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NEWS | Sunday, 10 February 2008

Keeping children in school

Labour’s proposals for an additional scholastic year between kindergarten and primary school has met a storm of objections, but few would deny that something needs to be done to improve educational performance. By Matthew Vella

A proposal by Labour to raise the school leaving age to 16, with the introduction of a new reception year – an extra year for kindergarten children to be eased into the flow of primary schooling – has made waves after Education Minister Louis Galea decried the proposal as unnecessary.
Education shadow minister Carmelo Abela claims primary education is in urgent need of attention, which is why Labour feels that kindergarten children need an extra year before being fully streamed into fully-fledged primary education. It’s a proposal which carries various ramifications. But for Labour, Malta’s rock bottom Lisbon standings on education, science and IT, is proof enough of the need to reinforce Malta’s skill base.
Theoretically, raising the school leaving age serves to generate more skilled labour by lengthening the period of students’ education. In countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, some form of part-time education is compulsory even after the age of 16, when school-leavers can start work but must ensure they are receiving some form of education between the ages of 16 and 18.
It’s also a way of reducing unemployment figures, statistically slashing a whole section of school-leavers from the working population.
But education minister Louis Galea has decried the proposal for a reception year as being a repeater year, calling it “another mistake for our children’s education”.
“It will increase a year for all children aged five, whether or not they need to repeat a year, whether they go to state schools, church schools or private independent schools.”
Galea claims the majority of children aged five who have finished kindergarten are normally developed enough to start their primary schooling without difficulty.
“Naturally, there is always a relatively small number of children who, for various reasons, show particular difficulties in catching up. But instead of using our resources properly to provide greater educational support to who needs it the most, Labour’s proposal puts everyone in the same boat, to the detriment of the greater part of the children who will be kept back a year for nothing.”
Carmelo Abela however denies that a reception year would be tantamount to an extra, ‘repetitive’ year: “The main aim is to battle illiteracy and to strengthen children’s basic abilities to be able to keep on learning and be better prepared at a younger age.”
He describes the reception year as a transition from informal, kindergarten education, where schooling is based on play, to the first primary year where formal education starts, including reading and writing.
He has also said the reception year helps children mature more, and will allow students to take their Junior Lyceum 11+ exams when aged 11, and not at the age of 10.
“We know this measures requires great preparation. But we fully believe our proposals will help reduce stress on children when education starts changing for them, and to create a just balance in the interest of children.
“We’re also conscious that this measure requires capital and human resources investment. But we are ready to dedicate all the necessary resources for the benefit of our children’s education. Is there anybody against having more teachers in our country?”
It is true that basic problems of literacy still linger in the Maltese educational system. But the system also remains extremely exams-oriented. Children are separated from an early age for the system to concentrate on achievers. Indeed, the drive for primary schools is exclusively set to get as many children as possible to pass their Junior Lyceum exams. And those who fail, are ultimately consigned to a lower standard of education which effectively taints their life from an early age.
In many ways similar to our own, in 1944 Britain raised the school leaving age to 15, introducing a new streaming exam that earned achieving students a place in the better grammar schools.
Out of the 1944 Education Act came the famous 11+ examination, a system still in force in Malta which determines whether a child would gain entrance to the Junior Lyceum, or else progress to an area secondary school. Across the UK, the system has been phased out. Previously, it would grant children access to a grammar school, secondary modern, or a technical college.
The effects of the 11+, still evident in Malta today, is a discriminatory approach towards learning, being a system which rewards children who learn at a faster rate than others with a place in a lyceum.
Indeed, Prof. Kenneth Wain, university professor in the Faculty of Education, points out that it is the 11+ exam which should be removed.
“I don’t understand why an extra year should be added at the age of five. Certainly, you can do it now already – some children do two years in kindergarten, without having to keep the other achieving children back another year.
“It’s the curriculum for primary education that needs more attention; we need to reduce pressure on children. And it’s about time that government and opposition agree to remove the Junior Lyceum exam. Selectivity and streaming is introduced too early. It’s the exam that must be removed and instead see that the transition from primary to secondary colleges happens smoothly at that age.”
The UK raised its school leaving age to 16 in 1973 – preparations for the changeover had been coming since 1964. A new concept – middle schools – were introduced for children to be kept at primary or junior school for an additional year, a situation apparently similar to introducing a new ‘reception’ year. As Louis Galea himself says, the need to increase a year of schooling brought with it the need for added capital expenditure. In the UK, the solution came with the construction a new building for secondary schools, often referred to as ROSLA blocks (Raising Of School Leaving Age).
Galea has in fact pointed out that adding a reception year will have practical consequences, namely, according to him, the requiring of an additional 220 classrooms more and 220 more teachers. Galea claims there isn’t even enough space to provide the classrooms. He also says the year would require €4.2 million in recurrent expenditure and teachers’ salaries, excluding the necessary capital expenditure. Parents who send their children to private schools will have to pay extra school fees.
But to that, Carmelo Abela says it’s the government which has its priorities wrong. “What I would like to know from Louis Galea is what he has done to generate more primary teachers and more secondary teachers in science and IT. A lack of teachers is a problem that is already with us.
“Primary education has to be tackled, and if education is a priority, we cannot mention finances as a priority. Why not mention the cost overruns incurred by government on schools through the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools, where shoddy work from private contractors had to be patched up by government workers? Why not mention cost overruns on roads projects? The government has to choose.”


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