One of the hallmarks of human development in the 20th century in the western world has been the ‘rise’ of adolescence. Unlike past centuries, where puberty opened directly the door to adulthood, adolescence now is firmly established as a transition period between late childhood (physical maturation) and early adulthood (psychological maturation). It is a time for extended education, learning and preparation for the adult life.
Young people are now staying longer at school in preparation for the world of work as the labour market requires higher and more specialised qualifications.
Upper/post secondary education has become the most common education level obtained by young people in most OECD countries; in the past decade the rate of adults without upper secondary education has decreased by 10 per cent. It is estimated that across the OECD countries, 83 per cent will complete upper secondary education over their lifetime.
In the EU, the present 86 per cent participation rate in upper/post secondary education is set to increase to 90 per cent by 2020.
These trends are also reflected in post secondary education in Malta, which has registered significant growth in the last decades.
This growth, however, still falls short of the EU and OECD averages as Malta is still the country with the highest proportion of early school leaving in the EU and has the highest persistence of a low level of education passed on from one generation to the other.
These figures are also reflected in the regional diversity in education on the island, as some regions with relatively low SES have shown very little growth, with high rates of early school leaving and socio-economic inequalities when compared to the other regions.
Is the present transition jump across schools at 16 convenient or necessary?
One of the main factors which may be contributing to this problem is the structure of upper secondary school in Malta.
Within the present educational structure, once students are 16 years old, they have to leave their present school and apply to attend a new post secondary school according to the qualifications they would have obtained. This may constitute one of the most critical barriers that keeps many students from continuing their education at post secondary level.
At age 16, students are being asked to move from a school that is conveniently located in their local area to one that may be a significant distance away.
Transport availability may not always be easy to access. They may be uprooted from their friends to enter a transitional environment where there are new and, at times, face unknown challenges. Such challenges may be interesting and exciting for some but may also fill others with reserve and even fear, especially if their family background is one with little experience of staying on at school until 18.
Transition points are well established in international research as being times of risk for students to become in difficulty with and alienated from the system leading to higher risk of early school leaving. This transition split between schools built into the Maltese system may be an unnecessary risk for many.
There needs to be a shift to a presumption of continuity in the school system from lower to upper secondary and away from a mentality of students needing to actively opt out to stay on at school.
The educational system may give all students the opportunity to continue their education up to 18 years at their own college school should they wish to.
Each college would provide education up to 18 years according to demand, suited to the needs and interests of the students concerned.
While not replacing centralised post secondary institutions such as the Junior College or Mcast, students without qualifications or who would like to continue studying in their own college at post secondary level would thus be provided with the opportunity to do so.
The increase in the years of secondary school education, however, needs also to take into consideration the quality of education provided, rather than just providing ‘more of the same’.
This is particularly relevant for students who are considering opting out of education at 16 as they see little relevance or meaning in furthering their education.
Extending the school leaving age thus needs to be accompanied by an increase in the quality of education provided at secondary school, addressing the diverse needs of students and providing different pathways according to students’ needs, interests and abilities.
Vocational education, including work placements, would feature strongly in the 16-18 years period and the colleges would collaborate with other post secondary institutions, such as Mcast. These quality issues also pertain to ensuring that there is a positive school and class climate, where students experience supportive relations with teachers. The recent European Network of Education Councils position statement explicitly recognises the need for improved school and classroom climate for early school-leaving prevention.
We propose a number of key steps be made to address this system issue for early school leaving.
Firstly, students in those areas with high levels of early school leaving need to be surveyed to ask their opinions about whether staying on at their same local school would be preferable to the current situation.
Secondly, the schools need to identify what steps are required to ensure they have the capacity to engage these 16-18-year-old students.
Thirdly, this initiative needs to be piloted in a number of schools, especially in areas where there is a very high level of early school leaving.
It may also be that if there are very high levels of student alienation from school already aged 15-16 that further questions need to be probed about quality and system reform. The European Commission report on early school leaving last year pointed to the need to hear students’ voices about their experiences in school as a key dimension of an early school leaving strategy.
A responsive system is needed to address this issue, one that asks the question: is the present transition jump across schools at 16 convenient or necessary?
Carmel Cefai is director of the Centre for Resilience and Socio-Emotional Health at the University of Malta and Paul Downes is director of the Educational Disadvantage Centre, St.patrick's College, Ireland.