Published on the Sunday Times of Malta on Sunday on 9th April 2017 – by Marco Bonnici, Nominee for President of the Malta Union of Teachers
1) The MUT, a trade union, is there to make teachers happy. Should not the aim of the profession be the well-being of the students?
I do not agree with simplistic off-the-shelf slogans (make teachers happy) which mean nothing since they do not provide any concrete objective and means to achieve it. The values that guided the MUT since its foundation are being enshrined in the vision for the leadership of the MUT that I am proposing together with a number of educators and colleagues. The sense of unity, strength and determination that led the MUT founders to join forces against a proposed civil service reform in 1919 are the same principles that guide the fifty proposals aimed at addressing the current crisis in the teaching profession. The well-being of students is central to our operation as they will be the first to suffer unless we reverse the trend whereby experienced educators are leaving the profession whilst young people are not being attracted to courses leading to the profession.
2) At Hamrun secondary school, the MUT took industrial action even though remedial action was in the process of being taken. There are concerns that the union exploited the situation in view of the upcoming election, to the detriment of the well-being of the students. How do you comment?
The union suspended industrial action (one hour strike) following a conciliation meeting held with MEDE where it was agreed that a number of measures were going to be implemented to address the situation. Some measures were implemented whilst others were not. Situations which were being reported to the union required immediate action to safeguard the wellbeing of educators and students. These included serious misbehavior issues which were affecting the teaching and learning process and the constant difficulties faced due to a minority of students who were not willing to adhere to basic rules concerning school uniforms. The union acted responsibly and issued directives to members to ensure that serious misbehavior issues are addressed and basic rules regarding school uniforms are followed. These directives were not detrimental to students as they helped to reinforce discipline and order which are essential in any educational setting.
3) The MUT has said that one size should not fit all in educational provision. Does this mean that the MUT has reversed its position, which has been in place at least since the 1970s, against streaming and segregation of learners by school?
The MUT needs to be a reflection of its members and any policy direction being issued must always take into consideration the feedback received from members. Streaming and segregation of students reached an extreme level as it resulted in first class, second class and third class schools before it was abolished. On the other hand the introduction of mixed ability groups has also reached extreme levels when there were unrealistic expectations that when students with different abilities (including learning difficulties) are placed in large groups, they can benefit from each other with teachers expected to run individualized programs during the same lesson. Banding in some groups together with a number of curricular programs helped to limit the variation in student abilities.
4) Teachers in Church and independent schools routinely teach in mixed-ability classrooms, yet many State school teachers claim this is impossible. What is the MUT’s position on this?
I never compare members and I will resist any attempts to differentiate between members in different sectors. Different sectors have different realities. There are also considerable variations within the same sector as all schools have their unique ethos which is also reflected in their programs. Representations made on behalf of teaching grades in particular sectors or schools must reflect this. There cannot be a model which is applicable to all sectors unless we want to undermine the autonomy of the school and the professional autonomy of educators.
5) Is the MUT satisfied that mixed-gender classrooms are leading to a better social experience and improved academic results?
We are not informed about any local evidence, at least scientifically, that co-education as introduced in State schools is leading to improved academic results or otherwise. Even if such evidence is provided, it will be difficult to have a clear point of reference for comparison purposes as co-education was introduced following the introduction of the benchmark exam and in conjunction with the structure of middle and secondary schools. There are other variables such as the use of banding and the introduction of new curricular programs which may contribute or otherwise to the said results. The social experience may have improved but the feedback that is being received indicates that the majority of senior schools are using most of their resources in addressing the new realities faced with the new intake of co-ed students in forms 3. Secondary schools who have boys in upper forms and an intake of girls in forms 3 are very often struggling to protect girls.
6) What would the union propose to improve the academic competence of male students that is generally lagging?
The MUT is a trade union and a professional body but the academic competence of students is not directly linked to the union’s work and cannot be attributed solely to the teaching and learning process. Various studies indicate that schools can only contribute up to 30% of a student’s achievement. Flexibility in subject choices and timing may address situations pertaining to development issues in both males and females but it would be premature to comment on any decline in the competence of males unless we have scientific evidence that indicates so and is attributed to the schooling process.
7) What has teachers’ general reaction been to the introduction of tablets for year 4 students? Has it helped improve teaching methods?
The union gathered initial feedback from teaching grades upon the conclusion of the pilot project of tablets. At the time over 65% of respondents found the experience positive. However only one in two respondents reported that they were looking forward to the implementation due to a number of concerns regarding measures that were being requested. Initial feedback following the implementation earlier this year indicates that tablets are being used by students but there are still some difficulties due to the infrastructure, particularly the connectivity in non-state schools and the required level of support across all sectors. I am proposing a consultation process with teaching grades regarding the implementation of this project at the end of this scholastic year to discuss amendments regarding the implementation. However it will be difficult to determine whether the use of tablets improved teaching methods at such an early stage of the implementation.
8) What would the MUT recommend as the three most important priorities to improve student achievement and learning experience?
Support schools in decision-making towards more autonomy. This is fundamental as unfortunately the majority of school administrators cannot take even the most basic decisions unless they have approval from personnel outside schools.
Provide services in schools not in colleges or in centres which are detached from schools. The number of services have increased in the past years but schools are losing the immediacy of actions, such as disciplinary measures, as they have become so bureaucratic that the student would face consequences for actions when everyone would have forgotten about the misbehavior episode.
Listen to what educators have to say about their experience in school and not blame them for shortcomings. Unfortunately we may have a repeat of a situation which we faced some years ago where educators where targeted for shortcomings due to decisions which were beyond their control.
9) What are the greatest problems teachers are facing nowadays?
Teaching grades are facing a myriad of difficulties including lack of trust in their professional expertise; unattractive salaries; stretching of working conditions impacting heavily on the work-life balance; students’ and parents’ complete disregard for authority; ongoing changes without evaluation; fear about unfounded allegations of abuse which may ruin their career or reputation; together with the high level of uncertainty about the future in view of reforms proposed.
10) Do you think that Malta’s educational system has been too heavy on exams rather than based on assessments throughout the entire scholastic year?
Decisions taken in the past years leading to the removal of exams are still haunting our educational system. At the time, the removal of exams and the resulting vacuum led to chaos and no sense of direction to both educators and students. These vivid memories are resulting in the current cautious approach in affecting amendments to examinations. Even the removal of the Junior Lyceum and the Common Entrance exams had to include a compromise through the introduction of the Benchmark exam. Recently, there were proposals to shift towards more forms of continuous assessments but any implementation requires teaching grades to be on-board and agreement with the union in view of its impact on the working conditions.