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NEWS | Sunday, 10 February 2008

Labour’s educational policy: nothing cast in stone

James Debono

Despite its intention to introduce an extra reception year between kindergarten and primary level, Labour has not yet decided whether the school leaving age should rise from 16 to 17. Neither would Labour commit itself to remove the distinction between area secondary and junior lyceums, something which is already taking place in the newly set up colleges.
Labour would retain the 11-plus examination but would give more weighting to continuous assessments in evaluating every student’s performance.
Despite his conciliatory disposition, the soft-spoken Carmelo Abela was the first Labour shadow Minister engaged in heavy electoral combat with his Ministerial counterpart over Labour’s proposal to introduce a new class between kindergarten and primary level.
Education Minister Louis Galea has rubbished Labour’s proposal as a “repeater class.” Abela insists that Labour’s idea is simply a way of smoothing the transition between kindergartens and primary schools.
In this way Labour would ensure that no student would enter secondary schooling lacking basic skills like literacy and numeracy. By addressing these problems at their onset, Labour plans to reach the targets set by the Lisbon agenda which still show Malta at the bottom end of the chart when it comes to the number of students continuing their post secondary education.
Abela is surprised that this polemic exploded just a few days before the election when Labour had been proposing an extra year between kindergarten and primary school since 2005.
He is also disappointed that a proposal which was already discussed by stakeholders in 2000 during discussions on the new curriculum has now been shot down in a climate of electoral campaigns.
“It’s all about addressing the gap between informal education at the kindergarten level-where children are expected to learn through play – and Year 1 when children commence their formal education.”
Abela insists that this transition poses problems for children.
“Teachers at the primary level complain that some children do not even know how to hold a pencil when they start their formal education at Year 1.”
But he insists that Labour is not re-inventing the wheel.
“This class exists in different countries among others the UK, Finland, Sweden and Denmark, which are among the top performers in the EU with regard to education. By having a reception class or a foundation year these countries are getting far better results.”
Abela cites studies showing the introduction of a reception class has notably improved the performance of students.
By attending this reception class students will not be repeating anything.
“The curriculum in a reception class is different from that offered in kindergartens and is also different from that offered in Year 1. One can call it anything, but not a repeater class.”
According to the Education Minister the measure Labour is proposing would mean an increase of another 250 classes with at least 250 additional teachers. Galea asked whether Labour would resort to unqualified supply teachers to implement its measures.
“Is the caretaker Minister against the recruitment of more teachers?” Abela counters.
Abela insists that the proposal cannot be taken in isolation from other Labour proposals which included a university course for kindergarten assistants, a proposal taken up by the collective agreement signed by the government with the MUT.
“According to the agreement, kindergarten assistants will be required to have a diploma by 2010. In this way kindergarten assistants will become kindergarten educators.”
MUT President John Bencini said the majority of children were ready for primary school after kindergarten and there was no need to add another year.
But Abela insists that Labour had discussed its proposal with the teacher’s union during a meeting held in June 2006.
“On that occasion they told us that they wanted to discuss and study the proposal in more detail. They did not shoot it down.”
Abela expresses respect for Bencini’s position adding that Labour will only implement its proposal “after serious discussion with all stakeholders,” adding that “nothing is cast in stone”.
Neither has the MLP taken a decision on whether to raise the school leaving age from 16 to 17.
“In our final plan we do not refer to the school leaving age. After discussing with stakeholders we decided that we should not commit ourselves on this. We are not committed to increase the school leaving age to 17.”
Abela hints that Labour could consider various options like a lower age when children start kindergarten.
“We are looking at the development of child care centres. Children can enter kindergartens at the age of two and a half.”
Since young people are allowed to work at 16 raising the school age to 17 could delay their entry in the labour market.
But Abela insists that there is no relationship between the MLP’s reception class proposal and the age upon which people enter the labour market.
“This is not aimed to delay entry in the labour market. Are we saying that countries where education is obligatory till 18 are doing so for this purpose?”
But Abela finally acknowledges that it does not make sense in this present age for young people to leave school to start working at 16.
“If they leave school at 16, especially if they do so without acquiring the necessary skills, what kind of job will they find? They cannot even find jobs in factories where it is illegal to employ 16- to 18-year-olds in shifts due to EU directives.”
Carmelo Abela would like to make a radical difference in the life of young children through Labour’s educational reforms.
“We want to change the whole concept of education. We want to give childhood back to children. They spend too much time on homework and private lessons and very little time on play. Even absenteeism is a reaction against this kind of schooling. We are killing their creativity in the name of the examination rat race.”
But is this not all this pressure the result of the competitive 11-plus exam, aimed at streaming students in to junior lyceums?
Although Abela is all in favour of giving less weight to this examination he would not go all the way to propose its abolition.
“We want a system which retains this exam but gives weight to continuous, formative and summative assessments. The work done by students during the year should be given due importance. In this way a student who is unwell on the day of the exam will still have a chance. We need to find a balance between the exam and the work done through the year.”
Abela complains that a report commissioned by Minister Louis Galea two years ago on reforming the junior lyceum exam still lies idle on his desk.
Yet Abela is once again evasive on whether his party favours the selective system which puts those who pass the 11-plus exam in junior lyceums and those who fail in Area Secondaries.
He even accuses the government of using educational colleges as a smokescreen for “going back to the Labour party’s policy in the 1970s to introduce comprehensive schools”: a reference to unpopular measures introduced by former Education Minister Agatha Barbara which removed streaming and examinations in government schools without any consultation with teachers and stakeholders.
“The government is doing away with the meaning of the junior lyceum exam in a hidden way. This is unfair. Through the introduction of colleges we have secondary schools which are neither called junior lyceums nor secondary schools. This is taking place at St Benedict and the new Qormi school. Students are entering these schools irrespective of whether they pass the exam or not.”
But does the MLP agree with the more egalitarian comprehensives or does it favour the selective junior lyceum system?
“Educational experts do not agree on this. Some favour a selective system while others favour comprehensives. Others favour the introduction of both systems giving parents a right to choose. For us this is not a major issue. The most important thing for us is to ensure that every child is given the necessary support and education.”
But Abela insists that he has nothing against the introduction of educational colleges.
“Our priority is that these colleges should bring about a substantial improvement in educational content. We also said that colleges should not bring about more bureaucracy as is happening now. We already have two national directorates in the Educational division instead of one. Some head of schools have been rendered redundant.”
Alfred Sant himself was ambivalent on educational colleges accusing the Education Minister of constantly referring to San Benedittu while doing little to get practical results in education.
Carmelo Abela describes Sant’s comments as “cheeky.”
“Alfred Sant’s was simply saying that the government is focusing on structures and buildings… while ignoring deeper problems.”
But what will Abela say to reassure parents who are getting used to colleges and would not like to see any tremors in the educational system with the change in government?
“People do ask me on my stand on this issue during home visits. Many people associate the idea of colleges with an improved school environment. Obviously we are all for improvements in the school environment. We were the party which first spoke on this need in the 1990s. Schools are children’s second home. But our priority is educational content.”
Apart from his ambivalence on streaming, Abela also defies traditional leftist thinking on education by supporting tax cuts for those sending children to private schools.
“Don’t these children have a right for a good education too?” asks Abela.
Carmelo Abela sees nothing out of the ordinary with a secular party favours the funding of confessional schools instead of investing all its monies in its own schools.
“Malta is unique in having more than one thirds of children attending church and independent schools. On this issue we will honour the Church State agreement.”
Another MLP proposal is to build a new junior college in the north of Malta.
“The Junior College at Msida was intended to cater for 1,200 students. Now there are 3,000 students. If we intend to increase the number of students continuing a post secondary education we need a new building. It does not make sense to have 100 students in a class as happens now.”
Abela also favours the re-introduction of technical education in secondary schools.
Yet in doing so Abela frankly says that the curriculum offered to those opting for technical subjects should be different from that offered to students with an academic orientation.
“Students who out of their free will, feel more inclined towards technical and vocational should be given the opportunity to learn the basic academic subjects while focusing on technical and vocational training. In this way they will have fewer subjects than students following an academic line.”
Abela disagrees with the government’s policy of restricting technical education to the tertiary level at MCAST.
“Our aim is that students choosing a vocational education at secondary level will specialise at MCAST. MCAST should finally issue degrees to these students. On this we agree with the government. We both want MCAST to become the university of technical education.”
Abela makes it clear that Labour does not want to resurrect the old trade schools.
“The closure of trade schools left a gap in the secondary level. That is why many students are being lost in the way simply because they do not have an inkling for academic subjects. The mistake was closing trade schools without creating an alternative. MCAST is not an alternative to trade schools, as it starts after the age of 16.”
Carmelo Abela’s first priority as Minister will be that nobody falls by the wayside and that everyone ends schooling with the necessary skills. But will he be able to reach this through a selective system or through an inclusive system? We will only know that if he becomes Minister.


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