Evarist Bartolo | Sunday, 08 March 2009

Let’s stop half our children drowning

It is terrible to hear that a tragic accident happened on a school outing and one child died. The media follow such stories avidly. Every June thousands of our children completing their primary education also pass through a tragedy when they move on to secondary school without acquiring the necessary competences to succeed in secondary education. But this tragedy goes largely unreported. These ‘drowned’ children are sometimes brought up in the net of statistics related to crime and unemployment.
In recent days there was some media focus on the figures compiled by our own National Statistics Office that more than 75% of our population over the age of 15 are considered to have low qualifications. This figure is an indictment of our 60-year-old education system that was introduced to reach every child in Malta and Gozo.
These tragic figures of failure come as no surprise to those who follow the performance of our children and young people in primary and secondary education. Only half of our children who complete their primary education pass the Junior Lyceum examination, so far the only benchmark for successful students. Removing that benchmark without educating our children better will only serve to have these children drown invisibly.
Only 40% of those who finish their secondary education manage to get Grades 1 to 5 in the Secondary Education Certificate (SEC) examination, so far the only good basis on which to proceed successfully to a post-secondary education.
Those who get lower or no grades at all in SEC can start a foundation course at the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST) and too many of them drop out after a while. Out of those who join a University course, only 20% of them study in the area of science, technology, mathematics and engineering which are considered indispensable for the modern economy of the 21st century.
Government shows no urgency to tackle educational failure. Its priority seems to be to provide statistics to the EU institutions to show that we are moving fast in the right direction.
For many years now we have been saying how we need to have more children acquire a good grasp of the English language that is indispensable for educational success in a country where practically all the subjects and text books are in English. In May 2007 the SEC examiners stated in the report about the English Language: “After correcting around 6,000 scripts, the examiners feel that the use of accurate and fluent English leaves much to be desired at this level. Improving the level of written and spoken English is a must.
“Teaching methods which revolve around the manipulation of the mechanical aspects of grammar need to be replaced by methods that expose the candidates to the language rather than just making them learn about the language. Moreover, all language skills need to be given their due. Recommendations made in previous Examiners’ reports about a national impetus to revisit teaching methods and scrutinize practices still hold.”
The same recommendations are made, year in, year out, but no action plan is implemented to address the shortcomings.
The only way to have a more skilled workforce and citizens equipped to live in today’s world is to improve dramatically the education of our children and young people.
In primary education we need new syllabi, new educational resources and more support and continuous professional development for teachers. We need to put educators at the centre of our policymaking as only they can make our children succeed, provided that we give them the resources they need. It is not fair to evaluate the teachers’ work through quality assurance if a similar audit is not carried out on the Ministry of Education and its administrative structures to check whether teachers are being put in the conditions to do a good job.
We also need to introduce science education in our primary schools as one of the core areas where children must acquire competences that are indispensable in the 21st century. It is simply not acceptable that even in the changes proposed by government for primary education, science features nowhere. The world outside school is changing faster than the world inside schools. The wider the gap between the two worlds, the higher the rate of failure because children feel as if they are travelling back in time when they go to school, which is supposed to prepare them for tomorrow.
We need to re-invent our schools through e-learning if we want them to become relevant for our children. During last year’s election campaign the prime minister and his ministers visited schools to take photos with children using personal digital assistants and talked a lot about e-learning but once the media event passed, all was but forgotten.
In his budget speech for 2008 the prime minister promised that by the end of 2008 government would change all the computers in all the schools, install more computers, projectors and interactive whiteboards, provide websites with educational material that can be accessed by children at school and at home, provide similar resources to teachers and train them. It was also going to become possible for the parents to follow through the internet the performance of 57,000 children in primary and secondary schools. 2008 has passed and most of these important targets have not been met and the Ministry of Communications and the Ministry of Education are still trying to put together an e-learning strategy, with the education authorities still not knowing what budget they are going to have.
We need more children to succeed in our schools. The present rate of failure is unacceptable and threatens not only our economic viability but also the foundations of a democratic and fair society. Even those who are succeeding need to succeed better. In her poem ‘His name is today’, the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, herself a teacher says: “We are guilty of many errors and many faults, but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the fountain of life. Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot. Right now is the time, his bones are being formed, his blood is being made, and his senses are being developed. To him we cannot answer ‘Tomorrow,’ his name is today.”


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