Today was the first day of the summer holidays for Malta’s schoolchildren. They now have a full three months off. Which means parents, particularly working parents, have a full three months full on. I’ve voiced my complaints about the long summer holidays before, here and here, at the end of a very tiring one a year or so back. But, as we’re at the start, and I am less fatigued by it all, I find today a useful juncture to reflect on some idiosyncracies of the Maltese school system. Aspects that people with children and about to move here might be particularly interested in knowing about.
First, let’s start the matter at hand: why so long a holiday when neighbouring countries, with equally hot climates, seem able to get their kids back to school at around the start of September? Maltese schools, state or private, are too cash strapped for air-conditioners, or feel they are environmentally unacceptable to use? No, that can’t be the reason. It’s always been three months, so it remains that way. Plus ça change.
A teacher told me that the year is hard work, and that three months wasn’t three months for them as they still had papers to mark, end year to sort out and be back earlier than the children come September (well, teachers do these ‘chores’ as part of their work in countries with far shorter summer breaks too).
The short year means that children have to spend a lot of the autumn term revising the work of the summer term before. I’ve seen this with my eight year-old, and certainly younger children can forget even basic things over the long summer months. This means they lose new learning time in the first term back.
The short school year isn’t the only issue; we’ve also very short school days. At my son’s school, they are a bit longer than most (8.30 – 2.45) but at most state and a lot of private schools, the day ends at around 1 to 1.30pm. Combine the short days and short teaching year and you’ve a considerable shortfall in active learning time compared to the rest of the European Union. I always had a hunch that the summer holidays were a flawed aspect of the Maltese school system; not only because I find them completely exhausting to survive as a working parent. Now, I’ve some ammunition to back up my personal feelings about the issue.
The big issue
According to a Eurodyce report on Key Data in Education in Europe in 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. Malta has vast numbers of children, some 78 per cent of Maltese fourth and fifth formers in 2008, going to private lessons outside school hours in order to beef up their learning time. While we learn from the Eurydice report that students from the northern Europe rarely attend extra tutoring outside their normal schooling hours.
Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham, Roger Murphy, who has been involved in a review six years ago of the Maltese examination board for school-leaving exams, the so-called MATSEC exams, was quoted recently while he was here on follow-up work, saying that he has seen no signs of improvement in various indicators in the education system including in the length of the 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 told The Times of Malta.
So, as I see three months looming ahead, my heart sinks to hear Prof Murphy’s words, coming as they do six years on from his earlier assessment. Nothing has changed in that time, so I start another three-month summer holiday with the nagging thought that the education system here is failing our children. Sure, they pass exams, sure they can still do well. But at what price financially to parents and psychologically to our kids if they are cramming in all those private lessons because no one will buy aircons. For how long can heat be the poor excuse in this era of technology?
Photo: by Mountainwaves