The tenacious reformer | Dolores Cristina

Education Minister Dolores Cristina speaks of her heartbreak at losing social policy during the January reshuffle, but insists she never lost the drive to carry out educational reform.

“I am not jumping ship and I’m not walking the plank either” - Dolores Cristina.
“I am not jumping ship and I’m not walking the plank either” - Dolores Cristina.

As the two big parties battle it out in the unofficial electoral campaign, the Nationalist Party is basing its case for re-election on the successes achieved in economy, health and education.

Inevitably the spotlight is on Education Minister Dolores Cristina and the results achieved in her sector. I meet minister Cristina in the new ministry premises in Strait Street, Valletta... the third office the minister had in just over four years.

Recently, Cristina, one of the most popular PN ministers, declared that she will not contest the next election for personal reasons. She is adamant the decision has nothing to do with the fact that she has suffered a number of disruptions as a result of the ministerial merry-go rounds.

"I am not jumping ship and I'm not walking the plank either," she insists. "It is a personal decision," Cristina says.

In what could be a veiled criticism of the way things have developed over the last four and a half years, Cristina notes that "the Nationalist Party has very good elements and they should be given opportunities to develop. There are some extremely good elements on the PN backbench who should have been given more opportunities."

The Prime Minister's reshuffles have come as a result of profound discontent within the Nationalist camp, however Cristina says she is above such petty squabbling, but in a snide remark on some of her unruly colleagues, Cristina says that she is no longer annoyed at her colleagues,  simply choosing to get on with her work.

Following the 2008 election, Cristina was appointed as Education and Culture minister. Two years later she was appointed as minister for Education, Employment and Family. At the beginning of this year, she was again affected by another Cabinet reshuffle and had social policy taken away from her.

"I did not just shed a tear, I wept," Cristina had publicly declared in the immediate days after the reshuffle.  

Asked whether the January 2012 reshuffle had annoyed her, the education minister says that the current legislature has been "very lively, for me more than anyone else because I have been on the receiving end of two reshuffles."

She adds that this affected her and her staff, but "in many ways we've pulled ourselves together and put in a greater effort".

"I was never annoyed with the reshuffles, but in the first two years when I had culture we worked very hard on the national culture policy. We launched the policy on a Saturday and on Tuesday a reshuffle took place and I lost culture. It's like being pregnant and giving birth, but never seeing the baby."

On the second reshuffle, she says that social policy was an area she loved dearly.

"We picked up a lot of work there, we worked on a draft children's policy and other schemes and initiatives including the pension reform and housing. Then it was like: 'Oh God! I'm getting things together again and once again there is an interruption.' I had no problem in saying that I cried when I lost social policy. The Prime Minister and I know exactly what it means. I told him: 'You cannot take social policy away from me' and he said that he knows what it means because when he lost social policy his heart was also broken."

While stressing that reshuffles are entirely the Prime Minister's prerogative, she points out, with a hint of irony, that she saw it coming as she is considered to be 'very flexible'.

"One thing that really bothered me was that for two years we worked to bring social policy and education very much together. Luckily, Chris Said and myself continued working together and I have no problem working with minister Said. Education and Social Policy should be tied together."

On her decision to retire from the scene, Cristina says that she has been elected in three consecutive legislatures and served as front-bencher for two.

"After the 2008 election I started to mull over whether I should contest the 2013 election. I thought it's a good exit point and would help me concentrate on personal things which have been on back burner for years and make space for younger people," a serene Dolores says.

"I will leave politics with some regret, because I have greatly enjoyed it over the last 15 years. But now, it's time to go back to my life, my family and at the same time encourage others to participate," Dolores explains.

She says that more women are needed in politics but expresses her optimism in the future and says that "there are some valid women out there."

Dolores Cristina does not agree with electoral quotas, which she says are artificial but prefers to have targets. "Quotas exist in countries with different electoral systems such as party lists or selection boards. The single transferable vote system is very helpful, and some very good results have been obtained by women," Cristina says as she reminds me that herself and Labour MP Helena Dalli were elected from two districts while Marie Louise Coleiro Preca and Giovanna Debono both obtained impressive vote-tallies.

"What worries me is the small number of women actually contesting elections. Women hold back. If I can make it in politics with four children, then everybody can. I entered politics in my late 40s with a six-year-old child and a mother to take care of. I say stop make excuses, put your money where your mouth is and get on with it."

Dolores strays away from giving her judgement on what caused the internal problems within the Nationalist Party. Instead says that she is "marvelled" by the way government managed to implement the bulk of its promises and achieve so much in education, health and job creation despite the international crisis.

The minister adds that she is still looking forward to the coming general election and will be involved in it, and do whatever the party asks of her.

"I will not contest and I will not be involved in politics after the election. It is difficult to stay away from politics but there is a pleasure in looking at politics from the sidelines,"

On the election itself, Cristina says that while re-electing the PN would be a continuation of its politics since 1998, a Labour government would not be a viable alternative because it has no solid policies and has not shown a willingness to build on the successes achieved by successive Nationalist administrations.

One of the areas where Cristina and the Nationalist Party believe that great successes have been achieved is education. However, the Opposition has consistently criticised the government for its record in literacy and early-school leavers.

According to a recently published report on literacy levels in Europe, Malta has a 36% illiteracy rate, placing it in the 25th position out of the EU27. The only countries to fare worse were Romania and Bulgaria. Illiteracy is defined by the capability of writing a full sentence in the native language, English or Maltese in our case.

 "Illiteracy is a worrying problem," Cristina admits. "I should point out that illiteracy rates have gone down drastically in recent years and don't forget that the national level includes a number of people in the elderly bracket."

She adds that the only way to fight illiteracy is to break the circle of educational and cultural problems.

"What we have done is deal with specific problems at specific schools, with both absenteeism and illiteracy being tackled by bringing in other professions apart from teachers such as family therapists, social workers, psychologists and NGOs," the minister says.

Referring to these school specific programmes, Cristina stresses the importance of NGO support. She says that further NGO support can help achieve better educational results.

"We have come a long way but there still a lot to do," Cristina says. She explains that by introducing the concept of core competences into lower primary schools vulnerable students are being identified at a very early which secures that students achieve satisfactory levels by time they leave school.

She adds that the feedback on the National Curriculum is looking towards the introduction of more support from kindergarten age as there is no need to wait until year three to identify vulnerability in children.

During the interview, it is evident the minister is very passionate about her job. One of her pet subjects is the introduction of more child care centres in Malta.

She explains that a paediatrician is visiting child care centres to identify needs of students from the earliest age possible.

"Child care centres receive children as young as three months and we also have an extremely good unit in Hamrun to identify other problems which can also result in illiteracy such as intellectual and learning difficulties," Cristina explains.

The education minister says that positive output from such reforms will only be seen in ten years time and she adds that decisions to make education more inclusive the introduction of colleges and the removal of streaming are already resulting in an increase of students sitting for exams at end of secondary school.

She also underlines the fact that students who fail from sitting for SEC exams, which numbered 460 during the last scholastic year, are being followed individually.

On the rates of illiteracy and early school leavers, Cristina points out that percentages do not always reflect realty.

"To give an example, early school leavers are not those aged 16 but those aged 18-24. In 2001 the rate stood at 54%, now the national average is 32%."

She explains that the nationalist administration has set itself a target of 29% by 2020. Although the EU target is set at 10%, Cristina insists that "we have to look at where we have started from."

Cristina adds that the aim is to have 100% of young people in education but says this close to impossible. "One thing which gives me great satisfaction is the very low rate of students in the so-called special schools."

Up to 188 students currently attend resource centres but Cristina says that most of these students are also integrated in mainstream education.

This seems to be a subject the minister has at heart and describes the inclusion of almost all disabled students into mainstream education as "one of the biggest successes in education."

However, Cristina insists that she is never satisfied, because "if you are satisfied it would be time to go home and do nothing."

Currently, up to 82% of students are continuing post-secondary education but echoing the Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi she says that she will not be happy until 100% of students further their studies.

"All in all it's a good system, which in the past was more geared towards high flyers, leaving behind more vulnerable students in the process. However this has changed. The plan is to give more attention to individual students, including high flyers who should be able to stretch their wings as much as possible. This will allow all students to progress at their own pace but with all the possible support."

Pressed to mention what, in her view, was the biggest success in education in recent years, without blinking Cristina says: "The radical reforms implemented gradually but at very fast pace. Sometimes we have been criticised of reform fatigue but different reforms have to be introduced in parallel."

She attributes this success to the "very strong group of educators at all levels" and adds that the country can already see the positive results.

Asked to put her finger on the biggest weakness in the system, Cristina says that vulnerable students should receive greater support at tertiary level.

"We have to provide more help for vulnerable students. This support is very good at primary and secondary level but we have to work harder in regards to helping and encouraging disabled students at tertiary level."

Recently, the Malta Employers' Association has called for the introduction of longer schooling hours. Cristina expressed surprise at this.

"It seems that some are not aware that after school services are already in place. In reality it is not about extending lessons but introducing after school hours."

She points out that by January 2013, these services will be provided in 30 different localities. Cristina says the teachers are different from the ones teaching in the morning and lessons will be focusing on crafts, homework, sports and other different subjects up to 6pm. The service is available for all students aged between three and 16 from all schools, including church and independent schools.

"Schools are no longer shut at 2:30pm. Schools and teachers not there to take over the role of parents or families but it is complimentary."

Although she recognises the difficulty in raising children, Cristina says parents "must remain central in children's education."

Cristina boldly says: "I will not compromise on the quality of child care centres."

She says that such centres welcome children under three years old and stresses the importance of having qualified and trained personnel adding that the ratio of personnel to students is very high.

While recognising that the number of centres is not satisfactory, she points out that people should not compare Malta to Scandinavian countries which have a long history of working mothers and a strong welfare system.

Cristina says that Northern Europeans pay heavily for these services and adds that Maltese parents do not put child care centres as a priority but improved working conditions which allow them to juggle work and family responsibilities..

She insists that parents expect the private sector to introduce family friendly measures such as reduced hours, job sharing and teleworking. "Resistance is slowly decreasing but a lot more needs to be done."

Speaking on the changing landscape in the country, Cristina is confident that the educational system is prepared for the challenges posed by migration and multi culturalism.

She says that the system is very inclusive, and cites the St Paul's Bay primary school with over 30 nationalities and the Sliema school which boasts of 17 nationalities as prime examples.

"Malta is and has always been cosmopolitan. We do take to foreigners. Our schools have programmes for non-English language speakers. The curriculum looks at diversity in many aspects; attitude, lifestyle, skin colour and more. Our system is now more open to changing realities and children are the best ambassadors for diversity."

Cristina also stresses that the new curriculum emphasis that the educational system should not only be looked from an economic perspective.

"It's important to be competitive but speaking as a mother, education should bring out the best from our sons and daughters," she says with enthusiasm.

She almost excuses herself for speaking with such passion and says that arts, music and sports are not soft subjects but must be valued.

"It's not only an educational issue but a challenge for our society. It will make us more creative, more flexible and we need more individualism in our education. We can no longer focus only on formal education. We need creative, innovative persons, and in order to do so we need to give children a free reign from a very young age. It will be a value added to society."