Three national tests to replace entrance exams
Primary school pupils will soon no longer have to sit for the five highly stressful secondary school entrance exams, as these will be replaced by three national exams, according to the new education reform.
But while welcoming the elimination of these controversial exams, three experts queried whether the reform would truly bring about the changes needed in the system.
In May 2011, the five common entrance and Junior Lyceum exams - Maltese, English, maths, social studies and religion - will be replaced by three: English, Maltese and maths. The exams will include an oral segment for the languages.
Education expert Kenneth Wain said removing the entrance exams was very positive because students would no longer go through the trauma of preparing for them. Plus, he added, the reform would help create a smooth transition for students from primary to secondary school.
However, he had reservations about the three national exams. Benchmarks should be set according to the students' different levels and not by an exam on a national basis, Prof. Wain said.
The reform will also introduce a concept called settings, whereby students will be grouped according to their strengths and weaknesses in different subjects, creating a mixed-abilities classroom. If, for example, a student is very good in maths but weaker in English, then s/he would be grouped with children of the same level.
But Prof. Wain argued that, if introduced, settings should only be used sparingly. Its implementation was the crucial part of the experiment. "It should be the exception and not the rule." If not, settings would contradict the whole concept of inclusivity that the reform was trying to bring about, he said.
Similarly, Faculty of Education lecturer Andrew Azzopardi, an expert in disability, cautioned against the peril of the settings system becoming another form of streaming. "A possible solution is for the educational programme to become multi-level for children's different needs."
The syllabus also had to be addressed. "Unless the load is lightened, then children and teachers will not be able to manage to get there and the reform won't go through," Dr Azzopardi said.
Labour's spokesman for education, Evarist Bartolo, said the new exams would set the standards that students would need to reach and would gauge the extent to which schools were helping them achieve the required competences.
"I hope it's not just a change in name and that the new national exam will not carry and cause the same tension and pressure of the Junior Lyceum exams," Mr Bartolo said.
Till now, Malta had an exam-driven system where children were drilled to pass exams and those who mastered the techniques did well and the rest fell by the wayside, he said.
Children needed to be monitored from the very start and schools should also be resourced well enough to help their pupils succeed, Mr Bartolo added.
The reform, presented on Wednesday by the Education Ministry after a year of consultation, was aimed to change the system with less focus on exams and more on education.
Year 6 students who will sit for the last set of entrance exams in May 2010 have one exam less to study for as social studies is no longer a requirement. Although it was always planned that the five exams would be cut to three by 2011, a ministry spokesman said removing social studies from the 2010 exams was a "special concession" to students.
Small changes have already been implemented when streaming was removed last year from Year 5.
Students will sit for the exams and then move up to the secondary schools in their college system. Church schools will continue taking in students using a ballot system.
Two support groups will be set up in primary and secondary schools, called learning zones, and nurture groups will help students with behavioural and educational problems.
But all this calls for more human resources and a stronger support system for teachers. During the presentation, Education Director General Micheline Sciberras explained that training courses were being held for youth workers, psychologists, counsellors, teachers and occupational therapists, among others. They would help teachers who have children with challenging behaviour, different learning levels and with learning difficulties - all within a classroom setting.
Church schools will also take in more students as three schools will each open a primary school and another will open a secondary school. Savio College, St Paul's Missionary College and the Archbishop's Seminary will expand and open a primary school while Theresa Nuzzo School will open a secondary school.