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Rethinking Maltese exams

The government has recently proposed having two alternative versions to the current Secondary Examination Certificate (SEC) in Maltese. One would be an ‘applied’, vocation-oriented version while the other would be a foreign language version.

Almost predictably, the organisations that promote Maltese, and who almost all gravitate around the University of Malta, have responded with outrage at anything that could upset the status quo.

They say that current multi-level assessment measures already cater for different student abilities. They also imply that this move is meant to make life easier for the vocal minority of English-speaking Maltese who, they claim, see no value in having balanced bilingual competence.

In some ways, this is a storm in a tazza tè. But it also points to deeper issues that have been left languishing for years.

The government is right to point out that it is unacceptable that the national average pass rate of sitting students in their Maltese SEC is around 60 per cent. This works out at much less than half the whole cohort in State schools. Private schools, where most of foreign and Maltese English-speaking students attend, have a much better Maltese exam results record. Indeed, what is inexplicable is how this sorry state of affairs has not been effectively challenged and addressed years ago by the said pro-Maltese organisations.

In his article in today’s edition of The Sunday Times of Malta, below, Education Minister Evarist Bartolo insists that his proposal is about ensuring that many more students achieve an acceptable level of competence in Maltese. The core issue is not some sort of anti-Maltese linguistic snobbery but greater access to lifelong learning. Mr Bartolo rightly points out that currently, entry into courses at the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (Mcast) and the Institute of Tourism Studies (ITS) does not have Maltese as a compulsory requirement.

Why has this not raised the ire of the pro-Maltese organisations before now? Why is it that the current Maltese SEC has effectively become a gate-keeper for entry into the University but that this was not deemed to be important for students who continue their lifelong journey outside the University?

The situation with foreign nationals is less clear-cut. It all depends at what age the student has started to learn Maltese. Primary school children should be fully immersed in the language and, barring particular learning difficulties, should have no problem attaining second-language competence, which is higher than the foreign-language competence the government is aiming for.

On the other hand, the University does waive the Maltese requirement for students who have not studied Maltese for a sufficient length of time. Foreign nationals who are not aiming to continue their post-secondary education in Malta should still learn Maltese, albeit in a communicative approach that is hardly possible with the present SEC syllabus requirements.

So, the government should not be blamed for finally taking some sort of action. The devil, as always, is in the details. For example: how are schools going to differentiate between ‘Maltese’ students who are not allowed to undertake a foreign-language Maltese programme and the rest? By their nationality? This raises all sorts of potential cul-de-sacs for schools.

But there is a deeper question with respect to the proposed ‘applied’ vocationally oriented Maltese examination. Is this the right action to take to improve Maltese language competence across the board?

This is not the first time that government has been accused of seeking to ‘inflate’ competence by accepting lower educational standards. The government’s tri-partite ‘solution’ for Maltese examinations has the same segregationist DNA as the ‘My Journey’ policy of dividing State secondary school students into ‘academic’, ‘vocational’ and ‘applied’ streams.

This paper has already expressed its reservations with ‘My Journey’ since it seeks to address the symptoms of lack of academic competence after six years of primary schooling, rather than the causes. And the causes lie in the quality of the educational journey of many of our children in their first 10 years of life.

What government should be directing its energies to is a roots-and-branch review of how Maltese is being taught and assessed in our schools, with a special focus on its own primary schools. It is not simply a question of better resources, as the pro-Maltese organisations seem to imply. In turn, this could well question how Maltese teacher training is being done at the University, and how Maltese SEC examinations should be structured to assess communicative competence, not arcane knowledge.

The government must be careful not to mistake knee-jerk activism for the sound, planned and resourced comprehensive action that our schools need and our students deserve to ensure full competence in Malta’s national language.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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