The Malta Independent 22 October 2018, Monday

First National Children’s Policy to be implemented by 2024

Gabriel Schembri Monday, 11 December 2017, 08:34 Last update: about 11 months ago

Consultation with over 300 children and a lot of data collection served as the basis for National Children’s Policy. This is the first time that the Maltese government worked on such a policy. Gabriel Schembri spoke with Darlene May Gauci, Research Analyst, Directorate General - Social Policy.

How did the policy come about?

Children have for long been considered a vulnerable group which need to be protected, supported and loved. Malta is a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child together with its three Optional Protocols, which demand the protection, provision and participation of all children. These principles also constitute the main underlying guiding principles of this Policy.

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Many issues urged this Directorate to undertake work on this Policy. Various national and EU studies and research concerning the rights and wellbeing of children were being published, continuously confirming the need for such a policy. Commitment towards the development of this policy was also driven by the need to address the at-risk-of-poverty or social exclusion rate of children which, as noted in the publication of the National Strategic Policy for Poverty Reduction and for Social Inclusion 2014-2024, stood at 32% (24,300) in 2013. Indeed, children constituted one of the main target populations of this national strategic policy.

 

Who was consulted before it was drafted?

The drafting of this National Children’s Policy involved extensive research on policies, strategies and best practices in other countries, as well as on international, EU and national frameworks. Furthermore, as evident in the Policy, we also engaged in an analysis of the data and studies concerning the different aspects of children’s lives through the help of the National Statistics Office (NSO) and the Directorate for Health Information and Research (DHIR) within the Ministry for Health.

In 2015, over 300 children aged between 4 and 17 years have been consulted with the help of the Ministry for Education and Employment. As one can notice from the Policy document which makes the disseminated questionnaires available to the general public, we did not only include open ended questions, but also encouraged children to express themselves through artistic means such as drawing, poetry or any other way they pleased. Such an approach is considered to be one of the strengths of this Policy since it captures the vast realities and experiences of children and their various needs, wants and aspirations.

Subsequently, the draft policy actions were issued for public consultation in September 2016 and we updated the draft according to the feedback received from different entities and stakeholders. As a result, this Policy has been drafted in close collaboration with various experts in the field of child wellbeing.

Same drafting also took into consideration the feedback derived from a public consultation carried out in 2011.

Is this the first time that Malta is engaging in such a policy?

This is the first National Children’s Policy for Malta. A number of efforts towards a National Children’s Policy were made since 2011 and at that time, a first draft was issued for public consultation. By 2012, feedback on this draft was processed and in view of this, in the years that followed, we committed ourselves to build on the efforts that had already been undertaken.

 

The WHO 2016 says that out of 42 countries, children aged between 13-15 years old have the highest rate of alcohol weekly consumption. Does the document address this?

Yes. It is important to consider that this Policy also complements the ‘National Youth Policy Framework 2015-2020’ which also addresses alcohol consumption and other addictive behaviour relating to young people within its action plan towards health and wellbeing. Additionally, problematic alcohol use is addressed through the ‘National Alcohol Policy’ which was published for public consultation in October 2016.

 

If yes, how?

Mainly, policy action 15 under the Health and Environment dimension, and policy action 11 under the Home Environment dimension address this. Under the Health and Environment dimension, policy action 15 clearly commits to “Enhance prevention, early detection, support and care with regards to smoking, alcohol, gambling and drug use among children.” Policy action 11 under the Home Environment dimension states “Strengthen the provision of support to families whose children require special attention due to certain conditions (e.g. mental health, addiction, disability, etc.) and/or situations (e.g. poverty, teenage pregnancy, etc.)”. In addition, there are many other actions across the five dimensions that are seen to also contribute to the prevention of excessive alcohol consumption, abuse and addiction, such as promoting healthy lifestyle patterns and providing age-appropriate activities and spaces for leisure, sporting and culture activities within communities.

 

Is it a case related to culture and which goes beyond education?

Educational measures alone are not sufficient deterrents to ensure that all children are discouraged to engage in excessive alcohol consumption. As I have accentuated in my reply to the previous question, all five dimensions namely home environment, social wellbeing, health and environment, education and employment as well as leisure and culture, are seen to contribute towards the prevention of alcohol consumption, abuse and addiction. Such multi-dimensional prevention, early detection, support and care are thought to be the ideal approach towards such issues as risky behaviour as well as the promotion of pro-social behaviour. As acknowledged in the Policy, all children are unique and thus subject to different backgrounds and risk factors. So, for example, school educational measures would be effective to a child that has a supportive home environment and that thus feels loved, supported, protected and cared for and is shown how to healthily recreate and how to effectively cope with the stressors of life, if any at such a tender age. However, other measures would probably be needed to help a child to grasp such concepts when they do not have such support. In addition, apart from initiatives addressed towards the decreasing demand through awareness raising and educational endeavors, the availability and supply of substances which may lead to addictive behaviour also needs to be regulated.

 

Is the Ministry concerned about these statistics?

The Ministry is very concerned with such statistics, and not only among children and adolescents, but also alcohol consumption, abuse and addiction among the adult population. In view of this, as mentioned above, in October 2016, the Ministry had issued a ‘National Alcohol Policy’ for public consultation. The final document of the National Alcohol Policy is planned to be published in 2018.

 

Some of the findings focus on education. Malta ranked first in the rating of how much children feel pressure from school work. Concretely what is going to change? Are there any timeframes?

Amongst others, different pedagogies and an inclusive school environment are being promoted through this Policy to enable all learners to flourish and attain their highest academic or vocational potential. It is important to note that 2024 is the general timeframe for the implementation of all policy actions and that the Office of the Commissioner for Children will be monitoring and evaulating the progress achieved over these next seven years. Such a timeframe also takes into consideration prioritisation.

The Ministry for Education and Employment which is a main stakeholder of the National Children’s Policy will be responsible for the implementation of a number of policy actions aimed at enhancing the formal and informal educational experience of children and young people.

 

How do you intend to involve other ministries, such as the Ministry of education to address such issues?

Through the policy actions proposed under the five dimensions, this policy clearly shows its intentions to involve other Ministries and relevant stakeholders. This Policy does not only aim to achieve an inter-ministerial commitment, coordination and partnership towards children’s rights and wellbeing, but also aims for all levels of society to be involved, hence besides the State, vital are the important roles of the family, the community and of children themselves.

A recent debate concentrated on the need to increase the working conditions of educators, teachers and LSAs. Will this help in improving a better educating environment for the children?

Proposals in the Policy to uphold high quality education and to foster an inclusive school environment amongst others, are seen as contributing towards a better educational environment for children as well as a working environment for educators.

 

One of the objectives listed mentioned the efforts to improve educational outcome of children coming from migrant families. How does the policy address this?

As any other child, migrant children are given importance through all the five dimensions of the Policy, not only in education where the provision of induction courses and early years’ education is to be strengthened. Together with the provision of protection as well as with an effort to combat discrimination and intolerance, and to promote the celebration of diversity, the educational measures that I have just mentioned, aim to facilitate the integration of migrant children and their positive outcomes both in the educational system and in society.

 

In your opinion, are we as a society, providing the proper educational and family environment for migrant children?

Whist the Policy is aimed at enhancing the wellbeing of all children, it also addresses particular attention to certain vulnerable populations, including migrant children. It also acknowledges that apart from migrant children, there are other groups of children that require specific attention such as children with disability, children experiencing mental health challenges, children with addictive behaviour or children living with persons experiencing such challenges or behaviour, children of imprisoned parents or children having imprisoned siblings, children in care, adolescent parents, LGBTIQ+ children and children from ethnic and religious minorities.

As with all these other groups of children, with regards to migrant children, I think that the Policy attempts to provide protection, educational support, support that enhances their family environment as well as support for their social inclusion in society. I think that as a society, there are still measures to be taken to sustain as well as to improve such efforts.  

 

Education starts at home. This is even mentioned in the policy. What kind of support can be provided for parents in today’s society to raise their kids in proper values and morals?

The Policy proposes a number of policy actions across the five dimensions in an effort to provide support for parents and even prospective parents to raise their children in pro-social values and morals. The Policy acknowledges that this could be achieved through strengthening community support units and efforts to enhance community involvement, promoting quality family time and meaningful interaction, strengthening support to families whose children require special attention, as well as efforts to prevent online abuse and bullying and to promote safe play and recreational spaces. The FSWS together with the LEAP! programme, which both form part of MFCS, are doing a lot of work in this field where different types of families are given support through positive parenting courses and other initiatives aimed for the family.

 

Even tough government after another embarked on a healthy eating campaign, obesity is still a major issue among our children. How is the national child policy going to address the issue?

Across the five dimensions, various efforts to promote healthy lifestyle choices among children and parents, including expectant mothers, are mentioned. Educators are also seen to play an important role in promoting healthy lifestyles among children. Moreover, other policy actions such as the provision of age-appropriate safe places to live, rest, play and learn, including playgrounds, youth cafes, sports centres and leisure centres, are also seen to combat obesity and promote healthy lifestyles among children. Healthy living is underpinned by having a clean, safe, enriching and child-friendly natural and urban public environment, and in this sense, health and wellbeing is seen as one encompassing goal aiming at the promotion of the holistic development of the child.

 

Objective number 15 speaks about the respect of children’s spiritual development. What does this entail exactly?

This Policy advocates for respect in all its forms. Spiritual development is also seen as a fundamental way of embracing respect for diversity, identity and dialogue, and for promoting empowerment, inclusion and the active involvement of children within society. It is also seen as an important aspect for nurturing children into active and responsible citizens who respect and appreciate all members of society. Thus, along with the development of social skills and the transmission of ethical values, children’s actions and behaviour are also guided and given meaning by spirituality, religion, and beliefs with the aim of promoting social cohesion.

 

The National Children’s Policy presents a lot of good ideas. But do you think that this will be enough? Certain principles are not even practiced by a lot of Maltese parents or adults. Should this document be accompanied by a parallel document for adults?

This Policy complements various other national reports, policies and strategies that directly or indirectly promote children’s prospects, such as the ‘National Strategic Policy for Positive Parenting 2016-2024’. It also complements ‘The Child Protection (Alternative Care) Act, 2017 (Chapter 569)’ and the revision of existing child-related regulations that integrates such legislation into one coherent legislative framework. The ultimate aim is a society which respects and values every child, and works towards the realisation of the full potential and wellbeing of all children. This Policy is not only seen as a vital investment for improving children’s wellbeing, but also that of society in general. With such a vision, the Policy not only aims to serve as a platform for guiding the development and implementation of strategies to promote child wellbeing for the coming years, but also to be an active and flexible instrument which adapts to changing needs and evolving contexts. The broad policy actions are envisaged to be translated into specific and realisable initiatives and subjected to ongoing monitoring and evaluation, a task which will be fulfilled by the Office of the Commissioner for Children.

 

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