[WATCH] Inside the school of hard knocks, Msida’s Education Hub

Out with regimentation, in with individual attention

Gabriel Galea and Wezan Abushagir stand proud out in the school grounds before sitting down for an interview with MaltaToday. “I used to feel caged in the classroom, here I am given the chance to calm down and rethink my actions,” Gabriel says
Gabriel Galea and Wezan Abushagir stand proud out in the school grounds before sitting down for an interview with MaltaToday. “I used to feel caged in the classroom, here I am given the chance to calm down and rethink my actions,” Gabriel says
School of hard knocks: the kids of Msida's Education Hub

Gabriel Galea has always been difficult to manage – I am told by one of the teachers at Msida’s Education Hub, as I watch his display of high energy making him stand out in class.

Instantly, this stereotype of mischief becomes an outcast inside the regimented classroom culture, and hardly a fit for the mainstream education system.

But without the right kind of social support, children like Gabriel are facing alienation from society without being given a chance to excel themselves in an educational pathway that can give them a future.

That’s why students with unruly behaviour today are being channelled to the Education Hub, a government institution that promises a lifeline to students deemed hard to cope with. Situated on the outskirts of the Junior College, colourful gates and welcoming smiles greet visitors to a school that so far caters for just 16 students hailing from differing environments and backgrounds. Gabriel forms part of a newly-introduced cohort enrolled since the start of this academic year.  

Manuel Fenech, the head of school, says the Education Hub enhances these students’ abilities to access a holistic educational experience, and empower them to overcome any limitations they may encounter.

“The circumstances which some of the students were born into, have hindered their learning process, while others find it difficult in grasping scholastic concepts. So the school educates them in basic subjects like Math, English, Maltese and ICT. By providing for the individual needs of the students, we can provide academic and emotional support which would have otherwise not been offered,” he said.

Fenech says students are also taught social skills. “We aim at providing the students with basic social skills apart from the traditional academic syllabus, to try and create seamless integration with society once they graduate from the course.”

So instead of the traditional schooling syllabus, children here are also given the opportunity to learn a number of trades like woodwork, farming, welding and cooking.

Young Gabriel himself says this method of teaching has helped him develop skills which he hopes to use in his future. “I’m happy with having had this chance.” Other schools wouldn’t have given him the chance to hone down on such skills, he says matter-of-factly, admitting that he was not suited for the classroom culture.

“When I used to attend the other school the moment I just stepped over the line; I would be punished with after-school detention, without the teachers giving me a chance to express what I felt emotionally,” he says. “I used to feel caged in the classroom, here I am given the chance to calm down and rethink my actions.”

In stark contrast with what he used to experience, Gabriel now looks forward to attending school, a feat he says would not have been achieved unless he attended the Education Hub. “When I grow up I want to be a panel beater, so learning welding helps me in achieving that goal,” he says.

  Head of school Manuel Fenech
Head of school Manuel Fenech
“In order to provide equal opportunities to students needing support, we must reach out. There are other children like the students we have here, and they can only improve if they receive the attention we offer”

Wezam Abushagir, another student here, praises the individual attention given to the students by the teachers. “In most other schools, we would have been 30 students in a classroom, here we are just four and so the teacher has more time to handle personal issues that may arise,” he said.

Even at this tender age, Wezam has the self-awareness of having noticed an improvement in his behaviour, claiming the Education Hub helped him in realising his mistakes and assess how his decisions can have consequences.

This positivity shared by students reflects the attitude adopted by teachers within the institution. “The small number of students we have here helps us in dealing with them on a personal level. Big schools don’t have the facility or personnel to deal with students like these, the way we do,” Graziella Erkayasi said.

“I used to work in larger classrooms, and I know that the syllabus and classroom size can affect the attention given to students like the ones we have here,” she said.

Erkayasi was formerly a teacher of Spanish, but her job has required her to shift to a more holistic type of education, where she currently acts as coordinator to the Prince’s Trust Achieve programme.

The curriculum teaches basic skills to students undergoing the programme, with money management, career education and team work all part of the course.

Headmaster Manuel Fenech says the Education Hub project hopes to branch out in the near future. “Despite making substantial progress, we hope to make our services available across Malta. In order to provide equal opportunities to students needing support, we must look to expand and reach out. There are other children like the students we have here, and they can only improve if they receive the attention we offer here.”

Fenech says that making sure the infrastructure caters for the courses provided, has been the biggest challenge he has faced during his time as Education Hub headmaster.

“A key factor to ensuring the project is a success, is having the appropriate infrastructure to support the required courses,” he says.
Fenech also says it is necessary to have both suitable infrastructure and capable staff members.

“The building is important, but teachers and trainers with the necessary skills to handle and communicate with these students, are the secret to our accomplishments… To find individuals who are ideal to work with these young people is a challenge, not everyone can handle the intensity that comes with the job.”

Fenech insists on the importance of continuous training for teachers. “We learn with them. No one can prepare you for the individual backgrounds they come from and that is why we insist on having our staff re-trained continuously,” he says, hoping that more educators for this type of challenging environment come forward and are trained to cater for burnout. “The environment is mentally challenging, and so having suitable and qualified replacements would make the transition much easier.”

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