Fighting illiteracy and absenteeism

A 2012 international report on Progress in International Reading Literacy Study analysed trends in reading achievement among children as well as understanding and using correctly what is read.

There is absolutely no doubt that the standard of English of our students at post-secondary level is very poor. Really and truly, not enough is being done to address the problem, when students don’t seem to care about learning a second language.

An international report on Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (December, 2012) analysed trends in reading achievement among children as well as understanding and using correctly what is read. The distress signal three years ago was that Malta classified 38th out of the 49 countries which participated in this study.

If students finish compulsory schooling with a very poor level of English, the result will be that they will struggle to cope at the post-secondary level and the chance of their finishing up as dropouts is likely to be very high. As a small country at the periphery of Europe, we cannot afford to isolate ourselves by having students unable to write in a foreign language, particularly when writing essays and answering source questions. 

The Ministry of Education budget is a considerable drain on the island, given that we are probably the only EU country that not only provide free education up to tertiary level but also pay monthly stipends to post-secondary students. Such stipends are not refundable to the State. Still, it is a mystery why, after millions are invested in free education, many such students finish up as drop-outs because they quickly realise a handicap – i.e., their defective language skills at the post-secondary level. 

The problems are deep rooted and there seem to be no quick fixes. Yet getting our education system to function well must be a top priority for the government, which has recently inherited the system after a long period sitting in the opposition benches. 

Let us now reflect on the demographics where we observe how Malta’s educational north-south divide has been confirmed by the 2011 census which revealed glaring contrasts between towns like Swieqi, where 30% of its population achieved a tertiary level of education, and by sheer contrast a town in the south like Marsa, where just 3% has a tertiary level of education. It is not impressive to read that overall only 14% have completed a tertiary level of education in 2011. 

It appears that the incidence of illiteracy is more prevalent in southern inner harbour towns where for example only 3% of Marsa’s population and 4% of Bormla received a university level of education. It is a shame that after millions of euro have been allocated since Independence to train our workforce, the 2011 census confirms a dysfunctional system that fails 507 youths without being able to write and read. 

The survey reveals that 1,256 persons aged between 10 to 19 do not know any English while 2,105 only know a little English-this totals 7 % in this age cohort. More bad news comes out of the census as it reveals that 18% of people aged between 15 and 19 have no educational qualifications while 14% left school with just a secondary school leaving certificate. At the dawn of the new millennium we sport 1,497 illiterates under the age of 30 and 12,872 persons over 60 are illiterate.

A lot has been written by parents on the poor quality of schooling at secondary level where because of this students are stressed attending expensive private tuition to improve their chances of passing O levels (particularly in science, ICT, and English subjects). So is there a solution in sight? Nearly three-quarters of teachers acclaim in unison that a solution lies in reducing class sizes (hence the need to keep on building more schools). 

This is certainly one of their top three priorities. But on the other hand, does the problem lie in teacher’s own modest educational standards – some may well ask – are they being given sabbaticals to update themselves and indulge in continuing education facilities? Perhaps the solution is to increase school attendance schedule which some contend is too short, being reduced by exams and staff holidays. 

Without any doubt, a higher quality teacher cohort is a crucial factor to improve the value of teaching now with the growth of digital aids in class rooms (such as tablets, interactive digital whiteboards and handhelds) – this may also pose a challenge for older teachers suffering from digital divide. 

There are also a number of barriers to entry to the teaching profession. These include rising standards which may dissuade youths from entering the profession and in particular stiff employment conditions may not be comparable to other civil service grades. Teaching is said to be one of the most stressful and poorly paid of local professions (unless supplemented by extra income from private tuition). 

One reads in the newspapers about teachers complaining of bad, abusive or violent behaviour towards them from pupils and, increasingly, from their parents. Others are envious of the relative good working conditions enjoyed in Malta – a teacher’s working day is relatively short compared to workers in manufacturing or office workers - these do not get so many school holidays. Students attend school for 170 days in a year, the shortest school year in Europe yet Malta Union of Teachers (MUT) is vehemently against any shortening of the summer holidays or the extension of school hours. 

Something has to give. Can we tolerate the poor performance of student population, particularly those hailing from the South? Checking the statistics shown in the 2011 census – this gives a depressing state of affairs, particularly in the harbour area. But considering tertiary education is free for all and generous stipends are paid over a number of years, why is the intake so poor from this region? 

The paradox remains that although stipends assist students from poor families, students from affluent middle class localities still dominate and excel in marks. Quoting published statistics one reads how a mere 0.4% of graduates in 2010 hailed from the three cities of Birgu, Bormla and Isla, which account for 2.8% of the population. Equally puzzling is the fact that nearly one in every ten graduates hail from villages (Attard, Lija and Balzan) which together account for just 4.3% of the population. 

Primary schools in the harbour area registered the highest rates of absenteeism in 2008. Typically, the Valletta primary school reported the highest rate of unauthorised absenteeism. It comes as a surprise that notwithstanding building of new modern schools in the Cottonera, one finds that Bormla and Isla, are among the top five schools saddled the highest rates of absenteeism. How can one explain that schools enjoying the lowest rates of unauthorised absenteeism are located in north? The sad conclusion is that the current school system is failing a large number of our children.

Cynics blame past attempts to move away from the problems with the comprehensive school model in the 1980’s saying this experiment led to a multiplicity of school-types with varying philosophies driving them which are confusing, resulting in an inefficient use of scarce resources in their quest to eradicate the high rate of illiteracy in our society.

Critics say that unless seriously reformed the system is disunited, lacking a coherent central philosophy, and devoid of any genuinely radical or new initiatives. How can one justify that only a third of boys who finished their obligatory education in 2008 continued their studies after fifth form. Quoting psychologist Victor Martinelli saying, “There is a culture of private lessons where even students who do reasonably well at school attend private lessons.”

It goes without saying that over-burdened syllabi, over-zealous teachers, and excessively competitive parents all share part of the blame for the stress considering how much students are made to endure. The government however has no intention of increasing the number of school days or extending school hours, and the Malta Union of Teachers has also rejected the idea.

In conclusion, an island with no resources except for its human cohort needs to warn its politicians and educators that in the past, they wasted too much time discussing and prescribing palliatives. Time is pressing as fighting this illiteracy bug calls for major surgery.