Rigging, rationing and equity in education | Lara Said

All children have a gift and/or a talent. Unfortunately not all schools allow children and their parents to discover this and not all schools nurture gifts and talent

I am an avid follower of all things educational; especially those concerning the local educational scene. I read captivated the interview by Raphael Vassallo with Professor Ronald Sultana who continued to unravel his understanding of the term ‘apartheid’. I am not going to focus on the issue of ‘apartness’, ‘divide’ or ‘gap’ and the debate regarding the quality of education, as this is ‘quantified’ through pupils’ attainment outcomes at age 16 on generally unstandardised tests of achievement at school which we call secondary school leaving examinations. Rather I am going to focus on Professor Sultana’s ‘rigging’ which he illustrates in rich social detail as follows:

“As you will tend to get a pro-school culture in the former (private schools), there is a higher possibility of getting a counter-school culture in the latter (state schools). If independent and church schools (ironically, given the Pope’s plea during his recent visit) actively or passively turn away children of migrants and refugees, or other groups that might not be pro-school initially, then those kids will end up somewhere else; and that somewhere else is the state school sector. In this sense, then, the system is rigged.”

The next excerpt from this interview made me stand even more to attention.

“Now here we need to be careful: this is in no way denying that school leaders mean well, that they do the best they can for students in their care. I am not accusing parents or schools for seeking their own interests. What I am saying is that we need to face up to the implications of our actions, even when we do not mean to do harm. And this is the realm of policy, which focuses on patterns, on systems, and on the unintended consequences of choices made in response to self-interest.”

My excitement with the above was great because Professor Sultana makes reference to the levels associated with Westernised educational systems namely the policy level, the school level, the classroom level and the pupil level (parents/guardians included). The systemic, multilevel, multi-dimensional nature of any educational system interests me.

At this point it is useful for the reader to note that in Malta and Gozo attainment, or pupils’ outcomes on a given test/exam in time, are generally primarily ‘measured’ or rather ‘quantified’ through end of year tests and then at age 16 through secondary school leaving examinations. Do notice that unlike the TIMSS, PISA, PIRLS international league tables such tests/examinations are not scientifically constructed. This implies that the bias in school tests and other school-leaving examinations is not more overt and consequently not likely to be minimised.

Moreover, the discriminatory effects of school tests or school leaving examinations remain less known and at times unknown. Rather than delve into highly technical issues fraught with complex traps such as what non standardised school tests and national examinations are really measuring, I think that it is more socially positive to shift my attention to the issue of equity in education. From social justice, I draw upon Gilbourn and Youdell’s understanding of equity as equality of access, provision, circumstance, participation and outcome.

Headteachers and teachers are generally well-intentioned. A good many head teachers and teachers strive to educate and teach children even when conditions are adverse. COVID has demonstrated this. Teacher leaders, as well as, head teacher leaders are known to make a positive difference in the lives of children and pupils in their care.

Yet, there are times when the difference, or rather, the gains in pupils’ achievement outcomes over time, is not as much as we would like this to be, especially for children who are at risk and/or for more disadvantaged groups of children. The differential impact of schooling, for different groups of pupils, as mediated by the differential qualities of teachers’ and head teachers’ pedagogical and instructional behaviours is well documented.

So what is it that allows some schools and/or some teachers to support and foster learning environments that allow all, or rather, most pupils to progress over and above their normal rate of development even in spite of disadvantage in terms of initial attainment? What elements at the classroom and school levels especially allow teachers and headteachers to narrow the attainment gap of pupils and allow a school to maintain increased rates of pupil progress? Which teachers’ and headteachers’ instructional, pedagogical and leadership behaviours support and foster quality practice that allows pupils repeatedly attain, in and over time, significantly above their normal expectation and consequently register marked progress throughout their primary and secondary school career?

I trust that local headteachers and teachers are conversant with the more specific aspects of Gilbourn and Youdell and are not, even if unintentionally, erecting barriers to pupil attainment and progress outcomes. I hope that they reflect on the quality of their behaviours. I hope that local education professionals do not ‘ration education’ even if unintentionally. I hope that head teachers and teachers do not perpetuate rationing by not adopting a ‘triage’ system whereby some pupils may be perceived as hopeless cases and given up on, some other pupils are perceived as requiring prioritisation, and some other pupils will be given attention; but later.

It is the parent’s job to want the best for their children. Yet I dare say that parents, whilst knowing their children better than anybody else, do not always realise how to get their children on the path to achieve their own best and in respect of their children’s own potential. I think that the stage in a child’s educational career where I perceive Maltese and Gozitan parents as more likely not to truly understand the developmental and learning needs of their children is more probable during the very early years whilst their child is attending nursery and/or kindergarten.

I now return to the issue of equity. In my opinion and at this point I may only speculate due to insufficient data, at least available to me, that the Maltese educational system is disequalising. The attainment gap between private and state school pupils on school-leaving examinations suggests a discriminatory effect of the local education system.

So what do I mean by dis-equalising? From experience of being around very young children I think that the majority of Maltese families value schooling and many of them have aspirations for their children to succeed in life at least more than they themselves did. I think that it is here that the dis-equalising process starts.

This is also the point where the implications of our apparently well-meaning actions might have unintended consequences. When at home many parents enjoy seeing their children play and/or playing with their children. They buy them books. They buy them paints. They focus on providing their children with pleasurable experiences and immerse them in a joyful and meaningful environment of meaningful talk, letters, numbers and symbols based on the interests of their children and presented in ways that help their children to think in different and diverse ways. They are not concerned if their children go to nursery and/or a kindergarten where they play all day. They know that the longer playful way is actually shorter and that it is more likely that their child will not be fed up with kindergarten by the time that they enter the formal education local primary school system at Year 1 aged 5!

There are also parents who want their very young children to learn and do well at school. So they structure their children’s lives around handouts of letters and numbers and expect their children to do even more so when at kindergarten. In my opinion the child who is allowed to play to his/her heart’s content is more likely to achieve later on than the child who starts school too early.

I think that all children have the potential to achieve what they are capable of, good at and better at before they start school; regardless of whether their development is typical or atypical. All children have a gift and/or a talent. Unfortunately not all schools allow children and their parents to discover this and not all schools nurture gifts and talents. I speculate that at age 5 the gap between children in private and state education is not as wide even when taking into consideration, and adjusting for, social class and pupil age.

I even speculate that if our young children were to be tested scientifically at age 5 their attainment outcomes are likely not to be significantly dissimilar, on average, to other young children in other European countries in terms of their basic skills and/or development. However, it seems that by age 14, if one considers international studies for achievement, and by age 16, if one considers school-leaving examinations, schooling has made a disequalising difference!

Not only do we generally tend to fare badly in terms of the international league tables but it also seems that pupils in state schools are discriminated against when compared to private school pupils at least at face value and when considering achievement as attainment. So assuming that I consider the gap in attainment between the outcomes achieved on school-leaving examinations associated with pupils in private schools and those in state schools as a reliable fact, because I am not entirely convinced about this, then this is likely to imply that headteachers as well as teachers in state schools are not as effective as those in private schools. This ties in with the issue of accountability. Here I move from a sociological perspective and right bang into that of school effectiveness research.

However, is it fair to hold headteachers in schools and teachers in classrooms accountable for the attainment of pupils in time rather than for the gains in outcome achieved by pupils over time? Is it fair for pupils to sit a school-leaving examination that as far as I know is not even scientifically constructed? Is it fair to hold teachers and headteachers accountable for the outcomes of their pupils especially given the breadth of our curriculum? What does ‘accountability’ mean? When clearly the problem is systemic and flawed because of policy intervention rather than policy direction.

Why do we not appropriately monitor pupils’ outcomes in and over time in conjunction with the impact and influence of the contextual and process factors associated with top-down policy as this must be implemented by schools? Why do we not monitor the effects of policy whether direct, or latent, whether significant or ineffectual but nonetheless influential and the effect of such policy over time for the quality of processes in nested classrooms and consequently on pupils’ attainment and subsequent progress outcomes.

My field of expertise lies in the area of early years educational effectiveness. Now that my bias is laid bare please do not think that I am encouraging the education authorities and politicians in Malta to monitor the effectiveness of schools and teachers. What I do encourage, as I questioned above, is the monitoring of the effect of policy in and over time for its clients meaning children and their parents and for the people who deliver schooling meaning head teachers, teachers and paraprofessionals. Children, parents, teachers and head teachers matter. So back to social justice and to the construct of equity in education as equality of access, provision, circumstance, participation and outcome.

To conclude, how are politicians going to support and foster educational structures that allow equality of opportunity to accede to quality provision? I suggest that they start with the early years and that they recognise that the education and care of our young children requires professional educators who value children’s right to play. Let us nip, at least partially, rigging and rationing from the very start of our educational system.

How are politicians going to support and foster equality of circumstance and increase participation? Perhaps it is time to stop ‘rationing’ education and do away with school-leaving examinations? Perhaps, everybody should have the right to proceed to post-secondary/sixth form/vocational education. How are politicians going to support and foster equality of outcome?

Ironically by focusing on the quality of structures and embedded processes and then, and I do admit that I am speculating: outcome and achievement will tend to fall in place apparently on its own.