In the fight against poverty

In the coming months I would like our schools to have a new code of discipline written in consultation with teachers, students and parents. After we have agreed on it we must then make sure that we enforce it.

We need to tackle bullying in schools. A local study published two years ago showed that pupils attending schools where bullying is common have a much higher risk of social, emotional and behaviour difficulties (SEBD). In the coming months I would like our schools to have a new code of discipline written in consultation with teachers, students and parents. After we have agreed on it we must then make sure that we enforce it.

The study, based on a survey of a sample of 486 Year 4 classes from a range of schools, was published in a book, Building Resilience in School Children - Risk and Promotive Factors amongst Maltese Primary School Pupils. The study was conducted by Carmel Cefai and Liberato Camilleri and also refers to worrying statistics about a high level of intimidating behaviour in schools. A study amongst OECD countries reported that almost half (48.8%) of lower secondary students in Malta intimidated or verbally abused other students, a figure which is significantly higher than the OECD average.

An HBSC study (WHO, 2008) reported that 13% of female and 26% of male students aged 13 engaged in frequent fighting. These percentages were much higher than the EU averages of 7% for girls and 21% for boys. Have they changed, and to what extent?

Cefai and Camilleri rightly concluded that bullying in schools was not a problem that affected only the pupils being bullied, but also the schools which promoted a peer culture where bullying became a natural part of the school's ethos and everyday behaviour.

They recommended that schools follow WHO recommendations for health promotion in schools, by developing a supportive school ethos and environment. While we promote literacy and strive to improve science and maths in schools, we cannot ignore the problems of bullying and discipline. How can we improve education if teachers are being left alone and finding it increasingly difficult to manage the behaviour of their students?

The study shows that 10% of school children were experiencing significant difficulties in their social and emotional development and were at significant risk of experiencing mental health problems.

The worrying findings emerged in a national study of Year 4 pupils attending 65 state and non-state primary schools. It was a follow-up to a study carried out four years ago on the same pupils when they were in Year 1. These findings are also included in the book by Carmel Cefai and Liberato Camilleri.

According to teachers and parents, between 7.8% and 9.4% of students in Year 4 have social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. The most common difficulties are those related to hyperactivity. Boys appear to be more vulnerable than girls.

Some of the factors that may put children at risk are schools with high levels of bullying, poor teacher-student relations, single-parent or two-parent families with high levels of conflict, stressed parents with low expectations of their children and parents with a low income.

In the four years between the two studies, little seems to have been done to improve matters. Comparing the same group of children (486) in Year 1 to when they were in Year 4, the study found that social problems and problems with same-aged children noted in the earlier study increased as the children grew older.

The authors urge the authorities to reduce bullying at school, support single parents, build closer relationships between the child, her teacher and peers, strengthen school-family collaboration and raise parental expectations for children.

To address all these issues we need very strong collaboration and a common approach between the health, education and welfare ministries, and we need to work also with civil society organizations like the Church and with people involved in fighting poverty.

Over the years several reports have shown that up to a third of children living in the Southern Harbour area are at risk of poverty, over nine per cent more than children at risk of poverty in other parts of the country. The Southern Harbour District includes all of Cottonera, Fgura, Floriana, Luqa, Marsa, Paola, Santa Lucija, Tarxien, Valletta, Xghajra and Zabbar.

Recent Eurostat figures show that there are around 22% of young people under the age of 18 living at the risk of poverty in Malta and Gozo.

Figures of children at risk of poverty in the other five geographical districts are all under 22%, the lowest being the southeastern and southwestern districts at 17.2%, with localities like Zejtun, Siggiewi, Zurrieq, Rabat and Attard.

The Survey on Income and Living Conditions published by the National Statistics office has shown that two out of three children living in a household where nobody was working were at risk of poverty, suggesting that social benefits do not meet basic needs. At greatest risk of poverty were children in single-parent households, with more than half of these falling below the at-risk threshold.

We cannot run our schools and have an education policy as if children at risk do not exist. We need effective policies and measures to ensure that schools make a difference in the lives of these children, to lift them out of poverty.

But schools cannot address all the problems caused by poverty, and the government needs an effective action plan to tackle the problems of poverty in our midst.


Evarist Bartolo is Minister for Education