Malta is a small island with very limited resources. Its main resource is manpower. With all the talk of a new economic model, few seem to mention that a serious problem is a severe shortage of skilled Maltese workers, and here is where the education system comes in. For years now, the Malta’s education system seems to be underperforming. Over the last 10 years, Malta has had an average early school leaver rate of 10.7% – slightly higher than the EU average.
The OECD periodically publishes its PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) ranking. PISA measures how good education systems are by looking at 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges. A total of 83 countries participate in this study, and in its latest round, Malta placed 39th. Not so good for a country reliant on human capital. Even worse, a recent study found that, on average, 73.1% of students whose parents had a low level of education did not surpass that education level (Cutajar, 2019).
Is our education system understaffed?
One good indicator to monitor whether an education system is understaffed is the pupil-to-teacher ratio – the lower the ratio, the fewer students there are per teacher. Both NSO and Eurostat report this ratio, and here is what the data says:
With an average of 6.4 pupils per teacher, Malta is second best only to Ireland. There are some differences when we look at different levels of education, with early childhood and primary level teachers most heavily burdened. It is important to note that the data does not distinguish between teachers and say LSA’s, which could be an important factor in driving down pupil-teacher ratios.
NSO data also shows that since 2013, the number of teachers has increased by almost 2,000, a 24.5% increase. However, it is interesting to note how the number of students has increased since 2013:
While the number of Maltese students decreased by 1,500 (a 2% drop), the number of foreign students shot up by 9,100 (a 73% increase). This is an added complexity in the classroom that teachers need to handle.
Is our education system underfunded?
Perhaps the problem is that, as a country, we do not invest as necessary in education. However, if we were to look at education expenditure as a percent of GDP, we see that Malta spends an amount equivalent to almost 5% of GDP, the 11th highest in the EU and above the EU average of 4.8%.
In fact, simply pouring money into education is not a good strategy for success. In their paper “Double for Nothing?” a team of American economists studied Indonesia’s radical measure in 2009 to double teachers’ wages. The results? No impact on student test scores in the short term. That is not to say that higher wages would not make the teaching industry more attractive. The study therefore highlights that the bedrock for success lies in strategy and planning. We need to look at countries that excel in their education systems. That is why we propose looking at Estonia as a model for emulation.
Estonia’s and Malta‘s education system
Like Malta, Estonia is a very small nation, with limited resources. And yet, when it comes to education, Estonia outperforms not only Malta, but much of the entire world. It spends less on education than Malta, it has a lower early school leaver rate, and most importantly, it ranks amongst the top three countries in the world in terms of PISA rankings. Estonia’s educational prowess is evident in its exceptional performance in all three fundamental skills assessed by PISA: reading, mathematics, and science. What sets Estonia apart, however, is not just its academic achievements but its unique educational model.
The nation boasts the highest percentage of high-achieving students from lower-income families. The education system also addresses inequality issues, with minimal disparities in results between rural and urban areas. Estonia has one of the lowest rates of students lacking basic education (just 5%) and an impressive record of low-grade repetition rates within the OECD. Furthermore, Estonia leads in foreign language proficiency, demonstrating the strength of its social mobility.
Governance above spending
Contrary to the misconception that high education spending is the secret to success, Estonia’s accomplishments come without exorbitant financial investments. Public spending per pupil in Estonia does not rank among the highest in the OECD, even when accounting for price and wage differences. This stands in stark contrast to countries like Malta, which allocate more resources to education but yield inferior results. Estonia’s experience underscores the fact that increased spending alone is not a panacea for educational excellence; it’s about how resources are utilised.
Key Aspects of the Estonian Education System
If you are sold on the Estonian education success, by now you are wondering how Estonia implements such a well oiled system. Here are the main pillars that set Estonia apart.
1. Independence of Schools and Teachers
Estonia’s educational system thrives on independence, granting schools and educators substantial autonomy. While schools adhere to a minimum government-mandated curriculum, they possess the flexibility to shape their educational curriculum and methodologies as necessary. This autonomy encourages innovation and responsiveness to students’ needs, making both schools and teachers invested in success.
2. Competition-Driven Funding
Estonian public schools operate within a competitive framework. This means that each school acts like a privately owned school, with its administration and staff responsible for its success. This is done while keeping education entirely free for all students. Year on year, the Estonian government sets a global budget for education. Estonian schools then compete for a portion of this budget. The allotted budget is directly linked to student enrollment and fair performance benchmarks, incentivizing schools to attract more students by delivering quality education. Moreover, school performance is transparently evaluated, applying market forces to education as schools strive to outperform their peers.
More interesting, teacher wages are not determined by means of a bureaucratic collective agreement. Since each school has an incentive to produce the best results, it tries to attract the best teachers available. A competitive teacher market is present in Estonia, with teacher salaries negotiated directly with their schools. In this way, not only are teachers directly accountable for their performance, but they have the possibility to enjoy a rewarding, well-paying career in teaching.
3. Teacher Autonomy and Accountability
Teachers in Estonia enjoy a higher level of autonomy and responsibility compared to their counterparts in many countries. They receive rigorous and compulsory training to enhance their teaching skills and adapt to evolving educational methods and technologies. Teachers also play a significant role in shaping school policies and curricula.
4. Preparing for the World of Work
Estonia’s educational model focuses on preparing students for the workforce. Collaboration with civil society and businesses in designing academic programs ensures that education aligns with the needs of the modern labour market. Extensive work experience programs, especially in vocational education and university Master’s degrees, provide students with real-world skills and a competitive edge.
5. Equal Opportunities for All
Estonia places a strong emphasis on equal opportunities, ensuring that socio-economic status does not hinder students’ potential. The state covers education costs, including textbooks and cafeteria meals, and provides free health services, routine check-ups, and dental care for students. This commitment to equality of opportunity fosters a level playing field for all students.
6. The power of choice
More importantly, the power to influence a student’s educational path is not dictated by the government, but by parents’ choice. Unlike Malta, where your school is decided on the basis of your locality, parent wealth or lottery, Estonia offers the possibility to students to choose whichever school they desire. Since each school has a limited capacity, access to a desired school is based on merit rather than parent wealth or luck.
What can Malta’s education system learn from the Estonian model?
Malta should reintroduce choice in its system. Rather than removing merit-based systems such as the now defunct common entrance examinations, such meritocratic approaches should be expanded to all students, with the faculty to access any school they desire, be it church or public schools. Malta has the advantage of being small, and no school is too far away to be inaccessible.
More opportunities also mean that schools need not prepare all students for a desk job. Those students wishing to pursue paths in crafts, arts, engineering or medical fields should have access to specialised schools which, while providing the required formal education in mandatory fields, offer specialised training to gain the necessary skills. Across the board, the education system should respond to the cultural and economic needs of the society they operate in. Students coming out from schools should be employable workers and above all, valued citizens that can contribute to the future of society. Therefore, apart from the government, schools should coordinate also with industry and civil society in formulating curricula.
The education ministry should limit its involvement to mandating a minimum curriculum that ensures the minimum economic and cultural needs are met. The education ministry should also set clear, transparent and fair performance benchmarks for each school. Fairness in these benchmarks should cater for the different educational abilities of students in each school. Meeting or exceeding these benchmarks determine the funding a school gets. This funding is then used to remunerate teachers for their work.
We also commend MUT’s proposal for an in-depth study to understand why teachers are quitting. This study should cover daily classroom life, student behaviour and discipline, parents’ attitude and after-school involvement, and unnecessary bureaucratic burdens imposed on teachers.
To conclude, a cultural programme to re-emphasise the importance of education in one’s life successes is important. Studies that followed Maltese students who, despite coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, obtain prestigious accomplishments often speak of positive attitude and determination as key to their success. They always mention the importance of an education-focused family background as a source of positive motivation and pride. We have much to learn from these fellow Maltese. Their strong work ethic and humility are an example to all.