Evarist Bartolo | Sunday, 03 January 2010

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Educating for the real world

Even as the world economic crisis continues to bite, jobs and wealth are being created mostly in those areas where people are highly skilled. The best education, both within formal learning institutions and outside them is that which helps to make people acquire the necessary skills, attitudes and behaviour that are needed in the real world of the 21st century.
The traditional way to look at education in Malta is to see it as a means to improve your status rather than to improve your skills to work better. You go to school and are told to try and do well so that you do not have to dirty your hands with work. You are told to do well at school so that you can tell others what to do. And hanging over your head you have this warning: ‘fall behind at school and you will have to accept to be thrown at the bottom of the heap.’
The best education gives you the necessary skills to solve real problems and carry out the necessary tasks at home, in society and at work. The best education system is based on quality and equality. Children who are allowed to fall behind are being deprived of their human rights. All the young people who come out of school unskilled and unqualified are the result of an unjust system that reinforces social inequality and economic waste. If we really want our country to survive and thrive in today’s globalised world we need nothing less than a world-class, lifelong education and training system.
Yet we are presenting children with a dangerus illusion, telling them that they can succeed. Our formal exam-oriented system rewards mostly those who master the techniques of passing their exams, without necessarily acquiring the knowledge and the competences required in today’s world. To succeed in the real world you need to know how to cope with pressure, and education for the real world needs to put pressure on students to succeed. But a good education system also provides students with the necessary support to help them achieve their roles. We tend to put the wrong kind of pressure on our students and deny them the right kind of support.
I am all in favour of eliminating all forms of unnecessary stress on our students. But I think it is suicidal to believe that we are doing our students a favour by allowing them to live in a cocoon, when in the years ahead they will face a more fiercely competitive world without borders, where investment will flow to areas where there are people with the right skills at the right price, and other necessary conditions for wealth and job creation. I believe that most of our adolescents and young people are not truly aware of the fact that they will be competing with other young people from all over the world. Our education system shelters them from reality, leading them to think the world owes them a living and that once they graduate they should start straight away in a top job with a high salary – even if most of their schooling, lecturing and formal institutional experience have hardly prepared them for the real world.
40% of our 15/16 year olds are finishing their secondary schooling without obtaining the necessary skills. To have more teenagers succeeding at school we cannot simply change the way we measure success; we must change the way we are educating our children and young people. Simply introducing a new school-leaving certificate is like changing the brand without changing the product. We need to change the educational process, and not simply think of a new way of describing it. We cannot simply change unpleasant statistics or find new ways of designing them so that we perform better in the statistics we send to Brussels. We must change the realities that produce those statistics.
We must understand why so many of our children are falling behind. Why so many of them do not come to school regularly. Why so many of them leave school at fifteen or sixteen. We do not have the right support system in our primary schools to save those children who drown early in our system. As our birth rate continues to go down and around 1,500 children migrate from state to new church primary schools, we are going to have more teachers available to give the necessary one -to -one support to children who fall behind. We need to make secondary schools more relevant and meaningful for our adolescents. We need to change what we teach and how we teach it.
I remember Pasquale Pistorio, who ran ST Microelectronics when it decided to come to Malta 29 years ago, telling me that he chose Malta because of the excellent technical education our young people had at our technical institute and because they could use English fluently. Malaysia, our direct competitor for that investment, had done us the great favour in its early post-colonial politics of removing the teaching of English in schools.
Our biggest challenge today is to have an education system based on quality and equality, where as many young people as possible do well at school. More people are succeeding at school. But we need them to succeed better and we need more young people to succeed. Those who are responsible for our education system at all its levels should have the humility to listen to those who interview our young people when they turn up for jobs. Becoming defensive and simply dismissing criticism by saying that employers want young people to fit meekly into jobs will get us nowhere. I am against having an education system that is simply a training experience for jobs. That would impoverish education and be very inadequate for today’s world where people need to be knowledgeable in science, language and technology, multi-skilled, open-minded, team-spirited, creative and entrepreneurial.
We still have young people coming out of 13 years of schooling without knowing how to read, and when they turn up to work at a factory they are told to get the container with red, yellow or blue paint on it as they can only recognize the colours but not read the labels. We need to find ways of educating these young people and not simply give them a new school leaving certificate. We need to educate them in new ways and not simply certify them differently. We must give them the necessary skills that they will need in the real world and not simply a certificate that will be worthless.
Our schools must help our young people to learn how to learn, how to discover knowledge and how to do what they have learned: to learn by doing and to do by learning. We must heal the deep split that has always existed in our education system: the chasm between the vocational and academic streams. We must bring them together in one single broad educational river and all formal and informal learning, training and continuous professional development must flow together to improve what we learn and what we do. Even the SEC, MATSEC exams and the BTec exams and the credit system offered by our different educational institutions must be brought together and enjoy parity of esteem in word and in deed and not simply to be politically correct.
We need skills in languages, science, mathematics and technology, the ability to work together and live in multicultural societies, to be creative – which is why we need music, theatre and art (apart from sports) to help develop our students and enable them to become active citizens in an open and democratic society, and not just geared for a job. From kindergarten to university and beyond, we need to find ways of having an interactive and dynamic relationship between education and the bigger reality so that education helps us to understand and interpret the world to be able to change it for the better.

Evarist Bartolo is shadow minister for education


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