A question of ‘focus’ and ‘discipline’ | Frank Fabri

The education sector is gearing up for extensive reforms. But is the new national strategy any different from its predecessors? The education ministry’s Frank Fabri certainly thinks so.

For people involved in the education sector, the events of the past weeks may seem a little like deja-vu: the government recently published a national education strategy, which seems intent on addressing more or less the same issues that such former strategies have clearly failed to resolve.

These include a stark mismatch in performance between boys and girls, as well as between different sectors of the educational landscape (independent, government, church schools)… and even within different schools from the same sectors. Much more worryingly, recent statistics also indicate that Malta tops the EU list of early school-leavers, while the levels of literacy (among other indicators) rank among the lowest even among those children who go through the full 13 years of compulsory schooling.

This naturally raises a few questions. Is this latest attempt any different? Why should educators feel any confidence that an umpteenth revision of strategy will succeed where all others have failed?

With this in mind I meet Frank Fabri, director of research and development at the Education and Employment Ministry, in his office in Floriana. I find him literally brimming with optimism: it seems that the latest document has been well received by the interested parties to whom it was sent: including all schools, MCAST, different Faculties within the University, the National Commission for Further and Higher Education, civil society, and industry.

“Did you read it?” Fabri asks when we meet, handing me my own personal copy just in case. As it happens, I had already downloaded and scanned it enough to know what its four main policy target areas are: 1) to reduce gaps between the sexes and different categories of school, as well as to raise the bar in literacy, numeracy, etc.; 2) to support children from low income brackets, and reduce the number of early school-leavers; 3) to increase lifelong and adult learning; and 4) to raise levels of tertiary education and training.

This, Fabri tells me, already marks an improvement over previous strategy documents, which often tended to be overly long (sometimes more than 150 pages) and characterised by technical jargon, graphs, spreadsheets, and an overwhelming amount of data.

“As a result most people wouldn’t bother actually reading such documents at all. Our intention was to do the opposite: the publication is only 10 pages long, it is written in simple and uncomplicated language, and focuses on a smaller number of key policy areas… the ones we feel are the most urgent, and which can be dealt with practically.”

The fact that I read it, he adds, attests to the success of this approach. More importantly, the same document was also read by the relevant professionals in the education field, and the feedback has so far been very positive.

“Another difference is that the National Strategy for Education for the next decade is an umbrella strategy that will coordinate other strategies…including the early school leaving strategy, the literacy for all strategy, the employment strategy, etc. This is a net difference from previous practice, where different strategies were not coordinated together.”

The idea behind this strategy, he repeats throughout the interview, is based on two heavily-emphasized words: to ‘FOCUS’ on the country’s priority needs, and work with ‘DISCIPLINE’ towards achieving the targets.

This all certainly sounds very encouraging, but at the same time the framework policy document may in fact be too brief. As far as I can see, it stops short of providing any clear indications of how these four targets are to be reached in practice…

Fabri acknowledges the point, but argues that the problems concerned are in themselves too complex to be ‘solved’ in the traditional sense of the word. “What we are trying to do is induce a culture change in how we look at the education sector in general. There is a tendency among the public to assume that education is the sole domain of teachers, heads of schools, and education ministry officials. So when there are problems, everyone expects solutions to come from these sectors. But the reality of the situation is very different.”

Schools do, of course, have an important impact on a student’s ability to achieve in life; but Fabri points towards research which suggests that this impact actually accounts for only 30% of the total scenario. The remaining 70% involves factors extraneous to the school environment: namely, family background and social milieu. Any strategy that focuses only on the school environment will automatically miss out on what is by far the largest contributing factor to the country’s educational performance as a whole.

“Among other things, we also need to look at the level of education among people working with children even outside the confines of school. It’s not just parents, either… there are day-care centres and other facilities which cater for children, and the influence of such environments also contributes to that 70% statistic.”

On top of this, the strategy seeks to dispel other widely-held misconceptions about the education system. “Another tendency is for people to think that all government schools perform roughly the same, as do all Church and independent schools. This is however not true at all. There are some government schools that perform very well, others that need further support, and the same is also true for the other categories…”

“Clearly, we cannot hope to address the question of performance in schools without also taking into consideration the wider social context,” Fabri concludes.

All well and good, but the question remains: how? The first step, Fabri replies, involves a general stock-take of the situation.

“We need to understand the good there is within the present system, but also where it needs to be improved. For this reason we undertook extensive consultations, not just with schools but also with local councils and industry.”

Councils, he points out, are already “key players in the educational sector”. Many already offer tuition of some kind or another; but much more cogently, local councillors are ideally placed to assess the exigencies of a particular community.

“We asked local councils to tell us what their particular locality needs, and what the council itself would need to address those shortcomings. We did this before approaching teachers and heads of schools so that we could then present the schools with practical solutions to their own particular circumstances.”

After 77 consultation meetings in 71 days, the ministry is currently working on an action plan to implement, monitor and evaluate the strategy in practice. “To this end, every State school has come up with its own proposed plans to address the strategy’s main targets. Here again, our role at the centre needs rethinking, moving towards support schools at an individual level within a national framework.”

While this fact-finding and data collecting exercise was in progress, the ministry busied itself studying the world’s most successful educational models.

“The same European statistics which place Malta at the bottom of the table for literacy also help identify which systems produce the best results. As a rule these are the ones which recognise that the school environment is not the only player in the educational field, and which modified their curriculum to reflect this…”

Traditionally, the approach to education has always been content-driven: children are expected to learn facts and figures, to memorise data, and to reproduce it in exams.

“But in a scenario where facts and figures are readily available on resources such as the Internet, it is clear that school was no longer the primary source of information. The world has changed, and unless our schools adapt to these changes they will fall behind….”

The model that his ministry is actively considering is one which is less content-driven and more attuned to what Fabri calls “higher order thinking skills”, which place emphasis on critical thinking (the ability to draw conclusions from data); creativity; entrepreneurship and the ability to make associations between different ideas.

Fabri explains that these skills are closely linked to employability prospects both in the present job market, and – more significantly – for the future world of work. And contrary to widespread perception, they are equally needed in lower and higher skill job categories.

“How do other countries teach mathematics, to give just one example? Do they still bombard children with formulae to be learnt by heart? Do they only look at whether the child got an exam answer right or wrong, without considering the thought processes that led the child to that answer?”

This has, in fact, been the local approach to date; but there is mounting evidence that it has been superseded. The most successful systems are the ones which encourage students to approach problems with a critical and inquisitive mind… even if they get the answer wrong.

“Naturally this doesn’t mean we should lose sight of the importance of reaching the correct answers; but we must also encourage students to do their own thinking, even if it involves making mistakes along the way.”

Besides, facts and figures alone do not teach children the most important life skills they will need later in life. “For this reason we also approached players in the field of industry, with a view to finding out also what sort of skills the job market is actively looking for.”

So far the exercise is still in its early stages, but Fabri tells me there are already specific changes to the curriculum in place. As an example he cites one of the key ‘higher order thinking skills’ (HOTS, if you’ll allow the rather unfortunate acronym): creativity.

“If you take music and art, for instance; until recently children were asked to choose from a list of options, and in practice most children did not choose these options, which meant that they would go through the entire schooling process without being exposed to the creative arts at all. It is a sad thing to have to say, but the reality was that children would start out their schooling with a creative mindset, but leave school less creative than when they started.”

The new model now being proposed, on the other hand, “democratises” the subject by making art – and also design and technology, physical and health education, among others – available across the board. As from Form 1, all schools will now provide these subjects as part of the basic syllabus.

Some of the other changes have already been in the public domain for some time, and not without their fair share of controversy. The government recently announced it will be introducing ‘banding’ to replace the present mixed-ability class system, in place since 2008.

Critics argued that this represents a step backwards towards the earlier system of streaming, which was replaced specifically because it is universally associated with lower educational achievement on a national level. So isn’t there a danger that the supposedly avant-garde approach to education may in fact be turning the clock back to an earlier, failed system?

But first, let’s clarify the difference between ‘banding’ and ‘streaming’. The latter system, Fabri explains, involved separating students according to their performance in examinations. The top students would be grouped together, while the lesser achievers would likewise be placed in the same class. International data proves very emphatically that countries using this system fared considerably worse in areas such as literacy than other countries which favoured the self-explanatory ‘mixed ability classroom’ approach.

“Banding is definitely not streaming, so we are certainly not moving backwards. There is a still distinction on the basis of ability, but the difference in ability is narrower.”

The problem with the previous approach, he adds, was not the switch-over to mixed ability classes in itself; but that this occurred suddenly from one scholastic year to the next; and this inevitably caused problems for teachers.

“The skills and methods required to teach in these two environments are not the same. Teachers who were used to classrooms of students of roughly the same ability suddenly found they had to cater for all abilities in all classrooms. For this to be successful, teachers need additional training, and time to adjust to the new reality.”

Having said this, Fabri insists that banding is a transitory measure, and that the government’s ultimate aim is to reintroduce mixed-ability classrooms. Again, he points towards foreign models.

“If you look at Singapore – one of the top world education achievers – they also had streaming until a few years ago. But they didn’t switch to mixed ability classes overnight. There was an eight-year transitional period of banding before making the full transition, which gave the country time to train and prepare teachers for the new system.”

However, some of the four core targets may be more difficult to attain than others. The issue of early school leaving, for instance, is closely tied to the socio-economic realities of the areas most prone to this phenomenon. Some children feel pressured to become family breadwinners at an earlier stage than others – and in many areas it is still the cultural norm to expect 16-year-olds (in some cases even younger) to opt out of the educational system in favour of full-time employment.

Again, the document does not indicate exactly how the government intends to approach this problem. But Education Minister Evarist Bartolo has hinted that the compulsory school leaving age may be raised to 18. I ask Fabri if such a simple amendment to the law is an appropriate way of decreasing the number of early school-leavers.

If the economic situation of the child concerned is such that he or she is compelled to work to support the family… isn’t it a little insensitive to simply force them to remain in school despite these exigencies?

Fabri however points out that no decision has been taken in this regard.

“To be precise, the minister said we may have to start considering such measures. It is true that we have to look at all such options. Whether this is the one we will eventually choose I cannot say, but the fact that we have to discuss these things is itself an indication of how urgent the problem really is.”