Maltese pupils slip further down in PIRLS global reading study

The 2016 PIRLS report on Year 5 student literacy places Malta in 40th place out of 50 participating countries, as the very worst performing among European countries

Education Minister Evarist Bartolo
Education Minister Evarist Bartolo

The Ministry of Education failed to publicly announce the findings of a national report on literacy rates published this week, which revealed that Maltese students fared significantly worse in 2016 when compared to 2011.

The report placed Malta in 40th place out of 50 participating countries, as the very worst performing among European countries.

The Progress in International Reading Study (PIRLS) 2016 report showed that the reading score of students in the Maltese language – 452 – was lower than 2011’s score of 457.

In 2011, the test was administered to 10-year-olds in Maltese as a benchmark exercise but the main test was administered in English reading, resulting in a score of 477. In 2016, the main test was administered in Maltese only.

Malta remained under the international average score of 500.

The reading attainment of Maltese students was comparable to students from United Arab Emirates but was higher than only nine countries: Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Oman, Kuwait, Morocco, Egypt, and South Africa.

The PIRLS report is a comparative study of the reading attainment of ten-year-olds, conducted under the auspices of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA).

When asked why the findings were not publicly announced, the ministry failed to respond.

But asked to comment about the findings themselves, a spokesperson for minister Evarist Bartolo explained that the study does not take bilingualism into consideration, and does not account for the fact that small countries have relatively smaller numbers. 

“The current PIRLS mechanism does not recognise the current bilingual situation in Malta where children in the different school sectors have Maltese or English as their first language, and the situation of small countries where the relatively small student numbers do not allow big data statistical analyses. In fact, two other small EU countries Estonia and Cyprus did not participate in PIRLS 2016. Belgium is presented twice with the French speaking and Flemish parts. This was not possible for Malta in view of the small numbers involved.”

The ministry’s replies failed to address the fact that even if the country’s bilingual reality and the size of the Maltese students’ sample was taken into consideration, the 2016 results were still significantly lower than those registered in 2011 – when the same conditions were true.

For the purpose of the study, students were selected randomly from 95 primary schools, taking geographical representation into consideration. 2,033 students were selected from 62 state schools, 1245 students were selected from 25 church schools and 369 students were selected from eight independent schools.

The minister also pointed out the fact that Malta has registered increases in other areas as shown in the report.

“Malta has registered a significant increase in home reading resources in the last five years, according to parents. This very much reflects the important efforts in recent years on the part of schools and the Ministry for Education, through the National Literacy Agency, to ensure better provision of reading resources in the home and in the early years of schooling.

“One notes that it takes quite some time for the benefits of such an intervention to filter through the whole system and to manifest themselves in increased performance and outcomes.”

The minister also remarked on the increase that was registered in home digital resources, according to parents, as well as early literacy activities and related children performance at entry in primary schools. The proportion of students with early literacy skills has also increased, as well as students’ reading enjoyment.

“The percentage of Maltese school libraries having more than 500 book titles is significantly higher than the national average. Maltese parents have very positive views of their child’s education, and Maltese students’ engagement in school is significantly above the international average.”

The report showed that the scale score that measures safety and order in school ranges from 12.4 (Kazakhstan) to 8.7 (Slovenia).

Malta’s mean scale score (9.6) is significantly lower than the international average and less than the corresponding 2011 mean scale score (9.9), indicating that safety issues and order in Maltese schools have worsened in the last five years.

The minister said the issue of safety and order in schools as perceived by heads of school was “a complex one, as it also includes bullying, verbal abuse of teachers, classroom disturbance, and theft.”

Other considerations

In Malta, different types of schools were shown to produce different results. On average, church school students scored significantly higher in reading than state school students who in turn scored significantly higher than independent school students.

The percentage of Maltese students who have a computer or tablet available to use for reading lessons (49%) is also significantly higher than the international average (43%). Internationally, students with computers available for reading instructions have a significantly higher mean reading score (516) than their counterparts who do not have computers available for reading (508).

Reading attainment is also correlated to the student’s health, and the report shows that the percentage of Maltese students who almost every day arrive at school feeling hungry (40%) is significantly higher than the international averages (26%), while the percentage of students who arrive to school tired (32%) is equal to the international average. According to the report, healthy students perform better at reading than those who arrive feeling hungry and tired.

The amount of years that Maltese teachers remain in the profession – an average of 11 years – is significantly lower than the international average of 17 years. This shows that Maltese schools are staffed by relatively young teachers, but the report says that the relation between students’ reading attainment and teaching experience duration of teachers is weak.

However, the percentage of Maltese teachers completing a Masters’ degree or PhD (7%) is significantly lower than the international average (26%), although the percentage of Maltese teachers with a Bachelor’s degree (84%) is significantly higher than the international average (60%).

While the total instructional hours per year in Maltese schools, which averages about 942 hours, is significantly higher than the international average of 898 hours, the mean duration allocated to language instruction each year is only 178 hours. This includes reading, writing, speaking, literature, and other language skills, with the international average being 242 hours.

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