Celebrating his fifth year in power, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat recently told a crowd of jubilant Labour supporters in Gozo of the progress the country achieved under his leadership.
“We used to be a country content with mediocrity, but today we are one of the best nations in Europe, we have become the envy of the world,” he said last month.
Muscat said his government’s pro-business attitude was the catalyst for social mobility and opportunity.
Now there is no doubt that the country’s economy is performing well, at least the numbers say so. Similarly, his pro-business credentials are beyond doubt. More than ever before money talks loudly in Malta. But money and impressive statistics do not build a nation. At least not the nation Muscat promised five years ago.
In 2012, when he was opposition leader, he had said investing in education should come first in order to tackle problems such as poverty, criminality, unemployment and high rates of early school-leavers.
But after five years in power, the educational system remains mired in mediocrity. A number of reports paint a very bleak picture. A recent World Bank report on the EU showed that over a third of 15-year-olds do not even reach the basic levels in reading and maths, placing Malta just above Romania and Bulgaria at the bottom of the table.
Another report, the 2017 Social Justice in the EU Index Report gave a damning verdict on Malta’s education system. Once again, Malta placed last in the EU, with the country having the highest incidence of youth dropping out of education and training.
While this rate has improved since 2008 (30.2%), 19.6% of 18-to-24-year olds dropped out in 2016.
Citing the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, the report said that the average Maltese student’s results are nearly 60 points below those of students in Estonia and Finland, placing Malta in 23rd.
“The education system’s limitations exist in spite of the system’s high level of equitable access to education at all levels,” the report said.
Moreover, the working-age population is less educated than in other EU countries with only 45.2% having at least an upper secondary education.
The report said, “keeping young adults in education or training and improving targeted qualification measures as well as vocational training is of vital importance for the long-term viability of the Maltese labour market and social cohesion.
The 2016 Progress in International Reading Study (PIRLS) study showed that the reading score of students in Maltese was lower than 2011, placing Malta in 40th place out of 50 participating countries, the worst performing among European countries.
According to the latest global research on literacy and learning, Malta ranks 103 in the world (out of 196). Hardly the envy of the world.
The structural problems in education were not created in the last five years, but there seems to be no plan in place to improve the system.
Building new schools and the introduction of vocational programmes are a step in the right direction, but there is much more that needs to be done.
For instance, Finland, widely regarded as the country with the best education system in the world, puts great emphasis on equality in education. Almost everyone attends public schools in Finland and very few independent schools exist.
The concept of equality within the Finnish education system goes beyond making sure all students have a good start in life and help weaker pupils catch up. The system not only minimises differences among students, but also the differences among schools.
This prevents school shopping as all the schools in Finland are equally strong, including in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas, where schools in many other countries are weaker.
This ensures that all students, rich and poor, receive the same level of education.
In addition, Finland invests heavily in teachers, not only in their training but it also gives teachers greater autonomy and time to develop new teaching strategies and address the individual learning needs of their pupils.
Every Finnish school has a welfare team dedicated to advancing child happiness in school and in between classes – children are are sent outside for 15 minutes of free play as many as four times a day. Additionally, Finnish schools give relatively little homework and have only one mandatory test at age 16.
As with the economy, the quality of education goes beyond statistics and international indexes. The fear is that both the current ‘economic success’ and the country’s education system are catalysts for inequality.
No amount of passport money or budget surpluses can encourage critical thought, and civic and social engagement unless policy makers put their political and material interests last, rather than first.