Education is an end in itself

The new system promises to be more inclusive, and to restore the dignity of vocational subjects that were previously downgraded within the educational system

29 November 2016, 8:15am
Vocational education needs to be given the same prestige traditionally enjoyed by academic education
Vocational education needs to be given the same prestige traditionally enjoyed by academic education
“We must have the courage to have an educational system that is there for the children’s future. We are preparing students for exams, but not for life or work.” 

These words were uttered by Education Minister Evarist Bartolo last month, addressing the parliamentary committee on the 2017 general budgetary estimates for the Ministry for Education and Work. Similar sentiments have been expressed before: by teachers, parents and all other interested parties. 

Yet while there seems to be broad agreement on the need for a reform, the education system has always proved a notoriously difficult animal to handle. For obvious reasons, continuity is an important component of any system: one cannot simply discard the old system altogether and start from scratch. But nor can the educational system be tinkered with indefinitely, in the absence of a clear long-term strategy.   

Past efforts in this direction have always tended to be at best haphazard; at worst counter-productive. In fact the latest planned reform represents a reversal of an earlier decision to phase out trade schools: re-introducing vocational training, albeit across all government schools.

The proposed reform must also be viewed against the backdrop of Malta’s national performance in the European education tables. Last month it was revealed that Malta is the EU state with the lowest percentage of upper secondary school students enrolled in vocational education. Just 13 per cent of Malta’s upper secondary students are enrolled in vocational education, compared to the EU average of 48 per cent. 

In 12 member states, more than half of all upper secondary pupils studied vocational programmes. 

From this perspective, it is welcome news that the Education Ministry is embarking on a reform that is aimed at redressing this imbalance. Under the new system announced this week, once students reach Form 2, in addition to their core subjects, they will need to choose additional subjects from three different paths: an academic path, a vocational one or a path based on applied learning. Students will also have the option of mixing subjects from the different paths. 

Presenting these proposals, Frank Fabri – director-general at the Education Ministry – explained that the intention was to move away from the  one-size-fits-all system bequeathed to us by the British; adding that the current regime works very well for only a percentage of students. 

The new system promises to be more inclusive, and – perhaps more importantly – to restore the dignity of vocational subjects that were previously downgraded within the educational system. Vocational education needs to be given the same prestige traditionally enjoyed by academic education. On this score, the proposals should meet little resistance.

It is however a challenging reform, and it would help to avoid repetition of past mistakes. The Education Minister is aware of one area where mistakes were made in the past: part of the proposal involves training for teachers, and the relevant changes to university education courses have already been announced.

Nonetheless some questions remain. Fabri stated that more resources will have to be made available to schools. Lack of resources was among the main complaints by schools in the switch-over from streaming to mixed ability-classrooms. Earlier reforms, including the shock introduction of Systems of Knowledge in the late 1980s – and the equally sudden promotion of Arabic to a compulsory requirement  for university admission, a few years earlier – had been imposed on schools without any forewarning and preparation. This is the kind of approach that must be avoided at all costs.

On another level, while the policy is clearly well-intentioned, it remains debatable whether the proposed system is in line with best practice the world over. As a rule, a national educational policy should not only look at producing better skilled workers with a view to fostering economic growth and benefiting industry and the private sector.

These are important considerations, but not the only ones. Critical thinking, history, social studies and citizenship, media literacy should also be given a central role. This is especially true in a world that is increasingly dominated by populism and fear, where there is a very real possibility of history repeating itself for want of greater awareness.

But as a nation, we must also overcome our tendency to view education from a purely utilitarian angle. The purpose of education is not just to create a specialised workforce attuned to the particular economic needs of today. It is also to provide a proper grounding in human and social skills... to enable individuals to discover and attain their potential.

It is reassuring, for instance, that the Education Ministry has consulted education experts from Finland. There is much to be learnt from a country where over 40% of secondary school students choose vocational education.  

Since it implemented huge education reforms 40 years ago, Finland’s school system has consistently come in at the top for the international rankings for education systems. This successful recipe includes fewer school-hours, less exams and homework, and more time for play and physical activity. Formal education starts at seven years of age; teachers enjoy the same status as lawyers and doctors.

At a glance, it seems to be the very opposite of our own system. This alone should point us in the right direction.