Research by the author recently investigated ideological conflicts created by current education system in secondary schools in Malta. Sultana (1992) argued that in Malta, the aim of providing a valuable education has been historically characterised by conflict between three different goals: economic, educational and ideological.
The economic goal is driven by a mentality that education should reflect economic developments of the nation, particularly providing skilled workers for the needs of the industry. The educational goal focuses on providing a valuable education that serves the needs and aspirations of the students. The ideological goal focuses on facilitation of quality and equality in education irrespective of the social class background, gender, learning abilities and disabilities of the student.
However, this modus operandi is clearly not achieving the results education stakeholders expect. Malta is one of the European countries with most early school leavers, which evidently reveals how the way the education system operates today has become a site of controversy and disagreements. The research initially explored main educational initiatives and characteristics that contribute towards how we see the Maltese education system today. More than 50 years of educational history were explored, which helped to establish a historic context of the main drivers that motivate education legislation and the idea of good education in Malta.
Malta is one of the European countries with most early school leavers
The historic aspect revealed how the concept of good education in Malta is based on the principles of valuable and inclusive education. However, although various attempts were made in the past to achieve this objective through various school-based interventions and nationwide reforms, valuable and inclusive education remain sites of disagreements among many.
Moreover, the study identified how valuable and inclusive education has historically and characteristically been shaped around the ideas of high academic achievement, international parity and formalist teaching philosophies. For example, these ideals were challenged in the past, particularly in 1972, when reforms were introduced in secondary school education to complement more the ideals of comprehensive and equitable education.
However, after several attempts to maintain such principles, the Maltese education system has always somehow reverted to selective models of education. This was mainly motivated by Maltese society, particularly parents, who believe that good value in education should be based on standards of traditional-type examination-led academic studies, and that all children should be able to sit for the same examination just like everybody else.
This revealed how and why the Maltese education system is driven by a series of exams called the Secondary Education Certificate (SEC), and why the SEC is at the centre of most controversial discourses that aim to bring change in the Maltese education system.
The research also shows how students’ performances in the SEC are critical to the debate about what and how valuable and inclusive education should translate in real life practice. But this idea is principally driven by quantitative data such as student pass rates, examination reports and other statistics.
The contribution of this research is to investigate beyond statistics and reports how the idea of valuable and inclusive education takes its form today. Thus, a specific research methodology approach was employed. The methodology was based on data analysis from different sources of information, particularly a purposeful selection of current education policies and interviews with education stakeholders who were asked to share their lived experiences when following the SEC.
The policy sample captured a moment in time in contemporary Maltese education. This encapsuled a 10-year period between 2014 and 2024, marking the education ministry’s 10-year strategy attempting to reform Malta’s education system. However, the policy analysis revealed issues that are holding back the implementation of the proposed reforms.
On the other hand, interviews revealed how living through the SEC is not necessarily about reaching objectives set by statistics. While there was no argument that a change is very much needed in the current education system, the idea of change from the personal observations is more based on pedagogical knowledge and experiences.
Other results from the analysis revealed a binary divide between both sources of information, mainly between the authorities and those who are directly involved in the educational field. It is clear, though, that different stakeholders aspire to achieve a normative curve in the system.
However, in different mindsets, a scientific management approach is used by policymakers to address deficits created by the current education system. On the other hand, participants’ concerns were more based on pedagogical knowledge of situations when coping with the highs and lows created by the same system.
Therefore, the direction set by policymakers to achieve valuable and inclusive education is still not convincing frontline education professionals, teachers, parents and students to take the necessary leap and to commit to the reforms proposed in policies. Nonetheless, in principle, everyone agrees that reforms are necessary to modernise the current education system. Moreover, findings also show that there are still unanswered questions that are creating a bottleneck situation for the Maltese education system to progress.
These unanswered questions focus mainly on to whom and for whom is valuable education being addressed, and to whom the concept ‘for all’ is referring, and how well active engagement with stakeholders can be effectively achieved in reality. Thus, from the findings it can be argued that, if these questions remain unanswered, the Maltese secondary education system can potentially remain as a site of controversy and disagreement.
The final aspect of this research focused on the future of Malta’s secondary education. Findings revealed two distinctive mindsets, one that is trying to solve current problems created by the education system and the pedagogic aspect of coping with situations within the system. Thus, it can be argued that although these two mindsets are fundamentally different in nature, these two mindsets can also become harmonised.
A normative curve can potentially be achieved by harmonising the two approaches, where scientific management of problems can be better supported by pedagogic knowledge in a qualitative manner. Investigations such as this study, but perhaps in smaller and more contained environments such as schools, homes or even specific classes, can effectively bring more understanding on phenomena such as low performances and student drop-out rates in secondary schools.
A harmonised approach can be used as a tool by policymakers, school administrators, teachers and parents to understand more how modernisation of the education system can be more effective in its design and its implementation.
Ian Attard has been a senior lecturer and a coordinator of media programmes at MCAST’s Institute for the Creative Arts since 2009. This article is an overview of research he conducted and for which he was recently conferred a doctorate degree by Bournemouth University. It was partially funded by the Endeavour Scholarships Scheme, which is part-financed by the European Social Fund.
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