Educating Rita: addressing educational shortcomings
I have been following the debate on the merits and shortcomings of our educational system since at least three decades ago, when I first saw the British comedy Educating Rita by Willy Russell.
We are among the worst performers in education attainment in the EU, with 36 per cent of our young people leaving secondary school with no qualifications. With some notable exceptions the link between education and the workplace is not always evident to those involved in defining policies for our schooling system.
I approach the subject of educational reform from the perspective of a person who has worked in business for over 40 years, while keeping track of educational and social developments that are continuously evolving.
To be accountable, an educational system must have verifiable measures relating to the output of the system: human development, economic effectiveness and satisfaction of stakeholders’ needs. The stakeholders of our educational system include students, teachers, administrators, government, em-ployers, parents and organised labour.
The failure of our educational system to substantially improve the attainment level of our students is often being attributed to ‘poor structures’ in our educational system. We are told that the increasing ‘democratisation’ of our educational system will reverse this trend. We hear of the need to eliminate ‘favouritism’ and ‘social discrimination’ in education. We also hear about the virtues of ‘educational entitlement’, ‘inclusion’, and ‘equity for all students’.
These are very heart-warming concepts that, no doubt, have their value in the reform of our educational system. But I do have doubts whether on their own they will resolve our prosperity-threatening low attainment records.
My experience in business has convinced me that one of the things seriously wrong with our system is the dichotomy between education and the workplace. This dichotomy is most damaging by its presence in the very top levels of the management of our educational system. Mcast is a refreshing exception to this trend.
How many teachers and lecturers in higher education, for instance, regularly attend the seminars and conferences organised by business organisations? How many higher education lecturers have spent time working in a business, and do not just rely on their academic formation to impart knowledge built on experience to our students?
I recently met a very respected and successful businessman who admitted to me that most of the applicants he has for sales posts have a serious attitude problem that makes them hardly employable. He told me something that did not surprise me: “The first thing they ask you is not how they can help your business grow, but how much salary they will earn. They also negotiate on the hours of work, insisting that they want to have a life outside the workplace when they are employed.”
Some graduates are shocked to discover that their degree does not give them an almost automatic right to a high-paying job. They are increasingly becoming aware of the widening gap between what they bring to the workplace and what employers expect.
Some graduates can hardly articulate their ideas in writing coherently and in simple English, or even Maltese. They also give little value to discipline, punctuality, and commitment to completing a task successfully.
But I believe that there is another reason that explains, at least partially, the low attainment levels achieved by our educational system. The reason was eloquently articulated by Tony Sewell in an article he wrote in Prospect magazine. Sewell is an academic with special interest in the education of black students in Britain.
In his article, Sewell dispels the often held view that black children in Britain perform badly academically because the British educational system is race biased. He then explains that what really makes a difference in students’ performance is the social class to which they belong.
The Observer columnist Barbara Ellen, commenting on Sewell’s work, says: “There are white children who rarely get mentioned in the debate about educational attainment – children who are much better off in material terms, but who are lazy, disrespectful and ball up exams.
“The difference is not that these children are white; it is that they are middle class, which means that when they start sliding towards the cliff edge of educational failure, their parents often have the resources to rescue them.
“They have an expensive series of safety nets (private tutors, exam retakes, private courses, and cramming sessions) that are in place for children whose parents can just about afford it.
“Then there is the middle class culture of 24/7 involvement in the child’s education. This sort of behaviour takes time, energy and, all too frequently, money. These are resources that poor families, black and white alike, simply don’t have.”
We must find a way for the parents of poor children to be given the same tools to prop up the educational attainment of their sons and daughters. This is as much an item for the political and social agenda as it is for the educational agenda.
While academics have an important role to play in defining the strategy for our educational system for the next decade, we need to rope in the leaders of industry, sociologists, economists and parents to ensure we first identify the real causes of present shortcomings and then define tailor-made solutions to enable us to overcome these shortcomings in the shortest possible timeframe.
Only in this way we can be sure of successfully educating Rita.
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