The ‘SOK’ syndrome (and making sense of Malta’s new building rules)

According to urban legend, the idea for a course in Systems of Knowledge came to Education Minister Ugo Mifsud Bonnici’s head while he was stuck at an airport awaiting a delayed flight

With hindsight, it is surprising no one ever referred to ‘Systems of Knowledge’ by the acronym in the headline. Because that’s what it felt like when it was hurriedly introduced around 1988: a ‘SOK!’ in the purely ‘Batman’ sense of word (i.e., usually followed by a ‘BIFF!’ and a ‘KAPOW!’).

Ah, but hang on. I keep forgetting that some of you weren’t even conceived back in 1988... still less have any direct experience of the education system at the time. So before turning our attention to the syndrome associated with that ancient educational reform… a word about ‘Systems of Knowledge’ itself. What is was, how it came about, what it was meant to be, and all that.

According to urban legend, the idea first came to Education Minister Ugo Mifsud Bonnici’s head while he was stuck at an airport awaiting a delayed flight. He picked up a copy of Jerzy Bronovski’s ‘The Ascent of Man’ from the airport bookshop; he read it from cover to cover on the flight; he liked what he read; and by the time he landed at his destination, he had decided that every single Maltese University applicant would jolly well have to read (and like) it, too. Or else: no tertiary education…

Naturally I can’t confirm if that’s true in every detail; but it does have a certain ring of authenticity to it. The overnight introduction of ’Systems of Knowledge’ did indeed feel like it a spur-of-the-moment decision, of the kind that could only have been taken by an Education Minister with no real experience in education whatsoever. (Mifsud Bonnici was a lawyer, not an educator. And quite frankly, it showed.)  

But from my perspective, as a Sixth Former studying for my A-levels, it also felt like a frigging nuclear bomb. We woke up one morning to discover that the entry requirements to University had suddenly and inexplicably changed… nine months before we were due to apply.

On top of all the usual requirements (Maltese, Maths, English, etc), we now also needed to pass an exam in a subject that touched on what felt like literally everything under the sun: from Plato and Aristotle, to Homer and Cervantes, to Copernicus and Galileo, to Darwin and Mendel, to Leonardo Da Vinci and Pablo Picasso, to Einstein and Neil Bohr, to the history of European architecture; to studies in sociology and linguistics, etc., etc.

You know: all the stuff that is usually taught at University itself… yet which we were somehow expected to already know, just to be able to get into University in the first place. (And to add to the irony: yes, Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch 22’ was added to the syllabus in later years…)

But that’s just the perspective of one 2nd year Sixth Former who happened to be among the very first guinea-pigs for this educational experiment… and who was given less than a year to obtain that all-important pass-mark, in what was effectively the equivalent of a fully-fledged Bachelor’s degree in the Humanities.

I can’t talk much about the perspective of all the schools this subject was suddenly inflicted upon, with no forewarning whatsoever. But I clearly remember confusion and disarray that engulfed my own school (St Aloysius College, at the time) in the weeks and months following that announcement.

In a nutshell, every higher secondary school in Malta and Gozo was expected – just like that, with no phasing-in period, etc. - to re-organise its entire school schedule to somehow find space for this new (and absolutely massive) subject… for which there were, quite simply, not enough teachers available in the length and breadth of the entire country. There probably still aren’t, even today.

OK, by now the bare essentials of the ‘SOK syndrome’ are already in place for all to see. The Nationalist government had barely been in power for a year: it had inherited an unsightly mess in several sectors – education being one of them – and its response was to impose an entirely new, radical reform from one day to the next… leaving Malta’s educational system to cope with the resulting disaster as best it jolly well could.

“We are looking at a classic case of government deciding what sort of building regulations it would like to have; and then, just dumping the new regime onto the entire sector”
“We are looking at a classic case of government deciding what sort of building regulations it would like to have; and then, just dumping the new regime onto the entire sector”

Should there have been more consultation with stakeholders before introducing the subject? No, ‘because we’re the government, and we know best’. Schools do not have enough resources to implement the new curriculum? ‘Tough. Government’s job is to tell schools what to do; not to assist them in achieving those (ultimately national) educational targets…’; etc., etc.

This should all sound very familiar, even to people who never had to take SOK to enter University. Thirty years later, you can still observe exactly the same pattern almost everywhere you look. It has persisted in virtually all spheres, and under every single administration of government, ever since.

A bit like the Dalai Lama, really: it just keeps reincarnating itself in different (but comparable) forms over the millennia; with no end in sight, ever…

Its latest incarnation seems to be the new construction site regulations announced last week. Government was faced with a sudden epidemic of emergency situations involving ghastly construction catastrophes… and what was its response?

After a consultation period of only five days, it launched a new, radical reform of the laws regulating building sites… without pausing to enquire whether any of the relevant authorities/regulators (not to mention the private professionals who suddenly found themselves ‘roped in’) have enough resources to actually implement any of the changes.

Just like that, the Planning Authority and Buildings Regulation Office have to suddenly scramble to figure out a way to cope with all their new responsibilities: at a time when they are already struggling to cope with their existing workload, due to staff and resource problems that are not addressed, in any shape or form, by the new regulations.

SOK!

Meanwhile, contractors must appoint a ‘site technical officer’ (STO) to oversee the works; and the new rules decree that it has to be a ‘perit’.

So all Malta’s architects, civil engineers and other private professions known collectively as ‘periti’… they suddenly woke up one morning to find that it is now their responsibility to ‘halt the works’ on a building site, if the contractor fails to abide by permit conditions.

Erm… excuse me, but since when is it the job of a ‘perit’ to enforce conditions imposed by the PA/BRO? Why not officials from the same regulatory authorities (who, after all, have a remit to enforce regulations, where periti don’t)?

What a silly question. Periti have to do it, because: a) the PA/BRO don’t have the wherewithal to provide any experts of their own – for in case I didn’t mention this before, they’ve both been starved of enforcement capability resources for years – and, b) because the government has unilaterally decided to amend the job description of a ‘perit’, in a way that suits its own purposes.

And ‘government always knows best’, remember? Its job is to tell the private sector what to do; not to create the infrastructure that enables it to actually be done.

BIFF!

Then there is the attempt to beef up the enforcement sector. Fines for planning infringements, we are told, have gone up drastically. Which is great and all, but… in the absence of properly staffed and resourced regulatory authorities… who is going to actually hand out any of these fines? The ‘perit’ who has suddenly (and very reluctantly) been roped in as ‘site technical officer’? If so… with what legal authority?

Unless government has also re-defined the professional role of a ‘perit’, according to law – something it neither can, nor should be able to do – the only authorized entities to impose such fines remain (in this instance) the PA and the BRO.

And even if they did have the resources to monitor the sites themselves – or, for that matter, to respond individually to every alarm call by every STO – there is still an appeals tribunal that continues to overturn, or reduce, the vast majority of financial penalties they hand out already.

None of that has been addressed by the new regulations. So we can only expect the new fines to be as effective as the old ones they replaced… and for the same reason, too.

You can set the fines as high (or as low) as you like; it will never make a jot of difference, if no one ever actually gets to pay any.

Just like Systems of Knowledge before it, we are looking at a classic case of government deciding what sort of building regulations it would like to have; and then, just dumping the new regime onto the entire sector like a truckload of concrete blocks, lock stock and barrel… and expecting everyone else to somehow sort out the resulting mess.

KAPOW!

Perhaps the only discernible difference is that… while I hated Systems Of Knowledge at the time, I must concede that I did, at least, learn a thing or two from that mistake, all those yonks ago.

Maltese governments, on the other hand, never seem to learn from their own mistakes at all…

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