State schools should not be the Cinderella of education

When it comes to financial resources, state schools should not be the Cinderella of education, because from its constant propaganda it is clear that this administration always manages to find enough money for other, less urgent, projects

As the debate over whether schools should revert back to online teaching continues to rage, it has become apparent that there is a cultural divide in the management mindset between state schools and independent schools, with church schools hovering somewhere in the middle.

In the run up to the opening of the scholastic year, my newsfeed was replete with photos from independent schools proudly showing how they have prepared to welcome back their students to a safe, hygienic, COVID-ready environment. In contrast, I only saw a few state-run schools doing the same.

Now some will argue that private schools, because of their very nature, are committed to proving to parents that they are getting their money’s worth so to speak, and this is understandable. One needs to slice off a hefty chunk from one’s income to be able to send children to private schools for the duration of their obligatory education.

Some parents are even willing to keep paying to see their children through a further two years of Sixth Form until their A-levels are done and dusted. The considerable expense of a private education means that the administrators at these schools are keenly aware that parents who are willing to fork out so much money for schooling will not hesitate to pull their children out of that school if they are not happy with how it is being run. Independent schools also have a supreme advantage because they are completely autonomous and can make certain decisions without the need for an official stamp of approval.

In contrast, our state-run educational sector, which provides free education to all, is still too centralised, and never was this made more obvious than in the last month. From what I could tell, school management teams were unable to forge ahead with certain decisions because they were waiting for instructions from the Department of Education. The latter, for reasons only known to itself, dilly-dallied all summer until the very last minute, before they sprang into action and started clearing out classrooms, installing hand sanitisers and re-arranging desks and chairs.

What I wonder is, why could not a head of school simply go ahead and start implementing the measures which we all know by heart to get their school ready? Would they have been reprimanded and penalised for doing so? Without any autonomy everyone seemed paralysed into inaction, waiting and waiting and waiting, as parents became more frantic because they did not know what was happening and what would happen once the school gates re-opened.

I stand to be corrected, but from what I was told, not all schools were communicating enough with parents, leaving the latter completely at a loss right until the last minute.

It is true that many private schools have a smaller school population and much larger grounds, which has allowed them to divide classes into smaller groups and in some cases, even hold classes outdoors.

But despite catering for more students, even some state schools are quite large, so I still cannot understand why the same thing could not have been done and the necessary solutions found well before schools re-opened. It makes me wonder whether the Education Minister was valiantly hoping that the numbers would suddenly shrink and that all his problems would vanish with them.

The same applies to online learning: why did independent schools figure out a way to offer the option while state schools are only providing Teleskola, which are recorded lessons that require a very hands-on parent? Is it (as some claim) because the Minister insisted that he wants all children back at school so by not providing virtual lessons enabling children to interact with a teacher in real time, he is basically ‘forcing’ parents to send their children physically to school?

I hasten to add that this is not to knock Teleskola, because after taking a look at what is being provided it seems quite good. There is an easy to understand tutorial and the website is user-friendly. But, and this is a big but, this is relying on the premise that the guardian or parent is computer literate and will be helping the child with the lesson, using the vast content which has been diligently uploaded by educators.

We simply cannot assume that the children being kept at home have guardians/parents with the required literacy to help them with this. Apart from literacy, anyone sitting down with a child to do these lessons must have a bucket-load of extreme patience and the inclination to teach. But just as teachers often tell us that they are not mere babysitters (I agree), likewise most parents are not teachers either.

What has struck me the most from all the photos I have seen, however, is the contrast between the environment in which free education is taught compared to that which comes at a high cost. When it comes to financial resources, I do not see why state schools should be the Cinderella of education, because from its constant propaganda it is clear that this administration always manages to find enough money for other, less urgent, projects. Surely it can dig deep and find money to make its schools the best in the country, not only by ensuring that they are aesthetically pleasing but, especially during this pandemic, that they are supplied with everything they need to keep students and teachers safe.

I realise that most state schools do start off quite pleasant-looking and well-equipped, such as the one which has just been opened in Qawra, but like anything else, it is the constant upkeep and maintenance which really counts. If a school is shabby, children who attend it will not be able to muster any pride in going there, and the ‘stigma’ of state-run schools will continue to be perpetuated. It is the responsibility of the government to break away from this unnecessary (and often unfounded) stigma, and never has this been more necessary than now, when the education of this generation is at such a delicate turning point.

No magic formula

I have bored myself to tears writing about COVID-19 and the measures we should all be taking, and which we should be reciting in our sleep by now. So I will spare you any further ennui except to point out that, apart from COVID-fatigue, the main problem seems to be that many cannot accept that there is no magic formula to end this situation.

I think we have become so used to finding a quick fix or a short cut for everything, that it seems incomprehensible, not to mention unacceptable, that the same three things Prof. Charmaine Gauci keeps repeating are the only things we have (save for the eventual vaccine). Sure, some real enforcement would be nice, but basically, it always boils down to wear a mask, wash your hands and keep social distance. I do not know what else people expect her to say, really. Mundane as they are, they are simple enough instructions but seem to be elusively out of our grasp.

Much like we have become used to snapping our fingers to get instant gratification, whether it is for a takeaway or a taxi or an Amazon package at our door, or our favourite shows instantly available on demand, the concept that we have to wait and that this thing is not in our control is something many cannot take. Ironically, the only thing which is in our control, which is our own behaviour, is not even factored into the equation at all.

So while social media is awash with calls for the government to DO something (close schools! lockdown! harsh fines!) I will bet my bottom dollar that if anything of the sort is done, we will backpedal more furiously than a cartoon character once it starts to affect us.

And yet, the three little things being requested of us continue to elude us, and all sorts of excuses are made as to why they are not do-able. I guess it’s just easier to keep pointing fingers.

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