Letters | Sunday, 14 December 2008

Stamping out competition from our educational system

Life is undeniably a competition. Some of it is fair and some of it is utterly unfair. Nevertheless we cannot do without competition. For believers in the afterlife, we are selected on Judgement Day according to the competition we would have endured in life itself.
Having said this, I utterly can’t agree with or understand the ostensibly anti-competition lobby in education. Its educational philosophy has made it a point to exert influence upon the educational policy makers to do away with competition. The first steps were accomplished in phasing out streaming selectivity from our primary schools in the early years. It has been postponed to the last two years of primary schooling, according to pupils’ annual examination attainment. Not satisfied with that they, targeted the 11+ exams which to date offer a practical benchmarking in selecting the prospective Junior Lyceum students from what used to be known as area secondary schools. The networking process currently under way in our educational system tries to come to terms with this past selectivity criterion.
Understandably, a good deal of labelling used to take place and area secondary schools, saw an unfair imbalance of financial and material investment contrary to what was being invested in Junior Lyceums. Area secondary schools were deliberately left to deteriorate. The most demoralized and perhaps less productive teachers were posted in these schools in an apparent attempt at getting them out of the way of mainstream schooling.
Resources at area secondary schools left much to be desired and the buildings themselves rarely saw a facelift or refurbishing exercise. They simply were left to decay to match with the attitude of the students who attended those schools. Now I have taught in both these area secondary schools and in Junior Lyceums. To my mind the majority of students in both cases were in the right place. Nevertheless, you would still have those two dozen students who were definitely not in the right place. In fact some would sit for the annual exams and switch over to the other type of school.
At area secondary school level we even managed to some extent to score some results. A number of students who sat for the 16+ Matsec exams did manage to pass in their exams. I pride myself in having taught some of them and whom I followed to learn more about their achievements at University level. Similarly in Junior Lyceum you would still have the dozen in every Form who had managed to scrape through the 11+ exam but eventually lost interest and their attitude to school would show that they would have preferred to attend one of the Area sec. schools. Most probably it was parental pressure which compelled them to sit for the 11+ examination in the very first place. Parents, on seeing their children’s lack of interest, would stop supporting them and give in to their own kids’ indifference. We teachers all know how parents are visibly present in a child’s schooling experience whilst visibly absent when it comes to secondary schooling. Unfortunately we are increasingly witnessing an alarming disenchantment with schooling among parents of primary school kids and this should be really preoccupying because it reflects a negative attitude upon the type of society we are evolving into.
The acolytes who pontificate that the 11+ exam should be stamped out, with their blunt claim that it is resulting in great pressures and stress upon our schoolchildren, generally have their own kids tucked away in private or church schools. Thus they crusade against the JL/Area secondary school system which has earmarked the educational system of Malta for the past decades. In fact we do already have mixed ability and non-streamed primary schools. This takes place in small primary schools which are compelled not to adopt streaming due to their low intake and enrolment. Teachers in these schools complain, and their complaints should serve as an alarm on whoever is doing his or her utmost to propagate a change from streaming to mixed ability. Just meet up with these teachers and ask how they are faring with the mixed ability experience. To be fair, like many other things, this mixed ability idea has been dumped upon the teachers without the necessary continuous monitoring and support. It might have worked excellently if an assistant teacher were engaged but our educational policymakers would see this as an extra burden on the budget allotted to Education. You see, money is there to be spent on buildings, and not more teachers in employment!
The anti streaming lobbyists say that our educational system is failing 1/3 of our school children who attend government schools. I bet that even with mixed ability you will still end up with 1/3 of students who simply have a negative attitude towards schooling and this is entrenched and passed on to them from their immediate family environment.
May I not be misinterpreted or misunderstood: I am not against social cohesion, for goodness’ sake. I am not asking for second-class schooling and segregation. I am simply appalled by seeing high-flyer students hampered in their achievements consequent to this anti-streaming hysteria. I would opt for subject setting or banding. I would maintain streaming. I would maintain competition, which is healthy. Children should not be deceived into believing that at their coming of age competition would have been obliterated. What happens when he or she goes for an interview or applies for a job? Will these anti-competitivity agents be still around to preach their creed? Don’t we know that at such a late stage there are other factors undermining the fair component of selectivity, namely nepotism and political party allegiance which can do the trick?
I know a chap who ardently used to criticize vociferously our selective style of streaming who ended up by co-setting up a parents’ foundation school whose selective component lies exclusively on whether or not the parents can afford to send their children over there. Should selectivity end up to this? A question of affordability? I am alarmed to see that the Church schools are succumbing to this pressure as well in that they are setting up a feeder school strategy so that they eliminate as well the Common entrance selective examinations. Until now what we had was the lottery gamble plus the common entrance exam. If your kid was not lucky enough to get to a church school through the lottery experience he would still have a chance by sitting for the common entrance examination and it was through his and only his capabilities that he could manage to embark on the Church school experience at Secondary level. What we will be having now is Hobson’s choice. If your son or daughter are not lucky enough (hopefully they will be in love matters) to make it through lottery, they will simply be deprived from another chance as from a couple of years from now. This is utterly unfair and unjust.
The recent cliché rhetorical slogan, “for all our children to succeed”, is nothing more than a gimmick. Phasing out Junior Lyceum examinations undermines the notion of competition. We are already witnessing a nonchalant attitude amongst a significant number of primary school pupils who are running away with the idea that there is no purpose for studying and doing diligently one’s work. Pass or no pass, they will all end up in the same college. The labelling system may have shifted from outside schools to within school periphery. Once they reach the age of secondary schooling, students ARE streamed and segregated, both in subject setting exercises.
We are only deceiving ourselves by not being aware of all this.


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