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Editorial | Wednesday, 20 January 2010 Issue. 147

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Echoes of a troubled past

On Monday, the Archbishop’s Curia announced its intention to embark on a major drive to build a number of new Church schools, for a total investment of €20 million.
In most parts of the world, this sort of announcement would be considered routine and mundane, but in Malta it was (rightly) accorded front-page prominence in several newspapers.
It may be worth examining the reasons for such media attention in the first place. For one thing, the demand among parents for places in Church schools for their children remains extraordinarily high, as can be attested by the scenes that routinely accompany the annual ‘lottery’ for admissions to such schools.
Evidently, these educational facilities enjoy such an excellent reputation among Maltese families, that they are sometimes willing to make enormous sacrifices to ensure that their children are granted a place therein. This alone would be justification enough for the high levels of reader interest in a story such as this. But there are other, less immediately apparent reasons.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, most newspapers led with the cost of the investment. Considering that the same institution very recently posted a loss of €1 million, it is not unnatural to question whether the Church can even afford such a lavish investment in these financially difficult times.
But the one question that few, if any, have to date asked is the following: what role has the government played in the decision to embark on this school expansion project? Does the government, in 2010, still play a central role in Church education? And if so, is such a role becoming of the central government in an EU member State, which supposedly operates on free market economic principles?
In response to questions by MaltaToday, it transpires that while the €20 million will be raised by the Church, the running administrative costs will be borne by the State, as is the case with all Church schools, great and small.
Education Minister Dolores Cristina has even quantified the amount – €7.5 million over 10 years – though it is hard to understand why she chose to limit the estimate only to the first decade of the schools’ operation.
At this point it is tempting to take the issue one step further, and question also the legality, within the context of EU membership, of this Church-State agreement to begin with. But this, it has to be said, would fail to take into account our recent political history. For the benefit of those who may not remember the finer details, today’s status quo was shaped by events that rocked the country almost 30 years ago.
In 1983 Prime Minister Dom Mintoff co-opted the hitherto all-but unknown Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici to Parliament, and appointed him Minister for Education: replacing Agatha Barbara, who had been nominated for the Presidency.
Mifsud Bonnici immediately insisted that Church schools - then operating on the same basis as private schools worldwide – must be made free for all, under the battlecry ‘Jew B’Xejn, Jew Xejn’ (Either free, or nothing). He warned that government would eventually suspend operating licenses should they not comply with the imminent law.
Government soon passed a bill (PN was still boycotting parliament back then) that prohibited church schools from charging fees. Overnight, the system was changed to one of ‘voluntary donations’, but these remained insufficient to cover the costs of salaries, expenses and maintenance.
In 1984, Archbishop Mercieca decided that, under the prevailing circumstances, it would be unsafe to open Church schools at all. Private schools – then limited only to one or two – also had their licenses suspended. Violent incidents later ensued, with attacks on the Curia, as well on the law-courts.
As tends to be the case with such epochal clashes, the eventual result was an uneasy compromise, whereby the Church conceded to the principle of ‘free education for all’ (in fact, Church schools remain officially on a donations-only basis until today).
But in the early 1990s, then PM Eddie Fenech Adami signed a multi-faceted agreement with the Holy See, committing his government (among countless other provisos) to fully subsidise all tuition fees at Church schools. To be fair to all parties concerned, Church schools at the time constituted the vast bulk of the private educational sector; this however would change over the next decade, with the rise of numerous private schools operating on entirely different models (and certainly not on donations alone).
From this perspective, the government’s commitment this week to renew its subsidy to future Church schools also comes across as somewhat anachronistic: an echo of a measure which may have made sense in the aftermath of the serious political tension of the 1980s; but which today sits very uneasily alongside the concept of ‘free competition’, supposedly championed by the present administration.
Small wonder the emerging private schools sector has expressed concern at the development. After all, re-evoking the ghost of a long-dead controversy can hardly be called a step forward.


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