Mario Mallia: There cannot be ‘us versus them' in education

Former headmaster Mario Mallia argues that his recent dismissal has less to do with accusations of ‘insubordination’, than with an ongoing power struggle within the organisational structures of Church schools

There are, as they say, two sides to every story: and the one about your dismissal, as headmaster of St Albert The Great College, is no exception. You yourself argue that the issue centred on a number of ‘community initiatives’ you undertook: for instance, an inclusivity programme that encouraged ‘interfaith dialogue’ among students. But the Curia’s statement suggests that it was prompted by your own refusal to cooperate with the College’s board of directors (and especially the new rector, Fr Aaron Zahra). So let’s start with this: how much truth is there, to the claim that you were ‘insubordinate’?  

Basically, I would say that what happened all boils down to certain changes in the way the College was administered, over the past two or so years. Until my dismissal last week, I had been headmaster at St Albert The Great College for around 14 years. Throughout that time, the way things were organised was that there was a non-executive rector, who would come to the College for meetings twice a week; and I used to inform him about everything that was going on. 

Now, the former rector – Fr Francis Micallef – used to give us a lot of elbow-room. Basically, there was a lot of trust; and this obviously gave us the possibility to develop... and the opportunity to ‘dream’, as it were. But I always kept him informed; and the rector always knew that was happening... 

Sorry to interrupt, but part of the whole ‘insubordination’ charge is precisely that – unlike the case with Fr Francis Micallef – you didn’t keep the new rector abreast of all the ongoings at the College (so much so, that Fr Zahra claimed to have been ‘unaware’ of certain programmes at his own school)… 

Yes, that’s what I was coming to. After the change of rectorship two years ago, things started functioning... differently. The new rector felt that he should have a board [of directors] to back him up; and this board was instituted over the past year or so. The first thing they did was send us a statute – and by ‘us’, I mean the leadership team: composed of myself, and all the deputy heads – for feedback. And we gave our feedback: which included our concern that this board should be more ‘representative’; that it should include representatives of members of staff... if not the parents, as well. But none of it was taken on board. Not even a comma, of what we had suggested, was accepted...It has already been pointed out (during yesterday’s MUT protest, among others) that Fr Zahra himself doesn’t have a teacher’s warrant. Now, you’re telling me that the board that he set up does not represent any teachers, either. Do any of its members have any other kind of educational experience? 

Not really, no. And to be fair: as rector, Fr Zahra would only need a warrant if, for instance, he decided to assume the headship himself; or some other executive position, within the school. But to answer your question: no, the board was composed by the rector himself... basically, out of ‘people he knew’. And to date – almost a year later – we still do not have any real idea of what this board should be doing; or what I should be doing; or even what he [Fr Zahra] should be doing, as rector. It’s all very much up in the air... 

If I’m understanding correctly: the purpose of this board was so that the new rector could firmly establish his own control, over proceedings... am I right so far? 

Yes, I’d say you got that right... 

So if you don’t mind me asking: doesn’t that make it simply a power-struggle, between you – the [former] headmaster – and Fr Aaron Zahra, the new rector? And if so: was there some kind of personal animosity going on, behind the scenes? 

No; or at least, I don’t think so. As for myself, I have full respect for Fr Aaron Zahra; and I do acknowledge the fact he is – or rather, was – my senior... my boss, basically. And I didn’t have a problem with that, at all... 

What did you have a problem with, then?  

Basically, our approaches were different. I come to this from my experience of 14 years of always working in a certain way – which gave us a lot of leeway, and elbow-room. But Fr Zahra thought that things should be administered in a much more ‘top-down’ fashion. And in practice, it was more or less like having ‘an elephant in a China-shop’, all of a sudden... Nonetheless, there were many instances where we did work well together. There were also a number of hiccups: which, I think, boil down mainly to the fact that we were not given enough time to adjust to the new administration. But ultimately, I think it was a more a question of differences in the way we see things; and in the way we thought things should be run. 

This brings us to those ‘inclusivity’ programmes. News headlines such as our own – ‘School head who championed inclusivity fired by Dominicans’ – suggest that it was actually your belief in ‘interfaith dialogue’, that ruffled feathers within the Dominican Order. In other words, that ‘insubordination’ was just the official excuse, to put a stop to a Church school being used to host meetings between Christians and Muslims, for instance. Is that your own interpretation, too? 

First of all: what we are talking about here is a particular curricular programme, which is home-grown, called ‘MEET’. The idea was that, because we have stu-dents from all sorts of different backgrounds and religious denominations – be they Muslim, Christian, atheist, black, white, immigrant, whatever: we have the whole lot – we felt we had to cater for all this diversity. Because the alternative is to have all those different people coming in... and simply ‘leaving them to their own devices’. So we decided to create a space, within the school, for this encounter to take place. It started off two years ago – at a time when the new board didn’t even exist; and when the rector himself was only ever present at the school maybe once a week – and we obviously discussed the programme, extensively, in a number of meetings beforehand. 

Hold on: who do you mean by ‘we’, now? 

We work in teams: and on this occasion, we put together a curriculum development team, which discussed the programme at length, and in detail. And the rector was always invited to attend those meetings. But he never did. 

This is why I was puzzled, to be honest, that the rector claims that there were a number of initiatives going on, that he himself ‘knew nothing about’. Because there was certainly nothing ‘secret’ about what we were doing. It was all very public: two years of activities involving students, and parents... it was on our website; it was reported in the press, and so on. 

And yet: around eight months ago, [Fr Zahra] informed me that he didn’t know anything about it all; and that he had been alerted by someone, external to the school, who objected to the idea. To this day, I still have no idea what the reason for this objection even was... 

Do you have any idea where the objection came from? 

It seems to have stemmed from someone in the Curia; but I can’t be more specific than that.  

Meanwhile, the board itself had only just been set up; and we had a meeting in which my deputy and I explained what we were doing, in detail, to its members. We then waited for around six months, for some kind of response... and by the end of it, we basically received a notification telling us that the programme had to stop. We were told to finish off the programme this year... and next year, ‘forget it’. 

And we sought answers, naturally. Because we feel that this was not the way to treat professionals, working in the field. We have, after all, been working in education for 30 years. So we feel we deserve answers, which are at least plausible: especially considering the fact that this programme was very successful.  

And yet, it might even have been the very ‘success’ of your programme, that raised the alarm within the Curia to begin with. Out of curiosity: what actually happened, in those classroom sessions, to elicit such a hostile reaction? Can you describe a typical MEET session for us? 

To give you a rough idea: it was an inclusive programme, so all students – regardless of their denomination, ethnicity, etc. – would remain in class, and discuss different issues together. And it was flexible enough, to be able address individual issues as they arose. For instance: when there was a general election going on – with all the political fervour, and divisiveness, that comes with it - we would avail of the opportunity to discuss stereotypes; prejudices; that sort of thing. And if something happens in Palestine, for example; we would discuss that, too. Ultimately, however, the idea was to provide an encounter between different people; different faiths; different perspectives, and ideas... and they [the administration] pulled the plug on it. And this is why I feel that the real reason for stopping the programme, cannot be the one we were officially given: i.e., simply because the rector ‘didn’t know about it’. Because to my mind, that is absolutely no justification whatsoever, for halting a programme like this.  

But it wasn’t the only justification: there’s still the part about ‘insubordination’. Here, we have to make a distinction be-tween what is ‘ethically right’ (or wrong); and what is ‘legally permissible’, or otherwise. For instance: some people might argue that, even if Fr Zahra was ‘wrong’ (in the ethical sense) to sack you... it was still something that fell within his remit to do, as your superior. How do you respond to that? Are you suggesting that there is something ‘irregular’ about your dismissal? 

Yes, of course. Most definitely. Even because of the fact that the programme itself – if we just stick to ‘MEET’ for now – was actually just an extension of what the school ethos is all about. Basically, the school ethos looks at four main areas: that ‘we care’; ‘we welcome everyone’; ‘we seek fulfilment’; and ‘we read, and change the world’...The latter is a ‘Freirian’ concept; lifted straight from the works of [Educational Philosopher] Paolo Freire. In a nutshell, the idea is to give children the right tools to be able to ‘read’ the world around them; and to ‘transform’ it, where necessary. 

Now: if the school ethos embraces those four points – and the ethos itself, by the way, was drawn up collectively: also with the contribution of members of the Dominican Order itself – it is not ‘in spite’ of being a Catholic school... but precisely because of it. As a Catholic school, we are in a fact obliged to uphold those four basic pillars; and MEET is essentially an extension of all this. But apart from the Catholic ethos itself, there is also the national educational agenda: which is legally binding, on all schools. And one of the hallmarks of the national curriculum is, in fact, ‘inclusion and diversity’... 

What you’re talking about now calls to mind another power-struggle unfolding in the background: that between the Church and State (especially insofar as education is concerned). For while the Catholic church retains ownership of its schools, most Church-school teachers today are, in fact, lay-people such as yourself... 

Yes, that is certainly correct.  

Could it be, then, that your own difficulties with Fr Aaron Zahra are simply a manifestation of the fact that the Catholic Church – as a whole - is struggling to retain control, in the face of an increasing ‘laicisation’ of its role in education? 

It’s an interesting point you raise there: because it’s something that is being discussed even now, in educational circles. I form part of the Catholic Schools Association, for instance; and part of our discussions was precisely about this. The number of religious people [in the teaching profession] is on the decline; and the number of lay teachers is on the rise. So the only way forward, in my view, is to ‘do this together’. In this context, we can’t afford to have an ‘us versus them’ mentality; this cannot be reduced to a question of ‘laity’, versus ‘religious’. The only way we can address these challenges, as Catholic schools, is to ‘do it together’. And that requires mutual trust, and respect. 

In fact, that is what we have all along been saying: ‘please trust us’. We’re on your side; we’re your partners. So please, stop treating us like ‘you’re up there’... and ‘we’re down here’. 

Because at the end of the day, ‘Faith’ does not belong to any one particular group; it belongs to anyone who wants to partake of it. And what happened in our case, has reverberations in the wider picture as well. It has im-plications, for the Church’s own message of ‘inclusivity’...