Education in Malaysia broadly consists of a set of stages which are:
- Primary Education
- Secondary Education
- Tertiary Education
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 curriculum for pre-schoolers except a formal mandatory training and certification to principals and teachers before they can operate a pre-school. The training covers lessons on child psychology, teaching methodologies, and other related curriculum on childcare and development.
Registered pre-schools are subjected to zoning regulations and must comply to other regulations such as health screening and fire hazard assessment. Many of the preschools are located in high density residential areas where normal residences which comply to the regulations of the Welfare Ministry is converted for this purpose. Some private schools have pre-school sections. Other pre-school programmes are run by religious groups.
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 7 and ends at 12. Students are promoted to the next year regardless of their academic performance.
At the end of primary education, students in national schools are required to undergo a standardised test known as the Ujian Pencapaian 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.
In January 2003, a mixed medium of instruction was introduced so that Standard 1 students would learn Science and Mathematics 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, formerly known as Sijil Pelajaran Rendah (SRP) or Lower Certificate of Education (LCE)) or Lower Secondary Evaluation is taken by students. 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 rarely 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 Secondary Education). As of 2006, students are given a GCE 'O' Level grade for their English paper in addition to the normal English SPM paper.
After the SPM, students would have a choice of either studying Form 6 or the matriculation (pre-university). If they are accepted 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).
Additionally all students may apply for admission to matriculation which is a one or two-year programme run by the Ministry of Education. In 2004, the government formed the Ministry of Higher Education to oversee tertiary education in Malaysia.