Reports in closed drawers are no solution

There was (and to a large extent there is still) a crude definition of inclusion: putting everyone in the same room within the same four walls rather than designing relevant experiences to effectively reach different children

94.5% of Maltese graduates are finding employment
94.5% of Maltese graduates are finding employment

Before 2013 I was Opposition spokesperson for education and I never held back in criticising where necessary. Perhaps one of the most things that left me dumbfounded at the time was that the Education authorities at the time were almost allergic to publishing reports evaluating our system.

Research studies such as the TIMSS and PISA remained hidden and people in authority decided not to undertake any research into important matters, let alone publish them. My argument back in the day was simple. Even if it’s bad news, at least let’s make it public and perhaps we can debate a way forward. The first step to solve a problem is to consider it as such.

In March 2013 in my first couple of weeks as minister I decided that all documentation at the Ministry was to be made public. I also said that we’re not happy with the numbers and we want to see improvements. I also made it clear that such reports are not to be considered as infallible or as the best way to measure educational performance.

There was a positive trend but I felt we were not doing enough in various areas, especially in alternative and vocational learning and in the a fixation with one-size-fits-all which was leaving behind thousands of young people. There was (and to a large extent there is still) a crude definition of inclusion: putting everyone in the same room within the same four walls rather than designing relevant experiences to effectively reach different children.

This week an important report was published by the European Commission, the Education and Training Monitor. In the report we clearly see marked improvements between 2014 and 2017. Our early school leaving rate is going down four times the rate that of the EU average. It is still high, but if it remains even close to this rate we will reach the European average relatively quickly. There is still a misconception about what early school leaving means: it does not mean that young people leave school early, it means that when they leave school they still have not achieved the skills and knowledge expected of them.

The report also shows that our graduates are doing well. 94.5% of graduates are finding employment and this makes it Europe’s best. I think even on a global level, it is among the highest. Now I’m not going to stay here and tell you half the story and that everything is perfect. Never have and never will. Complacency is unacceptable in education. That figure is very good, but it also presents a challenge. Our graduates are indeed finding employment but as another piece of research we’ve undertaken a couple of years ago has shown, there is still the underemployment phenomenon at stake.

What is underemployment? Let’s take a freshly-graduated lawyer. If that lawyer is employed as a senior clerk that individual would show as a working graduate in statistics, but he would not be within the expected level of job. So he or she would be underemployed.

So while we’re doing very well in one area, we have to make sure we minimise as much as possible underemployment. With the way the economy is growing and with high-end jobs always available, this is decreasing but this is a case in point where research and evidence-based solutions are important and we can’t just hide problems under the carpet.

The EU report also shows positive indicators in adult education and tertiary attainment. There were also good remarks by the European Commission relating to the modernisation of the education system, participation in early childhood education, the collective agreement which “has paved the way for several reforms”, work relating to vocational education, reforming work-based learning and apprenticeships, the promotion of adult learning as well as the steps taken to make education more inclusive.

The report also highlights perceived issues with the higher education sector. Over the past years we’ve improved the standard of this sector and anyone who works in this industry knows of the tough standards being imposed by the NCFHE.

Sometimes the media accuses the Government of dropping its guard and won’t scrutinise enough this or that operator and I have to smile on this.

Because often the criticism I get from the other side of the divide, from the operators and institutions delivering these programmes, is that there’s way too much regulation and checks.

I think its important we make a better job of explaining, both to the public and to European institutions like the Commission, the big steps we’ve taken over the past years with stakeholders and operators, and the effective yet functional regulatory framework they operate in.

We have done a lot of work in education over the past five years. In some areas we’ve changed direction and in other areas we’ve built on the great work done by those before us. All in all, making public the information at hand for a more honest and transparent dialogue is always the best step.

We will continue to work hard to make sure we improve the results we have, because in some tables we should not be where we’re at today, especially for such an aspiring country.

But we are moving ahead. In areas where we could be better, we certainly won’t hide the bad news but actually tackle the issues where we feel we should do better, while at the same time opening a dialogue in areas where we have reservations.

In the end, the report shows an education sector which is showing positive signs. We cannot forget the fact that reform in education takes a number of years to mature and grow. Important changes we’ve introduced between 2013 and 2016 will only show results over the coming years. I am very hopeful, because from an anecdotal point of view I have already witnessed this, that results are coming in. The results are not mine, or the Government’s, but are the outcome of hard work by educators and students.

In the end what does success look like? Success is when we’ve delivered a relevant, values-oriented and skill-based educational experience to each and every child.