A relatively large segment of our student population remains trapped in lower echelons of society and this contradicts the dominant political rhetoric according to which Malta is heading towards a middle-class society.
by Carmel Borg
Collage by the IotL Magazine
Once again, the European Commission, in its 2019 country-specific recommendations, has called on Malta to strengthen access to education. According to the EU Social Index 2017, Malta is at the bottom of the EU standings in the area of equitable education, echoing the strong statement made back in 2015 by the European Agency for Inclusive and Special Education, that Malta’s inclusive education is charity-driven rather than based on a human rights mandate.
These statements may come as a surprise to many who equate free education and guaranteed physical access to education for all with the politics of social justice. While Malta has registered some progress in basic educational achievement, in reducing the number of early school leavers, in strengthening access to post-secondary and higher education, and in providing for lifelong learning, a relatively large segment of our student population continues to reproduce the socio-economic and cultural capital of their parents, thereby contradicting the dominant political rhetoric according to which Malta is heading towards a middle-class society.
An Education System that Segregates
My argument is that the Maltese educational system has not truly come to terms with the concept and values of inclusive education. Authorities, divided between a small cohort of progressive intellectuals and activists for inclusion on one side and an exclusionary majority on the other, flip-flop and u-turn several times on their positions, as expressed in several official documents, to provide equal access to educational provision.
The realities of the Maltese education system challenge the narrative of equal opportunities for all, reflected in the provision of free universal education from kindergarten to university. In fact, such a system structurally and organisationally has served middle-class students much more than their working-class counterparts. For far too long, this education system has appeared meritocratic while being savagely selective beyond meritocracy.
Maltese education system structurally and organisationally has served middle-class students much more than their working-class counterparts.
This system streamed children very early in their educational life, sending students to different classes within the same grade; classes which represented qualitatively different educational experiences, expectations and results. The system, which profiled and tracked students down to the end of compulsory education, perpetuated an unofficial league table of prestigious and less prestigious schools. It allowed for an ever-growing non-state sector (presently accounting for over 40% of the student population) to amass middle-class students on grounds that ranged from the purely social and economic to the pseudo-meritocratic.
The net result of such highly selective conditions was a geographically-segregated education system; an educational scenario where working-class students were overly represented in the lower streams of primary education and in the perceived less-prestigious and factually under-resourced area secondary schools.
Segregation—as a tool of social distinction and as a way of maintaining ‘standards’—became normalised to the extent of becoming morally justifiable and ethically viable for the great majority of the Maltese population. The technology of symbolic violence, complete with rigorous and perpetual surveillance, a network of ghettos for the refusables of the system and a quarantine for extreme cases of perceived non-conformism, was primarily aimed at protecting the seemingly most-gifted students—the crème de la crème of the educational system, the trophies of an exam-obsessed and -driven system—from the disruptive energy of the students seen as cognitively-challenged.
The binary understanding of educational achievement as ability, or lack thereof, paved way to polarisation. It created a toxic environment where all involved—from teachers to parents—consciously or not, defended competitive attitudes which, by default, were non-inclusive and separationist in character.
The binary understanding of educational achievement as ability, or lack thereof, paved way to polarisation.
This distinctively segregationist ideological terrain galvanised many stakeholders—including parents whose children had been short-changed by the system—into thinking that educational achievement is solely attributable to individual effort, diligence, resilience, motivation, enthusiasm and determination and, therefore, students and their immediate ecology (the family) are solely to blame for their lack of educational achievement.
Such an ideological entrenchment blocked the possibility of a thorough scrutiny of what happens outside and within the education system—the meso- and macro-environments. It also disrupted efforts to reclaim social justice as the guiding light to educational policies, curricula and pedagogies.
Progressive Ideas in the Corridors of Power are not Enough
Meanwhile, since 1995, the educational scene in Malta has been guided by a string of official documents based on a discourse that consistently promoted diversity, inclusion and entitlement. ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ (1995), ‘Creating the Future Together’ (1999), ‘For All Children to Succeed’ (2005), ‘A National Curriculum Framework for All’ (2012), ‘An Educational Strategy for Malta 2014—2024’ and ‘A Strategic Plan for the Prevention of Early School Leaving in Malta’ (2014), among others, defined the official narrative of the past two decades: leaning towards a more child-centered and needs-oriented educational system.
The documents’ core values were translated into several tangible initiatives that included:
- the abolition of early streaming;
- the ending of the 11+ exams in both State and Catholic schools;
- the introduction of middle schools;
- the return to comprehensive schooling;
- the consolidation of a number of support services;
- the mainstreaming of children with disabilities;
- the introduction of personalised programmes for children;
- and more emphasis on formative assessment.
These and other measures were meant to bring about a paradigm shift in all aspects of the educational experience.
Unfortunately, however, while such reforms were being rolled out, the ideological terrain remained largely rooted in the politics of segregation. What was happening at a very fast pace in terms of educational reforms was not a revolution from below but a passive revolution, ‘prescribed’ by progressive individuals (organic intellectuals in the Gramscian sense), who somehow ‘infiltrated’ corridors of power, came close to the zones of decision-making, occupied the right spaces, and from their strategic position managed to influence policy.
The progressive ideas that are reflected in the official documents contrast sharply with the conservative base that was asked to implement them, generating dissonance between the core educational leadership and the mass of educators and school leaders. In a nutshell, the consent for such an ideological shift in education, so important for any genuine transformation to materialise, was simply not there.
The progressive ideas that are reflected in the official documents contrast sharply with the conservative base that was asked to implement them.
Pedagogically, the relationship between the core leadership and the mass of educators, was transmissive rather than genuinely dialogical. The reforms were prescriptive and invasive rather than truly participatory in nature. As a result, the reforms never really reached the capillaries of the would-be executors; ownership was and is still lacking.
Caught in Between Inclusion and Segregation
The lack of ideological consent for the reforms was further compounded by a general sense that the changes were unfolding at a very fast pace and with inadequate logistical and pedagogical preparation and minimal support. Moreover, the average classroom was becoming more complex in terms of the intensification of diversity within the average classroom. Teachers had to deal with different learning patterns, learning styles, multiple intelligences, multiculturalism, co-education, a range of learning difficulties, spectra and disabilities and social issues.
Resistance, both official as well as covert, was inevitable. It was reflected in the deterioration of industrial relations and also in tensions registered within the Malta Union of Teachers (MUT), which eventually led to a group of former members setting up a separate union (the Union of Professional Educators—Voice of The Workers).
Teachers had to deal with different learning patterns, learning styles, multiple intelligences, multiculturalism, co-education, a range of learning difficulties, spectra and disabilities and social issues.
With the ideas and goals at the basis of the education system still firmly entrenched in exclusion, compulsory education is caught between the push for more inclusionary practices and the pull for the return of a separatist educational infrastructure. Presented as resistance to the one-size-fits-all mentality, compulsory education provision has become overly fragmented, with an array of out-of-class provision that betrays the very essence of inclusion.
Aware of the tracking procedures in place at secondary level, benchmarking is still perceived by many as the 11+ exam in disguise. In fact, the private tuition industry around benchmarking is thriving. While reinforcing the academic and non-academic binary, documents like the latest policy mandate ‘My Journey’ might serve as an easy and early transfer of students to dead-end and precarious jobs.
As segregationist practices remain and even intensify, streaming and tracking make a comeback, and early childhood and primary provision is still not delivering access to quality education for all. My educated fear is that several working-class children and youth—much more than their middle-class counterparts—will come out of eleven years of compulsory education with limited to irrelevant, albeit certified, competencies. In a world that is becoming ever more complex and perilous to engage with, the consequences will be dire.
Professor Carmel Borg is a former Head of Department and Dean of the Faculty of Education, University of Malta. He lectures at the University of Malta and internationally, as honorary visiting professor, in curriculum studies, critical pedagogy, sociology and politics of education, and community and adult education. He is a public intellectual and community activist, promoting education as a liberatory experience.