Evarist Bartolo | Sunday, 12 April 2009

Don’t blame the teachers

Probably very few persons in Malta followed the teacher unions’ conferences held in Liverpool and Cardiff over the last few days. But some of the issues raised are very relevant for us, especially if we allow ourselves to get to where British society is at the moment.
A few months ago, Carmel Cefai, Paul Cooper and Liberato Camilleri published their national study of students with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD) in Maltese schools. They discovered that “the prevalence rate (9.71%) of SEBD in Maltese schools is comparable to the UK prevalence rate (10%) suggested by Goodman (1997).”
But in the last 12 years the situation seems to have got worse in the UK.
In their conferences this week, UK teacher unions published research showing that children and parents or guardians are becoming increasingly aggressive and confrontational with teachers. Their message was: “Don’t blame teachers when it’s parents who are failing.” They insist that it is not fair to expect teachers to deal alone with problems that have their roots outside the classroom: the erosion of parental responsibility and the breakdown of society. Teachers complain that they are being undermined by a culture that says that parents and children have rights and teachers have responsibilities. The unions want the government’s “every child matters” agenda to be changed into an “every person matters” agenda where teachers are treated with respect.
Maxine Bradshaw of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers says: “There was a time when… society was unafraid to challenge young people when they were doing wrong but now adults more and more seem to feel powerless and fearful which makes it harder for teachers to instil a sense of responsibility in pupils.”
Research in both the UK and Malta shows that children living in poverty are more prone to have social, emotional and behaviour difficulties that prevent them from settling down in schools to learn and succeed. Cefai, Cooper and Camilleri recommend that “more social, economic and educational support needs to be targeted to families… those on or below the poverty line, those with poor level of parental education and unemployment, and single parent-families struggling to make ends meet. More than 21% of children and young parents in Malta are living in such families (Deguara 2008), and the earlier such children are supported, the healthier would be their development and well-being.”
In the UK a substantial number of unruly pupils, apart from those living in poverty, are children who come from households with televisions, computers and game consoles. What they do not have, says Mary Bousted of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, “are adults who are prepared to give their time and energy doing that most difficult but essential of jobs, raising their children properly.”
The study by Cefai, Cooper and Camilleri concludes that “the situation in Maltese schools reflects the challenges being faced by teachers and schools across Europe and North America” with behaviour difficulties, violence, anti-social behaviour and bullying. They warn that these difficulties must not be allowed to create a culture of blame with parents and teachers at war with each other when they should be supporting each other. The breakdown of society is putting tremendous pressure on both parents and teachers and the way forward is to work together to be critical parts of the solution. But parents and teachers must not be left alone to cope with the effects of a broken society.
Problems that have roots in the family must be tackled within the family. Problems that arise out of society must be dealt with thorough, effective social policies; while problems that are caused by our education system must be addressed by sensible education reforms that are not decreed from above but are shaped and implemented with the full authentic involvement of the teachers at every stage.
The necessary strong political will to address these complex issues is sadly lacking. Reports upon reports dealing with child poverty, illiteracy, absenteeism, bullying, obesity, high consumption of alcohol, cigarettes and drugs by our teenagers, recommendations to introduce updated and relevant syllabi in primary and secondary schools, the review of Matsec exams… and many others are allowed to gather dust over the years and the required urgent action is not taken.
We have an education system where only 40% of our children pass their Junior Lyceum exams at primary and their SEC exams grade 1 to 5 at secondary level, to stand a chance of succeeding in post-secondary education and beyond. After many years of inertia and complacency the PN government says that over the coming six scholastic years 85% of our children must succeed enough in their primary and secondary education to continue studying beyond the age of 16. How is this going to be achieved in six short years after so many years have been allowed to go by without addressing seriously all the complex issues that still need to be tackled, if we want to prepare our young people adequately to grow into creative persons able to live and work in the 21st century?

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