A miracle at Paola

It’s about time that we have an educational experience that caters for each and every person

Over the past few years we’ve started to introduce more diverse pathways to accommodate the different potential abilities of our children
Over the past few years we’ve started to introduce more diverse pathways to accommodate the different potential abilities of our children

I’d like to share with you a note which the head of school of the Alternative Learning Programme received from the mother of one of his students:

“Miracles happen everyday. Before I had lost all hope on my daughter continuing her studies, let alone attend school. This school was like a miracle in my daughter’s life. I saw this from the first month. There was a big change in her, she wakes up happy in the morning. This was never the case before. She is always mentioning how nice and sweet the staff members are and I’m so happy she will be graduating from her welding training course. She even sat for her ‘O’ levels and passed. She’s starting school again at MCAST. I’d like to thank everyone at the school for being so helpful and for the effort. She would have never reached her aims without you. You made her believe in herself again.”

Absenteeism in schools is one of those topics of which a lot has been written about over the years. People look down on children who, for some reason or another, don’t want to have anything to do with school. Their families are looked down on too. What was missed along the years was the huge elephant in the room. What if the whole set-up is not ideal for this individual?

There was also the logic behind some of the rules which was, to say the least, questionable. In the past, a student who misbehaved faced an exclusion, where the student is expelled for a day or two. At the same time the authorities were ready to take parents (and, indirectly, the child) to court if the student missed a day of school without justification. I’ve never understood the logic of this punishment. If not going to school is inherently wrong because it strips one from an education, why have we used it as a form of punishment?

This kind of thinking was questioned in classrooms, but somehow it never reached the decision-makers. Through exclusion, the school and the authorities would be washing their hands of responsibilities towards that young individual. So, we ask our children to sit down for long hours of schoolwork, fail to engage them in any colourful way but then we want them excluded from school when they rebel. And some will invariably do, whether acting out or tuning out, because the day-to-day process doesn’t fit each and every person.

As adults, some people are more inclined towards the arts, others are mechanical or like sports and others are really good at solving mathematical tasks. Some prefer to work quietly on their own while others work better in teams. We’re all different and that is the beauty of our lives – the diversity of our personalities and traits. So why are we treating our children as if there is only one kind of personality? I think, long ago, there was a sense that children were underestimated. 

Decision-makers back in the day saw children as a unit, without opinions, without personalities and without an independent mind. So the school structure was based on the military one, which in turn, was always looking to produce soldiers without opinion, personality and an independent mind. This system is still the fabric of today’s educational system, at least in most countries.

Let us not kid ourselves, it has produced results. The world’s economic and financial growth has improved because of this educational system. But there was a huge cost – a good chunk of children simply did not fit in this model. They’re the round pegs. We’ve accepted this cost over the past decades, but for how much longer?

Over the past few years we’ve started to introduce more diverse pathways to accommodate the different potential abilities of our children. Today we have these programmes alive and kicking, and already bearing fruit. Young people who would have ended up with no skills or certification have remained in the learning loop and are engaged with learning new things. The Alternative Learning Programme, in its third year now, is producing positive results. This programme offers vocational and hands-on experiences which contrast with the traditional classroom set-up usually associated with schools.

At compulsory age, this programme offers subjects such as welding, mechanics, woodwork and the like. It’s proved very successful and the retention rate is high. We also have introduced the Youth.Inc and the Prince’s Trust XL programmes, which offer different learning paths and can be a stepping stone for a young person to continue their studies. We’ve also introduced five vocational subjects at SEC ‘O’ level which means that for the first time students can opt to learn about things such as IT and hospitality from a vocational perspective, rather than the traditional academic area.

These are all the beginning of reforms aimed at diversifying and widening our educational offerings. Call me an optimist, but I truly believe that each and every child has a huge potential just waiting to be unearthed. There isn’t one that does not have this amazing promise. Many times, these people are labelled. They’re born into difficult social circumstances or simply didn’t find enough help along the way.

I am not naive – I don’t believe that these young people will get all the answers from just an educational programme. Society at large needs to contribute in different ways to chip in for progress to happen. But I do think they can get skills, values and the right spirit to succeed from a wide, engaging and varied educational experience.

The road to these changes is often not easy. What we’re talking about here is changing something that has been in place for decades, if not centuries. However starting something that could lead to each and every child having the opportunity to succeed would be an amazing achievement, both for the country and for themselves. I think it’s about time that we have an educational experience that caters for each and every person.

An English writer once wrote: “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” It is our duty, as parents and educators, to help our children find out what they may be, and help them achieve it.

Evarist Bartolo is minister for education and employment

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