Twelve secondary school students with disadvantaged educational backgrounds will be monitored and supported as part of a University-driven intervention project to better tackle early school leaving.

The project, titled Promoting Resilience In Education, is in the process of identifying suitable students and will begin peer mentoring, school and family-based support interventions in February.

Students will all hail from the Cottonera region, which has been selected as the project’s case study region, with six students from Form 2 and six from Form 5. Students in Year 6 will also receive some degree of intervention.

The project is being chaired by University Rector Juanito Camilleri, who had first flagged the issue in his Victory Day speech last September. This is a first for Malta. He had said that “there are parts of Malta where, consistently, there are only a few graduates each year”.

The project had no fixed end date and would continue to monitor and support students throughout their scholastic education, project coordinator Carmel Cefai said.

“We’ve adopted a bottom-up approach to better understand the causes behind early school leaving and if successful we hope its findings will become part of Malta’s national educational strategy,” he added.

Malta has the highest early school leaving rate in the EU, with over 36 per cent of young people out of school by age 18, compared to the EU average of 14.4 per cent. It has, however, made significant strides in closing the gap, with the percentage of early school leavers declining by 32 per cent since 2000.

Despite the progress, Malta is projected to continue lagging behind its EU counterparts. While the EU has set itself a target of reducing early school leaving to 10 per cent by 2020, Malta’s target is 29 per cent.

Prof. Camilleri acknowledged the problem yesterday in an opening address at a seminar discussing access to tertiary education, saying that despite “Herculean efforts” in reducing early school leaving, there remained significant room for improvement.

A number of towns in Malta, he said, had “shockingly and consistently low” levels of participation in tertiary education.

Prof. Camilleri said there were many students who just needed an extra nudge of encouragement to enter tertiary education. It was these students, he suggested, who had to be addressed first while research into how to tackle more complex social cases was under way. Paul Downes, director at the Educational Disadvantage Centre at St Patrick’s College, Dublin, said Malta had to start seriously implementing measures aimed at increasing access to tertiary education if it was to avert an early school leaving crisis.

The Maltese system of splitting education at O and A levels rather than continuing seamlessly to age 18 served to increase early school leaving, Dr Downes noted.

Citing examples in various colleges across Europe, Dr Downes suggested there was a need for education institutions to make tertiary education meaningful to students. “We need to move away from information-driven approaches, which assume young people don’t enter tertiary education because of lack of information,” Dr Downes said.

He suggested a number of measures that could be introduced to bring the University closer to communities and encourage tertiary education take-up. The University could allow community groups to use its facilities for free and it could include community leaders in discussions on University admission, Dr Downes suggested.

One measure that had been particularly successful in encouraging tertiary education participation in Ireland, he said, was the introduction of admission quotas for disadvantaged areas. “It is important that all young people entering the University feel a sense of belonging. They need to feel that getting a degree is not something limited to some elite but something they too can aspire to,” Dr Downes said.

Maltese laggards

36.8% of students leave school before 18 (EU average 14.4%)
29% of students to leave school early by 2020 (EU target 10%)
21% of workers are graduates (EU average 33%)
33% of workers to be graduates by 2020 (EU target 40%)

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