The teaching profession is in crisis as the number of graduates in education drops and the shortage of educators becomes more acute. Faculty of Education dean Sandro Caruana spoke with Keith Micallef about what it will take to make the job attractive once again.

Raising teaching standards without improving teachers’ working conditions would be a recipe for disaster as it would serve to make the shortage even worse, a leading scholar has cautioned.

Faculty of Education dean Sandro Caruana made the warning while outlining his vision for the future of the profession, which according to the teachers’ union, is going through a crisis.

“The easiest way would be to lower entry requirements and shorten the university course, but we are not willing to compromise the quality of teaching in schools,” he said.

Prof. Caruana acknowledged that a drop in the number of education graduates in certain subjects was alarming, but pointed out that it had been a long time coming.

As of last year, the Bachelor in Education, or BEd (Hons), course and the Post-Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) were replaced by the Master's in Teaching and Learning (MTL).

Under the new model, applicants must possess a bachelor's degree in humanities or sciences to join a two-year master’s course focused exclusively on pedagogy. On completion of the course, the graduate becomes eligible for a teaching warrant, required to join the profession.

Teaching practice has been modified such that MTL students have a period of mentoring before taking charge of the classroom, which, until recently, was not the case. The reform means it now takes five years to qualify as a teacher instead of four. Critics argue that the extra year could discourage students from joining the profession.

Judging by the current group of 49 MTL second-year students, concerns are justified, though one must also take into account the 81 final-year students in the BEd (Hons) course, which is being phased out. This is substantially smaller than the total number of graduates from the BEd (Hons) and PGCE courses in 2015/16, which stood at 236, and 109 students will graduate from the faculty in November.

'The extra year could be an issue'

While acknowledging the sharp drop in teacher education graduates in recent years, Prof. Caruana noted that the trend seemed to have been stopped if not reversed. From this academic year, MTL applicants were on the rise. However, the exact number had not yet been finalised at the time of writing.

“Undoubtedly, the extra year could be an issue, but on the other hand, we have raised standards to Master’s level, in line with what has already been done in other EU countries,” he pointed out. “Furthermore, Malta is a member of the European Higher Education Area, which means that a first degree cannot be shorter than three years.”

The dean pointed out that the new structure was agreed in consultation with all stakeholders, including the teachers’ union and the Education Ministry, as well as Church and independent schools.

He also made the point that the number of students opting for the BEd had decreased and expressed reservations on the one-year PGCE course, which was an alternative route to the warrant for graduates in possession of a first degree.

The easiest way would be to lower entry requirements and shorten the course but we are not willing to compromise the quality of teaching

“This meant that PGCE students used to be thrown in the deep end in a classroom for their teaching practice just weeks into the course. Yet many were opting for this route, as it represented a shortcut to bypass the BEd course,” he remarked.

He said the MTL course made it easier for graduates from other institutions, including the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology, to join the profession.

“They can now join the teaching profession even in vocational subjects for which undergraduate degrees are not offered by the University of Malta,” he said. “The new model also gives added flexibility in terms of career prospects, because having a first degree in another subject means that MTL graduates have other avenues if they want to move on from teaching at a later stage”

Still, Prof. Caruana is under no illusions. “If the status quo remains, meaning we have raised standards for the teaching profession without improving the conditions of work, it would be a recipe for disaster,” he warned.

“Our wish was to have the new Education Act in place and a new collective agreement for teachers concurrently,” he added.

Apart from better conditions, which, he said, were a must, the dean noted that the government had to carry out an audit to be able to identify subject area shortages and take remedial action.

“We have come to a stage where even an IT graduate will earn much more working for a gaming company than by becoming a teacher,” he pointed out.

“We also need to promote the profession, in collaboration with stakeholders.

“We need to follow the nursing model that has proven successful in attracting potential nurses.”

Limited career prospects

Another factor Prof. Caruana believes hinders the profession is its limited career prospects, because the only option for teachers to progress in their career often involves abandoning the classroom to take on some form of management post.

“There are systems whereby, after a number of years, teachers may be re-warded through a higher grade and salary or by reducing their weekly load of lessons as they become mentors to newly quali-fied teachers.”

Asked whether he subscribed to views that the teaching profession was going through a crisis, he replied that in certain subjects like IT and design and technology, that was the case. It could also spread to science subjects in the near future, and the writing was already on the wall in the case of maths, he cautioned.

The shortage being faced meant the government had to rely more than ever on supply teachers, even though standards were being sacrificed. While acknowledging that this was a necessary measure, he said it should be a temporary solution only.

However, Prof. Caruana made it amply clear that compromising standards for short-term gain was a red line teachers would never cross.

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