Exam time for the education system | Evarist Bartolo

Education Minister Evarist Bartolo faces resistance from parents and teachers alike, as he tries to reform an educational system we were all (more or less) comfortable with. Is it true that the reform has failed its test?

Education Minister Evarist Bartolo
Education Minister Evarist Bartolo

Education is by definition a complex issue, plagued by internal rifts and disagreements over which system or model is best for the different learning needs of different children. 

Technically, such questions should be left to pedagogues and academics… but because the answer concerns the one thing that is dearest to all people everywhere – their children – it automatically becomes everybody else’s business, too.

Few know this more than Evarist Bartolo, who has occupied the position of Education Minister under both Alfred Sant in 96-98, and under Joseph Muscat from 2013 onwards. And though the reform itself was initiated by the Gonzi administration, it now falls to Bartolo to implement (and defend) the migration from ‘streaming’ to mixed ability classes.

Earlier this month, the Malta Union of Teachers pointed towards this year’s poor SEC results to claim that: “Five scholastic years down the line, the union is being proved right” about its criticism of the reform. And separatelty, Bartolo also provoked a minor controversy with his proposal to permit and regulate home schooling. Some have expressed concerns that the system might lead to abuse, or that children may be psychologically impaired by social exclusion.

How does he respond to such criticism: which, in the main, comes from the two categories whose cooperation he needs the most… teachers, and parents?

“Judging an educational model by exam results is a very incomplete way of doing things, especially when you are also judging students and teachers by those results,” he begins. “The figures show us that there has not been any deterioration in standards as a result of moving away from the streaming model. Has the system improved? That is another issue. But it has not deteriorated…”

Well, if you were to judge the system in the same way as a teacher would judge a pupil, the report card would probably read: ‘No improvement’. It may be better than an ‘F’, but it’s still not very satisfactory…

Bartolo however argues that results only reflect a small part of the picture. “To really be effective, education needs to look at three spheres. First there is education itself: what happens in the classroom and inside schools. Then, we need to look at society as a whole. Lastly, the other sphere which is employment. They are three different worlds, and we have to look at all three of them together. The closer we get them to work together, the better it will be for young people, and for the country as a whole.”

It turns out that the school part of this combination actually accounts for only a fraction of the total. “There is a lot of research which shows that even if schools were to operate to their maximum potential, at most they would contribute to about 30% of the formation and performance of students. The other 70% depends on factors outside school. So I get very angry – I’m ready to use the word ‘angry’ – when I hear everyone arguing that education should solve all our problems.

“We have a problem with driving? Educate people to drive properly. There’s a problem with obesity? Teach kids to eat healthy food, and exercise more. Everything, it seems, can be solved through the education system. Even poverty… education, on its own, is going to get kids out of poverty. Now, I do happen to believe a bit in what Nelson Mandela said, that ‘education can change the world’. But not on its own. Schools and classes can only do so much. There are other spheres which are also contributing. Education is not a magical solution to all our ills.”

Fair enough, but this also sounds like the beginning of an admission of defeat. The school system may account for only 30%... but it’s a pretty important 30% all the same.

“Absolutely. Let me be clear: I am not making the case that schools are irrelevant or unnecessary, far from it. Let us acknowledge the contribution that education can make; but let us also acknowledge the limits of education… and especially of formal education.”

As it happens, Bartolo has just returned from a press conference in which his ministry revealed the contents of a survey carried out among employers. The specific topic was ‘employee skills’. 

“The results are very interesting. Employers were asked what sort of problems they encounter with young people coming out of university, MCAST, ITS, and other private institutions. They said: ‘we need employees to be proficient and technically competent in their area. But we also need them to know how to communicate, how to solve problems, how to be creative, how to work together…’.

“Now, when it comes to technical competence, on the whole our system delivers. The results can be measured, and the procedure is tested and examined. But when it comes to the so-called ‘soft skills’, or the skills of the 21st century... that is where we have to ensure that education in the wider sense, which includes society and employers, works together.”

On another level, it is difficult to describe an educational system as a ‘success’ or ‘failure’, if we don’t all share the same expectations of that system. Traditionally, Malta’s educational sector has always been treated as an extension of the so-called ‘economic motor’. Even students themselves often view the education system as a pathway to a career.

This is however changing; and Bartolo argues that our entire approach to education must change with it.

“Today, we can only prepare people for employability. The days when the education system prepared people for a specific job are over. Today, the skills required for any particular job could become obsolete in a few months or years. One thing we need to understand properly – and I don’t think we do – is that there is a difference between skills and competences, and qualifications. You might be qualified, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that you will have all the skills or values required…”

Here, Bartolo pauses to outline one of his ‘great beliefs’. “I am a great believer in four-dimensional education: not just skills and knowledge, but also character and the ability to continue learning. That is why we need to reform formal schooling to be in touch with what’s happening outside school. It cannot be a parallel universe. I believe in contaminating education with as much reality as possible. We need to contaminate education with reality. Otherwise we’d be preparing people to swim in a bath – not even a swimming pool – and then expect them to jump in the sea and swim. At most, classes and schools will help you float in a bath. Because of the way they are structured and instituted, you can’t expect them to teach you the skills and attitudes you will need in the real world…”

Again, this sounds a little defeatist to me. But when I point this out, the minister replies that he looks at it from the clean opposite angle.    

“I am very optimistic, believe it or not… even though my job doesn’t give rise to very much optimism. But I am very hopeful that there is a growing awareness among employers and parents that education is not simply about work skills, but also life skills. Today more than ever, school has taken over the role of socialisation, which previously fell to families… before, social skills were learnt at home. But in today’s world – where parents tend to be in and out of the house, always in a rush, etc. – they are increasingly being taught in schools. Parents ask for this type of education. It is now seen as one of the aims of a formal education, which was never the case before…”

Coming back to the SEC results… apart from raising questions about the system as a whole, they also reconfirm our traditional obsession with results. For all the talk of moving away from the exam-based approach, all we ever talk about are exams. Isn’t this a contradiction?

“The system is very contradictory. On one hand, we’re telling students that schools are not just factories for passing exams. But at the same time, the message being sent out is that you are rewarded on the strength of your exam results. That is also why I am working on changing the system in a way that non-formal education – the life skills I talked about earlier – is accredited in the same way as formal education. We need to add a value to those skills, too. We want to move away from a one-size fits all education system. People are different; they learn things differently. 

“If you have a child with a powerful visual imagination, but who struggles with writing… our system will punish that child. If you are a very good talker, and can express yourself very well orally... why should you be punished for that? There are children who, when given a mathematical problem to solve, will try and work it out by drawing. They adopt a visual approach to mathematics. But school will teach them to do it differently. Why should they not solve problems visually? Why are they told that their approach is ‘wrong’, just because it is different?”

This takes us back to the philosophical questions about what an educational system is meant to be. “Neuroscience has contributed a lot to our understanding of human learning, but very little of it has found its way into our education system. We now know there are four basic types of learner: those who are very precise, those who are sequential; those who are technical; and those who are creative. Our system only rewards the precise and the sequential. And interestingly, most of our teachers come from the sequential/precise brackets themselves… so the system reinforces that imbalance. We need to do things differently.”

Problems seem to arise whenever the ministry tries doing things differently. Mixed-ability classrooms are often cited as a classic case in point. On paper, it looks and feels a fairer system. In practice, we know that it exponentially multiplied the difficulties of a teacher in class… and also the resources required, which now extend to having teaching assistants at hand.

Bartolo acknowledges that the implementation left much to be desired. “They [schools] were not prepared. Teachers are asking for support, and it must be provided. But the classroom has become a more complex environment for other reasons, too. There are children from different countries, different cultures, different religions, and speaking different languages. You might have children with disabilities or learning difficulties. Others may come from troubled social backgrounds. All this makes for a really tough challenge. So we definitely need to help teachers cope more…”

Was this part of the reason behind the home schooling initiative? If some children are schooled at home, the strain on the educational system would be lessened… 

“No, it’s a different issue. First of all, the element of home schooling we are proposing already exists. There are situations where children, for various reasons, cannot go to school. So we provide home tuition… and I think no one has an issue with that. Secondly, we are regulating it stringently. It is not an automatic right; parents have to apply, and show what programmes are to be offered. The tutors who will deliver those programmes must have a warrant, like they do at school. You can’t simply say: ‘Listen: I know what’s best for my kids, and will provide them with an experience that is superior to what is offered in schools…’”

That attitude does however exist among parents…

“Yes. But they have to wake up to the fact that our proposal is not going to give them an automatic right to take those decisions. I think some people have the US model of home schooling in mind. But we are not following that model at all. For example, you might have parents who are here in Malta only for two or three years. And unfortunately, we have a shortage of international schools. We only have one which is accredited internationally; we could use at least one more…”

The system as it is today poses problems for temporary foreign residents (a category that has skyrocketed in recent years). 

“We have had cases of Swedish parents – and it’s not a capricious example; there is a large Swedish community in Malta, many of them young couples with small children. They tell us they have a problem with sending their children to school. They need to learn Swedish. They’d like them to follow a system which is as close to their own educational model as possible, to minimise disruption when they return to Sweden. Clearly, we are not in a position to meet those demands. In that case, some of them have asked if it is possible to have home schooling. We’re not telling them: ‘Sure, no problem, do whatever you like. After all, your kids will no longer be our responsibility in two or three years’ time’. We’re not saying that…”

Those scenarios, he adds, are actually the simple ones. “Where it becomes complex is another situation. I would really like Maltese parents to reflect, before jumping to the conclusion that home schooling might be the solution to their kids’ problems. I am ready to be very patient and sensitive – and probably even to agree – with the criticism levelled at our school system. That it’s dull, boring, obsessed with exams, not able to develop a character to its full potential…

“OK, let’s say all that is true. Let us acknowledge the shortcomings. But don’t think that, just by keeping your children at home, you’re going to provide them with a richer experience than school. First of all, I am a great believer in socialisation. Kids learn from other kids… and from different kids. The wider the social spectrum to which you are exposed, the more you learn. If you were kept in a bubble at home, you would be deprived of very basic human skills… and that could be dangerous.” 

Meanwhile, home schooling may give rise to other ‘dangers’. 

“We have been approached by more than one family wanting to set up a home schooling system of their own, following the Steiner philosophy of education. Our response was: show us the programmes, tell us who will deliver them – and where, because we will be looking into all these things – and the Commission will consider it…”

At a glance, the Steiner model seems legitimate enough; but what would happen if other groups started requesting permission to set up home schools based on – for argument’s sake – the Church of Scientology? Or any of a million wacko, extremist or fanatical cults? This was also part of the initial scepticism about home schooling… it lends itself to this sort of thing.

“That is why what we are proposing is under conditions of strict supervision. All home schooling initiatives will have to be accredited. The programmes have to be approved, to ensure there is no fanaticism, no intolerance, no extremism, and no strange or crazy ideas being promoted. All that has to be looked into. But we also have to look at the interface between the student and the rest of the world. Let’s say you spend 15 years in an institution devised by your parents. I can envisage a scenario where parents – provided they are qualified – can put together a programme for the early years. But when it comes to teaching sciences, maths, languages… whatever system one adopts, it has to meet the basic literacy, numeracy and IT skill requirements. How will these be taught? The Commission will ask these questions in all cases.”