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History & Background

The Republic of Malta is a small island nation in the Mediterranean Sea, approximately 97 kilometers (60 miles) south of Sicily. It consists of the islands of Malta, Gozo, and Comino and two small uninhabited islands, Cominotto and Filfla. Malta occupies 316 square kilometers (122 square miles). The main island of Malta is 246 square kilometers (95 square miles). In 2000 the population was estimated at 391,670, making the country one of the most densely populated nations in the world. The inhabitants speak Maltese and English, both of which are official languages. The population is 98 percent Roman Catholic. The literacy rate is approximately 88 percent. Principal industries include shipping, construction, and tourism.

Malta's strategic location and natural harbors have made it an important military objective for nations seeking to control the Mediterranean. In 1814 Malta became a British crown colony. During WWII the British used Malta as a base of operations to attack convoys carrying supplies to Axis forces in North Africa. The Germans and Italians subjected the island to relentless bombing. In recognition, King George VI awarded the George Cross "to the island fortress of Malta—its people and defenders."

After the war, Malta was granted increasing degrees of independence on local matters but remained a British colony and became a NATO base. In 1964 Malta obtained its independence, becoming a constitutional monarchy with Queen Elizabeth as the head of state, represented by a governor general. In 1974, it became a republic, severing allegiance to Britain. Traditionally allied with Western Europe, Malta proclaimed itself nonaligned after the socialist Labor Party won elections in 1971. The Labor prime minister, Dom Mintoff, distanced Malta from Britain and the West, refusing to allow NATO to renew base leases and actively courting the Soviet Union. Malta broke defense ties with Britain and granted Soviet ships use of refueling facilities built by NATO. Mintoff opposed the Roman Catholic Church, a traditionally powerful institution on the islands. His policies to restrict its role, especially in education, were highly controversial.

In 1987 the Nationalist Party assumed power and reversed many of Mintoff's socialist policies, resuming ties with Britain and other NATO countries. With the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe, Malta has sought to integrate itself into the European Union.

The educational system in Malta was founded on British models and greatly influenced by the Roman Catholic Church. Since independence the educational system has undergone substantial and often contradictory changes. The philosophy guiding education has reflected the conflicting views of the rival Nationalist and Labor parties.

In the 1970s the Labor Party imposed a socialist vision of education. The British system of testing and tracking students was denounced as hierarchical and discriminatory. Public schools were reorganized and competency testing largely abandoned to promote equality. Desiring to rid Malta of what he called "elitism," Mintoff sought to eliminate private and church education. In 1984 the government closed eight leading Catholic academies, replacing them with four state-operated institutions. Later that year, Mintoff announced that private schools would no longer be allowed to charge tuition and banned the archbishop from visiting public schools. Graduates of state schools were given preference in admission to higher education, and government grants to church schools were eliminated. Mintoff's attack on Catholic schools, which enrolled 25 percent of high school students, angered parents, church officials, and political opponents.

Labor policies reorganized higher education, stressing vocational rather than academic courses. Departments in liberal arts and sciences were disbanded. The polytechnic was merged into the prestigious University of Malta. Seeking to link higher education with employment, a compulsory student-worker program was introduced in 1978. College students were required to work six months a year and study six months a year. Admissions to higher education were determined by the availability of employment rather than academic achievement. These policies and the government's increasing press censorship led to an exodus of educators and intellectuals.

In 1987 the Nationalist Party was elected to power and reversed many educational policies, reintroducing the British use of competency testing and tracking. Private schools were allowed greater freedom, though the government monitored standards, course content, and credentials. The work study programs were dismantled, so that entrance to higher education was based solely on academic achievement. Subsequent Labor governments have modified but not reversed these reforms, having renounced Mintoff's highly ideological approach to education.

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