In 2016 the government announced a new reform, ‘My Journey’, that would reformulate the way state secondary school students could choose their optional subjects by introducing a third ‘applied’ stream of subjects. This is intended to complement and be at par with the current academic and vocational streams. These new subjects will start being taught as from September.

It is important to understand how this reform builds on the previous one on vocational education. The vocational stream were reintroduced in 2011 in mainstream schools some years after the phasing out of the old Trade Schools.

The intention was that it would be significantly different from the traditional academic subjects both in terms of teaching and learning as well as in assessment. Thus, students who learnt better through hands-on application and were more interested in trades and services-oriented education would also be able to flourish.

At the same time, the authorities wanted to ensure that these vocational subjects would have parity of esteem with the academic subjects, and would break away from the stigma of vocational education that had lingered from the 1970s and 1980s.

For the same reason, their final examinations were entrusted to the MATSEC Board, which was reformed to include representatives from MCAST, the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology, and the ITS, the Institute of Tourism Studies. Over the last 27 years the Board has built a sterling reputation for expertise and trustworthiness in the conduct of SEC and A Level examinations.

These efforts have paid off; vocational subjects are today a respected alternative to the more academic subjects. However, the government was concerned that the MATSEC vocational examinations were still academically biased and were excluding a substantial proportion of students from continuing their post-secondary studies.

Malta has made significant strides in reducing the rate of early school-leavers. But at just under 19 per cent in 2017, its rate is still the highest in Europe, with males faring significantly worse than female students. It is unlikely that Malta will reach the EU target of 10 per cent by 2020, less than a year away.

The government’s solution was the ‘My Journey’ reform and the introduction of the ‘applied’ stream of subjects. The reform will increase flexibility in the way students can take optional subjects from the academic, vocational and ‘applied’ streams. It aims to give the latter parity of esteem up to SEC level to the first two streams. It will strengthen career guidance and encourage stronger partnerships with employers, for example through apprenticeships. These intentions are all positive and build on good practices that some schools were already spearheading.

But the devil, as always, is in the detail. The ‘My Journey’ reform rhetoric claims that it will deliver a new way of ‘applied’ teaching of the core and optional subjects such that students will be able to finish school at SEC-equivalent level. They will also have sufficient mastery in the core subjects to support their learning in their optional subjects.

But it is far from clear how students who are operating at a basic level in the core subjects, largely because they never got the right support in their primary school years, will be able to achieve this SEC-equivalent level in their final three (actually two and a half) years of secondary schooling. It takes much more than capital expenditure, with which the Education Ministry has been quite liberal, to make such a transformation happen.

Will teachers be sufficiently and effectively trained to teach the core and optional subjects in this new ‘applied’ way? Are the teaching resources, syllabi and assessment tools tried, tested and ready to use? How is the Learning Outcomes Framework, that is meant to be the gold standard of inclusion and differentiation, going to fit into the ‘applied’ learning outcomes of the core subjects?

But there are more fundamental questions: will the teaching of specific trades limit students’ transferability of skills and the flexibility of re-training and re-employment? These are at the core of 21st century educational endeavour, and increasingly in demand by employers.

Why was the creation of the ‘applied’ stream of optional subjects even necessary? Why was it not possible to fine-tune the MATSEC vocational subjects to reach a wider student base?

And, more importantly, why is the government not spending at least as much energy to ensure that no child leaves primary school without appropriate mastery of 21st century skills, so that it addresses the problem at its roots? The 2018 OECD report ‘Early Learning Matters’ reinforces previous findings that the quality of the educational experience (including the family) in the first 10 years of life, and especially the first three, is crucial for a positive lifelong learning journey and active engagement.

The government needs to provide a lot more detail to set students’, parents’ and employers’ minds at rest that ‘My Journey’ will not take them for a ride, but actually open new pathways to learning and engagement in society.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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