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Education: keystone to the future

Education is one of the keystones both of society and the economy. The two are inextricably linked.

Well-educated people provide the economy with the human resources that it requires to operate, invest and move forward. It also raises the level of awareness of consumers and helps them make choices that give them the best value for money.

That is why it is a key plank of all governments who aim to provide the best educational infrastructure that available financial human resources – teachers, training – will allow.

The outgoing Nationalist government paid a lot of attention to education. Mostly, it stressed the development of physical inftrastructure, with a programme of building one new school a year. Content was not neglected. Nevertheless key comparative indicators say that Malta still lags considerably behind the average in the European Union, which makes the achievement of excellence still a dream to look forward to.

The Labour government says it will not neglect physical development. It plans to build two new schools and effect major refurbishment in a third one. It’s main emphasis, however, will be on the quality of education given to our students – tomorrow’s workers and managers – from the primary to the tertiary level.

The Minister of Education was very focused and analytical when he was shadow spokesman on education in Opposition. He is now putting what he used to criticise and propose into practice.

He mixes analysis with measures to be implemented within a context of general agreement that they are necessary for the good of education and the current and future generations of students. His style is one of engagement with all the stakeholders. There have been and remain some differences with the teachers’ union, the MUT, but they are not of the confrontational type and can mostly be resolved with more timely consultation.

One of the issues the minister brought to the fore is the level of English and Maltese being taught and practised at present, as reflected in the SEC annual results. They are far from satisfactory. Written English is deteriorating rapidly, indicating a severe lack of focused reading. Maltese isn’t faring much better, with children and parents indicating considerable difficulty in dealing with the growing phonetic changes made to assimilate commonly-used foreign words, mostly English, into the Maltese language.

The minister does not address adults. He might just as well. Too many adults seem to speak a hybrid of Maltese and English which makes nonsense of the two languages. Instead of prioritising according to the occasion, too many adults think it is smart to bring in English or other foreign words when they are conversing. When they switch to English they quickly display that as they try to do so they continue to think in Maltese.

An area where visible gaps still exist is vocational education

The English language is a valuable resource which should not be lost or tainted. It is a major feature in attracting foreign direct inverstment. It is the lingua franca of the world, also in commercial relationships. Maltese should be spoken and written well, both for its functionality as the main language of the people, as well as a matter of pride.

The education programme promoted by Minister Bartolo and his extensive team goes beyond adumbrating the need to speak and write English and Maltese well, and to give due importance to mathematics and science subjects. He is rolling out a raft of reforms intended to uplift education to a new level.

As from the coming academic year, co-education will be introduced in our schools, where it does not exist already. A trial period of several months has convinced the authorities that they can announce the change now. The teachers’ union demurred since it feels the full trial should have taken place and been analysed. I shouldn’t think the gap is too wide to bridge with frank exchanges. The successful trial to date, after all, was handled by part of the MUT’s own members.

Middle schools are also to be introduced to separate forms one and two from the subsequent forms. Again there is agreement in principle about this but it was rightly pointed out that teachers may need further training for the split to be as successful as desired and required. The fear that the introduction of middle schools may mean that teachers have to be transferred does not hold water. Teachers are part of the whole education system and are not allocated to any one school for life.

Other reforms, in the context of rather abysmal level in SEC results are being contemplated. So far the response has not been encouraging. First of all, it is obvious, parents have to educated about what is right for their children. School focus is veery necessary. Household focus and good example, such as with reading and an understanding that without a good education our youngsters will not grow into a life of fulfilment, are essential.

An area where visible gaps still exist is vocational education. That gap became clearer when trade schools were closed and when the reoubtable Fellenberg Institute was done away with. Minister Bartolo has said that trade schools will not be reintroduced but has promised renewed efforts to make vocational education more attractive.

Nor has he failed to identify students who drop out by their hundreds offering them a chance to re-enter the education stream.

Employers will be following these developments with interest. That interest should be extended to collaboration with the education department, perhaps on the German model.

A lot is being done. Much more is required.

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