Facing problems, not hiding them

The lack of coordinated action to spread functional literacy in our society has left Malta with 36% illiteracy

In the coming weeks, the Ministry of Education will be finally releasing publicly the reports on The Trends in Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS) and the Progress in International Reading Survey (PIRLS) reports published on 11 December 2012.

The reports will be discussed openly and throughout the country with teachers and parents.

Last December I said that the decision taken by the ministry not to release for public discussion reports like TIMSS 2011 and PIRLS 2011 goes against the reason for participating in these studies.

In the PIRLS report in 49 countries surveyed for the literacy skills of 10-year-olds, Malta has placed in 38th place, 11 from the bottom. With 477 marks, Malta is ranked below the average of all the countries surveyed. Malta is ranked with another bottom 11 countries including Trinidad and Tobago, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Azerbaijan and Morocco.

The top five countries - with marks ranging from 571 to 558 -are Hong Kong, Russia, Finland, Singapore and Northern Ireland.

Children from Hong Kong fared best, with a classification of 571 points and 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.

The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) holds these studies to "improve policy and decision making about children's future education".

IEA says that "comparing education systems in terms of their organisation, curricula, and instructional practices in relation to their corresponding student achievement provides information crucial for effective education policy-making".

Last year, the EU expert group on literacy also published a report on Malta that showed that Maltese boys are the lowest achievers in the EU. The high-level group's report highlighted a significant gender gap, with 13.3% of low achievers among girls compared with 26.6% for boys. The gender gap is smallest in the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium, and highest in Malta, Bulgaria and Lithuania.

According to the EU expert group "literacy is a 'big deal' because good literacy skills are essential for improving people's lives, and for promoting knowledge, innovation and growth. The group concludes that changes in the nature of work, the economy and society more generally mean that literacy is more important than ever in today's world and that Europe should therefore aim for 100% functional literacy among all its citizens.

The report of EU experts highlights the importance of literacy:

  • The labour market requires ever higher literacy skills (by 2020, it is estimated that 35% of all jobs will require high-level qualifications compared to 29% today);
  • Social and civic participation are more literacy-dependent in the digital world;
  • The population is ageing and their literacy skills, including digital literacy skills, need updating;
  • Poverty and low literacy are locked in a vicious circle, each fuelling the other;
  • Growing mobility and migration are making literacy more and more multilingual, combining a wide range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

In the coming weeks we will start taking the steps to put literacy right at the top of our national agenda. We will set up a literacy unit to create, plan and coordinate the implementation of a national strategy to tackle the problem of functional illiteracy in Malta.

The lack of consistent and coordinated action to spread functional literacy in our society has had the result of placing Malta at the 25th position out of the 27 EU States, with an illiteracy rate of 36% among young people in Malta. Only Romania and Bulgaria have a higher percentage of illiterate youths.

The EU experts' report analyses each Member State's problems and also provides recommendations for schools and society in general. The report also highlights the actions that governments should take on a national level, as well as recommendations for implementation by entrepreneurs. 

The high-level group report on literacy has been described as a 'wake-up call' for Member States to address the literacy crisis. We will finally start taking the necessary measures to respond adequately to this call. We want to start facing problems and try to solve them, not hide them.

Evarist Bartolo is the Minister for Education


he needs to tackle 1st year junior college regarding maths.there is a big problem.my son teacher when she comes cos mostly is out or sick gives them test straight away or 4 pages full of exercises and they have to do them through notes.i don't think this is a way how to teach these students.
What about TIMSS? How did we fare?