[WATCH] Gozo's Happy School: discovering the joy of primary school

'Happy School' in Rabat, Gozo, seeks to informalise primary education and make school fun for its students 

Students enjoying an activity at Gozo's Happy School. Photo: Raphael Farrugia
Students enjoying an activity at Gozo's Happy School. Photo: Raphael Farrugia
Inside Gozo's Happy School: Bringing the joy back to primary education

For many of us, primary school is our first memory of being constrained to sit at our desks while teachers preach various lessons at us. But for the lucky students of Rabat, Gozo primary school, the experience is decidedly different…

Termed the ‘Happy School’ after its motto (‘We are a happy school’) the school hosts some 384 children, and walking into the building, you are immediately welcomed by a sense of warmth and smiling faces bustling around busily. Children and teachers alike walk in and out of what I later realised is the principal’s office, without any of the fear or discomfort normally associated with the figure.

In fact, Lelio Spiteri, who has been the school’s principal for the past four years, is evidently regarded with deep affection by students, and a mere half hour is enough to explain why… His office holds none of the auspicious unattainable air, that some head teachers tend to favour… instead, the walls are painted and decorated by former Year Six students, and students pop into the office to say their polite good mornings ahead of morning prayers, either by way of a hug, or, in one student’s case, a surreal and flattering kiss on the hand. 

“Our aim has always been to make school fun, and to give students some of the most enjoyable memories they could hope for,” Spiteri says, with an enthusiasm that is palpable even in the mere smile he uses to greet visitors.

Spiteri explained that efforts to shift the focus from passive learning to activities that stimulate learning, started when he was the assistant head of the school for five years.

“We think outside the box, which means that some of our ideas might be met with resistance, but we have managed to build a relationship with most parents,” he said, adding that the changes and activities introduced had been gradual, but ultimately met with enthusiasm as parents realised how positively they affected their children.

“When I was a child, school was just sitting in a class in tight uniforms and listening to the teacher, but we wanted to break the mould,” he said, describing some of the activities held throughout the year, including a pyjama day, a flight over Sicily with the children, a visit by Junior Eurovision winner Destiny Chukunyere, as well as sports events held ahead of this year’s Olympic games.

Spiteri adds that he hopes that examinations will be eliminated, in favour of ulterior assessment methods, at least for primary schools.
“I honestly believe that the way forward is to make formal education somewhat more informal,” he said, pointing out that although students at the school sat for exams from their third year of studies, exams were not treated as something to be feared.

Indeed walking into the school on this June morning, you would have no idea that it’s their last day of exams. The students run around the school, beaming and laughing excitedly in their everyday clothes rather than uniforms, as they crowd into the homely school yard for what Spiteri explains will be the last special assembly of the year before students break up for the summer holidays.

Despite the evident excitement, it doesn’t take much time or insistence for them to stop and listen to Spiteri as he says a few words and gives out awards to various students, both for academic achievements such as showing promise in literacy, extracurricular activities, as well as social responsibility and kindness towards fellow students. They then proceeded to sing and dance to a song they had previously agreed on.
Indeed, as Spiteri explained, the activities were not merely thought out as activities for their own sake, they were often meant to teach something particular, or more notably, a particular value, like charity.

“We collected around €1,000 for Puttinu Cares when we organised Pyjama Day,” he said, adding that the school also worked hard to spread acceptance and inclusion and fight bullying amongst students.

The school also prides itself in providing varied and innovative lessons, through the use of online and IT resources and games to make learning more interactive.

“One of the teachers even introduced a ‘genius hour’, encouraging students to create items like models, from scratch, and then present these projects to fellow students in class,” Spiteri said.

As ideal as the scenario sounds, as a product of a very exam-based education, I couldn’t help but wonder whether a higher density of activities could ultimately impact the results achieved by students. However, Spiteri was quick to clarify that the school had retained above average results since activities became more dense.

“This ultimately proves that making school and lessons fun ultimately imbues them with a sense of intrigue and excitement to learn more,” he said, a fact attested by the students who spoke to the newsroom.

Indeed they told MaltaToday that they had grown accustomed to coming to school to a surprise activity to brighten up their day.
“Although I will be sad to leave the school, I am very looking forward to learning more subjects,” one of the students told us. The students also expressed affection for their teachers and for their headmaster, adding that they wished they could take him along with them wherever they were going next.

Spiteri also commented over concerns that the fun environment might not be preparing them for the sterner situation that characterizes secondary schools.

“I hope that they won’t take the change negatively, and that the memory of the school will continue to encourage them in their future,” Spiteri said.

The headmaster further confided that he hoped that the school would be able to move to larger premises to cater for growing numbers of students, and to be able to have more classrooms dedicated to subjects such as music, art and counselling among others.

“However much character the building has, we hardly have any space as it is, and we have had to repurpose much of the building into classes,” Spiteri said.

Spiteri went on to express his hope that other schools would follow suit and use alternative teaching methods in order to make education more fun both for teachers and especially their students.

“I hope this school can show other educators that it is feasible to colour outside the lines and use methods according to their efficacy rather than just because they were pre-approved,” he said.