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Bridging students’ achievement gap

Decades of educational reform have left Malta in the unenviable position of ranking among the countries with the lowest achievement levels for students who leave compulsory education at the age of 16. Although Malta spends relatively as much on education as most European Union countries, the students’ achievement gap has narrowed very slightly despite a number of reforms undertaken over the last two decades.

The latest reform in our secondary school system has just been announced by Education Minister Evarist Bartolo who gave details of how students will, from 2019, have a choice of vocational subjects that they can follow as from Form 3 in secondary school. Core subjects like English and Mathematics will continue to be the backbone of secondary education.

There is no doubt that we live in a society that gives great importance to the professions and white-collar jobs and that still considers blue-collar work as having a lower status. Parents, perhaps even more than students themselves, want their children to pursue careers that will maintain or increase their status. There are also some teachers who consider it a ‘waste of talent’ when a student who is academically successful opts to follow vocational education.

Students who do not do well in traditional academic areas, or who are just not interested in them, should not meet with disappointment or disapproval from parents and teachers. In Finland’s highly-effective educational system, 45 per cent of the students choose vocational rather than academic education after completing their basic schooling.

If the reforms planned by the Ministry of Education are to be successful, there is a need of a cultural change that will involve the re-education of parents regarding the value of occupations that are not high on the social status scale. It will also involve the retraining of practising teachers as well as changes in the teacher training courses at the University.

Kevin Bonello, president of the Malta Union of Teachers, while agreeing in principle with the changes announced warned that “introducing vocational and applied learning programmes in secondary schools without adopting a new approach in the teaching of core subjects would lead to nowhere”. It is a worrying reality that in the planning phase of most educational reform programmes the voice of teachers, who work on the coalface of our education system, is often not given much importance.

The teachers’ union is also right in expressing concern that, in the implementation plan of this latest reform, not enough importance may have been given to the strain on human and other resources that are vital for the success of the planned changes. A radical overhaul in the manner in which core academic subjects are being taught and the retraining of teachers to enable them to teach vocational subjects may not be achievable in the short time left for the introduction of the reform.

Aiming to enable students to acquire flexibility and transferability in their skills base is a laudable objective. Internship programmes that help all students gain workplace experiences while enrolled in secondary high school is also an important key success factor for such reforms.

The government owes it to all students in secondary education now and in the coming decades to think strategically about reforms but also to work with the teaching profession to ensure that the implementation plan is realistic and achievable in the set time frames.

Educational reforms to improve students’ achievement will never succeed if educators are not involved from the earliest stages of reform programmes in a meaningful and effective way.

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