Make no mistake about it. Malta is dumb to the worrying signs that the country’s education system is failing despite millions in investment. It is clumsy, test-crazed, and plagued with inequities – and we are paying the price for it.
Over decades, Malta has spent millions trying to close the education gap with the rest of the world. But in truth, we may as well be flushing that money down the toilet, with the country still performing miserably in student retention and educational performance.
We are one of the highest spenders on education in the entire EU. Free education is provided to all Maltese citizens from primary school up until university.
The country’s education spending is roughly 5.2% of the country’s GDP, well above the EU average of 4.6%. That’s an annual spend of roughly €30 million per year. That figure has actually been reduced by almost €20 million when compared with a decade ago.
Still, despite the massive overlay, a third of the country’s workforce has a secondary school education level at best, while almost 50% do not have more than the minimum six O-levels.
Meanwhile, teachers remain underpaid and understaffed, with the government facing teaching shortage after teaching shortage amid disputes over the lack of qualifications with unions.
The government has recognised the worrying skills gap with a new employment policy. However, the strategy appears to be geared towards the work being done outside schools rather than addressing the glaring issues within them.
The situation is improving somewhat, with the number of early school leavers dropping from 25.7% to 16.7%. But that’s still one of the highest in the EU, a clear sign that Malta remains years behind the rest despite steps forward.
There are worrying signs elsewhere. Malta is one of the lowest achievers in three crucial areas: reading, maths, and science. Around 35% of 15-year-olds today are underachieving in those areas, a troubling indication for their career prospects in some lucrative fields.
One field Malta does perform admirably well is its treatment of disadvantaged children, who are top performers in fields like reading, maths, and science than their European peers. It’s an impressive feat and shows that, despite its faults, Malta’s education system does help out some of the most vulnerable.
Still, it does not make up for how the government and opposition continue to fail a large chunk of Maltese students.
It’s also creating a highly unequal situation where people who attend state schools are far more disadvantaged than students who attend private or church schools.
The figures speak for themselves. A European Commission study found that the gap between private and state schools is equivalent to two more years of teaching, meaning that private school students are far more equipped once they leave secondary schools.
Malta’s politicians seem to agree. Many of Malta’s MPs and Cabinet members, including Prime Minister Robert Abela, choose to send their children to private rather than state schools. It’s a damning indictment of what our politicians really think about the system in place.
Not to mention that the gap between private and public schools also helps foster a clear distinction between different children from an early age.
Rather than teaching them early that regardless of where you come from or what you earn, we are all equal, Malta has created an environment where some students have access to better resources simply because they can afford it.
However, private schools are not some havens away from the system’s glaring issues. Some worrying trends are emerging in private schools and church schools, who, despite performing better, have actually seen their grades slip in recent years.
That seems to suggest that while the school’s conditions and resources might play a factor, the syllabus is also leaving a lot to be desired.
Malta has undoubtedly pushed towards vocational learning and other forms of education, with MCAST proving to be a resounding success for people who do not fit the traditional educational model. But that still does not cover up that we simply fail to get the basics right from when children start school.
There is obviously a major attitude shift that must take also place at home, with families playing a part in their children’s educational journey.
Far too many people in Malta are dismissive of academia, viewing it as some sort of elitist bastion when it is actually the foundation to providing a voice to the many people on the island.
Fostering a positive educational environment from a young age is vital to ensuring lifelong learning. Still, in Malta, most students leave the educational system with a bitter taste in their mouth, some vowing never to return again.
Malta has so far been able to paper over the cracks with its high employment rate, but the truth is many Maltese do not occupy high paying roles and fail to access the most lucrative jobs on the island.
To put things into perspective, despite first finding its feet in Malta more than two decades ago, around 60% of gaming employees are foreign. How Maltese people have failed to get a foothold begs the question over the work being done on the educational level over 20 years.
But you don’t even need hard figures since the evidence is all around us. An overwhelming number of Maltese people still lack the capacity to think critically, regurgitating opinions fed to them by either state-controlled or party-run media.
It’s not even limited to people with lower levels of education. University lecture halls regularly fall silent when asked to give an opinion or an answer. Students, who are often a bastion for activism and protests, are quite the opposite in Malta.
So what can we do to solve it?
Malta has tried to introduce smaller class sizes and lower student-to-teacher ratios, contributing heavily to our significant spending.
Still, even experts have noted that the effect on student performance is mixed, suggesting that the allocation of resources should be carefully reconsidered – like investing in more high-quality professional development for teachers to help them improve students’ achievements much more efficiently and effectively.
This is not to say that Malta does not have good teachers – and many hardworking people are educating the new generations despite having a severe lack of resources at their disposal.
However, more work needs to be done to ensure that they are leaving university with the necessary expertise and provided with the right resources throughout their career.
A serious examination of the syllabus of all subjects and the teaching methods is needed. A radical rethink of the entire system must be at the forefront of politicians thoughts, even though they would rather bicker between petty partisan issues than tackle one of the most glaring problems in the country.
Unions and the Ministry must come together to find workable solutions to improve the system rather than lock horns over industrial issues that ultimately impact students.
The government, on its part, has made frequent pledges to reform the education system. Even former Education Minister Evarist Bartolo admitted that the current system is unjust. Still, nothing has been done with stakeholders failing to agree on a multitude of issues.
What the country needs is a brave minister who is ready to grab the bull by the horns and ruffle some feathers regardless of the backlash they may receive. Malta is desperate for a new system, we need our politicians to stand up and be counted.
Just take a look at Finland – which routinely ranks at the top of education lists. Finland has short school days, little homework and a focus on helping children understand and apply knowledge, not merely repeat it – something utterly different from Malta.
These schools stand out in several ways, providing daily hot meals, health and dental services; psychological counselling; and an array of services for families and children in need. None of the services are means-tested.
Meanwhile, students, who study till 18, must take one of the most rigorous required curriculums in the world at the sixth form level, including physics, chemistry, biology, philosophy, music and at least two foreign languages.
This ensures that students leave with a wide range of skills and knowledge, providing the perfect platform to choose their future. In Malta, on the other hand, we are expected to make a decision on our careers at the age of 13 and 16.
Finland has also made strides in professionalising the profession, making it one the most most popular occupations for the young, meaning that some of the best and brightest become educators.
Better yet, Finnish teachers are not drawn to the profession by money. They only earn slightly more than the national average but see their salaries increase by 30% over the first 15 years.
It also requires stronger academic credentials for its secondary school teachers and rewards them with higher salaries.
Or we could look to Shanghai, which has moved away from an elitist system in which greater resources and elite instructors were present at certain schools.
It now has a more egalitarian neighbourhood attendance system in which students of diverse backgrounds and abilities are educated under the same roof.
The city has also focused on bringing the once-shunned children of migrant workers into the school system. In the words of the OECD, Shanghai has embraced the notion that migrant children are also “our children” — meaning that the city’s future depends in part on them and that they, too, should be included in the educational process.
Ultimately, schools and teachers should also be given greater control over the curriculum taught – providing the perfect platform for educators to switch it up to the best benefit of the students.
Whatever we do remains up for debate. However, the time for being stupid about education must be over.
What do you think of the education system?