In a sense, our education system is ‘rigged’ | Ronald Sultana

RONALD G. SULTANA, Professor of Educational Sociology and Comparative Education at UoM, argues that Malta is paying a high price for its educational ‘apartheid’ culture

Ronald Sultana
Ronald Sultana

Your recent article ‘Educational Apartheid in Malta’ focused on the findings of an EU Commission report: namely, that ‘students in state schools lag behind those attending the non-state sector by two years’. This is, as you say, a long-standing issue: so if the Commission report says nothing that is substantially ‘new’… why are people so surprised at its findings?

The latest Commission report simply reiterates, in broad strokes, what has been reported several times in the press: analyses of international student assessments, and of local exam results, confirm an unacceptable achievement gap between state, independent and church schools.

To his credit, Evarist Bartolo, even when he was shadow minister, had lobbied for Malta to take part in these comparative studies (for example, PISA: Programme for International Student Assessment): saying that it was useless for government to make claims about how much Malta cared for education, when our achievements were not pegged to some kind of international standard.

That was a political risk he took: some countries have performed consistently badly in such assessments, to the point that they refused to take part in them any further, given the political fallout that ensued. Others – such as Germany – were surprised to do badly: scores in reading, math and science were lower than the EU average in the year 2000. This was mostly attributed to the fact that their system separates students early on into general and vocational tracks.

The so-called ‘PISA shock’, in fact, led to a public outcry and a debate about education policy. It galvanised the country’s media, prompted important reforms that included greater support to those who needed it most.

The nub of my piece for the Times of Malta is: why is it that we do not have a similar ‘PISA shock’ locally?  Is it because we have grown comfortable with a system that is divided into three sectors, with each constantly and consistently performing at different levels of achievement?

Clearly, the discrepancy itself cannot be put down to financial allocation to the education sector (Malta boasts the highest education expenditure in the EU). You seem to be suggesting that the problem is of a more ‘systemic’ nature. Could you elaborate?

Yes, that is exactly what I and many of my colleagues have been saying: the problem is systemic. Let me unpack what I mean by that. It is understandable that parents make choices and decisions in line with what they consider to be the best interests of their children. We, the middle class, are likely to send our kids to schools that have a good reputation; which we feel reflect our way of life; which bring motivated learners together; and where teachers are accountable. We know how to play the game, and play it in such a way that our aspirations and interests are satisfied.

For example: my wife and I placed our two children in a state primary school in our village: because it was convenient, free, and there was the kind of social mix in the classes that we were comfortable with. We also chose a state secondary school for our boys. Here, however, the experience was far less positive: a generalised counter-school culture; shoddy teaching by, embarrassingly, teachers I had myself trained at University; bullying; lack of accountability to parents. We pulled them out at Form 3, when they sat for an exam to enter a small Church school. They recovered, and both went on to post-graduate studies and successful, if original, careers…

But these hundreds of seemingly unrelated individual decisions have an effect on the way the education system shapes up. For every independent and church school that concentrates advantage by being selective (on the basis of fees, cultural capital, motivation, luck-of-the-draw, and so on), you will necessarily get schools that concentrate disadvantage.

As you will tend to get a pro-school culture in the former, there is a higher possibility of getting a counter-school culture in the latter. 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.

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.

You seem to me to be letting everybody of the hook, though...

No. Ultimately there is responsibility. We have the data, we have robust (if competing) explanations for the emergent patterns. Unless public policy is just a matter of ‘political spectacle’, then it is our responsibility, as parents, educators, church leaders, politicians, to sit down to see what we’re going to make of this situation.

Of course, it needs to be acknowledged that this is a ‘wicked problem’: one characterised by ambiguity and uncertainty, generating conceptual difficulties and practical challenges, with efforts to solve one aspect breeding new problems.

And yet, we also need to admit that ‘not facing up to it’ is not the answer. If the same patterns of gaps between groups were to be found in the health sector, that would be considered untenable. Why is it that such astounding achievement gaps are considered acceptable? Why do they not provoke concern, anger, and political and civic action?

The problem with education in Malta is that there is a history of state intervention that many perceive to have been disastrous, leading to a situation where the interests of the middle class are met outside the state sector. Labour will not dare mess around with schools again. Its strategy is clearly one of appeasement: help out the middle classes, to the point of heavily subsidising their schools, and try to make state schools function properly, by extracting any student who is likely to be a problem.

It is not a coincidence that the Minister of Education has not engaged with the situation, as I invited him to do. Nor, by the way, has the PN. This is another case where the PL’s and PN’s interests work hand-in-glove, leaving problems to fester… unless, as with the Comino debacle, civil society says: “Enough is enough!”

At the same time, however, part of the discrimination boils down to the age-old issue of ‘haves’ versus ‘have-nots’: in this case, those who can afford private education; and those who can’t. But isn’t this a universal (and inescapable) fact of life? And as such: can it even be addressed, at policy-level?

In international studies of education, socio-economic background accounts for much of the difference between achievement of individuals and schools. There are lots of reasons for that, many of which are not within the direct control of the education sector. However, some are – including, for instance, the way public resources are distributed, who gets access to support, where the most experienced and effective teachers are deployed, and so on.

In my article, I placed the emphasis on ‘peer effects’ and ‘concentration of disadvantage’. I am here referring to the effect of student-mixing on learning outcomes. If, in the same classroom or school, you get a concentration of students who are either demotivated, do not see the point of schooling, are not especially driven by parents at home… it goes without saying that a counter-school culture develops.

They will play up. They will construct a sense of identity based on resistant behaviour, which will earn them status among peers. Doing homework is tantamount to being a ‘sissy’, and so on.

This is also tough on teachers, who understandably – if not professionally – end up lowering expectations, abandoning the curriculum in an effort to survive, and generally speaking, becoming demotivated themselves. They will tend to slide towards the least common denominator if they do not feel some pressure from educational leaders and parents to be accountable. Add to the mix an unreasonable concentration of students from different ethnic backgrounds, not to mention other students with special learning needs, and frankly, one should not be surprised at the result.

This does not, of course, mean that teachers are not to be held accountable; but we do need to create environments conducive to learning, and to ensure that every student has access to an enriched curriculum, engaging pedagogies, and meaningful learning experiences. We also need to get to know those state schools that are doing wonders for their students, and which remain hidden from view, secreted away among the statistical averages. The constant association of state schools with mediocrity is not only unfair and unjust: it risks further demoralising the sector.

Could it be, however, that different socio-economic brackets simply have different expectations from the educational system?  And if so, doesn’t it justify the creation of separate pull-out spaces, such as the ones you mention? (e.g., ‘nurture groups’, ‘alternative learning programmes’, ‘learning support zones’, ‘core curriculum programmes’)?

Yes, there is a lot of international evidence that suggests that attitudes towards schooling differ across social groups. But we need to be clear here: we are talking about a particular form of schooling. I mean, from one point of view at least, locking up kids between four walls during the best years of their lives, can hardly be considered the zenith achievement of our civilisation! The modern school is only 200 years old; and I would not be surprised if, in another 100 years or so, humanity will look back on us and condemn us for our inhumanity!

But school, as a life ‘game’, is more compatible with the life-styles of some groups, than others.  It values the kind of dispositions and cultural orientations that come ‘naturally’ to some, but cost blood and tears to others. We are not talking about learning here. As a human species, we are condemned to learning all the time, in order to survive.

But we learn in different ways. That kind of pedagogical flexibility can be present in the same school, on condition that there is parity of esteem – including respect for student entitlement – across the board. My fear is that the context of ‘negative differentiation’, encouraged by a tripartite system, transforms every experiment into a mirror of itself, reinforcing distinctions that are incredibly harmful to one’s access to knowledge, and one’s sense of self.

Earlier you mentioned ‘state intervention in education’. All recent governments have claimed to possess their own vision for the sector; yet only two Education Ministers in the last 30 years – Evarist Bartolo, and Dolores Cristina – had any direct teaching experience/qualifications themselves. Would you agree, then, that the current situation is partly the result of political neglect, over the years?

This is not a question of ‘neglect’, as much as political expediency. Now: I would wager that Evarist Bartolo is familiar with the arguments I’m making. Possibly other previous Ministers of Education as well. I know next to nothing about the current Minister, a lawyer.

There are some advantages in having a Minister of Education who has a good grasp of the field. At the same time, it needs be said that sometimes there is what a colleague of mine calls ‘ministerialisation’ of policy, that closes debate in the belief that ‘the Minister knows best’. That is a pity, and also goes counter to the idea of education as a conversation in a democracy.

Frankly, my own experience has been that sometimes those Ministers who were least knowledgeable about education, were most open to learning from those of us who had made it their life mission to research the field. I am not saying that academics and researchers should be the only ones present at the table – far from it. But is it not a waste, and a pity, that they often are absent?

You also observed that: ‘It all boils to what we want from education’. At a certain level, it seems evident that the State (and also the private sector) still regards education as a breeding ground for potential future employees. However, you seem to be suggesting that we should be looking at it from an altogether different perspective. Could you expand on that? What do you yourself ‘want from education’?

There is nothing wrong in preparing productive citizens. Indeed, to me it goes without saying that we should do that. The community invests resources in preparing the younger generation to maintain a quality of life marked by dignity. The problem is not with preparing for employment, but what kind of employment, and what kind of life more generally.

In other words, the education I envisage is one that provides citizens with the tools to make sense of the complexities of our world, to learn how to decode what is going on, and to critically engage with the world as it is, in order to imagine how it could and should be.

In my article, I referred to John Dewey, a thinker who thought of education in profoundly political and social ways. Let me give him the last word again: “The kind of education in which I am interested,” he wrote in response to one of his critics, “is not one which will ‘adapt’ workers to the existing industrial regime; I am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that.”

Those words strike true now - in the age of precarity – as they did then.