Opening doors to education and employment

SEC exams are a door to the future – if this is closed, then students face problems in further education and their chances of employment.

Over 6,000 hours were wasted last year in assessing students before their O-Level examinations, when these students had been assessed a number of times during their scholastic years. This week we launched a consultation document on identifying challenges and ways forward with regard to access arrangements for exams in Malta. Students with intellectual impairments and other conditions should be offered the support services they need by school psychological services. This is a "tragedy that needs to be addressed".

Assessments take place by the School Psychological Services and a minimum of 10 hours is dedicated in assessing each student. Moreover, 95% of the students assessed are granted the assistance they seek to help them when sitting for examinations, which makes the whole exercise futile. The School Psychological Services deal with such assessments between September and January, when the unit should be helping out with psychological difficulties in schools.

There were 644 'special arrangements' applications for SEC examinations held this year, and the number of those who requested these rose from 222 in 2006. The ministry plans to engage in discussions mostly with the University of Malta and its structures to eliminate this process, which is wasting major resources and creating a lot of inconvenience.

SEC exams are a door to the future - if this is closed, then students face problems in further education and their chances of employment. The number of people in the 16 to 24 age bracket who are neither in education, nor in employment or training (NEETS), amounts to 5,634 from a total population in the same age bracket, of 50,774. Of those in the NEETS category, 534 people have a disability.

Meanwhile the figure of 5,634 only includes individuals who are registering for employment with the Employment and Training Corporation. Consequently, the probability is that the reality is worse than what figures show and some people do not even bother to register for employment.

The ETC criteria of what constitutes a disability are not clear. They do not include particular learning difficulties and conditions such as dyslexia for instance... so again, it is not clear what statistics actually mean.

The crucial point is that some students have disabilities and conditions that are hindering them when sitting for exams. The system therefore needs to be fine tuned to cater for them. There are several ways how this could be done but the idea is to give them the necessary assistance so that they can show their knowledge in exams. If these are taken orally rather than written, their certificate can then note that the exam was taken orally.

The report recommended that the criteria of the MATSEC Access Disability Support Committee are to be revised and widened. As an example, the type, font and the paper used for examinations may be changed to help dyslexic students. We are still operating a 'medieval' system and must start allowing the use of computers in our examinations systems.

Another suggestion is that non-Language exam papers should be both in Maltese and English because people who have Asperger's Syndrome and Autism would only be able to learn one language. Yet their creativity and talents are very useful and certain companies employ people with such 'disorders' due to their particular qualities.

The fact that MATSEC does not allow giving students particular assistance means that certain schools do not provide the assistance from Form 3 onwards. We have a very rigid system and consequently some students leave school with no qualifications at all.

The ministry plans to wrap up the consultation phase by the end of the year, following which a policy document outlining short-, medium- and long-term goals, which include the setting up of a National Examinations Agency, will be published.

Evarist Bartolo is Minister for Education