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Question time: Educated planning

Where is the present education model taking us?

John Portelli, advisor to the Ministry for Education and Employment

The continuous process of education has two equally important aspects: forming prospective citizens and leading out and nurturing their positive qualities. A holistic education, meant to reach all, requires a balance between the two aspects. An educational model has to have a clear direction as well as policies in place to ensure the fulfilment of the two aspects of forming and nurturing.

Academic fulfilment is not enough. Important boxes need to be ticked: acquiring a taste for lifelong education, equity, social justice, moral fibre and respect to important social notions such as diversity and inclusivity.

The one-size-fits-all standardised model is being slowly let go for a more personalised and diversified approach. A model based on deficit thinking is being replaced by an educational experience that is diversified and respectful of all students’ needs.

The Education and Employment Ministry has issued several policies and introduced many initiatives meant to diversify the content, ways of learning and assessment. Without such diverse possibilities, our students’ future will be stifled and they will not be well prepared for employability – that is different from a narrow understanding of labouring – and that requires creativity, flexibility and critical abilities.

Knowing and understanding are crucial but it is more complex to apply knowledge and live by one’s values. The direction and end-goals are clear but we require a dynamic and flexible structure which is not only in line with but also stimulated to achieve these educational values.

Actualising this educational model requires time, energy and goodwill from all stakeholders involved.

It is not an easy task. In my view, however, this is a very educationally- and ethically-sound direction to follow.

Like any other education model, there are aspects that may be misunderstood and, hence, hinder the progress required.

A major misinterpretation is the opinion that diversity and excellence do not mix. On the contrary, diversity is the democratic way to reach excellence – which is never monolithic.

Another common misinterpretation is the opinion that having different but equally valuable routes is a form of rigid streaming. Having different routes to achieve educational aims should never be interpreted as streaming. I realise that, from a practical angle, this misinterpretation can be a major stumbling block to the realisation of an equitable education. However, this should not hinder us from changing the culture of education to one that is less rigid and less exam-oriented one.

Since 2013, building on earlier policies, the Ministry for Education and Employment has articulated a clear direction, issued relevant policies and strategies after consultation processes and created several tangible, measurable initiatives to reach the aims as outlined in the Education Framework 2014-2024. The major challenge now is to realise this ideal over the next decade.

Clyde Puli, Nationalist Party secretary general and shadow minister for education

The government’s failure in the education sector is evident by its lack of a robust long-term plan and its failure to deliver declared objectives. From the failure to deliver the school-per-year for the third consecutive year, to the school-transport debacle and the unprecedented retraction of three education Bills already tabled in Parliament following the threat of a teachers’ strike: this year’s back-to-school fiasco unmasked the government’s pretences.

Making matters worse, when everything failed, it played the humility card and the blame game, shifting the culpability onto parents, transport operators, unions and teachers themselves.

Governance is a major issue facing educational reform. We have witnessed a concerted effort by this government to centralise decision-making at ministerial level or through the agencies they are setting up. The drive to decentralise decision-making responsibility to the college level, which the Amendment to the Education Act of 2006 promoted, has slowly been eroded.

Various researchers and academics have noted the need to empower schools, their leaders and teachers alike. In Malta, the opposite is happening.

The Education Ministry seems to be taking control of everything, showing lack of trust in the teaching profession. The government aspires to follow the success of the Finnish system without first working on the fundamentals upon which it is built. The teaching profession in Finland is held in high esteem, is respected by both the government and society and is adequately paid.

In Malta, respect has been systematically eroded by none other than the government’s policies followed by social media attacks on the profession, by some ‘hot headed supporters’, once teachers decided to stand up for their rights. Salaries remain low while responsibilities increase.

The government had the gall to legislate for heads of school to become personally responsible for their schools when they are not even allowed to do a photocopy using a printer of their choice. It goes to show a ministry oblivious of the reality teachers face daily. No wonder few want to join the teaching profession.

The Faculty of Education at the University of Malta, which has served the country so well in producing teachers for the past 40 years, upgraded the teaching course from a Bachelors to a Masters’ degree level. The ministry has publicly supported the initiative, however, to everyone’s surprise and through a government-controlled institute, it will provide a similar course, albeit downgrading it from 120 ECTS to 90. This has given rise to an element of confusion as the ministry seems unable to decide on the quality of study that is required for one to take up the teaching profession.

Following the retraction of the government’s education Bills and the subsequent avoidance of the strike, the minister boasted that the education system “weathered the storm”, stopping short of admitting that this was a futile storm of the government’s own making. The parliamentary secretary in his ministry followed by stating that “common sense” finally prevailed, inadvertently admitting that the government’s approach to education reform was anything but sensical.

Anthony Buttigieg, Democratic Party MEP candidate 

In July of this year, the Minister of Education presented a Bill to reform education in Malta. It says a lot about the structure and the organisation but nothing about the manner in which our children and the country’s citizens are educated.

Anyone who has lived abroad will note a stark contrast to how education is approached there and how it is done here.

Our system is based heavily on instruction and continuous assessment by exams and tests. Abroad, the emphasis is on teaching children how to think for themselves and to question what they are learning.

Our system has proved excellent in producing generations of over-stressed youths, pressured to do well in examinations but with little thought to their development outside the requirements of the national curriculum. Those that do well under this system will achieve in life and those that do not are left by the wayside to make do as they can.

It is no surprise that by commonly-accepted indices - literacy rates, early school leavers and numbers in tertiary education - we are the worst performing country in the European Union.

When the government, prior to the last election, through various related entities, felt the need to employ 3,000 workers, at a time of de facto full employment, it admitted that our education system has failed this country and that locals cannot compete in a fast-changing economy, an economy designed by that same government.

Although some recent reforms introduced by Education Minister Evarist Bartolo, such as the dropping of maths as a requirement to enter the University for some courses, give a tacit nod to the fact that not all students are the same, we still fail to recognise that intelligence and ability can take several forms and trying to fit everyone into the same model means that thousands of students are being left to struggle in areas they just cannot excel in, while being unable to develop those areas where they can.

Someone possessing manual skills may not necessarily do well in exams. Closing our trade schools was a mistake as it left a sector of our society without the means to develop further. Teaching trades at Mcast is a step forward but many of those who need that type of education will never get into Mcast in the first place.

Our economy is changing fast. If citizens are to benefit from those changes, we must have a forward-thinking education system to prepare us for those changes, not playing catch-up. We need a system that is far more flexible, prepares people to be adaptable and caters for individual strengths and abilities. If we do not, our current solution of importing skills from abroad will become ever more imperative and we will be left with a Maltese underclass in a rich economy. A phenomenon we are already witnessing.

If you would like to put any questions to the parties in Parliament send an e-mail marked clearly Question Time to editor@timesofmalta.com.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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