3.1 The Australian Scene

The Parents' Point of View

Perhaps we could start by asking ourselves: Does it matter what our views as parents about education are? Will our views influence our children, or will they do their own thing anyway, irrespective of what we think? Why are we so anxious to ensure that our children get the best education that we can give them?

We as parents would like them to have more than we ever had. We would like them to succeed in life better than we did. This theme has been projected into prominence in a study by Terry et al (1993) on the topic " To Learn More than I Have….", where "the educational aspirations and experiences of the Maltese in Melbourne" are examined.

However, are we the best judges of what is best for our children? Do we ourselves know what is good for them? Often we haven't caught up with the changing pattern of education and social life, with new opportunities that may be available, but which never existed in our days.

One is at times amazed to what extent our children are influenced by our thinking and our ways of doing things. As Alexander Bloom (1986,p 17) once said: " There is a period in life when all children incorporate the values of their parents…. Many are able to adjust to them, some deny them, and others consciously oppose them. That as may be, but I cannot fail to be impressed by the effect of parental expectation and guidance on the outcome of the child.

I would like to look into some aspect of education of persons of Maltese-background in Australia and try to describe some recent developments in the area, including some of the results of a survey investigating educational aspects of second and subsequent generation of Maltese background children in Melbourne.

I am particularly interested in two basic aspects: firstly, the relative role of science education in the community, and secondly, the issue of gender participation, namely, whether males and females are participating equitably if not equally in tertiary education.

The number of students of Maltese background currently within the education system in Australia is an unknown quantity. An estimate from the 1991 census indicates that Australia-wide there are around 20,000 persons of Maltese background in the 5-19 age group. The majority of these one would expect would be undertaking some sort of education. A further 20,000 are to be found in the 20-29 age group.

Education and Achievement of children of migrants.

A number of studies were available by the mid-1980s relating to educational achievement of migrant children (see Cahill 1996). Many of these came to the conclusion that there was a distinct impaired educational performance by persons of non-English speaking background (NESB), and that this was a primary determinant in reducing social mobility. Birrel (1994), however, has argued that in many instances these students were doing better at tertiary studies (and at Monash University in particular) than children of parents from UK and Australia. Whatever the merits and demerits of this controversy, Maltese children were often not included in studies of this nature or were merely included within a category designated as "South Europe". Studies which specifically included Maltese-background children did not fail to see that they were a class by themselves who were not achieving as much as the average (See Martin and Meade, 1979; Meade, 1983; Taft & Cahill, 1978; Cahill, 1979a. See also Cauchi 1990)

Studies of parental aspirations of Maltese migrants have all shown high aspirations for their children (Terry et al 1993,Cahill 1996 p 44) although "studies examining the family environment have likewise noted that the aspirations held by both students and their parents have not always been capable of realisation because of the parents' own lack of educational attainment, their lack of knowledge of the Australian schooling system, their lack of English, the absence of parental education programs and structural factors in the education and economic systems" (see also Marjoribanks, 1979, 1980).

Sturman (1985) came to the conclusion that "in terms of retentivity and post-secondary educational participation and performance, ethnic students were on average highly successful in translating their (and their parents') positive attitudes towards education into satisfactory outcomes."

The expectations of Maltese school children and their parents as assessed by Terry et. al. (1993), were also found to be very positive and encouraging. It is, however, dangerous to extrapolate from expectation to achievement, particularly from parental expectation to achievement by the child. In fact the recent study by Birrel and Khoo (1995) shows that there is minimal social mobility for Maltese-background students, who show far less an improvement in the second generation in comparison with most other ethnic groups.

In the view of Birrell (1994), the main issue relating to whether children achieve a tertiary education or not depended on class and not on ethnicity. The study by Terry et al (1993), a study sponsored by the Maltese Community Council of Victoria showed that "the low levels of retention and participation of many Maltese background students cannot be attributed to something specific to Maltese culture as it has been transported from Malta to Australia", and that "the continuing failure of education authorities to take action on these matters will ensure many Maltese background students will not complete their schooling to the level of which they are capable." (p66) Sultana (1994) points his finger at the inadequacies of the schooling system. Other studies indicate that 'family environmental factors are more predictive of children's academic achievement than are social status indicators such as class" (Cahill et al. 1996, p 38)

The Educational Process

What are the factors that are likely to encourage or inhibit young people from attaining their maximum educational potential? I believe that the major issue involved can be summarised under three headings, namely, participation, performance and choice.

By Participation I mean taking part in the facilities available in the country. By performance I mean how well one gets on in such a system, and by choice I refer to the particular decisions made by students themselves which will affect the rest of their career.

It is important to emphasise that all three are important, particularly at a stage when the participation rate has increased significantly, so that it is no longer the case that a secondary or even tertiary education is an automatic guarantee when it comes to getting a job.

A. Participation

For a long time enlightened parents, educationalists and sociologists alike have put a lot of emphasis on the importance of participation in secondary and tertiary education. There was concern about the poor retention rate at secondary school, where the proportion of Maltese-background students staying on till Year 12 was much less than the average. Likewise the proportion of youths of Maltese origin attending University was less than expected. Over the past few years, the retention rate overall in Victoria has peaked at around 80% We have also seen a considerable improvement in the proportion of Maltese youth staying on at school, partly as a result of the economic downturn of 1990-1991, and partly, one would hope, from a realisation that a solid secondary education is a necessary, or at least a desirable ingredient for success in life these days. Participation by female students has also improved, to the extent that they are now staying longer in school than boys.

A number of factors have been suggested to explain the low retention rates in secondary school.

These include:

  • social class,
  • economic conditions of the family,
  • degree of parental education,
  • culture and 'ethos' of the particular ethnic group,
  • gender,
  • geographic locality

In the case of Maltese-background youth, we may add that a particular emphasis on obtaining a trade has been a dominant factor. This has resulted in a situation where Maltese have one of the highest proportions of young persons practising a trade. Indirectly it may also have adversely affected the number proceeding to an academic qualification.

I do not intend to belabour all of these points. Social class has had an enormous influence over the ages determining who will get an education and what sort of education one is likely to get. Hopefully, class and economic status will not be such major determining factors in obtaining an education, although measures which have recently been introduced where students have to take loans to cover their educational expenses will, I am sure, act as a disincentive for further education. I wouldn't be surprised if we shall see the number of students attending tertiary institutions to start going down again in the near future. If the past is anything to go by, this will affect Maltese-background students more than other ethnic groups.

Measures of Participation:

How do we measure the degree of participation? The current yardsticks include:

  • Year 12 retention rate
  • Proportion of students in Tertiary Education
  • Proportion having a higher qualification
  • Gender distribution.

This list of parameters is not exhaustive. I also want to emphasise that a tertiary education is not the be all and end all of human existence, and certainly it is only one measure of success in life. However, here we are concentrating on education, and therefore I shall limit the discussion to these topics.

Geographic Location and Education:

An examination of the geographic background of students reveals marked variations. A study I carried out recently in Malta (1996) showed that there were staggering differences in the proportion of University students coming from different localities: there were three times as many students from one locality, compared to another. This discrepancy is seen also in Australia. There are marked differences between the proportion of students from the various localities in Victoria, with less than expected numbers hailing from the Western regions where the majority of Maltese have settled.

There are many reasons for these imbalances and inequalities. I would suggest that it is not enough to ensure that the absolute number of students goes up, but also that all students have an equal opportunity to participate. Moreover, wherever there is such a marked imbalance, one should look into the reasons why this is the case and try to remedy the situation.

Parental Education:

In the past (and in Malta in particular) there was a lot of pressure for children to follow in their parents' footsteps, and it was often the case that only children of professional persons went on to obtain a university education. This is no longer the case, and today it is not so much parental profession as parental attitudes that influence the child's choice of tertiary education. From the 1991 census it is clear that within the various ethnic groups, there is a correlation between the proportion of persons having a higher qualification between the first and second generation. This implies that where a parent has a tertiary education, there is a greater chance that the child also will follow a tertiary course.

Figure 3.1

There is a good correlation between the proportion of persons with higher qualifications in the first and second generation within the various ethnic groups. Each dot represent one ethnic community. (See Appendix for further details)

B. Performance:

Participation is the first requisite, but is not enough. This is particularly the case when just about everyone else is also staying on till Year 12 at secondary school, and many are also undergoing tertiary education. With a high participation rate, performance becomes a major issue in ensuring success.

Performance can also be equated with excellence, but this is not quite the same. While "excellence" may be left to the fortunate few (individuals or institutions), a high level of performance is something that everyone should aim at, as far as possible.

Factors affecting performance:

A number of factors come into play in ensuring that the student achieves creditably academically. Some factors which one would expect to be of relevance include the following:

  • Intrinsic ability,
  • Choice of subject,
  • Commitment to study (personal, cultural),
  • Family support,
  • Ethnic group cultural background,
  • Available facilities - school support,
  • Boredom,
  • Poor subject presentation,
  • Personal/family problems,
  • Other factors.

Intrinsic ability: No doubt this is of crucial significance, but is something that to a large extent we are born with. There is a big argument whether environmental factors, particularly early influences can affect the child's inherited potential. I am a firm believer that the degree of innate intelligence that we are born with can be enormously enhanced and enlarged through stimulation by a favourable environment. The degree of stimulation of young children by their parents is, I believe, a crucial point in starting the child along the right path. It is enough to bring to mind the fact that musical ability such as perfect pitch can only be obtained if the child is exposed to music before the age of 5. Likewise the vocabulary (and with it the corresponding range of the ideas) of any 2-year old child is enormously dependent on the sort of environment the child finds him or herself in. Parents are in a unique situation to mould, encourage and help young children to develop to the utmost whatever innate qualities they happen to have.

At a more mundane level, the performance by a particular child at school depends on a host of factors which have very little to do with intrinsic intelligence. Of these one may mention:

Choice of subject: It is well known that it is far easier to obtain good marks in some subjects compared to others. For instances, about 40% of those students in Malta obtained a grade "A" in Accounting at Advanced Level Matriculation examinations, whereas only about 2% of those sitting a foreign language examination got an "A". In Australia too this subject-related variation in performance has been found and commented on by various authors.

Commitment to study: some students are more committed to their work than others. Families and even ethnic groups vary enormously in relation to the importance they give to individual dedication. The old-fashioned work ethos, what used to be called 'the Protestant work ethic', is often looked down upon in some quarters, but is certainly a factor in ensuring that academic subjects are given due attention and not diluted by other activities such as sport, and other subjects which many would consider a relaxation. I must make it clear that I am not at all saying that these are not important. I am only saying the obvious, namely, that the more effort one puts in a particular topic, the more is one likely to achieve a high level of performance - whether this be an academic subject, an artistic activity or a particular sport. In Australia, however, one gets the impression that while everybody agrees that one cannot excel in sport unless it is given maximum attention, the same is not the case for academic subjects, where somehow, excellence is to be achieved through innate ability with minimum effort.

There is no doubt too that certain ethnic groups have shown a particular commitment to scholastic activities: The Jewish community has always shown a tendency to intellectual activity, and the result is that the universities have been the haunts of Jewish students. And not just in Australia. In NY there was a time when, to restore a balance in ethnic representation, one university actually prohibited Jews from enrolling. More recently, this prominent position has been taken over by migrants from SE Asia who now tend to be present in our universities in Australia in proportions far higher than expected on the basis of numbers alone.

Other factors, which tend to reduce productivity at school, would include factors such as boredom, which could result from lack of interest as well as from poor presentation of the subject, conflicting interests, personal and family problems and no doubt other factors.

How do we measure performance?

A number of yardsticks have been used to assess performance in school. Without exception these have been criticised at one time or another as inadequate or misleading. Moreover, they tend to conflict with the philosophy of education, which sees progress as relevant only to oneself and not relative to other members of the group.

Some of the measures that society in general, (and this includes prospective employers) imposes on students are tabulated below:

Measurement of performance:

  • High grades in examinations
  • Position in class
  • Aggregate marks in final comprehensive examinations (e.g. HSC)
  • Success in enrolling in a tertiary institution
  • Success in enrolling in a 'high status' courses and universities
  • Final grading of degrees
  • Other factors

There are those who would consider such a list as anathema to a "good" education system which should be assessed solely in absolute terms and not relative to the achievement of others. Sooner or later, however, our students have to enter the rat race and have be assessed in competition with others.

Although there is no one good measure, and certainly there is no direct correlation between any of the above measures and success in general, one tends to believe that a better than average performance is a desirable goal. I have been impressed for instance by the lack of correlation between the matriculation marks and the final mark obtained by medical students in Malta. I am sure that this holds for other subjects as well. One might only say that these measures are imprecise, and are only a guide to how well a student performs within the educational system.

C. Choice of Subject:

A third factor which has an impact on future success is the choice of subject or subject groups. I have mentioned already the variation between different subjects in the ease of getting high marks particularly in situations where standardisation between subjects is inadequate. What I want to emphasise here is the relevance of subject choice to future employment, what may be considered its cash-value. It has been suggested that the choice of subjects is highly relevant in this context.

What makes us choose one subject rather than another?

Ainley et al. 1994 give the following reasons:

  • a particular subject may be compulsory - the choice is made because there is no choice.
  • Intrinsic reasons: Interest and enjoyment: We choose a subject because we like it. There seems to be very little to argue about here, and this seems to make sense. However, it is found that girls are more often prone to choose a subject on this criterion, and more often than not this is an art or humanities subject. An over-emphasis on this criterion therefore could shift the balance of subjects chosen.
  • Extrinsic reasons: such as whether they are relevant or useful to future work. In this context, a student is making a clear decision to postpone immediate gratification from following a particular subject which s/he may actually like better, in order to choose a subject or group of subjects which it is felt that would be a better investment in the future. A study of chemistry or computer studies may fall within this category. Males are more prone to choose a subject on this basis than females.
  • Instrumental reasons: one chooses a subject because it is necessary for university entry to a particular course, or is more likely to obtain high marks in etc.
  • Finally, a number of other reasons have been adduced, included recommendations by friends, pressure from parents, the availability of good teachers etc (Ainley et al. 1994 p 144).

A related topic is why students do not take a particular subject. In particular, lack of English has caused problems particularly with boys, who invariably achieve less well in this subject than girls. I shall discuss this further when discussing science education. (see below).

Groups of subjects:

Not only is choice of individual subjects important, but also the overall grouping of subjects can be very relevant. Certain subjects are mutually supportive: for instance, the physical sciences, physics, chemistry, mathematics, usually go as a group and are considered self-supporting. They are also high prestige subjects, conferring status on the recipient. Likewise, a subject grouping like economics/management/mathematics are a useful combination. On the other hand a grouping like German, biology and home economics are not a self-supporting grouping.

Recently I have analysed the matriculation subject groupings of university students from Gozo only to find that a vast majority of them have Maltese, Religious Knowledge and Systems of Knowledge as their major (Advanced Level) subjects. This I would call a non self-supporting grouping. The reason why students take this combination I suspect is because it is the easiest way of ensuring a pass mark.

In Australia, Ainley et al. (1990) found that there are several characteristics that are relevant with respect to choice of subject area. These are :

  • Gender
  • Early school achievement
  • Individual interests
  • Ethnic and Social Background
  • Different States within Australia
  • School Type
  • parental education

Gender plays a considerable role in subject choice.Male choose a physical science subjects twice as frequently as females, mathematics 12 times as frequently, and technical studies 10 times as frequently,. Females more than males tend to choose subjects relating to creative and performing arts (twice as frequently), and home economics (a predominantly female choice). Students from a non-English speaking background have a higher enrolment rate in physical sciences, mathematics, and languages, and a lower enrolment in humanities and social sciences.

Socio-economic Status (based on parental occupation) has also been shown to have an effect on subject choice: the higher social groups tend to enrol more frequently in physical sciences, humanities and social sciences

Specific Issues: Science Education

In a recent issue of The Age (March 1998), Professor John Niland, President of the Australian Vice-chancellor's Committee warned of the disastrous decline in science enrolment at universities. He suggested that a program needs to be set up to address the poor image of science among high school students. Moreover, the Chairman of the Minerals Council of Australia's National Tertiary Education Taskforce, Mr Richard Carter warned that Australian companies would soon have to look overseas for science graduates. The main reason for this drop in the number of science students was the increased cost to them resulting from an increase in Higher Education Contribution scheme (HECS) from $2520 to $4779 a year for science courses.

In Malta we do not have HECS schemes, and students are actually given a stipend to study at the University. Yet the proportion of science students is not increasing either. This is partly due to the fact that when there is an overall increase in student numbers, the proportion taking science is likely to decline. From a survey I carried out among science and medical students (Cauchi, 1996) the reasons given by them for the lack of interest in science subjects included:

  • too much hard work
  • requires continued education throughout life
  • interferes with social life
  • suitable only for 'bookworms'
  • suitable only for boys
  • not taught properly - no practical or field studies
  • lack of job opportunities.
  • science not taught early enough - should start in primary school
  • Physics was a compulsory subject - puts students off.

To be noted also that the majority of teachers of primary schools (in Malta) themselves do not have a science background. One can hardly expect such teachers to imbue their students with a burning desire to do science.

Gender Issues in Education:

It is a widespread conception that females can be disadvantaged in several ways in our schooling system. (Teese et al. 1995)

  • At mixed schools, females appear to do less well than in single-sex schools. With the tendency to abolish the latter, this problem may actually increase.
  • Girls tend to prefer creative and performing arts topics, compared to boys who prefer physical science and technical studies. It is true that now girls are catching up in chemistry and doing better than boys in biology. Still a considerable differential in mathematics and physics. In a recent study I carried out among students in the Upper Lyceum in Gozo, females were doing better than males in mathematics, achieving on average 10% better marks.
  • Participation in University courses is equal to that of boys. In Malta also there is a 50% female participation. In Gozo this has actually gone up to 67%.
  • Choice of University Course is skewed with girls tending to go for art/education more than boys.
  • Performance: From the studies I have carried out in Malta, it is far easier to achieve a good mark in the sciences than in the arts or languages. I do not think this is the result of variation in intelligence or application. It is a fact that science-based subjects are more objective than essay type questions, and hence it is usually easier to get the high marks. In Malta, the proportion of students getting an "A" in a subject varied from 2% in Maltese and English to 50% in accounting. In the absence of standardisation of data to even out these differences, one is bound to be penalised if one took the wrong subject for study. In Malta females take science far less frequently than males.
  • As mentioned earlier, girls more than boys prefer to study subjects for their intrinsic interest and enjoyment while boys tends to go for 'future utility'. Girls prefer humanities, social sciences, creative and performing arts, languages and biology. Boys go for physical sciences, computer studies, mathematics, economics, business studies and physical education. (Ainley et al. 1990)

    While the above features may be exaggerated into caricatures, they do give an overall picture of difference between the sexes, which may have a profound effect on outcome in terms of educational choice and participation.


    Where are our children going? We have reached the stage of dealing with the late second and early third generation. While it may be still too early to have a clear picture, it would appear that Maltese-background youth have approached the Australian norm. Latest data, discussed further in Chapter 6 tend to show that there are indeed signs that the second and third generation are tending to become more conscious of the need for a further education, and this is no doubt helping them to achieve a more equitable share within the Australian work-force.

    There are also several indications that in other fields also, persons of Maltese origins have excelled. One cannot but feel a warm glow of pride when one hears of the tremendously successful career of a considerable proportion of young persons of Maltese origin who are now hitting the scene, and not just in the sporting world, but in the sphere of art, academic studies, opera, music, social work and a whole host of other activities.

    Can we help the next generations in any way? One can easily be cynical and say, "not much!" and leave it at that. However, I believe that we as parents and grandparents do still have a role to play in encouraging our grandchildren to ask questions, to encourage them to read as widely as possible, from as early age as possible, to instil in them a love for the arts by exposing them to foreign languages, music, and other art forms as early as possible, from as early an age as possible. Likewise we can open their eyes to the wonders of science, nature and the environment around us. I think our role is to serve as a stimulant and as a target for them to fire their wondering questing at.

    It could be our role also as parents to actually do ask ourselves whether there are other areas where we could improve and widen our own interests, hopefully to transmit these to our children and grandchildren. A love for the arts or sciences can be passed on only if one is imbued with these characteristics oneself. I think it is here that we can help others through helping ourselves.

    Historically, the Maltese nation as a whole has been burdened with generations of persons who suffered from an illiteracy rate of more than 40 per cent. This had enormous and long-lasting effects both locally in Malta as well as over-seas, where these people have settled. The illiteracy rate in the younger generation in Malta has dropped to around 5 percent, and with this change there has been a greater appreciation of the value of education to our children. In Australia too we have seen this trend, although the reasons for the change are different in the two countries.

    Source: Maurice N.Cauchi - The Maltese Migrant Experience, Malta 1999

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