Schools for scandal

The number of schoolchildren that are not ethnic Maltese and are not Catholics has risen so much that the situation can no longer be ignored

A protest against the Mintoff/KMB regime’s imposition of free access to church schools, on Sliema’s Dingli Street in 1984
A protest against the Mintoff/KMB regime’s imposition of free access to church schools, on Sliema’s Dingli Street in 1984

The short telephone message of Archbishop Charles Scicluna during last week’s TV programme Xarabank (Friday 17th March) has provoked an incredible number of negative reactions that is probably a record for our young Archbishop.

In his statement, the Archbishop intimated that the Church would not object to having Muslim children learning about the Muslim religion in Church schools. He later ‘polished’ his words by making assurances that Church Schools ‘will always remain Catholic’. I am writing before the Archbishop will be taking part in a Xarabank follow-up programme on Friday 24th in what seems to be a damage limitation exercise.

The Archbishop unwittingly touched a raw nerve in Maltese society – not the racial card but the after-effects of the issue between the Mintoff/KMB regime and the Church about its schools. It all happened in the early 1980s and the schoolchildren who were undoubtedly affected by that historical trauma are now parents who send their children to Church schools – a right for which their own parents and the Church fought tooth and nail against the impositions of the Mintoff regime.

The Mintoff/KMB regime had insisted that Church schools should either be free for all or closed (jew xejn jew b’xejn). The aim was two-fold – decrease the influence and power of the Church by insisting that it should run its schools without any monetary contribution from parents (an impossible proposition) and decrease the difference in levels between State schools and Church schools – a socialist policy if there ever was one. As happens with many socialist ideas, the decrease in difference in level was to be obtained not by pushing up the level of state schools but by pushing down the levels of Church schools.

Moreover, demotivated schoolchildren with demotivated parents will always push down the average performance of State schools. The solution to this problem – partial as it must be – is long-term and does not involve the short-sighted impositions pushed forward by Mintoff.

The war – for a war it was – ended up with victory for the Church schools, a result that impinged negatively on the popularity of the KMB regime, leading to the historic change of government in 1987.

The Church had then argued that parents who wanted their children educated in Catholic schools had every right to pursue their objective and the freedom of the Church to teach religion implied that it had the right to own such schools without the imposition of constraints and conditions that actually undermined that right. As far as the Church (including Pope John Paul II) was concerned, this was an issue of religious freedom.

Implying that the Church was prepared to abandon this perspective by accepting Muslim students (learning all about their religion in Catholic schools) undermined the very raison d’être of the Church’s stance in that mammoth Church vs. State clash. The Archbishop completely missed this point. His implication became nothing else but a national scandal.

Admittedly, today’s Malta is not that of 30 years ago and the country has become more and more cosmopolitan – as the Prime Minister recently put it. The number of schoolchildren that are not ethnic Maltese and are not Catholics has risen so much that the situation can no longer be ignored.

Following the comments on the social media in the wake of the Archbishop’s one could see that our cosmopolitan nature is rubbing some the wrong way while others are happy to welcome it as they see it as an opportunity for the country to move forward away from the backwardness of intolerance and xenophobia.

I was struck by a comment made by Mark Azzopardi who has a lot of experience in the running of the primary school at St. Paul’s Bay. The diversities of the children in this school – ethnically, culturally and faith-wise – are a record for Malta (incidentally this is the result of a major planning disaster that saw Bugibba becoming a modern slum area).

Mark said on Facebook that he believes that ethics, and not religion, should be taught in schools with any religious education being the responsibility of parents beyond formal school hours. I posted my agreement with him. You cannot have so many religions being taught in a state school or so many children not participating in (Catholic) religion classes.

Meanwhile the subject of ethics is becoming more popular and more appreciated. I know parents who opted for their children – attending independent schools – to learn ethics instead of religion and they are very pleased with the result. Ethics is a universal subject and a guide to one’s behaviour in life, irrespective of the type of diversities I mentioned.

Eventually the State-Church agreement on the teaching of the Catholic religion in State schools will have to evolve in this direction – a much more sensible proposition than teaching Islam in Catholic Church schools. This is not something that will happen overnight but the die is cast. And Church schools will have the freedom of existing for the very reason they were set up – giving Catholic children a Catholic education. 

The issue of the level and quality of education in different schools will always be with us. I just hope people will not keep on baptising their children solely for them to qualify to attend a good Catholic school – a very common phenomenon in the USA.

Banking integrity

According to a recent report in the EU Observer, illicit money flowing out of Russia via Moldova and Latvia ended up in almost every single EU state, posing questions on the integrity of Europe’s banking systems. 

Beneficiaries in Estonia received $1.6 billion while some $900 million of the funds ended up in Cyprus, $78 million in Lithuania, $68 million in the Netherlands, $64 million in Germany, and $44 million in Denmark besides other monies flowing into the Czech Republic ($38m), Italy ($32m), the UK ($29m), Finland ($26mn), Hungary ($25m), Slovenia ($15m), Poland ($10m), Luxembourg ($6m), France ($6m), Austria ($5m), Belgium ($5m), Slovakia ($5m), and Spain ($4m).

Smaller sums ended up in Malta, Sweden, Greece, Bulgaria, Ireland, and Croatia.

Meanwhile some of the UK’s top banks have been accused of processing around £600 million in a multibillion-pound Russian money-laundering scam. The Guardian reported that high street names including HSBC, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays and Coutts are among those involved. More than £16 billion and maybe as much as £65 billion were moved out of Russia between 2010 and 2014, the paper said.

So there we are. If one tries to deposit €5,000 in a bank, all hell will be let loose.

On the other hand, anything over €50 million is always welcome.

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