‘Our intention was never to pry’ | Evarist Bartolo

Education Minister Evarist Bartolo defends his ministry’s demands for children’s personal data as a first step in a comprehensive educational reform

Education Minister Evarist Bartolo (Photo: Ray Attard)
Education Minister Evarist Bartolo (Photo: Ray Attard)

This is traditionally a busy time of year for education ministers, what with the imminent re-opening of schools after the summer break. But it has been conspicuously busier than usual for Evarist Bartolo, who has found himself embroiled in a recent controversy over Legal Notice 76: an initiative aimed at granting his ministry unfettered access to personal data of all Malta’s school-age students, and which sparked outrage for its apparent invasion of privacy on a nationwide scale.

The timing was inauspicious also because Bartolo’s ministry had just launched a 10-year national framework strategy, of which the data collection exercise was but the first step. It would seem, then, that the minister’s plan for a reform of the educational system has tripped up in its own feet before even getting off the ground.

I meet Bartolo in his office in the labyrinthine Education and Employment ministry in Belt Is-Sebh. Now that the furore has more or less subsided, and a compromise reached… why was it deemed so important for the ministry to have access to data including personal health records, even to the extent of overriding parental consent?

“If you’re going to solve a problem, the first step is to identify what the problem actually is, and to what extent it is present in the education system. It is crucial to have a good statistical grasp of the situation; you have to measure a problem in order to come up with a practical solution. Accurate statistics are necessary for this reason…”

And Malta’s educational system is fraught with problems we all know and have been talking about for years. Statistics indicate that our rate of early school leaving is significantly higher (and the ages lower) than the European norm. Literacy targets are not being reached to international standards; tertiary education take-up remains low compared to other countries.

“Once the problem has been identified, the next step is to be frank about it: yes, we have a problem, now let’s measure it and see what we are going to do about it. So we needed that data for obvious logistical reasons, for policy-making purposes. It is not enough for me to know that we have 600 fifth formers who do not continue their studies every year. It’s important for us to know who those 600 are, so that we can talk to them personally; so that we can approach them, work with them to be able to get them back into schooling, or to get them to train more.”

Bartolo however argues that the controversy arose only because of the flawed advice of the former Data Protection Commissioner. “When we drew up what we needed and went to the former Data Protection Commissioner, he himself suggested that we do all the things that afterwards had to be changed. Like for example, having the minister as the data controller. Why the hell do I need to be a data controller? As if I’m going to check who our early school leavers are, so that I can talk to them personally myself…”

The irony of it all is, he adds, is that his ministry never even asked for any such data at the time it was being criticised for invading the nation’s privacy. “After all that fuss was made, the Church authorities asked for private details about their students which we didn’t ask for. And for which we were blamed…” he breaks into a sardonic laugh.

“We were accused that, although I had suspended the legal notice, we still went ahead and asked for private data… yet this data was requested by the Church Secretariat for Catholic Education. They then issued a statement admitting that, no, it wasn’t the ministry…”

All the same, this doesn’t really tell us why the data was even necessary in the first place. In answering this question, Bartolo also partially defends the Church for making the above request.

“The data they asked for is crucial. They – and we – wanted to know: how many children do we have with serious allergies – some of which are life-threatening, like nut allergies for example – or who had diabetes? Cases where we would need first aiders present in schools; people properly trained to be able to give first aid when it is needed. It can be a matter of life and death. The information that has been gathered is actually for that purpose… not because we wanted to find out what people got up to in their private lives. Our intention was never to pry.”

Looking back on the issue: does he interpret the resistance as having been political in nature?

“I think some of it might have been politically motivated; but I’m sure that some of it was also authentic and genuine. People do not want that kind of information to be used and abused. Moreover I’m not paranoid that there was some political game against me. Yes, some individuals in the Nationalist Party did use it for partisan ends, but I’m sure that the vast majority of parents who complained were genuinely concerned.

|Now, had the present data protection commissioner been there when we drafted the first legal notice, the kind of advice he would have given us, contrary to the previous one, wouldn’t have created the problem. I made it a point from day one, when we passed the legal notice through parliament, that I was not going to use it; that I would suspend it, and instead start talks to address these concerns.

"And we did that. Now we have a new document that will serve the same purpose, but which has all the safeguards. Unfortunately we wasted months because of the poor advice we were given the first time round.”

With this obstacle out of the way, the ministry can move from identifying the problem to trying to resolve it. One problem that arises from international reports and surveys is a worryingly high level of illiteracy in Malta. How does the ministry intend to use the acquired data to improve Malta’s performance in this and other related spheres: maths, science, and so on?

“The first decision I took as minister was: let us admit to the problems we have. Admitting that you have problems is not to be negative, but it’s hopefully the first step in the direction of finding a solution. We took all the reports that had accumulated in the last three years, where Malta took part in international surveys, with a view to creating the necessary awareness, among our families and educators, about where we stand internationally.

"Globally, this has become a very important issue. Part of the competitive position of a country – not just in terms of the economy, but even as a society, as a sovereign state – consists in the attitudes, values and skills that the people have compared to other countries. We need this global awareness. We need to know that when we take educational decisions, we do not take them as if we were alone in the world. It is also in comparison to what is happening elsewhere.”

With regard to literacy, Bartolo admits the problem is considerable. “One thing we’ve been pushing for right from the beginning is a strong national literacy strategy. I’m not happy that half our 16-year-olds end their compulsory schooling without an accreditation in a third language. 30% do not even have accreditation in Maltese or English. It doesn’t make sense….”

But having diagnosed the ailment… what is the cure?

“Just today we have launched a new programme, called Subject Proficiency Assessment (SPA), which is going to start with Italian… but which will eventually spread to all the languages, including Maltese and English… where languages are taught for their practical use in everyday life. The project has been launched in two schools, and eventually we want to learn from it and extend it to other schools, and to other languages as well. We’re going to work hard at it in the coming year.”

The ultimate goal is to provide an alternative option so that students who do not pursue languages at SEC level can still come out of the educational system with some proficiency in a third language.

Meanwhile there are other issues dogging the present system. One of these is a perceived disparity between private (Church and independent) and State schools: both in academic performance, and, even more importantly, in academic aspirations. This is in part borne out by statistics: the incidence of early school-leavers is much higher in State schools, for instance.

"As a result, the vast majority of Maltese students may be exposed to a situation where their aspirations are automatically going to be lower than the rest, with worrying implications for the future. Is there a strategy to address this disparity? How does Evarist Bartolo intend to elevate State schools?

“This needs to be addressed. Education is not just about preparing you for work. It’s also a human right. There are implications for social justice. Let’s be blunt about this: a lot of research shows us that the influence of the community and family is more than double the impact that school can have. The ratio works out at 30/70. So even if schools function at 100%, their impact on children will still be only 30%: the rest is influenced by family and social upbringing, etc.

"The dream of universal education is intended precisely to address this imbalance. If school remains – and I don’t use the word ‘remains’ casually – a hospital that takes care only of those who are healthy, and rejects those that need to be cared for, that would be a failure of the vision of universal education.”

Even without access to personal data, there is considerable evidence that not all Maltese children share the same opportunities.

“Children who are born into families where there are books at home, where the parents chat to them, take them on trips overseas, read to them, etc… that’s an enormous amount of cultural capital denied to other kids from a different background. These deprived children start life at an enormous disadvantage. It’s also a matter of aspiration.

"If kids from the age of 10, 11 are dreaming small, they will achieve small. If on the other hand they are already ambitious, they have self-esteem, they will get places. But if, from the age of seven, they’ve been told they are stupid, they will never add up to anything, they may as well not bother trying… just imagine how much damage that causes, especially if it is reinforced at both school and family level.”

The same 2014-2024 strategy, he continues, aims in part to narrowing the academic gap by providing exposure to alternative educational environments.

“For example, the opening of childcare centres, subsidised at three euros an hour, is a big step forward educationally. It is not just a labour active policy to entice parents to go to work. It gives children from the age of one and a half the opportunity to be with others, to be put in a stimulating educational context, and that will help them a lot later on in life.

"Today – and this is very exciting, neuro-science discoveries tell us that, where before we used to think that a person’s emotive and cognitive development would be imprinted by the age of five, a second window of opportunity opens at the age of 11 and 12. That is where we come in: if, in our educational system, we miss that second window, then probably we will be condemning our young people to a life of failure.

"Naturally it’s still crucial to positively influence kids up to the age of five. But we used to think that if we missed that bus, we’ve missed it forever. Now, thank goodness, we know better.”

Armed with this knowledge, the first concrete change to the educational system was the creation of middle schools. “We’ve brought the 11-12 age bracket together, taking them away from secondary schools and placing them in smaller entities so that we can reach them more directly. It’s one thing being a first-former in a school of 700, where there is the whole range from form one to form five. It’s another thing to be in a school of 250-300, where you only have first and second formers, while the third, fourth and fifth formers are in another school of 400.”

Bartolo admits that part of the motivation for this change was to address a worrying upward trend in bullying at school. “At middle school, the other children will only be at most a year older… and not three or four years older. That is very important, because most bullying takes place between kids of disparate ages. And with that, we’ve combined the notion of co-education.

"From this year, all our middle schools are co-ed. Personally I think it’s completely ridiculous to have kids of both sexes together at all ages, but not between 11 and 16. Countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, and other countries where, for religious reasons, they keep girls and boys segregated… well, we can understand that culture, but why should we have it here?”

These changes, he adds, should in their totality reform not just the present educational system, but also our national perception of what education even is. Here he vents a little frustration at a recurring motif in this regard: the underlying belief that education serves a purely practical purpose related solely to one’s future career.

“I don’t agree at all with narrowing the concept of education as ‘preparing you for your life of work’. God forbid it was just about preparing you for a career. However grandiose it sounds, I think education should prepare you for life. Work forms one part of the life skills you’re going to need later on.

"But you will also need to be a democratic, critical citizen: not to be taken for a ride by those who run the country, for instance; and to be able to communicate with others, to take initiative, to solve problems… Basically, to be a person who can participate as fully as possible in what is going on around you.”