It is the time for the launching of 10-year strategies built on pillars that, the promise goes, will help us excel in what we do.

After its ‘Economic Vision’, which identified education as one of the five pillars on which our future prosperity depends, the government has launched another consultation document entitled ‘Early Leaving from Education and Training (ELET) – The Way Forward 2020-2030’.

Malta’s educational system has been underperforming for decades. There has been no shortage of strategic reforms aiming at reducing the endemic problem of early school-leaving.

This ‘new’ strategy projects itself as a continuation of what the Minister of Education, Justyne Caruana, calls “the first national policy on early school-leaving of 2014”.

While some improvements have been achieved over the past decade, Malta still ranks in the penultimate place on the EU index of early school-leavers. This stark reality challenges the credibility of the prime minister’s commitment to making Malta “the best in the world in the coming decade”.

There is not much that is new in this strategic document. The three pillars to bring about the change necessary to improve educational achievement have been defined as prevention, intervention and compensation.

These are the same pillars identified in the European Commission document ‘Reducing early school-leaving: Key messages and policy support’ published in 2013.

The reasons behind the high incidence of early school-leavers are complex. It would be wrong to argue that this is just a problem of the education system and fail to consider the social causes.

The cost of tolerating this debilitating factor in society is high. There is no shortage of arguments on how those who underachieve in education risk being marginalised in society. The commission makes some recommendations on how early school-leaving needs to be addressed, especially in countries like Malta that seem anchored to the lowest levels of achievement.

The first and most critical recommendation is that member states should “ensure long-term political and financial commitment to reducing early school-leaving and keep it high on the political agenda”.

The ELET document fails to make a genuine assessment of why Malta did not fully implement this commission recommendation over the last few decades. Underachievement in education is a slow-burning issue and not one that quickly engages people in understanding its implications.

A good place to start would be a reform of the education profession

There was plenty of expenditure on upgrading schools’ physical infrastructure, giving electronic freebies to pupils and improving stipends to all post-secondary students. But the sobering reality is that the weaker students from better-off families have a greater chance of avoiding the underachievement trap because their families can provide extra safety nets for them to succeed. 

The ELET strategy could have gained credibility had the government recognised the root causes of underachievement and admitted to the political failure to address these causes effectively in the last few decades. If we keep nibbling at the edges of the problem, we will continue to rank among the worst in the EU in educational achievement.

A good place to start would be a reform of the education profession: good teaching has to be the foundation for any improvement in the system. And the profession is not respected as much as it should.

This is not just about improving working conditions though. It is about attracting the best graduates, those who are not just academically well-qualified but who have a vocation and passion for education and are prepared to be held accountable for how they perform.

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