Sunday 04 December 2022

Education: Tracksuits instead of uniforms are the least of our problems

This article first appeared in Malta Today 

Social media is guaranteed to always give rise to some ruckus or other. On Friday, I saw that some people were getting all upset at the suggestion by the Education Minister Evarist Bartolo that perhaps it was time to do away with formal uniforms and allow children to go to school in comfortable tracksuits instead.

Even a cursory look at the comments showed that the majority agreed with him, but inevitably there were those who saw this as trying to do away with ‘tradition’ and another step in becoming too casual in our approach to education. It is true that, when worn well, children can look smart in a uniform, but it is also true that children cannot be expected to spend the whole day dressed like little businessmen carrying an attache’ case to work. By mid-afternoon they are disheveled, with their shirt tails hanging out and their little ties askew. Because, you know, they are kids.

OK, I have to declare my bias..I did not grow up having to wear a uniform and we wore normal clothes to school. In fact, it was one of the things I absolutely hated about attending a school here, apart from having to attend an all-girl school.

So you will forgive me for seeing this latest polemic as being no big deal. Especially when what we have staring us in the face is an educational crisis of worrying proportions. In short, we are facing a major teacher shortage and unless we address this, anything else seems petty in comparison.

On the first day of school the Minister himself referred to the need to provide teachers with better salaries. This, I have learned, is not as easy as it sounds because teachers in state schools are considered to be civil servants and their salaries are pegged to the civil service grades. So basically, if you raise teachers’ salaries you would have to raise the salaries of everyone across the board who is in the same grade. On the other hand, I am a sure that if there were a concerted effort to get around this problem, there are ways in which teachers can be better remunerated without causing upheaval to the public sector. It is essential to reward professions such as teaching with the best salaries possible, not only to attract the cream of the crop, but also to ensure that teachers feel appreciated and adequately paid for what they do. In return, this will have a positive effect on their students who are met each day by happy, motivated teachers who love their job. Instead of grumpy, resentful people who treat teaching like ‘just a job’ and who look forward to the bell ringing even more than the children do, so that they can escape and go home,

As things stand, however, not only is the pay comparatively poor when compared to other careers, but the changes which came into effect last year for those who wish to become teachers are not helping either. A two-year, full-time master’s degree course has now replaced the B.Ed. (Hons) and PGCE courses as the necessary qualification for those wishing to pursue a career in teaching, which effectively means that prospective teachers will now require more years of study. The reaction to this is as to be expected: “why should I go into teaching when, with a Master’s degree, I can earn much more in another line of work?”

Why indeed?

Of course, there are those who absolutely love teaching, see it as their vocation and would not trade it for any other job. Then there are those (mostly women) who put up with the pay because it fits in with their children’s school hours and neatly resolves all their childcare issues, which is a crucial consideration which needs to be factored in when choosing one’s line of work. I am also aware that it is not just the pay which is an issue, and that there are a variety of other problems related to educational policies enacted over the years which have led many teachers to desert the profession.

What is clear is that the teaching shortage needs to be addressed immediately and should be at the very top of the educational agenda. The debate over uniforms, or lack of them, can really wait.
Choosing your child’s school

This time of year also brings with it another educational issue. Parents of young children will by now have made some very important choices which they have probably been discussing with each other almost as soon as their child was born. What type of schooling do they want for their child, and will their child get into the school of their choice?

There was a time when state schools, which had always been given a bad rap, were given a vote of confidence when the Government-run Junior Lyceums were introduced, as they catered for the brightest students. But these schools required entrance exams and the stress on children was deemed too much. The system was also thought to be unfairly segregating those who did not pass for the Junior Lyceums and who were therefore branded as ‘failures”, who had no choice but to attend area secondary schools, So in 2010 the Junior Lyceums and area secondary schools were merged into large ’colleges’, where the idea of streaming would be ditched, and classrooms would have children of mixed abilities. At the same time, and for the same reasons, the common entrance exams for private schools were also scrapped.

Now, so many years later, the general consensus from the parents and teachers I speak to is that the idea of removing streaming and entrance exams simply did not work. Teachers find the teaching of mixed ability children too difficult, making it impossible to adequately cover the syllabus, while parents feel that high achievers are being held back by those who are not academically inclined. The possibility of unruly children of different social backgrounds who are not interested in learning and who disrupt the classroom, is also a major factor which has once again cast a negative tinge on state schools.

The other schooling options of Church schools and independently-run private schools also have their pros and cons. The first because getting in is literally a lottery and the second because the cost of the fees can break the bank.

I do not envy parents who need to make this choice for their children, and I can empathize with the dilemma of those who wrestle between wanting what is best for their child, and the reality of their own financial situation. On top of all this, there is a new factor which has been thrown into the mix, which is the distance between one’s residence and the school one has chosen. Will getting your child into your ‘dream school’ also mean they have to wake up at some ungodly hour to catch the school bus or you having to combat with the stress of beating the traffic every day during the school run? This has become such a mitigating factor these days that it seems to me it would make sense to move nearby to the school one has chosen.

I think that ultimately we are all influenced by our own personal experiences of the schooling we received at our respective state, church or private schools and at the back of our minds we are constantly reminded about how these schools may or may not have shaped us as individuals. What has to be borne in mind, however, are two things: a child who is good at school will be good at whichever school he is sent to. And in the end, no matter which school one attends, the most important education always remains the one which we receive at home.

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