The beginning of a new system of education
The new Education Reform Agreement between the government and the Malta Union of Teachers that was signed on July 17 this year marks the beginning of a new system of compulsory education in Malta. It deserves to be analysed in depth not only for the changes that are now possible in our schools and classrooms, but also for the process that led to it, that has broken new ground in the dynamics of educational change, specifically in the interplay between educational leadership, stakeholder influence and public ownership.
In the first part of this article I shall be looking at the historical background to the new agreement, while in the second and third parts of the article I shall review the main innovations in the agreement, and at the way ahead after the signing of the agreement.
The new beginning I referred to in the introduction to this article may be said to span from the start of the process of review of the national curriculum in August 1994 up to the signing of the Education Reform Agreement in July 2007. This 13-year period can be divided in three parts:
Constructing a New Educational Vision, from August 1994 to December 1999;
Attempting the New Vision through Centralised Structures, from January 2000 to June 2003;
Realising the New Vision through Decentralised Structures, from June 2003 to July 2007.
A new educational vision
The 2000 new National Minimum Curriculum (NMC) covers all of compulsory education in Malta and is binding on all schools. It was a watershed in our educational system not only because of the articulated vision it espoused, but perhaps even more so because of the process that led to its formulation and universal acceptance and ownership. Indeed, the new NMC is probably one of the very few national statements of vision since Independence that not only survived the passage from one administration to the next, but was actually strengthened by the organic process it underwent.
The story starts with the first NMC that was established in 1989, part of a wave of educational reforms ushered by Minister Ugo Mifsud Bonnici that included a new Education Act, the recognition of the professional status of teachers and the setting up of School Councils. This first NMC was a valid affirmation of sound elements of educational vision and practice as seen at the time, but it suffered from being perceived as "top-down". Developed and presented by anonymous writers without a participatory process, it did little to engender public and stakeholder engagement in the critical review of beliefs and practices that needed renewal.
The process to review the national curriculum was started by Minister Michael Falzon with the appointment in August 1994 of the Consultative Committee on Education chaired by Professor Kenneth Wain. The Committee presented its report Tomorrow's Schools: Developing Effective Learning Cultures that was published in April 1995. The most important and lasting contribution to national educational debate of the Wain Report was that it replaced "supply-centred" discourse with "learner-centred" discourse.
Educational provision, the Wain Report said, should not be reviewed from the perspective of tinkering with what was available, since this did not seriously question the inbuilt injustices and inefficiencies in the system itself. Rather, it should be reviewed from the point of view of what all the learners needed in terms of what were called the Four E's: Entitlement, Equity, Economy and Effectiveness.
A consequence to the Wain Report was the setting in motion in March 1996 by Minister Falzon of the formal review of the NMC by a committee led by Mary Vella, then Director of the Department of Curriculum Development, Implementation and Review. The first draft of the New National Curriculum was presented to Minister Evarist Bartolo, newly appointed after the 1996 elections, and published in March 1998.
This draft built on the principles espoused in the Wain Report, and set up a conceptual framework that was to be retained and expanded in later versions. It also represented a dramatically bold departure from the first NMC in a number of areas: it proposed timelines for the abolition of streaming, the 11+ exams and the selection between different types of state secondary schools. It also included proposals for radically different forms of assessment in both primary and secondary school.
Just as importantly, the document was based on a systematic consultation process with education stakeholders and the general public, a first for such an educational document. Indeed, feedback from around 300 individuals and organisations was received. Copies of the draft New National Curriculum were disseminated to all teachers, schools, public libraries and local councils. Many information and discussion meetings for teachers and parents were also organized around the country.
All this brought about immediate reaction mainly on the removal of streaming in primary education, the abolition of tripartite education at secondary level, the new method of assessment and the policy concerning the official languages. These reactions were a clear indication that further work was needed to ensure that a truly national curriculum would be accepted and owned by all stakeholders. Indeed, Minister Bartolo felt the need to publicly set minds at rest that there were no plans for the abolition of the Junior Lyceum exams, effectively vitiating debate on a key plank of the draft New National Curriculum proposals.
At the time many in education were furious at what looked like a climb-down in the face of conservative fears of change; in retrospect, it seems that Minister Bartolo's political antennae probably alerted him that it would be better to loose that particular battle than the war. The vital lesson learnt was that radical educational vision alone could not bring about significant educational change. All stakeholders - especially teachers, parents and their respective representatives - needed to be on board. And this did not mean just consulting before and explaining after, but engaging in a national process of give-and-take that explored the limits of the national capacity for educational change and simultaneously strove to widen these limits through a process of dialogue at all levels.
This was the lesson with which Louis Galea, the new Education Minister after the 1998 elections, embarked on the new remit entrusted to him. Soon after taking office he launched the second round of grassroots and focus group consultations that led to a second draft of the NMC in April 1999, which was again disseminated to key stakeholders. Their feedback led to a subsequent draft that was presented to the Cabinet in September 1999. It was then discussed by the Parliamentary Social Affairs Committee, and all final suggestions were integrated into the final text that was published exactly on the eve of the new millennium 2000.
This final document retained the conceptual structure of the 1998 draft, but scaled back some of the original proposals for change so as to make it palatable to as wide an audience as possible. The Junior Lyceum exam, for example, was retained "in the absence of other arrangements that would be of greater educational benefit". This proved to be an astute move, since today the new NMC is universally considered as the foundation stone of contemporary national educational development. In all the vicissitudes that accompanied subsequent efforts to implement the new NMC, its validity has never been questioned.
Mr Spiteri is senior executive at the Foundation for Educational Services. Part 2 of his article will appear tomorrow.