The Malta Independent 17 October 2019, Thursday

Other countries have not done multiculturalism right – Evarist Bartolo

Jeremy Micallef Sunday, 22 September 2019, 10:15 Last update: about 25 days ago

The new scholastic year is upon us and the government is looking at ways to build on the previous year’s eventful scholastic year. Jeremy Micallef talks to Education and Employment Minister Evarist Bartolo about schools, transport and the impact that the rapid influx of students is having on the sector.

As far as details go, for example, the total number of students - whether there is a waiting list or anything of the sort - we know that at the end of the last scholastic year there were 170 students on the waiting list. In addition, there were also problems with some school transport routes that may not have been serviced - although this may have been due to logistical issues from the independent and/or church schools. What is the current situation with regard to these issues?

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All I can tell you is that the number of transport operators has increased dramatically. 

If we take last year, when it came to the non-state sector, we started with double-digit operators - about 18. By the end of the year, this had grown to 170 and now, at the beginning of this school year, they are at 254. Outreach has also increased.

Last year we were carrying 13,900 non-state students. This year that 13,900 has already increased to 14,621 as a result of students who previously did not have access to free transport now having such access. As there are more operators we are going to be reaching more students.

Last year we spent 25 million euros on the scheme, both for the state and non-state sectors, with an average benefit of 700 euros per student per year for parents.

One of the things that we have noticed is that it has had a positive environmental impact due to having fewer private cars in concentrated areas taking children to school.

There was also the pilot project for a monitoring application...

This is moving slowly - we want to launch it when we are sure that it is working properly and so we are extending the pilot project. We are moving very cautiously and gradually because the system depends so much on security and trust and we want to be sure that we can deliver both. 

What we will be concentrating on in the 2019-2020 scholastic year is extending the pilot project - it is still too early to have a national launch.

  

A pledge was made to construct four new schools and renovate or upgrade a further nine. Focusing specifically on the construction of new schools, at what are we at right now?

As promised, the Qawra School will open during the 2019/2020 scholastic year.

I am not saying this as a consolation or an excuse, but simply to explain: the two major issues were the moratorium on building sites and the unfortunate fatal accident of the person who died on site.

I repeat, we will be in a position to have part of the school operating as a kindergarten during the 2019/2020 scholastic year.

What about the situation in Victoria?

Our initial intention was to do something near the bus terminus but this was rejected because we were told that it would not be the best site - not necessarily because of the pollution in the area, but also because the site itself contained a lot of clay and simply stabilising the building would have cost as much as the building itself.

We then decided that the best site would be to construct it as part of the Gozo campus. Ideally, this should not have been an issue if a decision to turn the secondary school there into a primary school had been made years ago. But it was then closed down and, unfortunately, parts of it were demolished.

Now we finally know where the site is and a rather interesting design has been presented because we want to make sure, as much as possible, that schools are designed to be schools and not just buildings to serve as schools.

So what happened? A Roman quarry has been discovered and now we have to redesign the building to incorporate the archaeological findings within the school.

It has delayed our project further but we want to move ahead because the children in Gozo deserve a better primary school.

Considering the dramatic increase in the number of students, and the fact there are going to be two new schools and renovation work on the existing schools, are you confident that we will have enough space for all the students? Or to eventually be preventative rather than reactionary?

It all depends on the number of students. What has happened demographically is that you have fewer students in the south, and more students in the north because of the declining birth rate, but the number of students who have come from other countries, accompanied by their parents who moved here to work, has evened this out.

We want to make sure that we are in a position to accommodate the students.

So far we are in a position to do so, but it is a challenge.

 

Touching on the culture in general in schools, last year we saw a number of reports of aggressive behaviour in schools involving teachers, parents and students, both foreign and local, to the point that the unions even called for increased security. Apart from legislation to increase fines, is anything else being done about this?

Let's talk frankly about this. First of all, people shouldn't blow things out of proportion and dramatise them - why does this happen? A report has been carried out by the Commissioner for Children on the experience of children in different schools. This showed that 75 per cent of our students have a positive reaction to the fact that there are students from different countries studying with them. It is a pity that what was emphasised was that 25 per cent of children have issues with this, but to have 75 per cent of children accepting it is good.

The incident to which you refer was one incident in a school. There were other issues in that school and it was not just the presence of foreign students. We are now in a position to say that we are quite optimistic that we can deal with what happened. The situation could have been handled better: for example, emphasising the fact that dealing with these things is a learning experience.

I want to make this very clear, because one thing that is stressing our teachers, assistant school heads and heads is bad behaviour and a lack of discipline. We want to make sure that we do what is needed to support more good behaviour and discipline in our schools.

Steps have been taken to increase security in Pembroke and we have plans to increase security in other schools as well. There will be a receptionist who can handle situations, but we do not want to turn our schools into fortresses. We will not say things such as: "because they come from a different culture" because we need to learn to live together in a civilised manner.

We have recently seen talk of hiring foreign teachers to make up for the shortage. In the same way that there seems to be a need for more schools because of an increase in the number of students, we are also now seeing a need for more teachers. This all seems to point towards the fact that we were not expecting such an increase in students.

Let us not exaggerate: there are still several subjects for which we have a shortage of teachers and we are working to try and increase the number of teachers in place. The numbers are small and we are doing everything we can to begin the school year without shortages.

We brought up the topic of recruiting teachers from other countries just in case we need to do so: our first, second, third and fourth preference is to continue recruiting local teachers and there will never be a situation where we are keeping out local teachers instead of foreign teachers.

One thing I want to point out is that we already have foreign teachers in non-state schools. All we are saying is that if we need them in state schools, we should be able to recruit them.

We want both students and teachers to be proficient in Maltese, even if they come from a different country, and they must respect our local culture, our identity and our language.

We believe in diversity and we believe in inclusion, but it has to be within the framework of human rights. I do not believe in laissez-faire multiculturalism:  that you justify behaviour, such as homophobia, because you come from a different culture, religion or country.

Some countries do not have this right because when you start giving up on the rights for your country - to obtain which you have worked hard - and you bring people in from different countries where that level of civil rights has not been reached, then it is they who should upgrade themselves to accept the culture instead of the country regressing to when it did not have those civil rights.

There have been suggestions to increase wages or create more incentives to encourage people towards the teaching profession. Can we expect any budget measures in this area?

First of all, the new agreement reached with the MUT was an improvement on the previous working conditions - both in terms of their take-home pay and their career progression.

I inherited a situation where, for 25 years, the teaching profession had been allowed to lag behind. I would have preferred to inherit a different situation so that the improvements that we have brought about would have been better.

We have moved from 19,000 in 2015 to 23,000 in 2019, and eventually to 25,000 in 2021, and when it comes to the maximum grade, we have moved from 25,000 in 2015 to 31,000 in 2019, and eventually to 34,000 in 2021.

Other than that, we need to improve the lives of teachers when it comes to workload and paperwork.

There is going to be a serious study into the workload of teachers in terms of preparing different programmes for different levels in the same year.

One of the measures that we are discussing as a means of encouraging people to enter the teaching profession is that when students are working in schools as their teaching practice component, they will not simply be paid a stipend but will receive a  proper wage.

 

Interview photos: Alenka Falzon

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