State schools open today amid uncertainty over last-minute teacher postings

Back to school | Thousands of students return to their classrooms today after the summer holidays as education authorities struggle to fill teacher shortages in State primary schools

Children return to their school desks after the summer holidays
Children return to their school desks after the summer holidays

Students in State schools return to their classrooms today as concerns mount over a last-minute decision to plug a teachers’ shortage in primary schools with peripatetic educators.

Thousands of children will return to their desks after the summer holidays with some primary school students unsure as to whether they will receive adequate learning.

Private schools opened their doors last week, while some church schools started on Monday.

A shortage of 80 teachers in State primary schools was plugged over the weekend by the Education Ministry that assigned classrooms to peripatetic teachers. These educators normally teach specialised subjects like art, music, PE, science and ethics, and commute between different schools.

The situation has caused disquiet among peripatetic teachers and an industrial dispute. These teachers were expected to prepare schemes of work for their students in several subjects, including Maltese, English and maths in a matter of days.

A music teacher who spoke to MaltaToday on condition of anonymity said she was assigned a classroom 48 hours before the school year started. “I’m lost. I will be in a classroom with no idea what to do, let alone the poor students who will not get the education they deserve,” she said.

Her situation is similar to other peripatetic teachers who were only informed by the authorities that they would be assigned to a classroom on Saturday afternoon.

An assistant head who also spoke on condition of anonymity said primary schools that had teacher shortages only got to know who was assigned to them over the weekend.

“We were assigned a brilliant art teacher but who has no idea how to teach the core subjects and with no time to prepare,” she said.

The situation has caused concern among parents of children in classrooms effected by the shortages and who have to contend with unprepared and demoralised peripatetic teachers.

“The situation is unfair on the teachers who were given last-minute postings and unfair on our children who will not be getting a proper education,” a group of parents who have children in a Year 5 class said. The class was assigned a PE teacher.

The parents said that an online meeting with the assigned class teacher scheduled for yesterday was postponed indefinitely. 

But it is also students who benefit from complimentary services that will suffer since some of these educators have also been assigned classes.

Education Minister Justyne Caruana has said that from 500 peripatetic teachers 81 had to be assigned classroom duties. She insisted the peripatetic services will continue being given as normal.

The shortage of teachers is partly caused by COVID-19 protocols that dictate a minimum of 1.5m between student desks, which in some cases has required classrooms to be split.

On Monday, the Education Ministry filed a court injunction against the Malta Union of Teachers and the Union of Professional Educators to stop industrial action after the unions issued directives to peripatetic teachers impacted by the last-minute decision.

However, the judge allocated to hear the case, on Tuesday recused himself after lawyers highlighted the fact that his wife is a union member.

READ ALSO: Union accuses Education Ministry of ‘desperate’ last-minute attempt to move teachers around

The case was assigned to Mr Justice Robert G. Mangion who appointed a first hearing on Tuesday morning. When the sitting began, the lawyers representing the unions, highlighted the fact that the judge’s wife is a member of one of the unions.

Citing local and EU case-law, the MUT’s lawyer Keith Borg pointed out that although the judge’s integrity was not being questioned, justice had to “be seen to be done.”

In view of the sensitivity of the dispute, he said, it would be better were the judge to recuse himself and not give rise to any doubts as to the impartiality of the proceedings.

Lawyer James D’Agostino, appearing on behalf of the ministry, agreed, saying that case-law on the subject was clear. He also said he trusted the discretion of the sitting judge.

After hearing the arguments, the judge upheld the request for recusal. The case will now be re-assigned to another member of the judiciary.

Permanent Secretary Frank Fabri, Director General Educational Services Emil Vassallo and Director Education Resources Lucienne Calleja represented the education authorities.

The MUT president Marco Bonnici and UPE CEO Graham Sansone appeared for their respective unions.

Lawyers James D’Agostino and Dennis Zammit assisted the applicants. Lawyers Franco Debono, Marion Camilleri and David Camilleri are representing the UPE. Lawyers Arthur Azzopardi, Keith Borg and Rebecca Mercieca assisted the MUT.