Short school hours, undue emphasis on academic knowledge and lack of professional development training for teachers seem to be the major shortcomings in the Maltese education system, according to an external observer from the University of Nottingham.
“The way forward for Malta is to invest more broadly in expertise and teaching methods,” RogerMurphy, Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham told The Sunday Times.
Murphy, who in 2005 contributed to a full review of the Matsec Examinations Board process, has since kept an eye on the developments in Maltese education, and recently returned to carry out further work.
Some of the flaws in the education system, highlighted in his report six years ago, have seen no signs of improvement, such as the short school year: “When compared with a wide range of other education systems in developed countries, students in Malta are still receiving a very low number of hours of schooling.”
He also referred to the recent European Commission study on private tuition in EU countries, which revealed that in 2008 in Malta a record 78 per cent of Maltese fourth and fifth formers attended some kind of private lessons.
The study concluded that this was having a negative effect on students because it was restricting their leisure time in a way that is “psychologically and educationally undesirable”.
Murphy had already highlighted this reliance on private lessons in his report six years ago: “I think these very high figures are partly a result of short schooling hours.
“Private tuition is probably a way for students to catch up on parts of the syllabus which have not been covered at school due to time constraints. It is creating a climate where it is acceptable that school is not enough,” he said.
This sentiment was echoed recently by educational psychologist Victor Martinelli who said school hours are not long enough and do not give teachers time to expand on points students may not have grasped completely during a lesson.
Murphy noted that apart from disrupting the lives of young people, private tuition potentially disadvantaged children whose families cannot afford the tuition bills.
“What’s more, it is completely unregulated,” he said, pointing out that whereas school teachers are constantly monitored, there is no regulating body for private tutors.
Longer school hours seem to be the solution to curb the accelerating rise in after-school tuition.
According to a Eurodyce report on ‘Key data on Education in Europe 2009’, in most countries, taught time increases as children progress through school, with the exception of Malta, where the number of school hours in primary and secondary schools stay the same. In fact, students from the northern countries of Europe rarely attend extra tutoring outside their normal schooling hours.
However, isn’t the short school year – in particular the three-month-long summer break – simply a direct consequence of the weather?
“Yes, of course. But Malta is not the only country with a warm climate. Nowadays architects can come up with purposely built structures which would be better equipped for summer,” he said.
In the 2005 report, Murphy had mentioned the issue that the Maltese schooling system emphasises heavily on traditional academic knowledge – a practice out of line with other countries. Did he think it was still the case?
“Yes. Much teaching in Malta seems to be designed to impart factual knowledge. Elsewhere, students are encouraged to develop their thinking skills.
“The Maltese system allows less time for students to develop their creativity and understanding of bigger issues,”he said.
Moreover, he said, many countries have now seen the introduction of vocationally oriented subjects in order to engage a wider pool of students.
“These taught subjects would be work-related skills, and in some education systems, vocational subjects are also tied in with examinations,” he said.
However, it’s even more important, stressed Murphy, to have appropriately qualified teachers in place. “Young qualified teachers, say in computing, are findingthemselves without work. The reason being that in past years, graduates in other subjects would have moved into teaching computing to fill in vacancies,” he said.
This is constantly creating a setting where teachers are not in their right place and are not teaching their specialised subject, and therefore can never give their optimum.
He was full of praise for the University’s Bachelor of Education course: “The B. Educ course has an unfair reputation – it’s a four-year course and they cover a lot of subject expertise as well as get a sustained opportunity to develop their expertise in the teaching elements.
“It disappoints me that B. Educ graduates are looked down upon or unfairly branded,” he said.
It is crucial, he said, that teachers’ performance is monitored and appraised and that they are given opportunities for professional development training and interaction.
“I know some schools are trying to introduce changes such as interactive whiteboards – but I am not sure teachers have been given proper training on how best to use them,” he said.
On the Matsec Examination system, he said very little has happened since 2005: “If anything, many of the people have changed, which means there are new people with less experience on board.”
He describes the setting up of the examination board in the 1990s as something “very brave and courageous”. It is, after all, the smallest national examination board providing the official national school-leaving and university entrance examinations in the whole world.
“It’s doing some good things, definitely. However, there needs to be investment and support, as well as stronger partnerships with other foreign assessment organisations.”
Murphy believes there is no such thing as the ideal education system: “Different countries have to deal with different kinds of issues, but we can all learn from each other.”
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