooling children is provided at four levels. They are:
  • Level 1: Pre-school education for children aged 4 to 6;
  • Level 2: Primary education from age 7 to 12 (Standard 1 to Standard 6 for 6 years);
  • Level 3: Secondary education from age 13 to 17 (Form 1 to Form 5 for 5 years); and
  • Level 4: Post-secondary education from age 18 (Sixth Form/Matriculation for 1 to 2 years)

(A) Pre-School Education (for age 4 - 6)

Pre-school education is part of the national education system and is governed by the Education Act 1996. Children generally begin their education at preschools/ kindergartens from the age of four to six.

In order to enhance the access of pre-school education to all children regardless of race and religion particularly in the rural areas, MOE is aggressively expanding the pre-school programme at government schools for children aged 5+ with additional classes and well-trained teachers to lead the classes. The Ministry also provides special pre-school classes for children with hearing or visual impairment.

Providers of Pre-schools Education
In the system, pre-school education is for children aged four to six. The providers are pre-schools or kindergartens that are available throughout the country and operated by government agencies, non-governmental organisations as well as the private sector. The main government agencies that offer preschool education are the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Rural Development (KEMAS), ABIM, the State Religious Department and the National Unity Department.

Curricular Emphasis
All kindergartens need to adopt the National Pre-school Curriculum (NPC) set by MOE. The curriculum enables pre-school children to acquire sufficient basic communication, personality development, social and other positive skills that will prepare them for primary schooling.

(Note: For more information on pre-school education, kindly refer to Chapter 1 and Chapter 2)

(B) Primary Education at Public Schools (Standard 1 to Standard 6, age 7 - 12)

Primary schooling begins when a child is six on 1 January of a given year and is completed after six years of education. Since 2003, primary schooling has been compulsory whilst home-schooling or home-based teaching is allowed only with the prior permission of the State Education Department, Ministry of Education. All Malaysian parents must ensure that their children have access to primary education when they reach the age of six +.

Providers of Primary Education
There are three categories of primary schools under the national education system and are governed by the Education Act 1996:

  • Government schools: public-funded national schools
  • Government-aided schools: public-funded national-type schools, includes
    - Chinese national-type schools
    - Tamil national-type schools
  • Private schools (not including the foreign system schools)

All the above schools (which do not include international or expatriate schools) are to use the prescribed national curriculum which specifies the knowledge, skills and values that are expected to be acquired by pupils at the end of their respective periods of schooling. All schools are required to teach core subjects and other such subjects as prescribed under the Act.

For national schools, the medium of instruction used is the Malay language (Bahasa Melayu). However, the medium of instruction in national-type schools is either Chinese (Mandarin) or Tamil. In both types of schools, the Malay language is a compulsory subject as with English which is taught as a second language. Chinese, Tamil and indigenous languages are also offered as subjects at national schools.

As for private schools, they are approved under the Education Act 1996 to conduct classes using the Malay language as the medium of instruction and such schools are required to teach the core subjects of the national curriculum. Private schools usually have extended schooling hours.

Curriculum Emphasis
The national curriculum for primary schools is known as Primary School Integrated Curriculum or Kurikulum Bersepadu Sekolah Rendah (KBSR). Primary education is divided into two phases - Phase I (Standard 1 to 3) and Phase II (Standard 4 to 6). At Phase I, the emphasis is on acquiring strong reading, writing and arithmetic skills. At Phase II, the mastery of these skills is reinforced and emphasis is given to building a strong foundation in content and basic science.

The six years of primary school education focuses on the development of personality, attitude, values, study skills and thinking skills as well as the acquisition of knowledge and pre-vocational education. Throughout the country, more than 98 percent of children from this age group participate in primary schooling.

Since 2003, English has been introduced as the medium of instruction for two subjects namely, science and mathematics for all schools. However, the government will revert the policy of teaching of mathematics and science in English to Bahasa Melayu at national schools and Chinese and Tamil in vernacular schools beginning 2012.

Under the Act, at the end of the sixth year of primary schooling, students are required to sit for a common public examination, called the Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) or Primary School Achievement Test.

(C) Secondary Education at Public Schools (Form 1 - Form 5, age 13 - 17)

Upon completion of primary school education, students will automatically be promoted to secondary level education for another five years. The education at public secondary schools is free but not mandatory.

There are two categories of secondary schools under the national education system and are governed by the Education Act 1996:

  • National Secondary Schools (this is further divided into three types):
    i. Academic secondary schools
    ii. Technical secondary schools which offer three streams i.e.
    - technical stream
    - vocational stream, and
    - skills stream
    iii. Secondary schools of other descriptions as determined by the Ministry, such as
    - National Religious Secondary Schools
    - Special Education Schools
  • Private-funded Schools
    - private secondary schools (not including foreign system schools)

Levels of Secondary Education
Secondary education is divided into lower and upper secondary levels, and a special year of transition programme known as 'Remove Class' for students from the National-Type Chinese and Tamil Primary Schools who do not do well in their language subjects in the UPSR examination.

The different levels are:

  • Remove Class
    - a one-year transition programme
  • Lower secondary level (Form 1 - Form 3, age 13 - 15)
    - focuses on general education
  • Upper secondary level (Form 4 - Form 5, age 16 - 17)
    - streams students into either science, arts, religious, technical or vocational studies

Remove Class
Remove Class is a transition year for students from the Chinese and Tamil medium schools to acquire sufficient proficiency in Bahasa Melayu which is the medium of instruction in secondary school (Form 1 to Form 5). However, students who perform well in Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah, UPSR (Primary School Achievement Test) are allowed to proceed to Form 1.

Lower Secondary (Form 1 - Form 3, age 13 - 15)
The lower secondary level covers a duration of three years, i.e. Form 1 to Form 3. Education at this level is general in nature and schools conducting classes at this level are academic-based schools. Students from the national primary schools proceed directly to Form 1. Students from the Chinese and Tamil medium national-type schools are allowed to enter Form 1 directly without undergoing a year of transition class (Remove Class) provided that they have scored good grades in the UPSR examination.

At the end of the third year at the lower secondary level, students will be required to sit for a public examination called the Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR) or the Lower Secondary Assessment (LSA). However, PMR is not a terminal examination. It is more of a diagnostic evaluation instead. Therefore, all students will be automatically promoted to the upper secondary level for another two years to complete 11 years of free education.

Upper Secondary (Form 4 Form 5, age 16 - 17)
After completing the Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR) examination at Form 3, students proceed to another two years of education at upper secondary schools. Based on their preference, PMR examination results and aptitude, students can opt to enter any of the schools below. After two years of upper secondary education, students sit for the public common examination Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia, SPM (also known as the Malaysian Certificate of Education which is equivalent to the GCE 'O' level).

Under the upper secondary level, there are:

(i) Academic Secondary Schools
Students in upper secondary academic schools will pursue a broad based academic education. Core subjects, compulsory subjects and elective subjects which are mainly science, applied arts, and humanities based are offered. Students are allowed to choose either the science or arts stream depending on their capabilities and interests, in the open certification system.

(Note: Most secondary schools in the country are academic schools.)

(ii) Technical Schools
This type of school offers three streams, i.e. technical stream, vocational stream and skills stream. Students enrolled in the technical stream study the same core subjects of the upper secondary school curriculum and can choose science and technical subjects as electives. Only students with a strong background in mathematics and science are selected to enrol in the technical stream. Students from this stream are encouraged to continue their studies in science and technology-related courses at certificate, diploma or degree levels.

The vocational education stream provides courses in pre-employment skills as well as general education. Emphasis is given to general and vocational subjects in order to provide students with a good foundation for admission into polytechnics, community colleges and other institutions of higher education.

In the skills training stream, however, emphasis is given to practical work to develop competency in trade skills required by related industries. They are prepared for the National Vocational Training Certificate (NVTC) qualification, awarded by the Department of Skills Development, Ministry of Human Resources.

In order to increase the participation of students in science and technology sectors on par with the 60:40 principle, technical subjects are offered in academic secondary schools and national religious secondary schools.

(iii) National Religious Secondary Schools
These schools are known as Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Agama and offer Islamic Religious Education and Arabic Studies. Subjects related to science and technology are also included. These schools maintain their uniqueness in offering specialised elective courses in Islamic Studies which are not available at other schools.

The compulsory subjects are Tasawwur Islam, Al-Quran study and As- Sunnah and Syariah Islamiah study. NRSS also offers elective subjects such as pure science, arts, technology, information technology and languages.

(iv) Special Education Schools
Specially tailored for students with special needs such as students with disabilities, students with visual or hearing impairment as well as those with learning disabilities. Such students are given an extended time frame to complete their education. There are also schools for mentally retarded children in some states.

Curricular Emphasis
The secondary school education aims to increase the level of proficiency in Bahasa Melayu and English Language; promote the general development of students by helping them acquire knowledge and stay competent; develop a broader base of intellectual capacity, self-confidence and skills in order to cope with new areas of knowledge and technological knowledge; and inculcate values based on the National Philosophy of Education. The ultimate goal is to develop a strong foundation for life-long education. The National Curriculum prescribed for secondary schools is known as the Integrated Curriculum for Secondary Schools or Kurikulum Bersepadu Sekolah Menengah (KBSM).

The medium of instruction in secondary school is Bahasa Melayu while English is taught as a second language in all schools. There are core subjects and compulsory subjects offered to all as examination subjects which are stated in the Education Regulations (National Curriculum). Chinese, Tamil and Arabic (communication) are offered as additional subjects. Foreign languages such as French and other indigenous languages are also being introduced. At the end of the second year (Form 5), students are required to sit for a public common examination, the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) Open Certification Examination.

SPM Open Certification System
(refer to Appendix for more information)
The education system at the upper secondary level is based on the concept of open certification where students study six common core subjects as well as a wide range of elective subjects depending on their interests and capabilities. Upon completing two years of studies at this level, all upper secondary students (irrespective of the type of school) are required to sit for the common public examination called the Malaysia Certificate of Education or Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) Open Certification Examination. From 2010 onwards, candidates are only allowed to sit for a maximum of 10 subjects.

The current SPM examination that practises open certification was implemented in 2000, replacing the former SPM and SPM (Vocational) examinations.

(Note: Please refer to Appendix section for more information)


The Malaysian education system is unique and meets the educational needs of its multi-racial community. At primary school level, students have the choice of selecting the medium of instruction they wish to pursue. One can choose to study either at national schools that use the national language i.e. Malay language (Bahasa Malaysia) as the medium of instruction; or Chinese/Tamil schools that use Chinese/Tamil as the medium of instruction; or international schools that use English as the medium of instruction. Therefore it is common to see young Malaysian students possessing a good command of many languages besides their mother tongue. This multi-lingual teaching-learning environment in Malaysia has indeed made the nation a centre of educational excellence for pre-tertiary education.

At secondary school level, more than 90% of students continue their education at national public schools which use Bahasa Malaysia as a medium of instruction. English is taught as a second language.

Private schools which follow the Malaysian curriculum and international schools (subject to terms and conditions) are among the choices available.

The National Education Blueprint 2006-2010 is a brilliant five-year comprehensive education plan. The government is committed in developing human capital and is set to build an education system which is world-class and capable of producing students who are competent and competitive with high moral values to meet both local and international demands.

Sources of Reference :
• Education Act 1996
• 'Pendidkan Di Malaysia' published by Ministry of Education, 2005
• Schools of Malaysia Directory (2nd Edition)
• Malaysian Educational Statistics 2007 & Quick Fact 2008, Education Planning & Research Division, Ministry of Education
• Education Statistics for Private Education 2006, Department of Private Education, MOE
• The National Education Blueprint 2006-2010, Ministry of Education
• Various Related Agencies from the Ministry of Education

Source: Schools of Malaysia Directory 3rd Ed.