Here, for the record, I will spell out what nobody in this country seems even remotely willing to mention: how we have slipped into the uncomfortable situation of segregating children according to the thickness of their parents’ wallets.
by Rita M.
Photo: Chiswick House School (from the school’s website)
The dreaded moment is fast approaching when I will have to choose a school for my little boy. I suppose it should not be a moment I dread. It is a major milestone in the life of a family. For the child, it marks the beginning of more structured learning. For many parents, it means a small but very welcome increase in freedom.
But of course the question every Maltese parent has to face is: which school?
I wish I could heed the advice proffered by my friends in France and Germany and simply enrol my son at the state school closest to home. Things here are not that simple alas. I do not have the stamina to explain to my foreign friends why Malta is sui generis. But here, for the record, I will spell out what nobody in this country seems even remotely willing to mention: how we have slipped into the uncomfortable situation of segregating children according to the thickness of their parents’ wallets.
When I was a child the only option my parents, like most of their peers, considered for their children’s education was state schools. There were no independent schools and perhaps—at least in our area—not that much interest yet in church schools. I went to a public primary school 10 minutes (on foot of course; it was unthinkable to drive your children to school at the time, ha!) from our home and then to the public Junior Lyceum of my catchment area, end of story. There was not much to mull over and even less to worry about. I was happy at school, I did well academically and so did my mates.
Today’s landscape is different. There is much to consider and even more to feel concerned about. Parenting has become a tricky business. It is all too easy to get totally consumed by the desire to give your children the best. And peer pressure is fierce.
If you can afford it, popular discourse dictates, you must send your pups to a private school; state schools are simply substandard.
If you can afford it, popular discourse dictates, you must send your pups to a private school; state schools are simply substandard. If you can’t afford the burdensome fees of independent schools (roughly 6,000 euros per year per child, all expenses considered), then you must try and get them into a church school (no matter that you’re an atheist). Trying means taking part in the ballot, I understand; or is there some other way of getting them into church school? I would not know. At any rate, with the exception of a few ‘good areas’, deliberately sending your offspring to a state school will be met with many a raised eyebrow and one or two sniggers. Considerations of ‘the common good’ will trigger a blank expression of polite disbelief.
Yet in these times of deepening inequality and increasing child poverty, is it really that radical to contend that schools should promote socio-economic diversity? That children from low-income families matter just as much as those born to affluence? Isn’t free and equal education for all the bastion of equal opportunity?
I can understand the appeal of feeling reassured by what you perceive as a sound investment in your son or daughter’s schooling and future. Private schools are endowed with the means to provide a return on that investment, whereas the heavily underfunded public schools struggle to keep up with basic infrastructural maintenance. I can also understand that some well-off parents will see this as necessary compensation for the time they cannot afford to give their kids. I can understand all that and am not interested in expressing any judgement with regard to the choices made by parents. What interests me here is whether the education system we have in this country, with its state/church/independent schools, is justifiable or indeed desirable in today’s social context.
For there is a snag of course, there always is. The snag is that sending your children to a private school automatically supports a system of segregation, by which children are streamed on the basis of something they have absolutely no control over: their parents’ spending power. While Malta finally did come to its senses on the issue of streaming children by academic results and thankfully removed that barrier—and the infamous Junior Lyceum entrance exams—from the picture, it stubbornly refuses to address this more recent, and potentially more harmful, form of social segregation.
Are private schools really that much better? I frankly do not know. From what I can tell (and I’m not the only one), the curriculum is identical and the teaching methods similar. There are differences, of course. Children in private schools are spoken to almost exclusively in English, with Maltese being put on the back burner to the point where it becomes little more than a foreign language. Private schools are better equipped and in some cases have prettier premises. Their extra-curricular activities are quite stupefying and their literacy programmes clearly more developed.
Information on the academic achievements of pupils in the different schools is a mixed bag, with the government generally refusing to publish what it considers to be sensitive data. A recent article in this web magazine, however, pointed out that children in independent and church schools score better grades in science and literacy than those attending state schools.
If private tuition is not that superior per se, then really and truly what makes it so appealing is, in all probability, the children’s backgrounds.
In truth, whether education in private schools is that much better or not is not the crux of the matter. Whichever way one looks at our education system, social equality takes a blow. If the quality of tuition in private schools is better, then the government is supporting a system by which the elite are given the tools to excel while the rest of the population is fed the scraps. If, on the other hand, private tuition is not that superior per se, then really and truly what makes it so appealing is, in all probability, the children’s backgrounds.
For the sad outcome of this baleful co-existence between free state schools and expensive private schools is that public schools are left with a higher concentration of children from low-income or socially deprived families, and from families with a migrant background, of course: children who are ultimately not deemed fit to rub shoulders with the country’s elite. Needless to say, the vast majority of our country’s political leaders send their children (and grandchildren) to church or independent schools.
What about the responsibilities of the state when it comes to offering equal opportunities to all children, irrespective of a family context they were born into on a roll of the dice?
This is common knowledge, yet it is also a taboo few will openly speak about. Even local NGOs campaigning for social justice won’t touch the subject with a ten-foot pole. Everyone is all too keen to blame it on democracy: it is only fair that parents should have a choice as to where to send their children to school, I am told. But is it? Fair for whom? And what kind of choice is it when the choice is only available to high-income families? What about the responsibilities of the state when it comes to offering equal opportunities to all children, irrespective of a family context they were born into on a roll of the dice?
Now, of course, many will give me the It’s not just Malta shrug. As if that alone had the capacity to right all wrongs. Look at the UK, they will say, with obvious signs of relief. I looked, and that, I would retort, may well be the problem: that obsessive looking up to the UK, a country which is far from having the best education system, and certainly not the fairest. There is indeed ample criticism of the British school system out there if only we bothered to read up. And yet Malta persists in copying it (imperfectly, one should add), replicating inequality by underfunding public schools while offering tax breaks to people placing their children in private tuition (tax breaks that still fail to make these schools affordable to the largest chunk of the population).
Private schools are a contentious issue in most countries.
Private schools are a contentious issue in most countries. While they are present around the globe, in many places they almost exclusively attract parents who want their children to have a religious education or who are disciples of the Montessori/Waldorf philosophies and the like. In France, for instance, only 17 percent of primary and secondary school children are sent to faith/private schools. Everyone else goes to state school.
The country we should be emulating is obviously Finland, a country in which teaching is the most sought-after profession and where going to school is fun. Incidentally, Finland also scores the highest rankings in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests of 15-year-olds around the globe in reading, maths and science (compare this with Malta’s scores and you will weep). Now its schools are radically different from ours: they have no uniforms, no homework, no selection … and (whether privately or government-run) no fees. What they do have is lots of outdoor activities, fantastic libraries, very autonomous teachers and a non-competitive atmosphere that fosters trust, equality and self-confidence. We are closer to the moon than to such a system.
So where does this leave us gaping idealist parents who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the workings of the world? The choice we may well have to make (depending on the depth of our pockets, of course) is between what we are told will give our children the best opportunities in life and what would clearly be the best option in terms of social solidarity and equity in education.
That, or learning Finnish, of course.
Rita M. has worked for several NGOs in Malta and abroad. Her main interest is social and environmental justice. Right now she is exploring how these apply to and impact the sphere of parenthood.