Take three for education – challenges of the sector | Marco Bonnici

We have seen too much unjust criticism of the work of educators during the pandemic. My appeal to the new minister is to value educators, acknowledge all the good work and act hand in hand to address the challenges that we face

During the last weekend we had the third Minister for the education sector for 2020, with the Prime Minister announcing Hon. Justyne Caruana replacing Hon. Owen Bonnici after merely ten months. Minister Bonnici had, at the time, replaced long-standing Minister Evarist Bartolo, who has been Education Minister since the start of the PL’s first legislature in 2013.

Many were taken by surprise about this change, particularly due to the fact that Hon. Bonnici has led the education sector during the unprecedented situation of the pandemic which has seen the closure of schools in March and their difficult reopening, with a number of health and safety measures, in October.

A new chapter brings new challenges, but there is no reset button in education. The new minister, who surely has new ideas and proposals for the sector, must first take stock of the current situation. The education sector had its struggles before the pandemic, and these were either shelved due to COVID-19 or else they became even more challenging since March. Unless these are managed, there is no way that educators shall accept to move on and to implement new proposals and ideas. I shall be outlining some of these many challenges.

Shortages

The shortage of educators is a factor which must not be overlooked, even if schools are seemingly managing. The implementation of health protocols has seen two major changes, which has reduced the impact of teacher shortage. Changes in timetables in secondary and the temporary suspension of a number of services in primary has seen shortages being filled by existing teachers. However, all this is a temporary measure and the post-COVID period shall see this problem re-emerge possibly with more intensity.

Similarly, during the pandemic we have seen several vacancies, including LSEs, being filled by employees who lost their original employment in other sectors. Whilst this addressed some of the difficulties of the sector, it cannot be viewed as a longstanding accomplishment. These employees may easily return to their former employment or expertise following the pandemic, leading to an increase in shortages.

Training

Several measures were implemented in the past years to address training needs of educators, both to access education grades and for retraining. Whilst a number of courses are being offered to access education grades, some of which are also being offered during the evening, we still lack sufficient training opportunities for educators to improve their respective positions. The situation of supply grades is still not being addressed well, with many educators in these grades not having opportunities to improve their qualifications despite their will to undertake courses. Whilst the Faculty of Education at the University of Malta is the leading teacher-training institution, the Institute for Education and MCAST are also running accredited courses which are well recognised. A number of training institutions have also joined the field in the past years, and this change requires synergy with checks and balances to be in place.

Reforms

Education has experienced periods of ongoing changes. A term once coined by a former shadow minister, ‘reform fatigue’ is still being experienced. Reforms have however continued despite the claim that changes are being made to address previous shortcomings of the system. There is room for consolidation of reforms but certainly no room for a rat-race of new reforms brought about simply by a change in minister. A shortcoming which persists to date is the analysis of reforms. No proper such analysis of reforms in education has been undertaken, and the latest research to try to address this, which was being carried out by Prof. Mark Borg, was halted early this year when there was the first change in minister.

Conditions of work

This aspect is central to the work of the MUT and its ongoing discussions with the ministry. There are agreements which are still pending, and their closure is necessary to improve conditions of work of affected grades. During the past year we experienced two factors which have delayed negotiations and hence the closure of agreements. The first was the change in leadership at the start of the year and the second was the pandemic. Both were, at least, excuses brought about by respective government officials to delay negotiations. However, on the other hand, we have seen that the same excuses did not halt the conclusion of a number of agreements in other sectors. The MUT is therefore pushing forward for the current pending agreements to be concluded at the earliest not to discriminate between sectors and employees.

In conclusion, we have seen too many unjust criticisms of the work of educators during the pandemic. My appeal to the new minister is to value educators, acknowledge all the good work and act hand in hand to address the challenges that we face.

I take the opportunity to thank outgoing education minister Owen Bonnici and to welcome the new education minister, Justyne Caruana.

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