Sunday 22 April 2018

Child with learning difficulties

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.





  • Charlene Schembri

    I agree that something must be done, am not entirely sure a repeater class is what is necessary. I fear that the new system which does not stream students will prove even more difficult. Students with different academic capabilities, and students with learning disabilities, will all be in the same classrooms together. I think it will be difficult for the teachers, the educators, to give lessons which can be grasped by the whole class at an equal pace. This will prove frustrating for both teachers and students. But I guess we will just have to wait and see about this.

  • Lorraine

    I too agree that something has to be done. In my school days we had no LSA teachers, and i’m sure that autism and dyslexia was widely spread as it is now. As you said well in your article, children should repeat their year at school if they don’t do well. The taboo nowadays seems to be about repeating!! My daughter changed schools in Form 3, and she insisted herself to repeat the year, and it did her a world of good, making me question what’s the big deal about repeating?!

  • Brian Ferrante

    Lorraine, you are wrong. The incidence of Autism and ADHD has been on the increase since the 80’s, and it’s an upward trend.

    Josanne, I doubt whether LSAs are appointed just because someone has a learning difficulty. I’m afraid you are mixing lettuce and farts. You’re a journalist. Why dont you research a bit how LSA’s are assigned? Spend some time with children who have been assigned an LSA and you’ll realise that if it weren’t for these modern day heros and heroines we’d have a hellova lot of children rotting away in institutions.

    • Thank you Brian for your comment, although may I point out there is no need to be so aggressive when we are simply trying to have a civil discussion. No matter.
      As for your question, I based my above article after appearing on a TV programme in which two high ranking representatives from the education department were present, who described just how LSAs are assigned. And yes, (apart from when there are children with special needs such as Downs) they are also assigned when a child has been diagnosed as having a learning difficulty which includes dyslexia, ADHD and other problems.
      At no time did I cast any negative light on the work LSAs are carrying out – on the contrary I said they are doing ‘sterling work’.

  • Louise Bason

    A very interesting article that brings up a lot of debate. The issue of who needs and who does not need an LSA is one that will probably need looking at in Malta at some stage. I know there are LSAs who do sterling work because I have been involved in training courses for LSA. However, there are also a lot of skilled teachers out there who are very able of differentiating their teaching according to the various needs of pupils. No rocket science here just a different way of viewing what inclusion is all about. Sometimes having an LSA is not the immediate solution. The point made about labelling is another and it is all because people view difficulties as just within a child! With regards to the purpose of repeating a year or grade retention I would think that this depends on each individual case. However the research does say that on the long-term there are no major benefits that come from grade retention and so that is probably why it would be a last resort. The possibility of staying on in education, as will happen in the uk from 2013 is another completely different matter however which I think is a good way forward.

  • N.Grech

    I am an LSA and I must say that the reception/repeater class that was so strongly criticised, should become part of our education system. When a child finishes year 1 and he has not yet grasped the basics, it is an excellent idea to have him repeat it when he is at an age, where he is still too young to be affected negatively. In my opinion, this is much better than having children , who are promoted year after year and still lack the basic skills in literacy and numeracy.
    In my opinion, the state should start thinking about employing teacher’s assistants, along with LSA’s which would be a necessary asset in mixed ability classes. Many LSA’s do their best to help all the children that need help but sometimes this depends on the needs of the child you are supporting especially if he’s assigned one to one full time support.

  • Jackie Borg

    Hi Josanne, First of all I’d like to congratulate you on your very interesting website.I feel very sensitive on the subject of LSAs as well. having teachers as relatives, I have repeatedly heard stories in which mothers go begging a minister for her son/daughter to get an LSA. I’m sure this happened a few years back and probably still does. Some of these mothers have been so persistent that they had it their way even if their child didn’t have any learning difficulties but was what we used to call’slow’. Unfortunately it is the parents who will not hear of their kids repeating a class and so the school follows suit to accomodate them. This is so unfortunate because years ago, a child who repeated a class used to repeat after the head of school and the parents agreed that it was best for their child to do so. I for one know some success stories of kids in the eighties who repeated a grade but who gained so much that they were top of their class for years after. Some children who, for example, are born in November or December are the youngest in their classes and are sometimes surrounded by children nearly a year older. These children may find it difficult to catch up and in year five or six start to feel a heavy weight on their shoulders. On one side they wish to please their parents, on the other hand they just buckle under the weight and soon an LSA is called for. In these days were discrimination is fought against, our Maltese society discriminates against repeaters so how can parents agree to let their child suffer the humiliation? See the vicious circle ? I was particularly hurt when last election campaign, people deemed’ intelligent’ in our society gave the death blow to repeating a grade when it was described a a tragedy and a hmiliation. Didn’t anyone think some child or grown up must have been hurt by this attitude. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head yet again Josanne. Keep up your good work.

  • Brian Ferrante

    Josanne, when I read comments made by people who just jump to conclusions based on what someone misinformed told them, I tend to get very hot under the collar. FYI, getting an LSA is not just a matter of asking for one. It is not even, as someone has implied, a matter of going to the minister ” biex tirrangalek”.

    What irked me most was the comment “i am sure that in my time autism was as widely spread as it is now”. No it was not. Do your research. In the ’80s the incidence of autism was 1 in 1000. Now it is 1 in 80 worldwide, 1 in 50 in Malta. These aren numbers that are known. Not all of them have an LSA. Go figure.

  • Odette Pace

    Dear Josanne, I felt I had to comment as a mother of a child suffering from ADHD. I’m afraid I have to disagree with your assertion that all these children need is “to repeat a year” to improve their lot. Theirs is a condition which tends to persist even into adulthood and can be quite debilitating in that their lack of attention, easy distractibility and difficulty in starting and completing tasks, will detract from their ability to learn as easily as other children, in many cases, throughout their school years. The function of the LSA is not to help them get promoted to the next grade undeservedly but to aid them in concentrating on given tasks, complete their work and help them organise themselves, thereby bypassing some of their disabilities and allowing them to reach their full potential. I am certain that in the past these children went unrecognised and were ignored as irredeemable failures, contributing to the the vast pool of middle-aged and elderly illiterates in our society. We simply cannot justify their lot by saying that “things worked in the past”!

  • David Pace

    Hi Josanne,

    I do agree with the title of the article that something is very very wrong … with your interpretation. A little more research on your part would have worked wonders in introducing you to the fractured world of ADHD children and their problems.

    Being the father of a struggling and exasperated sixteen year old, I take great exception not to your conclusion because you have every right to it, but to way you dismiss this condition when a simple search would have enlightened you.

    It is very easy to dismiss the problems of others especially if you haven’t experienced them.

    • I apologize if I sounded dismissive of the condition known as ADHD. That was surely not my intention. I am fully aware that it requires a lot of patience on the part of parents and teachers alike.
      However please note that when I wrote “it does strike me that there is a disproportionate number of children who seem to require help” was in a new paragraph and I was not referring to children with ADHD at all but about children who are lagging behind.

  • L. Galea

    Well I believe the curriculum does not help too much… Children are being thought English language phonetics in Maltese. For example look = luk, Circle = Sirkle, Shirley = Xerli. This kind of teaching practice does effect children’s performance. In my time English was English and Maltese was Maltese, we did not corrupt english words and spelt them badly and made them “Maltese words” and phonetics was related to the language we studied. This is only one subject just imagine the rest.

  • In my view we still have to wait and see the results of the new system of mainstreaming. Only time and good research will tell. However, we have to keep in mind the bigger picture too. I was on the programme with you Josanne and no matter how much convinced those two experts appeared I only believe that things are being romanticised and they are not really and truly evidence based. LSAs are often another extension of the institutionalisation-of-parenting process. LSAs themselves are being increasingly abused with increasing case-loads. Family involvement in schools is not being invested in and in spite of what appears on paper it is not being achieved. And of course, with fathers having to work long hours to meet the increasing costs of family life, and mothers being kicked out of their housewife’s roles to go out and work it cannot be achived. If it is being achieved it is a contradiction with the government’s agenda.

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