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
Elizabeth Ayling says
Another thought on the matter of schooling, whatever system: I think a lot of what is taught at schools today, irrespective of where, is outdated. My son thinks that he can learn far more online, self and co-learning. So whether a UK system or a Maltese system, education is pretty much out of step with kids’ needs; even more so the by rote and flog ’em to death style of education currently on offer in Malta. I was pleased to hear that Malta might finally be catching up by allowing home schooling. Now there’s one for you to consider. Plus, a lot of families need both parents to work, not to make themselves even more comfortable, but just to pay the regular bills let alone afford extras. I think those parents simply don’t have time to spend three months at the sea. Quality time can also be short time. Length of holiday doesn’t equate to parents spending quality time with their children.
Elizabeth Ayling says
While I understand the sentiment of your comment, the reality remains that children in Malta are hardly at school! A quarter of the year is summer holidays alone. This puts immense strain on children not just parents. Today, as I write, it is the day before most schools start the autumn term – on Monday 23rd Sept. Children across Europe have been back at school for the most part since the first week of Sept. The weather here is cool, and children are kicking their heels fed up with the beach etc etc. My son is in a panic as he starts senior school this term and is totally worried that he has forgotten everything he learned. We’ve been doing extra maths, English and Maltese at home for the past three weeks to allay his worries and to get his brain back in gear for what will be a culture shock return to school – homework loads are extremely heavy at senior school. And far more so than in the UK; a friend of mine has just moved to the UK and said that homework for her daughter in year three of senior is far lighter a load. Her daughter has quality time after school to do extra curricula activities; my son is worried about after school activities eating in to his homework time!
In Malta, the extremely short school hours and school year mean a heavy burden for children and parents during terms to the detriment of an all-round, more holistic time at school. The curriculum is delivered along very traditional lines and does not allow for many extra curricula activities beyond strict exam-based subjects. What happened to sport, music and drama, or art for that matter within the curriculum? Barely there in many schools. I am self-employed and have flexi working time and do spend a lot of quality time with my son. But, the holidays are too long for all of us and therein lies the rub. My son agrees with me!
Verdala International School in Malta has been back at school since the beginning of September; the reason other schools aren’t boils down to a negotiated deal way back in which the teachers got their three months holiday! I appreciate that staff don’t have a full three months as they work to wrap up the summer term and prepare for the next academic year, but they do get a long time off compared to most working folk and certainly compared to teachers abroad. Report on report has shown that Malta’s system needs overhauling. But it won’t be!
Every family has their own way of working out quality time, but I think long holidays can put a strain on even the best of us. Lovely to be wealthy enough not to work and laze by pools all summer with merry kids playing well behaved along side. But that isn’t the reality. A lot of children I know end up dumped with granny in the summer, when not at (quite expensive) summer schools or courses. Not sure that’s a good way forward for either party. Each to his own, but the system should change, I believe. At present, parents are doing far more teaching than in the past to make up for the lack of school hours. That’s even more parental strain, don’t you think?
Anna Borg says
If you don’t like your children, why don’t you send them to a boarding school somewhere in Nepal? As a parent I always look forward to my children’s holidays and get very sad when school is starting again. Unfortunately many parents tend to look at the holidays as a curse rather than a gift… to spend more quality time with their children, go to the sea etc., Today everyone is busy working, so their children can be comfortable, that they prefer to send their children to school all year round rather to than spending some quality time together. There is time for school and time for the children and their parents to be FREE together – let’s not destroy this. Childhood passes much too quickly and before we know it we will have parents who have no idea how to bring up their own children simply because as children they were never able to spend good, quality time with their own parents.
Elizabeth Ayling says
Strange how so many people do work through the summer! We live in the age of aircons and perhaps some should be in schools. So, by your reckoning the entire country should stop work once we hit 32 degrees. Students have it good. The shock will come when they enter the workplace and do have to work through an August. Malta’s educational system packs so much into a short year with short school days and long holidays and I feel this is not sustainable. June is also well over 32 degrees at times and is also exam month. Perhaps give schooling in June a miss too then? Clearly, you are commenting as a student not parent (who probably works all summer bar a two-week, if that, break). Malta’s school-age children have university length holidays but then again, we have a very low percentage of women in the workplace (so they can be home three months no problem). I doubt children in parts of Australia get three months holiday and temps rise there too.
I’m a student and if you lazy person thing you can handle the heat which in September still can go up too 32 degrees I suggest you go and try it out before speaking bullshit.