Older students, better workforce?

An edited version of this post was published on www.timesofmalta.com.

Education minister Evarist Bartolo has just mentioned the unmentionable: raising the compulsory school-age from 16 to 18. A proposal that I applaud, because I genuinely believe that the more emotionally mature you are when you’re ‘kicked out’ of the system, the greater the likelihood of pursuing a fulfilling career or vocation.

To put it in politically incorrect terms, those who leave school to enter the world of full-time employment as soon as they are legally allowed to,  rarely move on to a decent standard of living.

A few do, and these are the lucky, highly-motivated ones with specific talents/abilities that are out of the ordinary. The rest fall into a vicious circle of untrained waitressing/labouring jobs.

Nothing wrong with taking these two latter routes, of course, were it not for the word ‘untrained’. Whatever employment you aspire to, training is nowadays a must. Pursuing the right vocational training at one of the educational institutes is always a better option than leaving school clueless and having to lump it with whatever is offered.

But will this measure be enough to improve literacy standards in the country? I would say it’s highly unlikely. In Malta we have a saying – il-ħuta minn rasha tinten. The idiomatic translation would be something along the lines that the problem needs to be addressed at its source.

The fact that many 16-year-olds leave school without an adequate education is not the source of the problem. Rather, it is a symptom of a bigger problem within the whole system.

By the time a student turns 16, their educational formation is pretty much complete. You can, of course, polish it up with the addition of another couple of years, so that the student can be guided towards more informed career options.

However, what the system has not managed to drill into the student in 12 odds years, it will not manage to do so in those extra two. In other words, if said student is still semi-illiterate at 16, those extra two years will make little to no difference.

When the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) survey was published, Malta ranked 35th out of 45 countries with respect to reading and writing literacy among 10-year-olds.

If these 10-year-olds have not yet grasped the basics by this age, what is the likelihood that they will manage to do so when they’re 16, or 18? None at all, unless the problem is identified and extra educational help is offered.

Only, it rarely is. What usually happens is that semi-illiterate students continue scraping through secondary school until they suddenly have to find a job and support themselves in a society where it’s no longer acceptable to be untrained/unqualified. Whether this happens when they are 16 or 18 makes little difference to the outcome.

You might, of course, plead that statistics mean nothing. I’d be inclined to agree with you, were it not for the fact that I do not need any PIRLS survey to tell me what my own eyes witness on a daily basis.

It is no secret that Malta’s literacy levels have plummeted in the past decade. The evidence is everywhere. A quick roam on Facebook reveals reams upon reams of misspelt comments, poor syntax and even poorer social nous (yes, the latter should also be part of education).

Of course, such things are excusable and expected on the informal platform of social media. On the other hand, in the real world they are most certainly not. Yet, most emails and job applications I see are replete with the kind of errors that are not typos, but that point towards a lack of understanding of the language.

It doesn’t take Einstein to figure out that the problem within the education system lies at a deeper level than the actual school-leaving age. Maybe education is just not taken as seriously as it used to be.

Although I hesitate to write this, because I do know that the large majority of teachers carry out their job professionally and with dedication, it still pains me to see the way some other members of the profession behave on social media. Suffice it to say that poor spelling and syntax is not limited to students.

Of course, the literacy problem will not be solved by pointing towards individual components of the system. What is needed is a good rehaul, which is why I look forward to seeing how the recently unveiled Education Strategy Plan 2014-2024 will be implemented.

In the meantime, giving the kids a couple of extra years at school might not be the worst idea ever. Provided you can actually get them to comply, of course.