Improving education: all together now

One of the first decisions that must be taken in education is to set up a task force to cut the red tape that is strangling teachers.

We need teachers to focus on teaching and not to waste their time and energy filling papers. Teachers have been demoralised and disheartened by new - and unnecessary - bureaucratic burdens they are being forced to deal with. We need to liberate teachers and head teachers so that they can do what they are best at: educating children.

After a frenzy of changes that has hit our schools, we need to reflect on what has been done and consolidate without any more turbulence. Measures must be implemented and coordinated well with those who have the responsibility of putting them into practice. Teachers are tired and we must overcome the present reform fatigue to move on. The top-down approach is harmful. We must work hand-in-hand with educators as equals.

The Ministry of Education, its Directorates and the College Principals should be there to serve and support what teachers and their heads are doing in schools, not to boss them around. We must allow diversity to flourish in State schools while working together with Church and independent schools so as to allow each of them to learn from the other.

We must also learn from other countries without making the mistake of assuming that we can simply import ideas and initiatives that are successful in other realities. Education is complex, and every country has its specific reality, of which education systems are an integral part. But we are also part of the world, and we must have a global perspective when we make our education policies.

The ministry of education has been right to get our students to participate in international surveys in reading, literacy, mathematics and science. We must use the results of these surveys to see how we can improve our education system so that our children and country have a successful future. Participating in these surveys is only the first step. The reports must then be published and discussed nationally as it takes a whole nation to educate children. Education systems need the active involvement of parents, teachers and civil society to succeed.

Maltese primary pupils have come out badly in science in an international survey carried out last year to measure children's achievement in science. With 446 points, Maltese children placed behind the children of countries like Turkey (463), Georgia (455), Iran (453) and Bahrain (449). Malta is ranked 40 in the list of 63 countries surveyed.

Korea (587) and Singapore (583) were the top-performing countries in science in Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2011 at the fourth grade in primary school, followed by Finland (570), Japan (559), the Russian Federation (552) and Chinese Taipei (552).

The TIMSS Report published last Tuesday, 11 December 2012, has not been released locally by the ministry of education. The decision by the ministry not to release for public discussion reports like TIMSS 2011 and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2011 goes against the reason for participating in these studies.

With 496 points, Maltese students placed slightly below the average mark of 500 set by TIMSS 2011 in mathematics. Maltese students achieved the Intermediate International Benchmark that was set at 475 points. The top five countries, all Asian, achieved points ranging from 585 (Japan) to 606 (Singapore). Out of 50 countries assessed Malta placed 28th.

In 49 countries surveyed for the literacy skills of 10-year-olds, Malta has placed in 38th place, 11 from the bottom. With 477 marks Malta is ranked below the average of all the countries surveyed. Malta is ranked with another bottom 11 countries including Trinidad and Tobago, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Azerbaijan and Morocco.

The top five countries with marks ranging from 571 to 558 are Honk Kong, Russia, Finland, Singapore and Northern Ireland.

The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement holds these studies to "improve police and decision making about children's future education".

IEA says that "comparing education systems in terms of their organisation, curricula, and instructional practices in relation to their corresponding student achievement provides information crucial for effective education policy-making".

The main recommendations coming out of these reports are:

-           Early start crucial in developing children's mathematics, science, literacy and reading achievement;

-           Home resources strongly related to mathematics, science, literacy and reading achievement;

-           Successful schools emphasise academic success and have safe and orderly environments;

-           Teacher preparation and career satisfaction related to higher mathematics, science, literacy and reading achievement;

-           Students with positive attitudes toward mathematics, science, literacy and reading have higher achievement;

-           Engaging instruction related to higher mathematics, science, literacy and reading achievement and instruction affected by students lacking in basic nutrition and sleep.

Evarist Bartolo is shadow minister for education