Thursday 21 October 2021

When it comes to education, in the grand scheme of things, what’s another year?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

I am pretty sure that this will be an unpopular opinion,but here it goes.

In a year in which even adults have suffered mental health issues due to job uncertainty, anxiety over illness and even the loss of loved ones, why are we expecting children and teenagers to just pick up where they have left off in their schooling and carry on as usual?   I’m referring specifically to the taking of exams and the assumption that students should proceed to the next step of their education as if the pandemic had never happened.  But, here’s a thought: what if we allow children the option to take a break from the rat race instead and tell them they can just repeat this last year rather than moving up a grade?  

I know of a family which has taken this very decision and their sense of relief is palpable.  There will be no need to worry that their children won’t “catch up” or that they will “lag behind”, because they are simply going to reboot and take their time to cover the scholastic year again (especially as the children in question have continued to be online throughout the whole time). 

Now, of course, I hasten to add, this decision would not be suitable, or even required, for everyone.  Many parents will point out that their children have managed to cope quite well and they should not have to “waste” a year. Some might also have an issue with the thought that their child will be a “repeater”, because that word still carries a stigma.  However, I firmly believe it is something which should be considered for those whose children are in danger of slipping through the net, which will only lead to more frustration. Some children may potentially never be able to make up for what they have lost because online learning, for a variety of reasons, just did not work for them.  Even before the pandemic, literacy standards had already deteriorated so I cannot imagine what the situation will be like now.

Everyone readily agrees that this past year and a half of Covid has disrupted everything and everyone, from the largest economies to the smallest business owner. Grown men and women have been reduced to a pile of shaking insecurities because they simply did not know what lay in store and to this end, there have been a number of initiatives and schemes to help cushion the blow.  However, we sometimes forget that the silent witness to all this has been the younger generation which has had to watch their parents and guardians cope with something never before experienced in our lifetimes.  The closest scenario we can compare it to is wartime, and indeed it has been, and continues to be a form of war.  Rather than air strikes from enemy warplanes, however, the virus has been a more subversive form of silent killer which we inadvertently “let in” ourselves through the most innocuous of ways: social interaction.

Those who were children during the war will often tell you how their world was turned upside down, as everyone scrambled for survival which became the topmost priority. So why should it be any different now?  Why do we expect the educational system to keep going as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened and for students to simply step back on the hamster wheel of studying and sitting for exams without missing a beat? No one could ever have predicted that all across the world, schools would be closing their doors and students forced to continue their lessons online.  In the majority of cases, the ones who have fallen behind the most are those who were already struggling.

But it is not just academic subjects which have suffered.

Most parents have spoken of a heightened irritability, a snappiness in their children, who could not take being forced to sit for long hours in front of the screen, unable to physically interact in a real classroom situation with their teacher and friends.  Because they were picking up on their parents’ tension, whether because of money problems or health concerns, they also became withdrawn and depressed. Children have also had to navigate a whole new world of wearing masks, social distancing, and a fear of contracting a virus from others, including their own family and friends.  And although, in general, the young tend to be more resilient and quicker to adapt to change than adults, it has still been a tough, psychologically stressful, 18 months for them.  

This is why I cannot understand how we can act as if it should be business as usual. (I especially do not think small children should keep studying during the summer holidays to compensate, as if this is some kind of competition).  Perhaps more parents should seriously consider the possibility of their children repeating this whole scholastic year, whether they have a six-year-old or a 16-year-old (who have missed out on all the fun and experience of what it means to be at Sixth Form).  Let them know what it means to sit in class, without masks, without fear, being taught by a teacher, mingling during the break and revising the material which educators tried their best to teach during 2020/2021 in such difficult circumstances.  

What is one year, after all, in the grand scheme of things, when students have the rest of their lives to study and knowing they will have to work until they are at least 65?  Viewed from that perspective, believe me, one year is nothing.

Nadur loves PA

You realise how traumatised many of us have been by the actions of the Planning Authority when a sign for Father’s Day, consisting of a heart and the word “Pa” (short for Papa’), was misinterpreted by many (including me) as a sarcastic joke about the Planning Authority.  Could this be one of Bis-Serjeta’s clever photo montages?   Was it a subliminal message to brainwash us into chanting a glib slogan just in time for the elections?  Or maybe, as someone astutely pointed out, it was the village of Nadur which was pranking us, because it is the home town of construction mogul Joseph Portelli.  Nadur loves the PA, indeed.

But no, it seems it was a genuine sentiment to celebrate fathers, and while the discussion then went off at a tangent about why the word “Pa” was used rather than “missier”, or even “Dad”, I kept mulling over the tragic absurdity of this situation.  We have an authority which has become a bad joke and although we can laugh about it, it is actually the kind of black humour of those who feel desperate, helpless and powerless.  The joke, as we have belatedly realised, has been on us all along.

Have you had your dose of Vitamin C?

Sometimes I wonder whether politicians have become more condescending and pathetic or whether it is the public which is calling out their silly behaviour more than ever before.

In the past, candidates used to give out keychains, biros and calendars with their faces and names stamped on them (I kid you not).  Because, of course, you want to see the face of your local MP every time you check the date, write a note or rummage through your handbag for your set of keys to open your front door.

MP Rosianne Cutajar, however, thought she would be clever and use the health department’s constant reminders to take more Vitamin C by delivering bags of oranges to her constituents at an Qormi care home.  Obviously, the elderly residents were happy to receive the fruit, but everyone else saw it for what it was – a cynical photo op for her election campaign.  Especially since a photo of herself was (kumbinazzjoni) stapled to each bag.  She was so completely oblivious to how this whole thing looked, that she blithely posted several photos of herself dispensing oranges to the hapless residents like some latter-day Marie Antoinette bestowing gifts on the “little people”.

On the other hand, while these ploys by politicians of distributing food stuffs should stop because they are downright ridiculous, I think Repubblika is really stretching the point, and shooting themselves in the foot by demanding a Police investigation into Cutajar’s actions.  I half expected them to dub the whole thing Vitamin C-gate. After all, it’s not like we do not have plenty of other more serious and glaring examples of real corruption staring us in the face every day.  The power of incumbency is very real and those on the campaign trial need to be held to account before the political favours really start flying off the shelves.  A few kilos of oranges, however, are hardly our biggest problem.

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