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Language a barrier to pupil integration

One school that has overcome the obstacles posed by a changing multicultural classroom is the government primary in St Paul’s Bay, where there are students from 20 countries. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

One school that has overcome the obstacles posed by a changing multicultural classroom is the government primary in St Paul’s Bay, where there are students from 20 countries. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Language is the biggest stumbling block for non-EU children attending school in Malta, according to a report that exposes the absence of a policy to help them integrate.

We found that the school system is not coping with the reality of globalisation

There are some 370 students – excluding irregular immigrants – from 50 different countries enrolled in primary or secondary schools after their parents legally settled on the island, the report found.

Co-funded by the EU, the report exposes an increasingly multicultural, multilingual environment where schools and teachers grapple with situations on an ad hoc basis without any clear direction.

Commissioned by the Foundation for Educational Services to explore the level of integration of third-country nationals (TCNs) in schools, the full report is being released during a conference, Għinni Nidħol, being held on Tuesday, FES senior executive Gabriella Calleja said.

Apart from exploring language and literacy, the report, seen by The Times, addresses the way religion is taught in schools but these details will be released next week.

The NGO Aditus secured the tender to carry out the research that was conducted by Neil Falzon, Maria Pisani and Alba Cauchi.

Researchers sent out questionnaires, sat in classrooms as observers and interviewed teachers, heads and parents.

In recent years Malta has experienced new migratory flows and the researchers found that nowhere was this change more apparent than in the classroom.

In one secondary school researchers witnessed a teacher delivering the lesson to 13 students – 11 foreign and two Maltese – in English and Maltese.

Ironically, the teacher was translating in Maltese for the benefit of a Libyan and a Moroccan.

In another school, a child was given homework in Maltese, but his parents were unable to help him so when he went to school he was reprimanded for not doing it.

In other instances, parents felt left out as newsletters and circulars sent home were in Maltese, without an English translation, making it impossible for them to understand.

One of the recommendations is for schools to ensure such information is provided in a language parents can understand, or at the very least both English and Maltese.

The first hurdle researchers faced was clarifying what they meant by third-country nationals, as many assumed they were referring to children of irregular immigrants – but asylum-seekers and beneficiaries were specifically excluded from the report.

One school head, for example, thought the term TCN referred to Third World Countries, while others repeatedly used “illegal immigrants” or “klandestini”, when these were students – from Chinese to Serbs, Russians and Libyans, among others – whose parents were paying to educate their children in Malta.

There also appears to be the belief that any intervention or investment in educating TCN students was a waste of time as they were not exp-ected to remain in school for long.

Some teachers expressed concern with the way some students’ education was disrupted when they arrived and left mid-way through the scholastic year.

“What we found is that the school system is not coping with the reality of globalisation and while individual schools attempt to tackle the issues that arise, there is no direction on how this could be addressed on a national level,” Dr Falzon said.

Some teachers expressed frustration with multilingual classrooms.

In a French lesson, for example, one teacher had to translate complete sentences in three languages – English, Maltese and French.

Good did emerge, however, and some described how the situation helped students understand different cultures and traditions, while others said Maltese students were becoming more fluent in English as teachers were constantly switching between the two languages.

“Teachers are trying to make a big effort to help these students integrate, but the reality isn’t being reflected on a national level,” Ms Calleja said, inviting stakeholders to attend the conference to discuss the way forward.

More details will be released during the conference on December 11. Participation is free and interested parties can e-mail [email protected] by noon on Friday.

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