To stream or not to stream

If recent history has taught us anything at all about the education sector, it is that it does not take too kindly to sudden jolts.

The Education Ministry’s decision to re-introduce a limited form of streaming in Malta’s educational system has caused some understandable consternation among academics.

Streaming is a practice whereby schoolchildren are grouped together according to ability, and as such is often criticised for apparently downgrading the importance of inclusivity in schools. Although understood to come with its own advantages, critics argue that the system fails less gifted pupils: resulting not only in neglect of the needier amongst us, but also in loss of self-esteem among children.

Taken to extremes, it can be argued to detract from an official education mission statement that aims, among other things, to guarantee equal opportunities to all students.

Yet Malta’s system incorporated streaming, from Year IV of primary school onwards, until 2010: when the previous administration sought to reform the sector in favour of a mixed ability approach.

The need for this reform was outlined in an extensive document entitled ‘Transition from Primary to Secondary Schools in Malta’, published in 2007. One problem that is frequently cited in this report is that streaming indirectly resulted in pressure on schoolchildren as young as seven. As one member of the Faculty of Education put it: “The pressure starts in Year IV in primary education, when exams are taken and these results determine how the children are going to be streamed. So there is a transition between life without exams, and life where exam results are of the utmost importance, in Year IV of primary school.”

Furthermore, the report highlighted the positive aspects of mixed ability classes. “Interviews conducted by the 11+ Review Committee in continuous schools which have no streaming showed that there is an inclusive philosophy which encourages pupils to help each other, develop good self-esteem and strive to achieve [better results].”

Added to other criticisms often levelled at our education system (among others, by the Council of Europe) that the curriculum is too academically oriented and does not provide children with sufficient physical exercise and non-curricular activities, the overall impression is that Malta’s entire approach to education has been piecemeal and prone to flaws.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 2007 report goes on to recommend a new approach that consigns streaming to the past.

In this context, the Education Ministry’s initiative, no matter how well-intentioned, can be interpreted as step which turns the clock back to an earlier, less inclusive and more elitist age.

But the issue at hand is more complex than that. Even if the former government’s intentions were laudable, the fact remains that the 2006 reform itself was mired in administrative problems. The Malta Union of Teachers appeared to confirm as much this week, with the following, rather terse comment: “Mixed-ability teaching has failed as it was not implemented within the right structure and with very little resources.”

Key logistical requirements, the union added, were not taken into account in the switch-over between the two systems. Mixed-ability teaching requires smaller classrooms and more resources per class: neither of which were provided for during the transition.

However, these and other objections must also be viewed against the backdrop of statistical evidence suggesting that a vast majority – 63% – of teachers prefer streaming, possibly because it also implies a ‘one-size-fits’ all approach that is easier to implement in practice.

Moreover, 80% of secondary school teachers felt they had not been properly prepared to teach a mixed ability class.

Faced with this situation, one must question whether the choice of educational system should rely only on the perspective of the teachers involved, to the exclusion of all other concerns (namely, those affecting the children).

Even if a majority of teachers is more comfortable with the previous system, it does not follow that the system seeking to replace it is automatically wrong.

On closer scrutiny, it also transpires that the changes announced by the Education Ministry do not mark a direct return to the enforced differentiation among students according to academic ability. Streaming, as such, will make way for ‘banding’ – a midway approach which, according to Education Minister Evarist Bartolo, does not eliminate mixed abilities completely, but instead narrows down the spectrum of abilities in a singular classroom, allowing teachers to reach out to students more effectively.

Bartolo may well have a point in opting for the middle road; and he certainly has the support of the teachers’ union. But given the circumstances of the (apparently) failed 2006 reform, one must also ask whether today’s Education Ministry may be repeating the same mistakes of the former administration.

The fact that the changes clearly took the education sector by surprise is a clear indication that the stakeholders were not properly consulted before pushing ahead with this reform. And yet it was lack of consultation that had resulted in the aforementioned shortcomings with the mixed-ability approach.

Above all, if recent history has taught us anything at all about the education sector, it is that it does not take too kindly to sudden jolts. Even if one concedes that the education system does need a revamp, one would expect far more extensive consultation to go into any proposed changes… especially in a sector that is absolutely crucial to Malta’s long-term development prospects.

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