Children begin primary schooling at the age of seven for a period of six years. Primary schools are divided into two categories, the national primary school and the vernacular school. Vernacular schools (Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan) use either Chinese or Tamil as the medium of instruction, where as national primary school (Sekolah Kebangsaan) uses Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of instruction for subjects except English, Science and Mathematics. National-type schools are further divided into Chinese national-type schools (Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Cina, SJK(C)) and Tamil national-type schools (Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Tamil, SJK(T)).
There were also other national-type schools, previously, besides the Chinese and Tamil ones such as those for the Punjabi language but these were closed due to the dwindling number of students attending these schools. The role of promoting the Punjabi language among school children were then taken over by various Gurdwaras (Sikh temple) based organizations. These classes which are aimed at educating Punjabis of all age groups also focus on the learning of the Gurmukhi Script (Punjabi Script) as well as inculcating the Punjabi culture and heritage among youths and adults.
By degree of government funding, national schools are government-operated, while national-type schools are mostly government-assisted, though some are government-operated. All schools admit students regardless of racial and language background.The medium of instruction is Malay for SK, Mandarin and simplified Chinese characters writing for SJK(C), and Tamil for SJK(T). Malay and English are compulsory subjects in all schools. All schools use the same syllabus for non-language subjects regardless of the medium of instruction. In January 2003, a mixed medium of instruction was introduced so that students would learn Science and Mathematics in English. Due to pressure from the Chinese community, SJK(C) teach Science and Mathematics in both English and Chinese. However, the government reversed the policy of teaching Science and Mathematics in English in July 2009, and previous languages of instruction will be reintroduced in stages from 2012.
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) 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 (poor curriculum induced).
From 1996 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.
Before progressing to the secondary level of education, pupils in Year 6 are required to sit for the Primary School Assesment Test (Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah, UPSR). The subjects tested are Malay comprehension, written Malay, English, Science and Mathematics. Chinese comprehension and written Chinese are compulsory in SJK(C), while Tamil comprehension and written Tamil are compulsory in SJK(T). A programme called First Level Assessment (Penilaian Tahap Satu, PTS) taken during Primary Year 3 was abolished in 2001.
Between 1995 and 2000, the Seventh Malaysia Plan allocation for primary education development allocated 96.5% to national primary schools which had 75% of total enrollment. Chinese primary schools (21% enrollment) received 2.4% of the allocation while Tamil primary schools (3.6% enrollment) received 1% of the allocation.
The division of public education at the primary level into national and national-type schools has been criticised for allegedly creating racial polarisation at an early age. To address the problem, attempts have been made to establish Sekolah Wawasan ("vision schools"). Under the concept, three schools (typically one SK, one SJK(C) and one SJK(T)) would share the same school compound and facilities while maintaining different school administrations, ostensibly to encourage closer interaction. However, this was met with objections from most of the Chinese and Indian communities as they believe this will restrict the use of their mother tongue in schools.