Educational Challenges in the Republic of Malta


The Republic of Malta is a small island located in the Mediterranean Sea, just below Sicily, East of Tunisia, and above Libya. Historically, it served as a gateway between North Africa and Europe, as explained by its long history as a part of imperial conquests by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, the Knights of St. John, the French, and lastly the British, gaining its independence by 1964 and becoming a Republic in 1974.[i] It became a member of the European Union (EU) in 2004, leading to a flurry of reforms for social development in terms of education, health, and socioeconomic status in order to meet EU benchmarks.[ii] In this regard, attaining a quality education has increased across the board for students and what they are equipped with following compulsory education as a result.

Characteristics of Malta’s Education System

The ‘Education Act’, pursuant to Chapter 327 of the Laws of Malta, states that education is compulsory for all children and youth in Malta between the ages of five and sixteen, split into six years of primary education proceeded by five years of secondary education. Parents have the liberty to send their children either to public, state-run schools, or Church-run schools that are full-time and mostly free or to private schools that require annual tuition fees.[iii] There also exists a strong promotion and supply of early childhood education and care (ECEC) from birth until the age of three, followed by kindergarten centres that help prepare children to enter primary education with ease, seeing a total of 143 registered childcare centres by November 2019.[iv]

Primary education consists of mixed-ability classes combining the three core subjects of English, Maths, Maltese, and science, religion/ethics, and physical education. It includes cross-curricular soft skills like e-learning, sustainable development, intercultural education, entrepreneurship, creativity, and innovation.[v] This level exists within the state ‘College Networks’ that ease the flow of children attending the same primary and secondary schools within specific geographic proximity, using particular checklists to assess literacy, numeracy, and e-literacy between the first and third grades, coupled with continuous formative assessments via the ‘End of Primary Benchmark’ for the three core subjects.[vi]

Secondary education is split into lower and upper-secondary. The former lasts two years and is referred to as ‘Middle School’, including the three core subjects as well as geography, history, religion/ethics, physics, PSCD (personal, social, and career development), art, foreign languages (e.g., Italian, German, French, Arabic, Spanish), and so on. The following upper-secondary education generally consists of students attending elective classes chosen in the second year of Middle School alongside both one foreign language and science of their choice.[vii] This level relies on continuous forms of assessments and annual centrally-set exams at the end of each year, culminating into the national Secondary Education Certificate (SEC) examinations organised by the Matriculation and Secondary Education Certificate (MATSEC) board of the University of Malta (UOM), whereby all students at the age of sixteen take exams focused on the three core subjects and chosen electives to attain qualifications recognised across Malta and by the European Qualifications Framework for Lifelong Learning (EQF).[viii]

(Source: ‘Malta: Organisation of the education system and of its structure’, European Commission)

Post-secondary education ensures that students who were unable to pass the SEC examinations have a second chance through revision programmes at the Guze Ellul Mercer (GEM) 16+ School or at the Higher Secondary Schools in Malta and Gozo. It also entails that students who passed the three core subjects and another three subjects can opt to attain higher levels of education in two-year programmes either at Junior College or Giovanni Curmi Higher Secondary in preparation for tertiary education at the UOM via the Advanced and Intermediate Levels exams; or may also take a more practical approach by attending the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST), which offers a range of vocational programmes, diplomas and degrees in science, engineering, accounting and ICT; or the Institute of Tourism Studies (ITS), focused on the tourism industry as a primary backbone of Malta’s economy.[ix]

UOM provides a diverse range of Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD programmes traditionally focused on law, medicine, communications, psychology, and humanities. It has recently expanded into new digital fields like blockchain technology and cybersecurity.[x] However, other public and private institutions compete with UOM by targeting niche market demands for adult education, as seen by programmes offered by the Centre for Liberal Arts and Sciences at UOM, as well as the University of the Third Age (U3E), to provide challenging programmes to strengthen critical thinking and skills attainment.[xi]

This system boasts a strong structure focused on education for all to enter the labour market with ease, ensuring free access throughout and significant governmental assistance such as free textbooks and transport, as well as maintenance grants and monthly stipends for those continuing onto higher levels of education.[xii] It is evident that Malta has made major strides to invest heavily in its education system, having among the highest general government expenditures on education at 14.2%, and dedicating 5.3% portion of its gross domestic product (GDP) to education, which is above the EU averages of 10% and 4.7%, respectively.[xiii] However, despite this positive progress, the system remains heavily burdened in meeting benchmarks, its educators coping with the rapid pace of reforms, and the significant increase of the migrant population.

Failing to Meet Educational Benchmarks

2009 and 2018 data from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and calculated results from Eurostat highlight how the percentage of 15-year-olds underperforming in literacy, numeracy, and science remained well above EU averages, standing at 35.6%, 29.1% and 32.5%, respectively. The level of reading and writing in English of Grade 5 children in primary schools show that 65.8% of them could speak English, sometimes beyond C1 level, but 32.8% of children displayed a weakness in writing at A1 level.[xiv] Furthermore, 2011 data from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) ranked Malta 35th out of 45 participating countries in the study. Students’ literacy levels are comparable to Trinidad and Tobago, with 25% scoring low in English reading. The mean score for Maltese reading was worse than the mean score for English reading, which highlights a discrepancy between state and both church and private institutions.[xv] The latter problem is due to a lack of resources, wherein Bonnici (2021), explained in his article that, ‘Malta has created an environment where some students have access to better resources simply because they can afford it’. This demonstrates that education is unequal in state schools, a view that has been confirmed by the European Commission’s 2020 study. The study suggests that the gap between state and private or church schools is as much as two years of teaching.[xvi] Despite targeted reforms, classrooms remain quite large, with policies capping the size at 26 pupils per class but failing to address teacher-student ratio, which ranks amongst the lowest in the EU. It stood at 12.8, 6.5, and 7.5 for primary, lower- and-upper-secondary levels in 2019, giving an indirect indication of individual focus for students.[xvii]

Another historical issue for Malta has been the high rate of early school leavers (ESLs), which Eurostat defined as ‘those between 18 and 24 years of age, who do not have at least the equivalent SEC passes (grades 1 to 7) in five different subjects and who are not in education or training’. Standing at 33% in 2005, it decreased to 16.7% by 2020, leaving Malta with the second-largest rate and higher than the EU benchmark of 10%.[xviii] The employment rate of those having attained low education levels of education is 71.7%: the highest in the EU, which explains why school dropouts are a persistent issue. It shows that, even with few qualifications, people still found employment in the tourism industry, which, besides being poorly paid, also hinders the success of policies aiming to lower the cost-benefit of enrolling on higher levels of education, as suggested by some researchers, placing this cohort at risk of social exclusion and unemployment in the future as new industries are carved out.[xix] This may also be a generational problem. One-third of the total workforce has a secondary level of education, whilst 50% remain without SEC qualifications. In the year 2000, 7.4% of 30 to 34-year-olds attained tertiary qualifications, increasing to 39.7% by 2020. The latter amounted to a successfully reached benchmark, which included a gender gap of 46.5% of women having attained tertiary education in comparison to 34.1% for men.[xx]

The students’ high failing in MATSEC core subjects across secondary and post-secondary levels indicates the system’s failure to meet benchmarks. In 2021, 17% (642 out of 3706), 18% (762 out of 4162), and 14% (575 out of 4086) of students failed Maltese, Maths, and English, in comparison to the 2019 results of 19%, 17%, and 12% respectively. The former Minister of Education, Justyne Caruana, stated that this failure cannot be attributed to the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020.[xxi] In reaction to this, the Government announced a UOM decision that entering Junior College will no longer require students to pass all the core subjects, a foreign language, and a science; but that only passing one core subject would be the new requirement. This decision received backlash from stakeholders, especially the Malta Union of Teachers (MUT), who had not been consulted. They questioned the decision as an election tactic, considering that the 2022 parliamentary elections saw 16-year-olds allowed to vote for the first time.[xxii] The Government supports the decision because it may positively address the issue of ESLs, insofar as higher levels of education posed a barrier for the youth. Requirements to enter UOM still remain a barrier in this respect, but many wonder if this is the direction that education should take.

Educators Unable to Cope

There are not enough teachers to cater for all students, especially for the three core subjects;[xxiii] however, rather than seeing education as a so-called ‘elitist bastion’ and pinning educational development solely on the shoulders of educators, a better approach would be to tackle the attitudinal and systematic imbalances of how educators in Malta are treated. It is attitudinal in the sense that the profession is considered amongst the lowest and least respected in Maltese society, which affects the crucial instruction that students receive from educators, an issue that is amplified by the fact that parents and social communities have, for a long time and until recently, not desired to be involved in the education of their children and the future of the labour market, risking the widening of socio-economic inequalities.[xxiv] On the other hand, for the last three years the MUT, alongside others, have lambasted governmental reforms being introduced without their consultation, without providing training and professional development for the new reforms, nor have these reforms shown success thus far to gain educators’ support, instead arguing that the rapid pace is akin to a ‘rat race’ resulting in ‘reform fatigue’.[xxv] This is why educators are feeling burnt out with the amount of paperwork they must prioritise over other core responsibilities, in turn being unable to tackle the lack of student discipline and appropriate behaviour in their classrooms. They are instead calling for reforms to not be solely student-centred as a way to bypass the need for a balanced approach that also takes educators’ needs into account, a crucial reason why many educators are leaving the field.[xxvi]

The study conducted by Dr. Chircop in 2020 focused on how educators construct an image of Maltese society within the classroom, and revealed how the rapid pace of socio-economic reforms since Malta’s accession into the EU by introducing divorce, civil union, same-sex marriage, changes in migration policies, and even the recent legalization of hemp production has left educators with a double duty of having to reconcile these changes with their own religious, cultural, and moral systems, indirectly increasing the barriers to creating a more tolerant society inside and outside of schools.[xxvii] This risks systematizing issues of racism and the exclusion of certain sexualities that lingered in society but have become more pronounced and visible over the last two decades, becoming entrenched boundaries of ‘us’ vs ‘them’ due to the fears that the Maltese identity will be detached from its cultural, religious, and social roots in exchange for more modern, European, or even North African and Mediterranean linked to Malta’s history and relations with various cultures.[xxviii] It points towards a wider cross-cutting issue that has existed in Malta since 2002, that of an increased foreign population within the country.

From Economic Necessity to Racism

The topic of racism in Malta has a contradictory nature since, in the past, the labour market required a supply of highly skilled individuals who were not present amongst the Maltese population and became dependent on the attraction of foreign workers to fill the skills gap, a dependency that continues today with the latest market development of the gaming industry (roughly 60% of which consist of foreign employees).[xxix] Racist attitudes became more prevalent due to the fact that the foreign population grew from 14,725 in 2008 to 83,267 by 2019, or from 4% of the total Maltese population to 17%. It added pressure on the 1,322 inhabitants per square kilometre – significantly higher than the U.K., with 244.3 inhabitants/km2, or Italy, with 19.2 244.3 inhabitants/km2. This was reflected in schools, as more third-country nationals students (TNCs) from Syria, Libya, and Serbia enrolled on schools in the North, the Northern Harbour, and the South-Eastern districts of Malta, such as in St. Theresa College, St. Benedict College, and St. Clare College.[xxx] Despite its limitations, a study by Frendo in 2021 displayed firm signs of exclusion and discrimination against migrant students in post-secondary education with regards to being treated differently by peers in the classroom due to their skin colour or clothing, being asked racist questions by educators, and being made invisible by the use of Maltese as the language of instruction, concluding that these same cultural and ethnic markers may also be present in other levels of education.[xxxi]

Racism is a critical issue that must be addressed by providing more professional development and training to educators in terms of pedagogical methods and teaching of language, as well as by accommodating the educational and emotional needs of those who may possess trauma due to their migratory journey or experiences of abuse, creating an intercultural rather than a multicultural environment of assimilation. In addition, the wider educational system in Malta must increase the allocation of resources and focus on schools and districts that are serving concentrated pools of foreign students. This would challenge the wider perception of foreigners posing ‘threats’ to their culture, language, and employment prospects.[xxxii]


Having been born, raised, and passing through the education system of Malta, I have come across these issues first-hand and befriended many current and future educators in the field who publicly debate and discuss these current issues. The system itself has found its footing over the years, and there is clear evidence that past, current, and future generations have positive access to quality education. However, the system must fill the remaining gaps since all the stakeholders involved are falling through the cracks. There is a serious need for all stakeholders to come together to reassess the teaching methods, content, training, and student pool to ensure that they all benefit from the system as originally intended.

Written by Karl Baldacchino

Edited by Olga Ruiz Pilato


[i] Fenech, C. & Seguna, A. (2020) ‘Internationalisation of Maltese Society and Education’. Malta Journal of Education, Vol. 1(1), pp. 31-32.

[ii] Ibid., p. 30; see also Chircop, L. (2020) ‘Educators’ Constructions of Maltese Society’. Malta Journal of Education, Vol. 1(1), pp. 59-60; Gauci, T. M. (2021) ‘An Analysis of Educational Attainment in Malta: Policy Note’. Central Bank of Malta, pp. 4 & 12-13; see also European Commission (2019) ‘Education and Training Monitor 2019: Malta’, pp. 5-6.

[iii] European Commission, ‘Malta: Organisation of the education system and of its structure’. Eurydice. Available online from:,five%20years%20of%20secondary%20education. [Accessed 29/04/2022].

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.; see also Mayo, P. (2012) ‘Adult Education in Malta: Challenges and Prospects’.  Journal of Adult Continuing Education, Vol. 18(1), p. 52.

[xii] Ibid.; see also Gauci, p. 5; see also Mayo, p. 58.

[xiii] Gauci, p. 22; see also European Commission (2019), p. 7; see also Bonnici, J. (2021) ‘Malta’s Educational System is Failing While We Play Dumb’. Lovin Malta. Available online from: [Accessed on 30/04/2022].

[xiv] European Commission (2019), p. 5; see also European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, ‘Raising the Achievement of All Learners in Inclusive Education – Country Report: Malta’, p. 2.

[xv] European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, pp. 5-6.

[xvi] Bonnici; see also European Commission (2020) ‘Equity in School Education in Europe: Structures, Policies and Student Performance’, pp. 65 & 239-240.

[xvii] Gauci, pp. 22-23.

[xviii] Ibid., p. 4; see also European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, p. 6; see also Carabott, S. (2019) ‘Malta with Second Largest Number of Early School Leavers in Europe’. Times of Malta. Available online from:,2018%2C%20according%20to%20European%20data. [Accessed on 30/04/2022].

[xix] Ibid., pp. 10-11 European Commission (2019), pp. 8-9; see also Bonnici.

[xx] Ibid., pp. 8-11; see also European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, p. 4; see also Carabott.

[xxi] Fenech, J. (2021) ‘MATSEC Results to be Evaluated to Find Reasons for Poor Outcome – Education Minister’. Independent. Available online from: [Accessed on 30/04/2022].

[xxii] Farrugia, C. (2022) ‘Junior College No Longer Requires Passes in All Three Core Subjects’. Times of Malta. Available online from:,one%20of%20three%20science%20subjects. [Accessed on 30/04/2022].

[xxiii] Times of Malta (2019) ‘The Failing Education System’. Available online from: [Accessed 30/04/2022].

[xxiv] Ibid.; see also Bonnici; see also Vella, L. (2021) ‘Teachers Call for Action on Expert’s Report on State School Educators’ Challenges’. Malta Today. Available online from: [Accessed on 30/04/2022].

[xxv] Vella (2021); see also Vella, Matthew (2020) ‘Teachers Left Breathless by Reforms “Rat Race”, Says Union Boss’.  Malta Today. Available online from: [Accessed on 30/04/2022].

[xxvi] Ibid.; see also Vella (2020); see also General Workers’ Union Malta, ‘Study: “Challenges that Educators Face”’. Available online from: [Accessed on 30/04/2022].

[xxvii] Chircop, L. (2020) ‘Educators’ Constructions of Maltese Society’. Malta Journal of Education, Vol. 1(1), pp. 57-66.

[xxviii] Ibid., pp. 57, 59, 60 & 67-69.

[xxix] Times of Malta (2019); see also Bonnici.

[xxx] Fenech & Seguna, pp. 29-30, 34-38 & 40-41.

[xxxi] Frendo, F. (2021) ‘Reflections on the Little Rock: Assessing Migrant Inclusion in Maltese Post-Secondary Education’. Malta Journal of Education, Vol. 2(2), pp. 143, 145 & 150-153.

[xxxii] Ibid., pp. 154-155; see also Fenech & Seguna, pp. 40-41, 43-45 & 46.

Cover photo –, Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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