The Malta Independent 15 October 2021, Friday

Education: Somehow, somewhere, something is wrong

Thursday, 23 September 2021, 09:23 Last update: about 22 days ago

Mark Said

For the last two years, we have had a substantial number of teenagers failing in core subjects such as basic Maltese, Maths and English. For the year 2020, Malta had the highest percentage of early school leavers within the EU. At the same time, we had the secret crisis of demotivated teachers quitting schools and leaving the profession. Not only, the number of students registered for the teacher education courses at the University of Malta is continually on the decline. The consequence is an increase in the recruitment of supply teachers who do not have the appropriate pedagogical training so much so that at one time the education ministry was trying to plug the gap by enrolling university students as makeshift teachers. This, and other issues such as the flop in doing away with the streaming system, definitely do not paint any rosy or promising picture of the state or level of education in our country.

Admittedly, the Covid-19 pandemic caused quite an upheaval in our education sector which went much beyond the simple move to online education thus sacrificing the imperative classroom and interrelationship environment. At one time, our four-stage educational system structure, catering to a variety of curricula reinforced by periodical and meaningful examinations used to be very highly rated. At the moment, we have in place a higher education strategy for Malta  embedded within the overall strategic direction of the proposed Framework for the Education Strategy for Malta for 2014 to 2024, aiming to deliver specific targets with regard to higher education. This strategy follows up on the Further and Higher Education Strategy 2020 proposed by the former National Commission for Higher Education in 2009 but responds specifically to the need for a strategic direction and priorities.

Yet while witnessing a considerable expansion of our higher education sector, progress has been well below expectations. That expansion has not to date resulted in widening access to higher education as a means of decreasing gender differences especially with regards to early school leaving and higher education attainment, something which is not only highly desirable but also necessary. We definitely need to increase the higher education attainment of older students and reduce the share of early school leavers among younger students. Critical thinking and problem-solving as possible new subjects at a primary and secondary level, rather than a later stage, is also recommended. Furthermore, flexible education pathways are necessary to allow students to seamlessly merge their careers with their continued education. Students might want to come back to education later on a part-time basis. The dialogue needs to be ongoing and wider.

One particular development, which really struck me and looks very promising and yielding, was the document Education for the future, published by the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry some time ago. In addition to it, the Chamber co-hosted a colloquium together with the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST) to focus on how education and skills in Malta need to change in a post-Covid scenario. It was a fruitful discussion that concentrated on how to bridge the communication gap between education and industry and how industry and education can collaborate to be more effective. Undoubtedly, both our educational and industrial sectors will have to run parallelly in addressing the missing links for increasing the relevance of higher education to the individual and the labour market. When looking into the factors that may influence young people’s decision in Malta on continuing their education, it appears that the labour market opportunities available to them are an important pull factor. Unfortunately, we have too many school students already de-motivated by schooling,  discontinuing their education due to a lack of connection with the school, perceptions that the school is boring, lack of motivation, academic challenges, personal backgrounds and community contexts.

Measures to tackle the early school-leaving phenomenon are extremely important in view of the particular impact of unemployment on young people and especially young people with low levels of education. More emphasis should be put on encouraging innovative content and programme design and  increasing employability and entrepreneurship. Just consider the fact that currently, 30% of all programmes and students at MCAST are below MQF Level 3, which should normally be attained by the end of compulsory schooling. With this state of affairs, there is a long and uphill road to take before we can see any substantial and effective results that positively impact our temporary educational crisis.

Education is one of the defining enterprises of this century with the emergence of globalisation and increasing global competition. In a fast-changing and competitive world, education and technology are the master keys for the respectable survival and progress of Malta. We should be determined to respond positively to emerging needs, opportunities and challenges of globalisation. Education should be considered a key to change and progress. Progress and prosperity of our country depend on the kind of education that is provided to the people.

Our present educational standards offer criteria by which judgments can be made by state and local school personnel and communities, helping them to decide which curriculum, laws of administration, health programme, staff development activity and assessment programme is appropriate. Those educational standards should encourage policies that will bring coordination, consistency and coherence to the improvement of the process of education. They allow everyone to move in the same direction, with the assurance that the risks they take, in the name of improving education, will be supported by policies and practices throughout the system.

It is true that Malta has in place a system by which one can embark on a learning process that continues until the day one dies. Yet we continue to live as if we were to die tomorrow whereas we should learn and continue educating ourselves with values as if we were to live forever.

 

Dr Mark Said is an advocate

 

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