Overall, Malta occupies a joint 15th place on the EU Social Justice Index. However, when it comes to equitable education, Malta features in the last place (28th) of the same Index in granting equal access to education. There is no social justice without equity in education.
by Carmel Borg
Image: Isles of the Left
Triangulation of results from multiple sources confirms that Malta has a very serious achievement gap that needs to be rectified at the earliest. This is the evidence-based conclusion that emerges from international, comparative studies as well as from the annual MATSEC reports. Around one-third of the student population, more boys than girls, leaves compulsory education with limited competencies and minimum ‘powerful’ knowledge, as well as performing at the lowest levels in areas that are fundamental to personal development and to active and productive engagement in the economic and democratic life of the country and beyond.
Education and Socio-Economic Status
The disparity in academic achievement between Maltese students from high- and low-socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds is staggering. An analysis of PISA results obtained by Maltese 15-year-olds, carried out in 2016 by Borg & Raykov, revealed that the gap in mathematical achievement, when correlated with socio-economic status, is 40 percentile points. The same analysis also revealed substantial achievement gaps within the same gender, when gender was correlated with socio-economic status.
Students whose mother had a tertiary education qualification were 59 percentile points more likely to access higher education provision than their counterparts whose mother held a primary to lower secondary qualification.
What is even more impressive is the result that emerged when parental cultural capital was correlated with access to higher education provision. Students whose mother had a tertiary education qualification were 59 percentile points more likely to access higher education provision than their counterparts whose mother held a primary to lower secondary qualification. Similar results (54 percentile points) were obtained when access to higher education was correlated with the father’s educational background.
Research by Borg, Mayo & Raykov, published in 2016, indicates that the socio-economic gap that characterises the end of compulsory education is carried forward and is reflected in the differentiated levels of access to formal lifelong learning provision. Adults from low socio-economic backgrounds who emerge from compulsory education with low levels of education, register much lower take-up of formal adult education provision, are overly represented in the early school leaving statistic, which currently stands at 18.6% of the 18-24-years-old category, and register higher incompletion rates than their high socio-economic-status counterparts.
While recognising that the reasons for underachievement in education are multiple and complex and include personal and familial dysfunctionality, the above statistical indications suggest that the impact of social injustices, intimately tied to social, economic, fiscal, cultural, and educational policies, is strong.
Malta occupies a joint 15th place on the EU Social Justice Index. When the same Index focuses on equitable education, Malta features in the last place (28th) of the same Index in granting equal access to education.
Overall, Malta occupies a joint 15th place on the EU Social Justice Index. When the same Index focuses on equitable education, Malta features in the last place (28th) of the same Index in granting equal access to education. Malta’s socio-economic impact on educational achievement is among the highest in Europe. Erratic instruction quality, large numbers of underachievers, school-level variance in achievement, comparatively low participation rates at post-secondary level, gender disparities in achievement, curricular experiences which are not designed to enhance equity in access to education, restricted access to day-care provision and investment in early childhood provision below EU average are among the reasons for Malta’s poor performance on the equitable education index. The crisis in recruitment of high-quality educators, particularly in the early-childhood sector, is also considered as a roadblock to equitable education.
Education Scene in Malta—State, Church and Independent
Of note is PISA’s and other similar international studies’ evidence of performance gaps between the sectors that constitute the compulsory education scene in Malta—State, Church and Independent. For example, PISA results indicate that male and female students attending church and private schools are scoring significantly higher in science compared to the international average (493).
Students attending church and private schools are scoring significantly higher in science compared to the international average.
The mean reading score of students attending Independent schools is significantly higher than Church schools, which in turn is significantly higher than State schools. In all school types, girls perform significantly better than boys in reading. Males and females attending Independent schools and females attending Church schools are scoring significantly higher in reading, compared to the international average. Conversely, male and female students attending state schools are scoring significantly lower.
Malta has a non-state, compulsory school system that accounts for around 40% of the student cohort. The ‘flight’ of the middle-class to the non-state sector has not only impoverished the state sector in terms of its social mix but has also concentrated the gravest social, emotional and behavioural challenges within the state provision. Such ‘flight’ has also created a differentiated habitus where social class distinctions and class-based differences in educational performance, linked to economic, social and cultural capital, are reproduced.
The ‘flight’ of the middle-class to the non-state sector has not only impoverished the state sector in terms of its social mix but has also concentrated the gravest social, emotional and behavioural challenges within the state provision.
Borg, Mayo & Raykov’s analysis of 2016 reveals high participation rates in lifelong learning provision by adults who emerged out of compulsory education with minimum to no qualifications. Such participation is often job-related and mostly hands-on in nature. This important statistical detail throws light on the seemingly monolithic pedagogical approach of our compulsory education system, an approach which continues to stubbornly ignore the multiple nature of access to knowledge that characterises any given cohort of students.
Exclusion and the Ways to Eliminate It
An education system which scores low on the equity-in-education index is generally a low performer in inclusive policies and practices.
In a 2014 European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education report prepared for the Ministry for Education and Employment was generally critical of our collective attitude towards inclusion and of our policies, curricula and scholastic provision in the field. The core message of the document is that while the segregated placement rate in Malta is one of the lowest in the European Union (at the time of the report it stood at 0.1% of the learners of compulsory school age), the education system still refuses to embrace a human-rights perspective on inclusion and is still persistent in shortchanging students by providing services that are inconsistent in quality and fragmented in delivery. The authors of the report concluded that the charitable model that informs our inclusive education provision calls for improvement in most of the ‘standards’ or ‘statements of aspiration’ adopted for review purposes.
The report’s strictures include:
- a dissonance between rhetoric and practice;
- ‘inclusive responsibilites’ delegated to support personnel who, in a number of cases, are untrained or poorly trained and badly paid;
- limited, fragmented and incoherent opportunities for in-service training in inclusive practices;
- inequitable access to resources;
- minimal school-level policy development on inclusion;
- inclusion treated as an appendix to the one-size-fits-all culture that dominates the compulsory education scene.
Furthermore, the report laments assessment policies and practices that are
- dictated centrally, contradicting the rhetoric of differentiation;
- overly pathologised students that often become self-fulfilling prophecies; support systems that are generally fragmented and, at times, inconsistent;
- poor retention of well trained specialised personnel, mostly lost through promotions or migration to other institutions.
It gets worse as it reports under-utilisation of highly qualified staff. The research around inclusion is said to lack general purpose and is often conducted individually and independently of a strategic plan for evidence-based policy and pedagogical development. The report also notes the absence of crtical reflective practices in schools, practices that weld ongoing reflection, through action research, with transformative action within the school.
The 2014 European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education report also notes the absence of practices that weld ongoing reflection, through action research, with transformative action within the school.
The report highlights a number of redeeming features. Investment in inclusion is not lacking. There is growing awareness that exclusion is morally, ethically, socially, economically and politically unacceptable. There is also willingness to address the contradictions and inconsistencies of the system. The local education process has a memory bank of successful narratives in the field. Parents are generally willing to cooperate. National commissions, associations, agencies, voluntary organisations and support groups have a wealth of knowledge and experiences which is vital to the system. Expertise is growing and international contacts are increasing.
The same document sheds light on some of the urgent actions that need to be taken by the education community in eliminating social inequity through genuinely inclusive practices and policies.
Some of the actions include:
- robust legislation and policies;
- schools’ capacity to provide genuine access to quality inclusive education;
- quality specialist provision within the mianstream sector;
- ongoing, needs-oriented, quality training and development of school leaders, teachers and support staff;
- teaching, curricula and assessment procedures that enable differentiated learning;
- early identification of needs and quality support; and monitoring and evaluation as constant features of the education system.
The Importance of Equity in Education
Beyond performance, the impact of an inequitable education system on the short- and long-term personal well-being is impressive. European Commission reports and other international studies, as well as the local studies such as the one conducted by the National Observatory for Living with Dignity, have shown that leaving education and training early is correlated with a higher risk of unemployment, precarious work, more part-time work, lower earnings, low participation in lifelong learning, a greater dependence on welfare programmes, a higher risk of poverty and social exclusion, low participation in democratic processes as well as in social and cultural activities, poor physical and mental health and a higher risk of anti-social behaviour, criminal activity and depression.
Despite the progress in reducing the number of persons at risk of poverty and those living in extreme material deprivation, Malta still scores below the EU average on the Social Justice Index.
The same studies underscore the importance of addressing social injustices occurring outside the educational realm and which have a direct impact on personal wellbeing as well as on educational achievement. Despite the commendable progress in reducing the number of persons at risk of poverty and those living in extreme material deprivation, Malta still scores below the EU average on the Social Justice Index, with social exclusion, material deprivation, gender inequality, weak intergenerational justice and discrimination against persons with disabilities among the most visible contributors to Malta’s below-average performance.
To conclude, there is ample evidence to indicate that State provision is still relatively weak in guaranteeing critical monitoring and evaluation of measures that steer policy development in removing obstacles to authentic inclusion within the school system and beyond that may puncture the reproductive cycle of the socio-economic gaps in our society. Acknowledging that equitable access to education goes beyond providing free, universal education constitutes a good start.
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.