Experts warn education reform could lead to ‘ghettoisation’

The changes to the education system are aimed at bridging the gap between academic and vocational education, but educational experts express concerns

Peter Mayo, a professor at the faculty of education (left) and Carmel Borg, an educational expert (right)
Peter Mayo, a professor at the faculty of education (left) and Carmel Borg, an educational expert (right)

Educational expert Carmel Borg has warned that the educational reform announced last week in which Form 2 students will choose additional subjects from three different paths: academic, vocational or applied learning, could result in the ghettoization of education. 

Borg, a University of Malta associate professor in the faculty of education, said that while acknowledging the discourse of diversity-in-learning that informs the ‘My Journey’ reform, “I cannot help but notice that local policy makers continue to ignore research indicating that locally, social class correlates strongly with educational achievement, and that the strongest predictor of attainment in education is socio-economic status.”  

He added that “ignoring such a scientific fact, and with no robust plan to address the challenges obtaining within the multiple contexts of educational under-achievement, including out-of-school realities, ‘My Journey’ may result in another unintended process of ghettoisation on social-class lines.”

In comments to MaltaToday, Peter Mayo, a professor in the faculty of education, also expressed caution and said that he sees nothing wrong with broadening the range of subject choices offered in schools “provided that the curriculum is not a watered down version of that offered to other students coming from very well to do social backgrounds.”

Mayo added that “the emphasis should be not simply on ‘what’ should be taught but especially on ‘how’ things are being taught. Access to this core knowledge is a right for all not just the few.”

The changes, which are set to come into force in three years’ time at Form 3 level, are aimed at bridging the gap between academic and vocational education. 

Each of the three paths in the ‘My Journey’ reform will lead up to an MQF level 3 or O’level standard. Currently, only the academic path leads to this level of certification.

But Borg believes that the reform could be counterproductive. He said that failure to address the social-class component of educational under-achievement through an inter-ministerial approach that includes appropriate educational, economic and social policies and family-centred, community-oriented actions, applied subjects may eventually be structurally populated by working-class students.  

“Such a scenario will not only add another layer of streaming to the education system but will also reinforce the low-status of vocational subjects, since such subjects will continue to be seen as a consolation prize rather than a differentiated albeit equal choice,” he said. 

“If my informed prediction materialises, millions of Euros down ‘My Journey’ the education provision will continue to be as classist as ever, a far cry from a social-justice interpretation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 4 which promotes equitable and lifelong access to quality education for all,” he added.

On a different note, Borg said that curricula that continue to privilege coverage of content over discovery, problem-solving, critical thinking, creative production of knowledge and risk-taking are, in his view, “obsolete and irrelevant.”

“Unless the local curriculo-pedagogical dinosaur is challenged, the vocational dimension of ‘My Journey’ will possibly serve as a partial reprieve from oppressive practices in education. Again, a forced choice of subjects rather than free and equitable access to a set of equally-viable curricular alternatives. While acknowledging that the ‘My Journey’ reform is a well-intentioned project aimed at normalising vocational education at secondary level and at addressing the one-size-fits-all approach to education, Borg said the reform may fail to transform the system and “may not bring the much needed paradigm shift in how most students interact with knowledge and, once again, may continue masking the serious problem of selective, educational under-achievement in Malta.”  

Core knowledge 

Borg added that distinguishing between academic and applied subjects in terms of knowledge production is a flawed vision for education.  

“Irrespective of the educational context, knowledge production is about students interacting with and intervening in the world as active agents rather than passive recipients of information. Positioning certain subjects as applied and others as academic reinforces the theory-practice divide, ignores the fact that there is a huge cohort of academically-inclined students who process knowledge predominantly through concrete/applied experiences, and may derail attempts to render the ‘academic’ subjects more relevant through pedagogies of difference and engagement,” Borg said. 

On his part, Mayo said the emphasis on core subjects indicates that these subjects represent ‘powerful knowledge’, “in short that knowledge that has overcome the test of time regarding its being the key to access to power in Maltese society and abroad.”

“I trust the people involved in this reform are guarding against the dangers of too much hybridization to the detriment of an in-depth study of certain subjects. I am sure they are aware of the fact that too much hybridization can deny access to the kind of knowledge that ‘really matters’ in the real world. I would suggest that the two main languages, a foreign language, basic scientific knowledge, Maths and ICT would feature among this ‘powerful’ knowledge.”

The key to a thorough reform, Mayo said, is special investment in the way this core knowledge is taught to reach different students of different social backgrounds – initially relating this knowledge to aspects of their own culture but going beyond to lead students to higher order thinking, including higher order critical thinking. 

“The latter stage is one where the students are encouraged to critically engage with this knowledge.”