The Malta Independent 28 January 2023, Saturday
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Youths are programmed to pass exams, not learn to live in society – PN MP Justin Schembri

Semira Abbas Shalan Sunday, 16 October 2022, 10:00 Last update: about 4 months ago

We have young people who are programmed to go to exams, and not learning how to live in a society, PN Shadow Minister for Education Justin Schembri said.

The Malta Independent on Sunday spoke with Schembri on the current state of the education in Malta. He said that he believes that the first few years of school, meaning the primary years, are the key to children’s education.

“Good results and academic successes are important, but the crucial and most important part of a child’s education, is that they leave the 11 years of obligatory school with the necessary basic skills they need in life, and how to utilise them,” Schembri said.

Schembri quoted a statistic which said that 34% of children and youths under 15 years of age are not equipped with the basic skills needed for a competitive word.

“The youths of today are the youths that employers will eventually want to employ,” Schembri said. He added that not only should there be more investment in the sector, but also investment in the teachers, to empower them and give them all the help and resources needed.

Schembri spoke about the delays in the system regarding providing a Learning Support Educator (LSE) to certain children who need extra help in their primary years. He said that the whole process depends on the primary years, as they would then find school more difficult in their secondary school years.

“We need an education which reaches all children and helps them grow into becoming more critical and to see things in a subjective, objective and analytical way. This is something children nowadays lack across the board,” he said.

Schembri mentioned a survey where over 600 young students were interviewed. They said that the current education system is not giving them the necessary skills they need for the working world.


Employees of the future

Schembri also said that when speaking to employers, he realised that employers are not finding enough Maltese youths who are prepared for the working world.

“This does not necessarily mean that schools should prepare youths for the working world according to how the employers want them, but we do need to give them the basic skills,” he said.

Schembri added that there is also a big problem in students who choose to go down the academic route. They sit for their O Level exams, but then fail to obtain a pass mark, he said.

Schembri said that in the last set of O Level exams, there were around 700 students who failed to obtain a pass mark in Maltese, around 900 students who failed Mathematics and Physics and around 500 students who failed English.

“We became too dependent on rushing to teach the syllabus. A substantial number of youths are still failing despite choosing an academic route. We must forget the idea that youths and children will learn basic life skills without being taught,” he said.


Post-Covid education

This year marks the first scholastic year without Covid-19 restrictions in schools. Schembri spoke about how education has been greatly affected during the pandemic, adding that there were circumstances where in a period of six months, youths and children have fallen behind by about two years, in terms of academia.

“I have long spoken about the importance of there being a Covid-19 impact assessment to analyse what, and how much, youths and children have lost. We must try to update our education programmes to cater to these lost years,” Schembri said.

He suggested that positive practices adopted by educators who were capable of altering the education programmes and continued with their curriculum should continue, as during the pandemic, we have learnt how to adopt a system of traditional education with an online one.

Schembri was asked if there has been any stress felt in the education system, given that many foreigners have been coming to Malta and taking their children to schools here. Language barriers and different cultures have impacted educator’s abilities to communicate with these children.

“There are a lot of parents of foreign students who are not very interested in their child’s education. In a lot of cases, educators must communicate with parents as there would be no response,” Schembri said.

He added, however, that the education system must focus on inclusivity and it is better for foreign children to start breaking the language barrier in their primary years to better help them integrate into the system.


Quality education

In an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday, University of Malta rector Alfred J. Vella said that entry requirements for the University, much like the requirements for Junior College, have also been relaxed, with students needing only 38 points to enter instead of 44.

Schembri was asked if this lowers the education standards of the country, to which he said that this is unacceptable. He said that the lowering of entry requirements for Junior College is more worrying.

As it stands, one only needs a pass mark in one of the core subjects to enter Sixth form. One still needs pass marks in Mathematics, Maltese and English to enter University.

“Why can’t a student, in five years of secondary school, not be able to pass from the core subjects, which they then still have to pass in Sixth form?” Schembri asked.

“We need to work towards reducing the number of students who leave the obligatory system without having obtained these core subjects so that in Sixth form they can focus on A Levels and Intermediate Levels,” he said.

Schembri said that those students who found it difficult to obtain pass marks in these subjects should still be given a chance, but the education level should remain high and not lowered to improve the statistics requested by the European Union. He said that in the context of University, he does not think that the level of education is being lowered, as Malta’s University is demanding in itself.

“We have a problem in our country, as we tend to react according to the statistics requested by the EU. There was a frenzy when we needed to reduce our early-school leavers,” he said.

“The level of education in Malta, as well as across Europe, is always decreasing. The world is producing youths who are less intelligent and less critical than before,” Schembri said.


Budget cuts

He asked what the system is doing to run after youths who have fallen from the education system, adding that there must be a structure that follows these youths to offer them an alternative programme or else help them to enter the working world.

Asked if the use of technology is putting back the student rather than helping them advance, Schembri said that dreaming of an education system without technology is crazy.

“Nowadays technology has become essential, that automatically you cannot ever dream of removing it. Yes, there are factors where technology decreases creativity, but we must be smart enough to create an education system where children are taught to utilise technology to research and learn from it,” Schembri said.

It was announced recently that government will be deducting €1.1m of its funding towards the University. Asked about this, Schembri warned that it might be a €1.1m budget cut today, but it can increase to €5 to €6m in the next few years.

“I have argued against this budget cut and referred to this measure as an obscenity. We cannot ever find ourselves against a wall in circumstances of economic difficulties and start cutting the budget of the highest education institution in the country,” he said.

Schembri called this measure as nonsense, saying that the country is spending a lot of money in other sectors aside from education.

“We will not let any politician from the PL side try and tell us that there’s more investment in the University just because the budget has increased by double compared to the one in 2010,” he said.


Shortage of teachers

Asked about the reason as to why there is currently a shortage of teachers in Malta, Schembri said that the main reasons are their salaries and their conditions.

“Comparing educators’ salaries with the current cost of living, the profession’s salary is low. Where in Malta they start out with €19,000 per year, in Germany they start out with €50,000. This shows that we do not truly care about the salary of the educator, despite having emphasised so much about increasing it during the election period,” Schembri said.

“Government gave us the impression that the salaries will increase substantially, as promised. Answering a parliamentary question, Education Minister Clifton Grima said that salaries will be increasing as part of the process of the Collective Agreement,” he said.

Another problem Schembri spoke about is that youths are not entering courses related to teaching.

“We need a government who respects teachers and their Unions, we need to give adequate salaries,” he said.

Schembri also warned that the country may end up in a situation where it will have to reduce the level of requirements and qualifications needed to enter as a teacher.

“We may end up in a situation where the country has to adopt the same model healthcare is currently adopting, which is to start importing foreign teachers. This should be the last resort,” he said.

He said that we should focus on ensuring that the current pool of youths in the education sector stay in the sector.

Several teachers have resigned from St Albert the Great College, due to the change of environment following the controversy after the dismissal of headmaster Mario Mallia.

Asked about how these situations can be tackled, Schembri said that there needs to be more commitment from the Education Ministry, even if this situation falls under the merit of the Church.

“We need to be responsible enough to not politicise this sensitive matter. The Education Minister should be there for each school and should ensure the interests of each child,” he said.

“We must forget egos and there cannot be pique as the children will end up suffering in the end,” he said. Schembri added that the atmosphere has become toxic and it is their responsibility to communicate efficiently between the two parties, to find a solution.

He said that government should give assistance, if need be, even financial assistance, even if it is not in its merit to solve the problem.

Asked about students who are not happy with their education in Malta and would rather go abroad for their education, Schembri said that while there is nothing wrong with students going abroad for opportunities; it becomes worrying when they feel like they have no choice but to leave Malta.

“No competitive salaries, no opportunities, substantial and uncontrollable increases in population, increase in traffic and prices of properties are all forcing youths to realize that they can’t live and study in Malta,” he said.

“This is shocking and worrying; we are obliged in politics to give everyone the opportunity to choose,” he said.

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