Times of Malta reported on March 12 that only 44 per cent of students who go on to study at Sixth Form finish their course. While 86 per cent of school leavers go to Sixth Form, seven per cent enter employment and another seven per cent – amounting to about 300 students – neither enter formal employment nor study.

Regarding the above, Education Minister Evarist Bartolo told Parliament the issue needs to be addressed, especially since about 7,000 youths are unqualified and ‘not motivated to work’.

Bartolo referred to budgetary allocations to tackle this challenge and various initiatives in this regard. These include free tuition to motivate students to resit SEC examinations and vocational programmes of ‘learning by doing’. The former so far brought positive results in maths, physics and Maltese but the same cannot be said for English. The minister said the latter were supplemented by basic literacy and numeracy skills and were having a positive impact, also thanks to collaboration by the private sector and the army.

In a recent article by the same minister in another newspaper, he emphasised the importance of lifelong learning, and said that 17,000 persons were attending such courses, with females outnumbering males by almost two to one. Most participants are between 31 and 65, meaning that younger participants are underrepresented.

Bartolo said that a bigger effort will be made to target school levers and those within the 17-24 age group and that a stronger campaign will be launched in this regard, also in collaboration with local councils.

In this regard, one should note that, according to a recent report entitled ‘Social justice in the EU – A cross-national comparison’, published by Social Inclusion Monitor Europe – Bertlesmann Stiftung, Malta ranked 26th in the European Union when it comes to equitable education, based on the years 2011-3. Only Slovakia and Greece were in a worse situation. The top performers were Sweden, Denmark, Lithuania, Estonia, Croatia and Finland, in that order.

Malta also fared badly when it came to early school leavers, ranking 27th. Other countries in the bottom five are Italy, Romania, Portugal and Spain, the latter being the worst performer. Croatia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Luxembourg occupy the top five positions.

One should also note that Malta has a comparatively low rate of graduates.

Figures published by SIM, based on the same period, show that, as regards impact of socioeconomic factors on education performance (also known as PISA), Malta ranks midway in European rankings, sharing the same value as the EU average. The top five EU member states in this regard are Estonia, Finland, Cyprus, Italy and Sweden. Worst performers are Slovakia, Bulgaria, France, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

It is clear that Malta faces tough challenges with respect to educational performance. In this regard, it is positive that the education minister does not use fudge or spin when talking about this. As is expected of a hands-on minister, he acknowledges problems and refers to concrete measures to tackle them.

When one speaks of equal opportunities, one should also compare this with equality of outcome

In particular, it seems that Bartolo’s way forward is being guided by universalistic principles and particularistic strategies.

As far as universalism goes, equal opportunities are being given much importance. This includes worthy initiatives taken by the previous administration, such as stipends for university students as well as investment at various levels of education, from colleges to Mcast, but also includes new initiatives like universalistic childcare centres and a discourse which acknowledges that a plurality of educational paths are possible from technical to academic.

As far as particularism goes, the concept of equity seems to be the guiding thread. Here, people are seen as having different situations, needs and aspirations. Consequently, the best way of achieving more equality is not by treating everyone the same through a one-size-fits-all approach but by treating everyone fairly but differently, ensuring that, eventually, there is some equality between them.

It is also imperative to ensure that reflexivity and critical thinking are encouraged at all levels of education.

The government’s investment in assistance to low-performers is a welcome step forward. Rather than pathologising such persons as being inferior, they are being seen as actors in a diverse society who deserve to be given assistance. I augur that this inclusive approach is mainstreamed at all levels of social policy making.

When one speaks of equal opportunities, one should also compare this with equality of outcome. In particular, is Malta’s educational system contributing to a more equal society? There are various ways as to how one can look at this. For example, university graduates are constantly increasing in numbers. Females are outperforming males in many areas. At the same time, social class background remains a key factor in influencing one’s educational performance.

One can also look at employment and unemployment figures. For example, in the case of youth unemployment rates, Eurostat reports Malta’s current rate at 12.7 per cent, which is much lower than that of many EU member states, including neighbours Italy (42.7 per cent), Greece (52.3 per cent), Cyprus (35.5 per cent) and Spain (53.2 per cent). This trend also reflects the island’s unemployment rate, which ranks among the lowest in the EU.

Malta also has one of the lowest employment rates in the EU too, though it has increased to 63.5 per cent. This takes us back to the challenge referred to by Bartolo on inactive youth. But one can also widen the discussion and discuss, for example, whether precarious jobs on offer make work pay.

Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.

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