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Giving students a second chance

From left: Jesmar Gauci, James Sciberras, Kim Portelli, Alec Sultana and Jesmar Cassar form part of the GEM 16+ student council. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

From left: Jesmar Gauci, James Sciberras, Kim Portelli, Alec Sultana and Jesmar Cassar form part of the GEM 16+ student council. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

The opening of the new Ġużé Ellul Mercer school (GEM 16+), which caters for students who did not obtain more than one O-level, was mired in controversy when the teachers’ union blasted the government for “bad planning” after the school failed to reach its target cohort of 240 students. Kim Dalli spent a few hours at the school and learned that, despite the poor planning, students feel they have a second chance at education after emerging from a system which failed them.

The facts

Location: Gżira

School hours: 8.30am-2.30pm

Current student cohort: 80

Ages: 16-21 years

Maximum number per class: 16

Staff members: 24

Subjects taught: Maltese, English, Maths, Physics, ECDL, PE and PSCD

Who is eligible: Students who obtained only one SEC subject between Grades 1 and 5 and those who possess subjects at Grades 6 or 7

Students see drastic difference

Seven 16 and 17-year-old students gather around a table and describe how they have drifted through a secondary school system which has failed to engage them and which has led to their self-confidence being slowly eroded by repeated failure at passing examinations.

They all use the same word to describe their secondary school years: “tgeġwiġija” (a mess). Yet they all describe the difference between their former schools and GEM 16+ as “drastic”.

“We are not just numbers here,” Jesmar Cassar says. “There is a connection with the teachers. They forge a bond with us and actually care about us as people.”

There is a connection with the teachers. They forge a bond with us and actually care about us as people

Christian Attard explains that since only the core subjects are taught, students only have five lessons to attend per day, as opposed to the 12 subjects taught at secondary level.

“In secondary school, the lessons were all crammed into each other, hardly allowing the brain to soak things up. Here we have more time, and we also have a10-minute break between lessons, in addition to our 55-minute break, which allows us some breathing space.”

Their only critique is a wish for an open door policy, since students are not allowed to wander out beyond the gates like students in other post-secondary schools.

Alec Sultana points out that choosing option subjects at Form 3 was untimely as, at that age, students were still too immature to make appropriate choices.

Kim Portelli explains that she dropped out of school at Form 3, defining the Maltese education system as too exam-oriented. She highlighted the need for a shift in focus to include skills and trade.

“Our success as individuals depends on us passing our exams, and on getting our O-levels. When we look at waste collectors, we turn up our noses at them and we assume they failed school. But the moment our waste is not collected, we complain.

“The more the education system forces itself on us, the more we will resist.”

She admits that she spent a period of her life lounging about at home, sleeping and browsing the Internet and Facebook but realised the futility of it.

“We would love to reach out to Form 5 students and tell them of this very positive experience. Students tend to feel a lot of pressure while undergoing their O-levels, constantly thinking: ‘What will happen to me if I fail?’ Knowing there is an option can put your mind at rest.

Teachers: turning mindsets

The experience of the post-secondary school was as novel for the teachers as for their students.

Maths teacher Amy Cutajar explains that she was very surprised at the students’ behaviour. The majority of the students did not have a single O-level to their name and yet they entered the school determined to work, obtain their O-levels and succeed.

Many of the students tended to be quiet children, who spent their secondary school years in the shadows, with their teachers barely knowing their names.

“Success levels can be measured in various ways,” Maltese teacher Karl Galea explains. “One might say that if they don’t pass their O-levels, then we would have failed. I don’t see it from that perspective. A student who attended classes, got that learning experience and continued to mature on a social level is a success.

“It’s very unfair that students are judged on whether they achieved their O-levels or not, as if not passing meant they were complete failures. We are here to break this trend and turn around a mindset which had been conditioned to believe they were failures.”

At the beginning of the scholastic year, students are asked to sit for a diagnostic test so that the teachers could identify each person’s weak areas and proceed to work on them. ECDL teacher Mar-Jean Muscat has just obtained the first results of her students. 15 students have passed, with the highest mark being 97.

“Some of these students had wept when I had asked them to sit for the diagnostic test. One of them didn’t even know how to react – it was the first time that she had passed a test.”

The teachers agree that the students should be allowed a greater degree of freedom, such as being permitted to leave the school premises like other sixth formers.

They also suggested that subjects such as languages could be taught through the medium of drama, pointing out that students were able to express themselves better through the arts.

Leader: individual attention

Programme leader Carmel Micallef had to deal with a series of hiccups and red tape along the way, including the way the entire project was rather hastily rolled out.

The school has a limited security system and lacks a hall porter. The tuck shop provider selected through the mandatory bidding system dropped out after realising that the limited number of students meant that business was not financially lucrative.

“The timing was not good. You can’t promote a new educational centre in summer. No one knew about it.”

He targeted three centres where students were being prepared for resits while a team from Matsec phoned up those students who were eligible to enrol in the programme.

He is determined not to replicate the students’ former education experience.

“The students have gone through life feeling they were failures. Our method is based on individual attention and an intensive approach.

“We also strive to identify the gaps in the previous system so as not to give them more of the same.”

Classes are mapped out in a way which encompass students of more or less the same ability and steers clear of differentiated teaching, allowing teachers to dedicate the time and space necessary to cater for the needs of different students.

“We are not expecting miracles. I’m not expecting everyone to get a Grade 4. But going from nothing to 7 is progress. Going from 7 to 6 is also progress.”

Mr Micallef explains that he is gauging areas which can be improved in the next scholastic year.

He would like to augment the number of Physics sessions per week as well as to include another subject, possibly Environmental Studies, to enable the students to leave the school with six O-levels which would in turn pave their way to access other post-secondary institutions.

He is also about to initiate discussions with MCAST to allow students emerging from GEM 16+ to skip having to go through the Foundation Years course and allowing them direct access to the course of their choosing.

“MCAST’s foundation course needs to be reviewed. They’re ending up pooling in more of the same – the same education system which ultimately failed them. I don’t want more of the same. If we do so, we’re doomed to fail.”

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