Reading survey: Malta deserves better

Our teachers and head teachers are suffering from reform fatigue

An international report on Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, published on Tuesday, is a worrying statistic that confirms the deficiencies in Malta's education system. This study is an analysis of trends in reading achievement among children in 49 countries, as well as understanding and using correctly what is read.

Malta has been classified at the 38th place out of the 49 countries which participated in this study. It is part of the bottom 12 countries which includes Trinidad and Tobago, Azerbaijan, Iran, Columbia, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Qatar, Oman and Morocco. 

Children from Hong Kong fared best with a classification of 571 points, with Russia, Finland, Singapore and Northern Ireland following closely with 568 and 567 points. Malta was awarded 477 points with Iran (457 points), Saudi Arabia (430 points) and Morocco (310 points) faring worse than Malta among the bottom 12 countries that took part in this survey. 

Money is not the only crucial factor in bettering education since Poland, which spends less than the Maltese on education, was classified in a higher position with 526 points,  whereas Saudi Arabia where the funds spent on education are considerably higher than in Malta, fared worse with 430 points.

The PIRLS Report describes the educational contexts for reading and students' attitude towards reading but it also includes a study on the way schools are run, teachers' education and training, classroom resources and family perception regarding reading. This is an important report that should be analysed and discussed with all those involved in the teaching profession as well as with parents to encourage an educational experience that will give Malta and Gozo a better rate of success among our children.

The report also shows that girls had a 23-point advantage over boys. Children who had a good knowledge of English before starting school (45%) obtained 513 points, fared better than those who did not (55%) who were given 477 points. Bullying was also mentioned in the study and this concern was among the highest with Maltese students. 36% of students reported bullying at least once a month and 22% once a week. 

The report shows that the expectations and support of parents are crucial to the success of our children. In Malta and Gozo, only 13% of parents expect their children to further their education by obtaining a post graduate degree. In Singapore (47%) and Finland (26%) the expectations are far higher. Statistics show that those students in whose school there is a library with over 5,000 books fared far better. Those without a library lagged behind all other students in reading.

The conclusions of this report provide clear guidelines for a better education for our children. It is evident that there has to be all-round cooperation between all those in the educational sphere and that this should be achieved through teamwork, not through imposition. Local authorities should heed this advice and should not be afraid to put up for discussion those reports that demonstrate illiteracy problems in the Maltese islands.

We should ensure adequate resources, at school and at home, to help those that fall behind in reading and writing. The reduction of 43% - equivalent to €700,000 - in the Budget 2013 on Educational initiatives for children regarding illiteracy, dyslexia and other disabilities, science education, educational equipment and afternoon schools does not make sense. 

The main conclusions of PIRLS 2011 report are:

-           Supportive home environment and early start crucial in developing children's reading achievement

-           Successful schools tend to be well-resourced

-           Successful schools emphasise academic success and have safe and orderly environments

-           Teacher education and career satisfaction related to higher reading achievement

-           Students with positive attitudes toward reading have higher achievement

-           Engaging instruction related to higher reading achievement

-           Instruction affected by students lacking in basic nutrition and sleep.

We need to take stock of our situation. Too many changes have been introduced rapidly, haphazardly and without any coordination in our education system. We need to calm down. Our teachers and head teachers are suffering from reform fatigue. The Ministry, Directorates and the College Principals should be there to serve and support what teachers and their heads are doing in schools, not to boss them around. 

Evarist Bartolo is shadow minister for education