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Figuring out the system

Some months ago I was asked to write the Malta entry in the International Encyclopaedia of Education. Fully aware of George Bernard Shaw's quip about 'lies, damn lies and statistics', I tried to render my contribution as factual as possible, based on data available in the National Statistics Office's latest Education Statistics 2005.

For example, more than one third of Maltese aged between four and 65 years are registered students in formal learning in 251 institutions: 88,828 as full-timers, and 17,299 through part-time evening classes.

More males (45,541) than females (43,287) are enrolled as full-time students (Henceforth, the data refers only to full-time students). Does this point to another case of gender disadvantage, such as girls dropping out of school earlier than boys, or less young women than young men proceeding to post-secondary education?

There is no cause for concern. Malta has more males than females in this population band. Indeed, women are doing very at University level, with 5,357 female compared to 4,173 male students.

By contrast, the number of female teachers (5,576) more than doubles that of males (2,543). Is it a good thing that there are far more female than male teachers? One could answer 'Yes', considering that teaching is 'caring profession' or 'No' if the trend continues to the extent that one gender overwhelmingly outnumbers the other.

By dividing the total number of students by the total number of teachers (excluding kindergarten assistants or facilitators), one finds that Malta's education system enjoys a very favourable teacher-student ratio with one teacher for every eleven students. Some parents will ask "How is it then, that our children attend classes with 20, 25 or 30 students?"

There are several factors that explain the discrepancy. Firstly, many personnel involved in schools and national education administration are registered as 'teachers' when they are engaged in educational activities other than classroom teaching.

The subject of the classes is another factor: Maths, Maltese, English and other subjects that taken by all or most students are bound to be large.

The third factor is the way school time-tables operate. Students attend classes for 27-and-a-half hours per week; teachers are in class for fewer hours, and vary according to the level at which they teach and their other school responsibilities.

Still, our teacher-student ratio is a positive characteristic. There are between 18 and 22 children in most state primary school classes whereas in other countries, 35 or more pupils is the norm. We need to seek ways to exploit this favourable ratio to students' advantage.

The State runs 122 formal educational institutions ranging from kindergartens to the University, compared to 83 and 46 institutions belonging to Church and independent organisations respectively. Thus, the ratios are one independent school for every 1.8 Church and 2.6 State schools (see chart 'Education Institutions').

These ratios do not reflect the ratios in the number of students enrolled in each sector, which speak for themselves. While 8,251 students are enrolled in independent schools there are 16,928 students in Church-run and 63,649 in State-run Education institutions (see chart 'Students').

So for every student enrolled in independent schools, there are twice as many in Church schools, and eight as many in State institutions. Put differently, 71.6 per cent of students attend State-run institutions, 19.1 per cent attend Church schools, and 9.3 per cent attend independent schools. These figures do not tell the whole story.

How does one explain the huge differences in student numbers when there are actually seven more non-State schools than State schools?

Firstly, only the State provides tertiary and further education - this area accounts for 9,530 students at the University and 6,964 students at MCAST and ITS.

Secondly, at the post-secondary level, the State has complete dominance with 4,964 students attending the Junior College and the Upper Secondary School compared to 767 students attending Church and independent sixth forms.

Thirdly, a high number of Church-run (34) and independent (24) kindergartens enrol a relatively small number of children (1,444 and 1,854 respectively).

In spite of the dominance of the State education sector, Malta still has the highest proportion of private education provision in Europe and North America. This is an excellent situation - it keeps both state- and Church/private-run sectors on their toes and in competition to provide the better service.

Rather than overall comparisons, let us compare like with like, namely enrolments of students of compulsory school age (five to 16). The table shows the number of students attending primary and secondary schools in the State, Church and independent sectors. It shows that almost two-thirds of students attend State schools, compared to one-fourth at Church schools, and one-in-nine in independent schools.

It also shows that State and independent schools lose students to Church schools in the transition from primary to secondary education, indicating that many Maltese prefer Church secondary schools to the other two.

Hence the scramble, the swotting, the private lessons and the tension in the process of seeking a favourable placing in the Church schools' common entrance secondary school examination.

It explains the disappointments and the heartaches when children obtain a poor placing or no placing at all. The scramble for entry into Church schools and the junior lyceums is one of the negative characteristics of our educational system. Everyone agrees that the system of transferring from primary to secondary schools should be changed. Unfortunately, everyone wants change as long as the change does not lessen the chances of one's own children of moving to the desired school.

The total number of secondary school students is bound to be smaller than those at the primary level since the former is of five years duration, while primary schooling lasts six years.

The table also provides an indication of the falling birth rate in the Maltese islands. Note that the average number of students per year at the secondary level is 5,641 (28,203 over five years) while that at the primary level is 4,933 (29,596 over six years).

While a shrinking (school) population is bad news for future pension funds, it is good news for the students - they will enjoy extra space, more resources, and additional individual attention through even better teacher-student ratios.

Such statistics also raise the question of whether we should spend capital funds to build more and bigger schools or to improve existing ones.

For some, the above may be nothing more than number crunching, interesting but hardly useful. No so. In an issue of public concern such as education, the public should be aware of the dimensions involved:

What are the actual numbers, the costs? Is it a minority or a majority issue? How many people does it affect, and with what impact or consequences?

For educators, such data provide the basis from which to extract relevant and valuable information, analyse it in order to establish links, formulate observations, draw conclusions, and devise policies. The alternative is guesswork.

Prof. Farrugia is chairman of the Maltese National Commission for UNESCO.

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