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Evarist Bartolo

The most unkindest cuts of all' - (with apologies to Shakespeare)

6 January 2012, the Minister of Finance Tonio Fenech wrote to his colleagues to inform them that their ministerial budgets were being reduced.

Evarist Bartolo
26 March 2012, 12:00am
In document MF500/2012, Fenech tells ministers that these budget reductions are necessary not only because of the international economic situation but also because of "developments within the public finance sector". In public, government has never admitted that the review of the Budget for 2012 has had to be carried out because of the excessive deficit that the EU Commission drew attention to as government was in the final stages of drawing its Budget for 2012.

In his letter, Fenech tells his colleagues that by 12 January 2012 they have to indicate the individual line items from where the savings are to be registered. Minister Fenech tells his colleagues to revisit their programmes and draw up the necessary budget reductions. He insists that no ministry or government entity can exceed the reviewed budget.

Towards the end of the letter signed by him, Minister Fenech tells them: "The Ministry of Finance will continue to monitor and evaluate the dynamics of the evolving situation regularly in co-operation with each respective Ministry in order to ensure that the set targets are regularly and unfailingly met."

But in public, Minister Fenech has been giving a following a totally opposite line to what he said in his letter to all the ministers.

On 6 February 2012, Minister Fenech said that there will be no cuts in education, and that the government was going to wait until June 2012 to implement the €40 million spending cuts. He said these cuts would only go ahead if targets to reduce the deficit by the middle of the year are not reached. He insisted that health, education and other essential services will not be cut.

A month earlier (on 6 January 2012) he had already written to all the ministers - including those responsible for education, health and social welfare - ordering them to cut their budget with immediate effect. Out of the €40 million budget cuts, at least €17 million were to be in education, health and social welfare. Programmes in these areas are already being cut and the most vulnerable persons in society are the worst hit: the disabled, those who live in poverty, families and persons going through difficult times and children and teenagers facing educational failures.

Basic support services have been cut for these vulnerable people while money for receptions, consultants, salaries and allowances for fat cats and propaganda still flows freely.

On 6 March 2012, primary school teachers who do part-time work after school hours with the Foundation for Educational Services - which aims to help children who fall behind acquire basic literacy skills in Maltese and English - were told that the budget has been reduced by 5%, which means that the literacy programme has to shrink by 33% to remain within the newly reduced budget.

The contact time with these children has been reduced from 45 minutes to 30 minutes. Though the number of children in the programme has not been reduced the learning time for children has been reduced by more than 33%.

This is the email FES tutors received:

'Dear Coordinators and Tutors

'In line with national directives the FES budget has been decreased by 5%. This has had a direct impact on all programmes and services. In order not to affect the number of children benefitting from NWAR service provision and the impact of the programme, a management decision was taken to reduce the meeting time from 45 minutes to 30 minutes.'

On 6 January 2012, Minister Fenech wrote to the Minister of Education Dolores Cristina and told her that the budget for FES will be reduced by €22,000 (5%) from €450,000 to €428,000. On 10 January 2012, I addressed the media and asked government to say how the €40 million budget cuts were going to affect education. Soon after, the Ministry of Education issued a statement saying that there will be no cuts in education. On 6 February 2012, Minister Fenech himself said that there will be no cuts in education and that the cuts proposed were just precautionary and would only happen if budget targets are not met. They are not precautionary at all. They are immediate and the cuts are hurting the most vulnerable persons.

In a study carried out by Claudia Vallejo and Melinda Dooly of the University of Barcelona in November 2008, NWAR (Late Blossoms), is described as "an ongoing family literacy programme that aims to significantly reduce the prevalence of illiteracy in children from age 8 to 13 (late primary and early secondary levels) through an integrated approach.

"In fact, the NWAR programme has been included as one of the social exclusion prevention measures under the National Action Plan on Poverty and Social Inclusion of Malta. NWAR has an average of 40% mainstreaming rate after one year of provision, and almost all the children are usually ready for mainstreaming after two years of provision (FES 2004). Through the programme, those referred pupils considered 'unteachable' have gained literacy skills in a very short period. Students' fast learning has been attributed both to the innovative teaching methodologies and approach used by the NWAR tutors, and to the parents' active involvement in their pupils ongoing learning support process, thus positively influencing the informal curriculum of the home and enabling the capacity building of parents." (FES 2004).

Government has cut other programmes designed to help the most vulnerable children in our country at risk of education failure: Special Education Programme for Disabled (-2%), Implementation of Reform Programme in Education to increase the number of children who continue studying after 16 (-13%), Literacy  Initiatives (-4%), Education Initiatives (-14%), Child Care Centre (-4%), Learning Support Assistants in Private Schools (-13%), Afternoon School Programme (-30%), Let me Learn Project (-14%), Specific Learning Difficulty Unit for children with dyslexia (-14%), Development of Science centre to raise the very low number of children who take up science subjects (-71%).

Other cuts hitting children who are already at risk of poverty are in health: Primary Health Care (-33%), Strategy on Obesity (-10%) and Sexual Health Policy (-10%). Other cuts in social welfare will also hit our most vulnerable children: Fejda/St Jeanne Antide Programmes (-13%), Appogg (-5%) and Children and Young Persons Advisory Board (-5%).

All these cuts are already being enforced and they are already hurting the most vulnerable children in Malta and Gozo.

 Evarist Bartolo is shadow minister for education