The Malta Independent 17 June 2024, Monday
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PN’s education spokesman says focus should be shifted on early years to teach basic skills

Sabrina Zammit Sunday, 19 May 2024, 09:30 Last update: about 29 days ago

The PN’s education shadow minister Justin Schembri said that more focus should be shifted on the early years of education to focus on basic skills.

In an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday, Schembri emphasised that fundamental skills such as reading, writing, mathematics and digital literacy need to be strengthened “if we want to see progress in the long-haul”.

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He said that it is important to assure that no more children leave the primary school setting, ending in Year 6, without having mastered these basic skills. The PN MP, who is a teacher by profession, confirmed that the phenomenon is a big problem and that in order to solve the issue there needs to be more “assurance that all possible help is given, so that every child manages to advance”.

If, for example, issues such as big classes are hindering the process of learning, they should immediately be sized down, so that teachers can give better individualised attention.

He said that improvement starts from the ideology that the education sector is there to serve everyone, meaning those who have learning difficulties should also be included, "which many times we are not catering enough for their needs".

Asked to clarify his statement, he said that despite there being a Learning Support Educator (LSE) with these students, it does not necessarily mean that they are being fully given the necessary help to reach their full academic potential. He said that this is the situation because "we have a big problem at the CDAU (Child Development Assessment Unit)”, where it takes 300 days to assess young children, who need to be evaluated to determine what type of additional help they need.

Asked what happens to the child in those 300 days, he said that depending on circumstances, there are cases where the minor does not go to school. Generally, most of them attend school but do not receive the necessary assistance. Furthermore, Schembri also pointed out an inclusion issue regarding children who have a one-to-one LSE. When these children go on outings or have a regular school day, if their LSE requires time off or falls ill, the school may sometimes contact parents to pick them up because there is no one available to stay with them. The LSE, like any other worker, is entitled to their sick leave, and their normal leave. However, he said that there needs to be a form of a system so that when such cases emerge the children remain in school.

"You cannot stop a child from going to school because their LSE did not go to work; this goes against the fundamental right that education is for everyone," he said.

He also remarked that this practice contradicts the principle of compulsory education for minors. If the situation were reversed, and a parent chose not to send their child to school without a medical reason, they would be subject to fines.

“How can anyone justify a scenario where a child wishes to attend school, yet the school cannot accommodate them due to this issue?” he asked.

Moreover, Schembri also disagrees with the Chamber of Commerce's suggestion made back in 2022 regarding obligatory schooling to be extended by two years, stating that “it won't work”. He argues that simply increasing the compulsory school age from 16 to 18 years does not address the underlying issue when students are not inclined towards traditional teaching methods.

He suggested that there should be further alterations to secondary school programmes, such as expanding initiatives like the Alternative Learning Programme school, which would reach a broader spectrum of students. This school, inaugurated in 2014 by the then Minister for Education, Evarist Bartolo, aims to encourage minors to remain in school by providing alternative course offerings.

However, the PN MP notes that these courses are presently only available in Paola, which removes students from their local home environment and isolates them from their friend groups. He suggested that besides ensuring these programmes are offered within closer proximity, such as the nearest secondary school, there's also the possibility of expanding the programme to commence as early as Year 9.

Schembri highlighted that the school-based assessment, which accounts for 30% of the Matsec examinations starting from Year 9, reflects the examination-focused ideology prevalent in the education system. On a positive note, he also mentioned that the revision of certain curricula is a step in the right direction. However, he noted that “there are still many teachers who are struggling with the abundance of content they have”. He explained that sometimes, the content of a particular subject leaves little room for teachers to explore beyond the confines of the syllabus, as there are certain aspects not explicitly listed.

He also identified another positive endeavour: implementing strategies across all sectors of the education department, encompassing digital education and foreign language programmes, among others. However, he noted that “effectively, when it comes to implementation, we lack coherence between our aspirations and our actions”.

He noted that while the new national education strategy may be beneficial in theory, “the how” of implementing it poses a significant challenge. Another major obstacle hindering implementation is the current working conditions and wages of teachers. Schembri said that the sectoral agreement should have been finalised long before, rather than just a few weeks before the upcoming elections, as expected. From a political standpoint, Schembri observed that this delay could potentially sway votes towards the PL. However, he stressed that work conditions should never be tied to political promises.

Schembri also believes that a significant burden needs to be lifted from school administrations. He proposed the implementation of two types of heads of school: one responsible for academic matters and the other for overseeing the school premises. He explained that under the current setup, the head of school is tasked with managing everything, which can be overwhelming.

Speaking about the sectoral agreement which expired in December 2022, he confirmed that the sentiment is not as positive as "one would have anticipated", noting that the salaries did not increase to the extent promised. Testimony to this was the teachers’ strike that occurred in November of last year, following the first financial package presented by the government to the Malta Union of Teachers.

"I still believe that the government needs to send a clear sign that he values teachers and all educators by showing action and not just words," he said.

Schembri noted that prior to the general elections of 2022, both parties spoke about the importance of increasing educators' wages.

"This should not be a simple political game, this is a must and it has to be done," he said.

Schembri mentioned that due to the continuous changes in the curriculum, teachers are required to work beyond their normal working hours.

"I believe it is expected out of a teacher, being a teacher myself, but at the end of the day, one needs to realize that this is a profession which is not necessarily respected as much as all other professions," he said.

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