Dear Minister…

‘Onwards and upwards’, as the idiom goes. Hon. Justyne Caruana’s post after her resignation has been replaced, and the portfolio for the Ministry of Education will be now held by the Hon. Clifton Grima. The young politician first became prominent when he entered Parliament in the year 2015, before occupying this role held the role of Parliamentary Secretary for Sport. But is youth a guarantee of innovation and efficacy?

In the last 4 years the post of Minister for Education has been changed four times – arguably, while this is frustrating, this could very well be a chance to rebrand the Education portfolio and put to work and prioritise the education of our children for the future.

It is of course, natural, to have certain expectations of a new person taking such a position. The question however is, how realistic are these expectations for the given situation?

In this contribution, we will be looking at a few important things which, from a third party’s perspective as always, need polishing up and should be put first when considering the nexus that is education and all its branches.

So, without further ado, Dear Minister, here is what we have to say:

1. Reap the lessons you have learnt from the pandemic

Something quite infuriating which has been coming up in civilised conversation is university students enraged by the recent decision by the new Minister, after several talks, to keep examinations online on campus, the same applies for lectures. When one looks at comments on news portal posts which address the need by students for examinations to remain online- while some comments are sympathetic, others tend to demonise this need, by branding students as lazy and stomping their feet for “not getting what they want”.

At present, COVID-19 positive cases have hit the 12,000 mark. There still seems to be this train of thought that students of higher education care more about going out and getting inebriated, whilst studies are the least of one’s priority and the work is not really put in with much effort. This train of thought is insulting to students who try their utmost in their academic rigour. A student should not be branded as lazy for not wishing to subject themselves to COVID-19, or for wishing to have their examinations, which ultimately determine their final ranking and potential future opportunities, in an environment which they feel safe in.

Concerns of plagiarism and collusion often come back as the argument against online examinations and lectures – but, logically speaking, shouldn’t the same procedure as though this would have happened pre-pandemic follow? The act is still against policy in nature, the same procedure should follow.

2. Education is not a one size fits all package

I have vague memories of my time doing O’level exams. What terrorised me personally, and many others was the Mathematics Ordinary Level exam.

While Mathematics does teach one analytical and problem-solving skills if you will, a type of dyslexia, more commonly known as dyscalculia can complicate matters. This condition is something which I have personally witnessed in colleagues taking the examinations, destroying themselves because of one bad grade, only to find out that the issue was not their mathematical capability rather, something which they cannot control.

The British Dyslexia Association defines ‘dyscalculia’ as a specific and persistent difficulty in understanding numbers which can lead to a diverse range of difficulties with mathematics. It goes to say that the age, level of education and experience of the individual is immaterial, as it can occur across all ages and abilities.

Another issue which, friends have spoken to me about in civilised conversation is how it is still beyond them that if their children have to re-do a failed examination, at Ordinary Level Standard, the marks given during the Supplementary Session are graded as ‘4, 5, 6, and 7’ rather than the ones awarded in the Main Session, which are range from ‘1 to 7’, with a ‘1’ proving the highest achievable mark and a ‘7’ being the lowest.

It would be ignorant of one to assume and speak about the education sector and preach expertise when there is anything but. However, this stems from a concern and empathy for students who despite trying their best on their second chance, their efforts would be subjected to a lower grade than that actually achieved.

Shouldn’t improvements for better marks be awarded? And shouldn’t students who have done better, when before the circumstances may have not permitted, be allowed to redeem themselves and get the chance to polish up their grade? 

3. Give teachers what they deserve

A recent problem which has come to light is the lack of teachers available in primary state school classrooms, as well as the starting salary of a teacher in Malta. A study carried out in 2019 by Eurydice shows that the average Maltese teacher earns more than a teacher in Portugal and just below what a teacher earns in Italy.

Could this be finally time to review the current situation and make a revision for future consideration?

In the previously discussed EY Generate Youth Survey, one of the ideas brought forward by young people for a brighter future is to push education to the max. This sentiment is evidently not just held with educators and parents, but by the young generations themselves. They are of the belief that the teaching profession should be appreciated more, and that the teacher’s salary should mirror their responsibility.

4. The arts should also be prioritised

A recent study carried out by the Malta Arts Council produced a shocking statistic which aimed to research into the perceptions of audiences. Different factors were studied, such as attendance to arts and culture events prior to the pandemic, average yearly spend on arts and culture events prior to the pandemic and in-person attendance following the initial quasi-lockdown. The results were lamentable, to say the least, with very few people showing interest or attending arts and cultural events. From this, one might ask, where have we gone wrong?

To put the thought to rest, an appreciation for the fine arts is by no means a sign of elitism. If anything, just like education, through art we can take the opportunity to learn about ourselves, the things that surround us and gain a general appreciation for things which have intrinsic beauty and develop a sense of appreciation for everything which we may come across in the course of life.

Let me give a short example. Below is a painting of a bunch of asparagus by Edouard Manet, painted in 1880. Now let us imagine a couple, who have been living alongside together for years and have grown a sense of boredom towards being in each other’s company, assuming that they know everything there is to know about each other. And yet, even couples who have been married for 40 years still do not know everything about their partner.

If we want to overcome boredom, we should look at our partners with interest and be open to what stories they might have to say to us. Consider the below painting, for some this might just be a bunch of fresh asparagus tied together, the artist however perceived this differently.

In the image before him, he saw colour and reproduced an object of colour and of its own personality. So, although this might be mundane for some, or an object standing in the fridge, waiting to be cooked as desired, he saw something else and made it his mission to enquire about the object laying before him. With that same approach, we can apply that to things and scenarios which we might come across in our walk of life.

How is this related to the subject at hand? We do not learn this because our schools make it their mission to enrich us about history of art, but because some of us are lucky enough to be self-taught about these things and as a result, apply these skills in different facets of our life, including our relationships.

So, is enough being done to teach the arts?

Students should not have to wait until they arrive to tertiary education to be taught Systems of Knowledge, a compulsory unit in which Arts and Aesthetics is taught as a module. Arts and humanities should be slowly incorporated in the students’ journey through education and as a result, aid in developing life-long skills.

The quantitative number of monthly stipends and the annual maintenance grants of students who pursue arts and humanities courses are lower than those awarded to students taking in courses in sciences and/or medicine. In no way are we putting a hierarchy here, but we should also consider the expenses of both future professions. Just like a doctor needs his stethoscope, the artist needs to buy software for their illustrations and design.

So that being said, Dear Minister, congratulations are due on your tenure. However, one hopes that the above considerations, all in good taste might I add, are at least read and discussed. I hope that suggestions and concerns are treated as constructive, rather than obstructive.

I hope you give students the chance to be listened to and take them seriously.

I hope that investment is put where it is really merited, that is, in the potentiality of the student’s ability to go forward and flourish and that education for every child is one of quality standard.

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