Needed – a reform in the education platform

Studies reveal how early school leaving requires a long-term response with sustained political and financial commitment together with strong leadership from all key actors; this includes policy makers, educational authorities as well as parents, pupils, teachers and their union leaders

Education minister Justyne Caruana
Education minister Justyne Caruana

Following the recent acceleration of the vaccine rollout in Malta and the much-heralded reopening of the tourism sector it would be interesting to gauge the extent of the economic recovery during the coming summer months and how this may impact society in general and the education sector in particular.  

One hopes and prays that the Covid-19 pandemic slowly calms down. This prognosis needs to be measured in the light of progress in the education sector which is so vital for our economy to survive and recapture intellectual capital lost during school lockdowns. 

Unfortunately, our education platform is not at its best even though millions are poured annually to fund free education up to tertiary levels (and beyond). There was plenty of expenditure on upgrading schools’ physical infrastructure, giving electronic freebies to pupils and improving stipends to all post-secondary students. But the sobering reality is that the weaker students from better-off families have a greater chance of avoiding the underachievement trap because their families can provide extra safety nets for them to succeed. 

There is a perennial malady that politicians measure success in education by the number of new schools built or renovated. The pandemic has exacerbated the level of truancy, not only in state but in other private schools. Students get 'lost' within the system, never showing up for online lessons - and it's not a question of them not having a computer at home. 

Some question if we are really attracting graduates who look at teaching as a vocation or just those who are looking for a job or – worse yet – those who look at teaching as a temporary occupation before moving on to another more financial rewarding and less stressful job.

Statistics show there has been dismal failures in English, Maltese and Maths subjects this year. Recent figures from the MATSEC board, show that 642 of the 3,706 who sat for Maltese failed, while this was true for 762 of the 4,162 students who sat for maths and 575 students of the 4,086 who did their English language exam. In all three subjects, only a small proportion of the students obtained the higher grades, most scoring lower marks. 

This leads to question if Malta’s educational system has been underperforming for decades and is victim to a high level of early school leavers. There has been no shortage of strategic reforms aimed at reducing the endemic problem of early school-leaving (ESL).  

A recent awakening of our educational deficit is the launching of yet another strategy by the Minister of Education Justyne Caruana. She calls it “the first national policy on early school-leaving of 2014”.  

Solving our perennial problem of ESL is not easy.  Studies reveal how early school leaving requires a long-term response with sustained political and financial commitment together with strong leadership from all key actors. This includes policy makers, educational authorities as well as parents, pupils, teachers and their union leaders. 

What has eluded us over the past years cannot be remedied in a few months by the use of buzz words.  The education minister wants to appoint a coordinating body with cross-department links. This needs support cooperation at national level and in practice collaborate with ministries/institutions in related policy fields.  Not a walk in the park for Justyne Caruana.  

While some improvements have been achieved over the past decade, Malta still ranks in the penultimate place on the EU index of early school-leavers. In statistical terms, ESL rates are measured as the percentage of 18–24-year-olds with only lower secondary education or less and no longer in education or training. In practice we meet few local schools that indulged in official studies concerning true reasons behind the high rate of ESL in Malta. Certainly not much data prevails.  

It goes without saying that if such studies commence then care should be devoted to the method of collecting evidence examining the main reasons underlying ESL for different groups of pupils, schools, types of education and training institutions, local authorities or regions in both islands. We all agree that educating the human cohort is so precious for an island with no natural resources. 

Participation in high quality education is beneficial for the individual, society and the economy. The rate of return, taking into account the private, fiscal and social costs and benefits of education, is positive. A textbook approach will show that high quality, up-to-date guidance made available at an early stage is essential for providing young people with the information they need to make informed education and career choices.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, research findings in the EU show that ESL and low levels of educational attainment reduce lifetime earnings, lead to higher unemployment rates, and to large public and social costs. Reducing the average European rate of early school leavers to less than 10% is one of the education headline targets of the Europe 2020 Strategy.  

Needless to say, our heavy investment in the educational achievement of young people is essential for the employment prospects. It is important for the growth of our economy and for social cohesion, especially at a time when the current slowdown and massive annual deficits are having a demotivating impact on young people. Judicious investing in education helps to break the cycle of deprivation and poverty leading to the social exclusion of our future workers. 

Some may ask what is the definition of ‘early school leaving’? At EU level, this refers to ‘those young people who leave education and training with only lower secondary education or less, and who are no longer in education and training’. 

Ideally our future school platform should be a place where pupils feel comfortable and supported, feel ownership of their own learning and can engage in the life of their school community.  This is important both for the emotional, social and educational development of the pupil and for the overall governance of the institution.  

As a condition of successful learning, teachers need to strengthen their role as facilitators of learning. State schools need autonomy, time, and space for innovation, teamwork, feedback, self-reflection and evaluation. Teachers of both state and private schools need access to enhanced opportunities for continued professional development.  

In conclusion, so long as we keep nibbling at the edges of the problem, we will continue to report heavy casualties by way of early school leavers and poor results in STEM subjects.

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