Maltese teenagers, gearing up for their O level exams, have been flagged up for high levels of stress in a new report, and experts are blaming private lessons for “piling too much stress” on them.

The World Health Organisation study, entitled Health Behaviour in School-aged Children, found that of all nationalities, Maltese 11-15 year-olds were the most stressed by the amount of academic work they had to do every day.

Half of 11-year-olds felt their school work was too much, with the situation getting worse the closer they got to their ominous ‘Os’.

Some 65 per cent of 13-year-olds students complained of too much school work stress, while nearly four out of every five fifth formers said this was a problem.

Teacher’s Union President Kevin Bonello said the curriculum and assessment structure had remained ‘one size fits all’, placing pressure on those who struggled with traditional exam-based attainment.

Perhaps more of a problem, however, was the level of extra tuition teenagers were having to take after school, he said.

We seem to think we have to send our children to extra classes if they are going to pass exams

“When these children are coming up to their O levels they already have quite a bit to do at home. But we have an obsession in Malta with private lessons. We seem to think we have to send our children to extra classes if they are going to pass exams,” he said.

Mr Bonello, who spent several years as a teacher, said he had seen parents sending children as young as eight to extra tuition. Some students went to as many as six different private lesson courses when preparing for O levels, he added.

How many youths attend private lessons in Malta? An EU study, ‘Private Tutoring and its Implications’, had found that in 2008, nearly 78 per cent of Maltese fourth and fifth formers attended some kind of private lessons. And the figure was on the rise, with annual increases over the previous 10 years. Back in 1999, the earliest data available, the number of students attending private lessons stood at a more modest 50 per cent.

Meanwhile, a local qualitative inquiry published by the University of Malta provides a rare glimpse into the pressure private lessons pile onto youths, particularly before sitting for their O levels.

Students who were receiving tutoring back in 2009 complained about stress and the loss of time for leisure activities.

One student said he was facing a “terrible” dilemma: “I much prefer my school teacher’s lessons. However, I feel safer continuing my private lessons. I am afraid of stopping.”

Other students’ comments also suggest Malta had reached a point at which it was “normal” to attend multiple private tutoring.

However, there were exceptions. Two students in a class of 18 did not receive tutoring. One confidently said: “As long as I do well and understand my teacher then I feel I will be ok. Also if I have difficulty in class I always ask and [the teacher] explains again.”

This student went on to score the top grade in exams, but her classmate who did not receive ­private tutoring scored below the predicted grade.

Child psychologist Charles Grech told The Sunday Times of Malta, that he often heard complaints of students attending multiple private lessons per week, but still worrying they may not pass. “This is a delicate matter. While it is clear that some students require private tuition for many reasons. We also have a tendency to go overboard.

“Parents worry their children won’t pass exams, but drowning them in work can have negative effects,” he said.

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