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What is quality education?

Quality education is not an easy concept to qualify. At a time when we are discussing a quality education for all our learners it is important to take time to understand this concept.

The document Tomorrow's Schools (1995) had asked the following question: "What are considered to be the basic requirements of a quality education - one that is meaningful, worthwhile, responsive to individuals and social needs - and does each and every student, without fail get those requirements, regulated as these are by the principle of entitlement?" (p. 8)

According to the Education For All: Global Monitoring Report 2005 - The Quality Imperative (EFA: GMR), two principles characterise most attempts to define quality in education: the first identifies learners' cognitive development as the major explicit objective of all education systems. The second emphasises education's role in promoting values and attitudes of responsible citizenship and in nurturing creative and emotional development." (p.17)

Quality determines how much and how well children learn and the extent to which their education translates into a range of personal, social and developmental benefits. Goal 6 of the Dakar Framework for Action (2000) emphasises the need of a stimulating pedagogy. It is the teaching and learning process that brings the curriculum to life, that determines what happens in the classroom and subsequently the quality of the learning outcomes.

The GMR emphasises six policy issues which directly impact on teaching and learning:

1. Relevant aims. Policy dialogue must arrive at a relevant balanced set of aims describing what learners should learn and why; the development of cognitive, creative and social skills and values; respect for human rights, the environment, peace and tolerance and cultural diversity. These put citizenship, democracy and human rights at the fore.

2. Subject balance - how subjects are defined, how many are taught and the time allocated to each.

3. Good use of time. Positive correlations are noted between instruction time and student achievement at both primary and secondary levels. Between 850 and 1,000 effective hours (not necessarily official hours) of schooling per year is broadly agreed as a benchmark.1

4. Pedagogic approaches for better learning. Child-centred active pedagogy, cooperative learning and the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills need to be present.

5. Language policy. Language of instruction is a policy choice affecting curriculum, content and pedagogy. A balance needs to be struck between enabling people to use local languages in learning and ensuring that they have access to global languages.

6. Learning from assessment. Regular, reliable, timely assessment is a key to improving learning achievement. The goals are to give learners feedback and improve learning and teaching practices. Formative assessment is needed as a complement to formal examinations.

Given our Maltese educational context, how can we provide quality education? A detailed answer to this question is beyond the brief of this short article, however, the following observations elicited from the review report give direction for quality primary education in our schools.

Curriculum

The current state primary school curriculum comprises a commendable mix of areas of knowledge that offer opportunities for the holistic development of individual pupils. The curriculum areas include English, Maltese, mathematics, religion, science and technology, social studies, physical education, expressive arts (drama, art and design, music, movement) and personal and social development. All these areas are important as they cover the multiple intelligences identified by leading educational psychologists (Gardner, 1983).

The current curriculum also recognises information and computer technology (ICT) skills as tools which can be used to access knowledge in all the other areas of the curriculum. It is essential that ICT skills become incorporated in the specific areas of the curriculum.

Syllabi

The primary school syllabi (2005) promote a developmental approach as they specify the learning outcomes in each subject with a clear learner-centred focus.

Curriculum specialists need to work on further evaluating the learning outcomes that can be achieved within the given time frame in order to allow time for meaningful learning to take place and to avoid undue pressure on teachers and learners.

Pedagogy

Given that teachers will have less pressure to "prepare for the test", teaching needs to place greater emphasis on important knowledge and affective skills which cannot be easily assessed by written tests. The current reform provides space for teaching to emphasise application of knowledge, analysis, synthesis and evaluation besides recall and simple understanding. It also opens up opportunities for activities and learning experiences where pupils develop personal and social skills and attitudes as they interact by sharing, discussing, acting responsibly, using different forms of communication and accepting diversity. With the freedom from the constraints of high-stakes examinations, teachers can further explore the use of cross-curricular, problem-solving and thematic activities, which allow pupils to experience the association between different areas of knowledge. The reform is aimed to gradually lead to more interesting, enjoyable and meaningful teaching and learning experiences.

Support

The extension of mixed ability grouping to Years 5 and 6 presents new challenges to teachers, especially those who have been used to teaching rigidly streamed classes. These challenges need to be recognised and addressed by offering teachers further training and possibly support materials to help them cope with the new challenges. Learning support assistants are also essential in supporting pupils who need special support in each class, however, this resource needs to be deployed more equitably and effectively (Spiteri et al, 2005). We also recognise that other cases may need further professional help.

Visionary leadership

College principals and heads of school have a crucial role to play in the implementation of the reform. Their driving force is essential and their need for support is acknowledged.

A more distributed form of leadership is encouraged within and across college networks. Dispersed, delegated and democratic forms of leadership imply greater empowerment where and when it matters (Bezzina, 2003; 2005). This means that college networks slowly become more responsible and accountable for matters dealing with school life.

In conclusion, a system that focuses on quality education allows children to develop and grow in school environments that are supportive and at the same time challenging, which nurture them to become confident, have good self-esteem and willing to strive forward yet at the same time feel a sense of responsibility towards others in their community. We believe that all our schools can be such places where children of different abilities develop, learn and grow together.

1 In Malta the number of contact hours per year from 2002-2003 to 2007-2008 are 920.5, 931.5, 915.0, 920.5, 937.0 and 957.25.

Dr Grima is the director general for quality and standards in education. She also chaired the committee which reviewed the transition from primary to secondary schools in Malta.

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