31 May 2006

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Business Today

As bland as it can get

JAMES DEBONO reads through the Labour Party’s discussion document on education published last week and finds little that excites him in the 56-pager

Under a future Labour government students will have to attend school until 17 rather than the current 16. This is the most striking proposal in the 56 page draft policy on education published by the Labour Party last week.
The rest are a series of bland proposals, which at best can be described as an exercise in outlining good intentions.
Surely, the MLP is set to honour one of its pledges; reducing unemployment. It will be doing so by delaying the entry of young people into the labour market.
This will be achieved by adding a "reception" class at primary school level to serve as a half way educational experience between the two year kindergarten classes and the beginning of primary school.
Yet reducing long-term unemployment depends on giving students the right education to ensure that they leave school equipped by a repertoire of necessary skills.
One of the most laudable proposals in the MLP document which adopts this direction is that of making co-ordinated science a subject for secondary students who do not opt for specific science subjects.
Apart from a positive and all pervading emphasis on science education, the MLP document falls short of anything remotely earth-shattering or imaginative to change an educational system which still reflects the economic realities of the 1970s.
Back then Malta needed an army of unskilled workers who barely needed any schooling. Trade schools and area secondaries provided an adequate recruiting base for the cheap labour industries.
As Malta seeks to attract hi-tech investment, it can no longer afford to segregate students into achievers and failures.
People labelled as failures at 11 years of age cannot be expected to show much willingness for life long learning - a pre condition for job flexibility.
Surely the main aim of the MLP’s plan, is that of ensuring that each and every student should acquire at least the basic abilities by the end of obligatory education.
But the MLP document only pays lip service to inclusivity and only touches on the controversial issue of streaming.
The document acknowledges that a conflict exists between streaming and inclusivity but it falls short of proposing multi- ability classes even at primary level.
Instead of streaming, the document proposes “setting” students in classes of not more than 25, according to their performance in the core subjects - Maltese, Mathematics, English and Science.
In order to redress the worst effects of streaming the document also proposes the introduction of team teaching through which specialised teachers would be teaching science, literacy, physical education and art.
Everyone would agree with the MLP when it declares we should remove the exaggerated pressure on children by shifting the emphasis from examinations to continuos assessments.
But when it comes to the crux of the matter the document is silent. No word is spent on saying whether the MLP will retain the junior lyceum exam, which effectively segregates students between failures and achievers at the tender age of 11.
Neither does Labour go all the way by proposing comprehensives as an alternative to junior lyceums and area secondaries.
Comprehensives which do not discriminate on the basis of ability, characterise the education system of most European countries but Malta has failed to follow suite.
This subject has remained a taboo in the Labour Party ever since Agatha Barbara’s botched attempt to introduce comprehensives in the 1970’s.
The document only goes as far as expressing agreement with the current government’s innovative policy of introducing educational clusters or colleges in each region.
Through the introduction of these colleges students will still be selected on the basis of ability through the 11 plus exam, but segregation would be reduced as all students would be attending the same college and would have the chance to mix together during a number of lessons.
But once again Labour fails to set the agenda on this important issue. It is only responding to the present government’s agenda.
Another good intention expressed by Labour is its promise that state schools should be the best in the country.
Whether the State should continue to finance confessional church schools is a question that does not even make it in the 56-page document.
As regards the university Labour is speaking of a bigger link between employment and university so that courses would be more relevant to what is needed in employment.
Stipends would not be touched again. Labour would not risk irking anyone on the eve of a tight election. Stipends are possibly destined to die a natural death as more students opt for paid work as inflation erodes the real value of stipends.
Labour would also retain the current system where examinations are all taken together at the end of the second sixth form year but proposes scrapping the Systems of Knowledge exam while retaining the subject.
This will be no great loss for the country’s cultural development.
The subject has failed miserably in reaching its lofty ideals of instilling a love for culture, philosophy, literature and science. Students are known for regurgitating notes and seeking the assistance of the entire extended family to prepare the end of year project.
A bolder step would have been that of removing systems of knowledge at sixth form level and introducing a softer version of it at secondary level.
After all it might be late to instil a love for books at 17 years of age. Why not try at 11?
Labour fails to propose at least one single bright idea to redress the cultural mediocrity, which characterises a country that has remained cut off from Europe’s intellectual traditions.
Can we afford to continue living in a country where university graduates do not even know the distinction between the political left and the political right?
Neither does the MLP education document spend a single word on addressing racism and strengthening the multicultural dimension in schools that are increasingly becoming exposed to this phenomenon.
One may argue that a nation of self-centred bigots can still compete. Yet, as investments from different parts of the world reach Malta, our prosperity will depend on a degree of cultural understanding.
The education document is yet another of Labour’s attempts at trying to portray itself as a government in waiting with a set of policies in hand. It is anything but that and a party that wants to offer an alternative to the current administration needs to do much more. It needs to be more radical.


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