Tuesday 16 October 2018

This is not just about the warrant, it’s about devaluing the teaching profession

This article first appeared in Malta Today 

There are a lot of misconceptions going around about the implications of the amendments to the Education Act which were rather stealthily tabled in Parliament this week.

I say stealthily because the consultation paper was published in July and, despite the fact, that the stakeholders participated actively during the consultation process and provided substantial feedback, barely none of the research evidence and documentation was taken into consideration.

So what is the point of banging on about consultation, dialogue and talks around the table when the views of those whom you are pretending to consult with are basically dismissed?

It is not like we have not been here before. In fact, it happened just a few weeks ago with the vote on the DB Project and the Pembroke residents – we saw what a fat load of good the feedback, objections and concerns had with those on the PA board. It was as if 4000 objections were swept away like a pesky fly. So you can hardly blame teachers, who number much more than 4000, for being greatly concerned about what is behind these amendments. And you cannot fault them for being highly suspicious of what this administration is up to now either, because they have had ample proof that this ‘Government that listens’ ends up listening as you would to an annoying child, and then turning around and doing what it wants anyway.

But let us take a look at why teachers are up in arms. First of all, the teachers and their union only learned about certain new amendments through the media, because the revised Bill was tabled in Parliament so there was already an element of trying to sneak the amendments in through the back door so to speak.

The most contentious of the amendments concerns the much-discussed warrant. Despite denials by the PM and the Education Minister that there is any intention to revoke permanent warrants, the wording in the clause is worrying and just vague enough to make teachers anxious about their jobs:

17. (1) Warrant or licence holders shall be obliged to periodically carry out such programmes of continuous professional development as may be established by the Council from time to time.
(2) When a warrant or licence holder fails in his obligation to follow programmes of continuous professional development and of updating, the warrant or licence pertaining to the holder may be suspended until such time as the holder proves that he is fulfilling the requirements of the obligation provided for in this article.
(3) For the purpose of establishing whether an applicant has successfully completed his professional development as aforesaid, the Council may submit the applicant to a proficiency test under the provisions of this Act or under regulations made thereunder.

The council refers to the Council for the Teaching Profession, which is a Government-appointed body and this is why alarms have been justifiably raised. Who is to say that a warrant is not withheld for arbitrary reasons or at a whim, or because of a personal grudge?

Teachers have made it amply clear that they are not against continuous development – in fact they attend in-service courses all the time, and it is even stipulated in their current collective agreements. They are already under constant scrutiny, with everyone freely passing judgement on their performance on any given day. However, as they have also rightly pointed out: why is the Government specifically singling out teachers’ warrants? If we are suddenly going to be so diligent about standards, let’s start with people who are earning big bucks as politically-appointed consultants and board directors and members of various quangos. I would love to know the track record of those who are being paid out of our taxes, and whether they deserve to have their contracts renewed.

The Faculty of Education pointed out the major pitfalls of the new Bill very succinctly:

There is no reference to the minimum qualifications necessary to qualify as a teacher and the mechanisms proposed to regulate this are obscure. The law, as proposed, requires major re-thinking and should put teachers and learners at the centre of a wider process, the faculty said. At present, it can lead to excessive centralisation of decision taking, and to a situation where the voices of educators and learners are not given the space they deserve. The institutions that this Act will govern, including the Council for the Teaching Profession, require a better representation in their composition and a transparent process in relation to the manner through which members will be selected. It should be ascertained that they all have the necessary expertise for the role assigned to them. The faculty said it was especially concerned with the lack of clear parameters in relation to the warranting of the teaching profession. This could potentially have negative implications, which could undermine teacher education and, even more seriously, the whole profession. Furthermore, the proposed Act ought to give more prominence to the development and upgrading of teacher education.”

What really baffles me is why pick on teachers when the sector is direly in need of not only more teachers, but very good teachers at that. You would think that after last year’s teacher shortage, real lessons would have been learned. Yet, here we have the Minister who, with this Bill, seems to be telling those who have been of service for many long years that their experience counts for nothing and that they will be evaluated at par with someone who has just graduated. Now he may keep claiming as he did in one interview, that warrants are not a VRT test for teachers (although that is exactly what they feel like), but his soundbites are not really washing with his target audience. Many are wondering whether this ‘playing around with warrants’ is just a pretext to a situation where a new, watered-down version of instant teachers with no teaching practice or pedagogy background can be provided ‘on tap’ to substitute those who are leaving the profession in disgust. Is this a way to replace teachers who now earn a certain amount because of their grade, to be replaced by those who can be paid the bottom rate because they are just starting out?

The reason for this cynicism is easy to explain. To be blunt: the trust has gone. And frankly, this Labour Government has no one to blame but itself for that because it has tried to fool people one too many times with its double talk, and vague amendments to laws which then have to be analysed with a microscope until you figure out the catch. Voters should not always have to feel that the Government is trying to pull a fast one over on them, but that is the situation we find ourselves in, because we have been ‘bitten’ once too many times.

And, yes, of course the MUT was right to walk out of the ‘conciliatory meeting’ on Friday. It was very disrespectful to the union for the PM to speak to journalists about the dispute while the meeting was still going on, and announce with a fanfare that the new Education Act would be withdrawn FOR NOW, if the strike is called off. I would have been insulted and walked out too at this attempt to get public opinion (and especially parents) on his side by making the union look like it was being unreasonable. That is not how negotiations are held, by playing to the gallery or as the MUT President pointed out, by trying to pressure the union into taking a decision by making the offer public. What the PM should have said was simply, “negotiations are being held as we speak, and until they are concluded, I cannot comment”.

But no, he made a calculated decision, and it had the desired effect because parents started complaining about the strike and about having to make arrangements for their children. Predictably, by late Friday afternoon, I could see the bursts of public sentiment which had started railing against the MUT, and against teachers.

So yes, I fully support the teachers’ strike* and here is why. There comes a point when you have to stand up and say ‘Enough’ when things are done in a high-handed way, and it is clear that the voice of the people no longer counts for much. How many times do we have to hammer home that we put these elected representatives in these roles, and that they are accountable to us, rather than the other way around? And rather than lament that the teachers are striking “only because there is a Labour Government in office”, I think that what those who say this should be asking themselves is, why is the Labour government putting teachers in an untenable position where they have no choice but to strike?

 

*This article was written before strike was called off

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