A brave but delicate proposal

The Education Ministry now wants to move away from having schools in Malta being “exam and test factories”. But its proposed alternatives have not been made clear as yet.

While proposing changes to the examination process in Maltese schools, Education Minister Evarist Bartolo said that: “Education is based on three principles: How you teach, what you teach and how you measure that teaching.”

The first two have long been recognised, and attempts to address them have been made before. Certainly, the curriculum and pedagogy methods have advanced considerably, under preceding Nationalist administrations as well as the present government.

None of these reforms was easy, because education is by definition a sensitive topic. Parents and teachers alike have been known to resist radical changes to the educational system: as evidenced by the recent controversies surrounding sex education and social acclimatisation.

Moreover, past reforms have occasionally been problematic: the overnight introduction of Systems of Knowledge in the late 1980s – while arguably commendable – came about at a time when schools were understaffed and unprepared for the challenge.

The same could be said for the brief (and highly controversial) introduction of Arabic as a compulsory subject some years earlier.

Nonetheless, there is broad consensus that the education landscape in Malta has changed largely for the better since then… even if the third principle has remained largely unaddressed. 

The Education Ministry now wants to move away from having schools in Malta being “exam and test factories”. But its proposed alternatives have not been made clear as yet.

The report states that although the benchmark serves an important role at the end of the primary cycle, it should be phased out anyway: not least because its purpose of serving as a national standard is seriously undermined with the observed trends of increasingly more schools – mainly from the Church and independent sectors – dropping out altogether; as well as by the number of Maltese students and the increasing number of migrant students who are exempted from one or more of the benchmark components.

The rationale behind this decision is that it makes more educational sense to replace the benchmark with either an informal college-based or national assessment, possibly including an exam. 

Surely, the removal of the benchmark exam for Maltese students is a brave step; albeit a delicate one that necessitates the greatest form of consensus.

But this also means setting standards and an ongoing form of rigorous monitoring of students to ensure their entailment is secured. That, in itself, will require a greater input from teachers to carry out continuous assessment of students – and therefore a greater workload – that will lower the weighting of any exam, thus reducing the memory-work usually required of students.

The scheduling of exam times is also being reviewed, with the report stating that students should be given more time to prepare themselves from one subject to another, while reducing unnecessary anxiety. 

These are, however, changes that might be met with resistance. Students, whose lives have been marked by continuous testing, half-yearly and annual exams from the age of six right up to the crucial O-levels, may question whether the removal of examinations that serve to discipline memorisation and studious application in children, could produce a generation of lazier minds. 

Supporters may counter-argue that the rigid culture of examinations, in this case the benchmark exam, is just another contributor to anxiety, stress and class barriers: punishing students who do not have supportive family environments that prize academia or educational attainment.

For this reason, much thought and proper planning must go into the creation of a fairer system of educational assessment: that achieves comparable results with lower stress levels for students, and without placing undue pressure on teachers and schools.

Much could be learnt from the experience of other countries which have undertaken similar reforms.

The Finnish model, for instance, may be worth studying in detail. In Finland, the curriculum is far less ‘academic’, and students do the least number of class hours per week in the developed world. Yet they still get the best results in the long term, without sitting for any mandatory exams until the age of 17-19. 

Teacher-based assessments are used by schools to monitor progress, and these are not graded, scored or compared; instead they are descriptive and utilised in a formative manner to inform feedback and assessment for learning.

Outdoor, practical learning opportunities and health-related physical activity sessions are a regular feature in the curriculum: helping to maintain a healthy body and mind.

Finnish schools also receive full autonomy, with head teachers and teachers experiencing considerable independence when developing and delivering their own individual curricula, suited to their setting. 

It is hard to believe that this great degree of pedagogical freedom could be possible in Malta, unless the culture of examinations can be first reformed, radically, as the education ministry hopes for.

But teachers have to be listened to as well, and they must be included in a wide stakeholders discussion. One cannot achieve the best possible standards to prepare our children for the world of work, without the input and co-operation of educators.

To avoid repeating mistakes of the past, the Education Ministry must also avoid compulsory impositions which are every bit as stressful as the system it is trying to replace.

In a word, it must lead by inspiration. 

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