Far from top in education

Malta does not feature in a recent report called ‘The Learning Curve’ on the education systems of 40 countries in the world.

Published by Pearson and written by the Economist Intelligence Unit, it seeks to shed light on what leads to successful educational outcomes - both economic and social.

The Education Top 20 is made up of: Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, UK, Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, Denmark, Australia, Poland, Germany, Belgium, USA, Hungary, Slovakia and Russia.

The report recommends five lessons for education policymakers:

1. There are no magic bullets: throwing money at education by itself rarely produces results, and individual changes to education systems, however sensible, rarely do much on their own. Education requires long-term, coherent and focused system-wide attention to achieve improvement.

2. Respect teachers: good teachers are essential to high-quality education. Finding and retaining them is not necessarily a question of high pay. Instead, teachers need to be treated as the valuable professionals they are, not as technicians in a huge, educational machine.

3. Culture can be changed: the cultural assumptions and values surrounding an education system do more to support or undermine it than the system can do on its own. Using the positive elements of this culture and, where necessary, seeking to change the negative ones, are important to promoting successful outcomes.

4. Parents are neither impediments to nor saviours of education: parents want their children to have a good education; pressure from them for change should not be seen as a sign of hostility but as an indication of something possibly amiss in provision. On the other hand, parental input and choice do not constitute a panacea. Education systems should strive to keep parents informed and work with them.

5. Educate for the future, not just the present: many of today's job titles, and the skills needed to fill them, simply did not exist 20 years ago. Education systems need to consider what skills today's students will need in future and teach accordingly.

No Christmas cake

According to Eurostat statistics, the persons at risk of poverty in Malta - despite the fact that they receive social transfers - was 15.4 percent last year, close to the EU27 average of 16.9% (the EU figures ranged between  9.8% in the Czech Republic and 22.3% in Bulgaria). This means that these people's disposable income was even below the national at-risk-of-poverty threshold. The threshold last year was €10,862 and 63,593 persons earned 40% less than that - in fact, they had to survive on €6,517.  But there are thousands of others who had to survive on even less. There were 33,627 persons who tried to scrape a living on €5,431 and another 13,019 persons performed the miracle of staying alive on €4,345. 

The 108,000 persons who earned 60% or less of the median income will probably be amongst those who, as Queen Marie Antoinette said when she was asked what the poor should eat, suggested they scoff "cake" at Christmas time. Some of the rest of the population who will benefit from the tax rate changes announced by GonziPN will no doubt drink champagne.  They are amongst the 20% of the population whose income is on average four times that of the 20% of the population with the lowest income.

Those who were severely materially deprived in Malta were 6.3%, compared to an EU average of 8.8% ranging between 1.2% in Sweden and Luxembourg and 43.6% in Bulgaria.   Finally, the percentage of persons under 60 who live in households with very low intensity was 8.3% in Malta, compared to an EU average of 10% ranging between 4.5% in Cyprus and 13.7% in Belgium.

What is even more telling in the Eurostat statistics is that, judging by the percentage of persons who fall under at least of the three criteria that characterise risk of poverty or social exclusion, Malta has closed the gap over the last three years - negatively, that is. In fact, whereas in 2008 the percentage of our population that met one of the criteria was 19.6% and four percentage points better than the EU27, last year the percentage of such people was 21.4% and only two-and-a-half percentage points better than the EU27.

Prime Minister Gonzi described this year's Budget as 'one for families'. But not even he believes his own propaganda. So much so that, while his Minister of Finance boasted that the income tax cuts for the few will cost the government €40m over three years, he did not similarly boast what the measures in favour of the less-well-off will cost.

Evarist Bartolo is shadow minister for education


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