Tuesday 19 June 2018

Something is very wrong

It came to my attention this week that there seem to be a very large number of children with learning difficulties who require what are known as LSAs – Learning Support Assistants. This is a rather politically correct way of saying that the child needs a facilitator because she or he cannot cope with the lessons in class.

On paper, it is a great idea – as all ideas usually are. In practice, however, I’m not so sure.

I do not wish to be misunderstood or to downplay the genuine concerns of parents whose children (for whatever reason) cannot keep up with the rest of the class. It must be heartbreaking for a mother and father to be told that their child is “slow” or has dyslexia and cannot make sense of the jumble of letters on a page.  Or alternatively that their fidgety, restless child who is easily distracted is diagnosed as suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

However, purely as an observer it does strike me that there is a disproportionate number of children who seem to require help. Is this normal for a country of our size? I came away from a discussion on Claudette Pace’s programme Sellili wondering why we have this obsession to attach a label to a child who is simply lagging behind.  Trying to cast my mind back to what used to happen in my own school days, I do not remember all this excessive fussing over children either.  If  you were so slow that you simply could not do the school work assigned to you, you were kept back as a repeater.  But when I mentioned this word (after we had finished the TV programme)  it was as if I had uttered the phrase made famous by Nicolà Abela Garett.

Everyone looked at my aghast. Repeater?! No one is kept back as a repeater any more!

This was news to me. Apparently, keeping children back a year is now verboten. Children continue to be promoted irrespective of whether they are getting it or not and that is where the LSA comes in.

I repeat, I am just an observer, not an educator, but surely something is very wrong here. Why on earth does it make more sense to keep promoting a child year after year beyond his capabilities rather than sit him down and gently explain that he will understand everything much better if he has an extra year to go over the same material?  If parents are afraid their child will be humiliated and mocked by his peers at being held back a year, perhaps they should consider that a child will be even more frustrated and angry (not to mention humiliated) at being given even more difficult material with each passing year, and not being able to learn without an LSA by his side.

As I mulled over what this all  meant, I thought perhaps that educators are trying to prevent children from suffering a blow to their self-esteem, which I can perfectly understand.  After all, what happens during our formative school days can make or break us sometimes.

But then I came across this article and suddenly it all fell into place.  Malta has the lowest rate of class repeaters in the EU, it proclaims. Well, of course, it does if there has been a concerted policy to keep promoting children irrespective of whether they are passing their annual exams.  “ In Malta, we don’t have a culture of grade retention as there is in certain other EU member states and repeating a year is a last resort in the interest of the student in question,” an Education Ministry official said.

Well, obviously if repeating a year is a last resort you are not going to have many repeaters are you? I really don’t see the point of all this; if it is simply to make our numbers look good for the EU, then we are really letting our children down.  As the above report points out, “there are EU member states that adopt a culture of grade retention because they believe repeating a year gives students a more solid foundation in their academic future. This is applied in Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal.”

So why is there this resistance to repeating a class here in Malta? After all, not all children learn at the same rate, and not everyone is lucky enough to be born with the same intelligence.

When Alfred Sant proposed his reception class concept, I was probably one of the few who thought it was a good idea.  Unfortunately, he was not able to communicate the concept properly,  the word was  twisted by the PN campaign which relentlessly referred to it as a “repeater” class and the whole thing was doomed.  I think there will come a time when people will grudgingly admit that he was right on this one.  Look around you and what do we see but school leavers who are severely disadvantaged because they cannot read and write properly.  They are now paying the price because they did not grasp the basics during those crucial early years and were pushed through the system regardless.

No wonder they hated school; no wonder they are defensive and on their guard when asked to write something; no wonder they think of themselves as “failures”.

Let us have LSAs by all means for children with special needs, because they are doing a sterling job.  But when it comes to children who just take a little longer than others to learn something, being held back a year could make a difference to the rest of their lives.

It could also make them stop hating school.





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