Thursday 21 October 2021

Did you say you object? “I’ll do it anyway”

This column first appeared in Malta Today

I realise that, for the second week in a row, I am about to start yet another column with a reference to a radio commercial.  

But working in this debilitating heat when everyone else still seems to be on their Santa Maria break, even my brain seems to have become fried and frazzled (although when I see others whose work forces them to be outside, rather than in air-conditioned comfort, I chide myself for daring to complain). The fact remains that newspapers never take a break, and it is not that easy to churn out copy or feel inspired when all you want to do is nap.  So frankly, any time there is something on my radar which plants a possible seed in my brain when I am staring at a blank page, I will use it.

This time the advert goes something like this…a man knocks on a hotel room door. “Hello,  housekeeping”.  (Not now please). “Hello? Housekeeping, I come in anyway?” (No! Don’t come in) “OK!  I come in anyway”.

The cheerful, yet exasperating obtuseness of the housekeeper who insists on coming in even though he is blatantly being told not to, invariably makes me smile. On the other hand,  it  is not easy to keep smiling when that feeling of exasperation rises to the surface every time I see certain Ministers who persist in the error of their ways even though everyone and their brother seems to be telling them, “No! don’t do it.”

Take the proposal for the Marsascala Marina.  We need another yacht marina, catering for the rich while blocking public access to our limited beaches, like we need a hole in the head.  Yet there he goes, our intrepid Environment Minister himself, Aaron Farrugia, trying to convince us that this project is needed by comparing it (in the wildest possible stretch of his imagination) to when the airport was being proposed and Gudja residents objected to it.  Yes, sure, an airport,  which is a vital connection to the outside world, is exactly the same.  Despite the fact that residents, environmental activists and the local council have all spoken out against it,  Farrugia is undeterred. He said that if Malta needed another marina then it was up to the government to take a decision.  An attitude which is reminiscent of the above-mentioned  housekeeper: “I’ll do it anyway”. 

But when the issue is a very permanent major project steamrolled through by a Minister who doesn’t care what constituents want, rather than some minor embarrassment because a bumbling hotel employee has barged into your room, it really ceases to be funny.

Then, as if to confirm to us that he is really clueless (or that he assumes the electorate is) Minister Farrugia finishes off this ‘successful’ week by telling us he will plant a tree for every ‘Yes’ which the X factor judges give the contestants. Not only that but (don’t get too excited) the show will be paperless. Who knew that the consumption of paper on a TV show was our biggest environmental problem… 

Exam time is crunch time

Is anyone really that surprised that many of the hundreds of students who sat for their exams this year did not fare that well?  It was a perfect storm waiting to happen. 

For 18 months, their scholastic calendar was in upheaval, with the educational system having to migrate to online lessons, bringing unprecedented challenges. As with everything in life, people respond differently to change: some were quick to adapt, and others less so.  Some students were actually more suited to learning and studying in this way, taking it in their stride, while some floundered as they required the more personal attention of their teacher and the more formal structure provided by a classroom.  Self-discipline is not easy even among adults, so expecting it to magically happen in teenagers overnight is even more unrealistic. There is also the issue of the home environment and whether it was conducive to having a quiet room designated for studying, or whether students had the necessary technological equipment (we cannot assume that everyone has access to their own computer).

Apart from all this, this year’s exams happened later than usual and coincided with the unnatural heatwave which hit Malta in June.  Students were expected to concentrate in exam rooms which were stifling hot and there were reports of people fainting.  According to the statistics issued, hundreds simply did not show up for their exam (although the heat was probably only one of the reasons for this; now that SEC exams are free, it is easier to decide just not to sit for the exam, as opposed to when they have been paid for).

Among those who did make the effort, only a small percentage got good marks. If we look at one of the core subjects required for entry into post-secondary education, namely English, only 177 obtained grade 1 (the highest grade), while 755 obtained grade 5 (the lowest) and 575 students failed.  This is not to cast aspersions on anyone, because most of us have failed or done badly at exams at one time or another, and there is a lot to be said for dusting one’s self off and trying again.  What I cannot understand is why this year there was still such an insistence on carrying on with the exams in the first place.

If we take the UK as an example (purely because our exam system is based on theirs) this year they decided to rely on teaching assessments instead of exams, which were based on mock exams taken during the year, course work, homework and other projects.  This does not mean that the decision was not criticised. Figures showed that there was a significant disparity between results achieved in private schools and state schools for reasons which sound familiar.  “Lost learning has affected different groups differently and that’s probably why students from disadvantaged backgrounds are among the most affected,” said David Robinson from the Education Policy Institute. “Private school pupils might have also benefited from parental pressure on teachers, while the higher level of prior attainment in independent school pupils was a contributing factor.”

Personally, rather than this continued fixation with passing exams, I think there needs to be a complete mind shift in our education system where we concentrate more on whether students are leaving school with a decent standard of knowledge of the core subjects, especially (but not exclusively) in English and Maltese.  The ability to write coherently and fluently, using the correct grammar, in both languages has plunged abysmally and no matter which job you end up doing, lacking the basics in these two languages will limit your options considerably.  

The truth of the matter is that exams only measure your ability to give back to the examiners the knowledge they have taught you, on one specific day under time constraints. It is a pressure cooker situation which some can cope with, and in which others fall apart and cannot function (even though they would have studied).  For those with a photographic memory, a confident disposition and steady nerves, it is a breeze.  For those who suffer from extreme anxiety and mentally freeze up when they get that exam paper, it is something they cannot handle. 

Obviously, I am not advocating for exams to be completely abolished, because there needs to be a standard tool to measure students’ competence. However, in a country where the number of ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels determine your future, the percentage of low marks and failures is clearly not only telling us something, it is SCREAMING it at us. 

A number of years ago the MATSEC Board had introduced a new concept. The Matsec Paper A is more difficult and students can obtain grades between 1 and 5 while students sitting for Paper B can only achieve grades between 4 and 7…but where exactly did lowering the bar for pass rates get us?  It certainly did not contribute to the calibre of students and it did not even improve our stats for Eurostat purposes (which seemed to be the reason for doing it).  It is human nature that when you tell students that they will still pass if they can just do the bare minimum, they will do just that, rather than strive to do better.  

The question remains: are we actually producing quality students who go on to MCAST, Sixth Form and University and emerge from the other end as well-read individuals who can write well and think critically for themselves, or simply 20-somethings with degrees to their name, who have mastered the art of passing exams, only to promptly forget everything they have learnt the minute they leave their education behind? 

Even more pertinently, we need to ask what standard of school leavers and even graduates employers are being faced with when they interview new applicants.

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