Updated 12.25am with NGO reaction
A report by the Education Commissioner has sounded the alarm about the “worrying and dangerous” phenomena of group-bullying being carried out by “ethnic gangs” in an unnamed school.
In the report published by the Ombudsman’s office, the Education Commissioner warned that “curricular dystopia” and troubled social backgrounds was leading to the formation of these gangs.
In a statement, NGOs slammed the comments as "careless and misinformed", arguing that while the shift to multicultural classrooms had brought tensions, the Commissioner's asssessment was steeped in stereotypes and ignored the increased risks of bullying faced by migrant and ethnic minority students.
Education Commissioner Charles Caruana Carabez set about investigating cases of bullying within the unnamed school after noticing the high amount of reported incidents.
“Though bullying is by no means a recent phenomenon, the Commissioner has data which indicates that there is a link between the number of cases of bullying recorded in a school and the number of students belonging to a particularly nationality in that school,” the report says.
Mr Caruana Carabez said non-Maltese students were being forced to follow curricula which are tailored for Maltese students but are not considered useful by foreign students.
This was complicated by the fact that some foreign students cannot even speak or understand Maltese or English with an intermediate proficiency.
The language barrier instinctively leads such students into seeking the company of peers from their own country
The language barrier instinctively leads such students into seeking the company of peers from their own country, the report continues, and the more students from that particularly country, the larger and more powerful the gang will be. Students’ fraught social backgrounds was another factor identified by the Education Commissioner behind the formation of such gangs.
Mr Caruana Carabez said the troublesome foreign students seem to come from war-torn countries, and may have been brutalised by being exposed to violence at an early age.
Others may come from countries whose citizens have been rendered “soulless” by political regimes.
The Commissioner also noted how students coming from a family background that was “far from ideal” were also prone to trouble.
“The latter is becoming increasingly applicable to Maltese students, who, of course, form an obviously numerically-important part of the school environment. Vast cultural differences also play an important role,” the Commissioner said in the report.
The Commissioner expressed his belief that the root cause aggravating the problem also lies in the fact that a school which was conceived and administered as a normal secondary school, had suddenly turned into an international school though “suddenly changed demographic circumstances”.
He said this happened without the school having the necessary structures, curricula or human resources suitable for it to operate as an international school.
“Malta’s population underwent a significant change in that the number of foreign expatriates increased dramatically and within a relatively short period as a result of geo-political upheavals and economic turmoil in both Europe and Northern Africa, and a sizable proportion of these foreign expatriates who work or seek refuge in Malta have families with children who need education.
Mr Caruana Carabez expressed his belief that the setting up of a centrally-located international school where the students were taught in their own language and their particular cultures form part of the curriculum would go a long way to eliminate the “aberrant behaviour” emanating from boredom and subject irrelevance.
“The Commissioner is aware, however, that this solution is fraught with difficulties and would offer a considerable challenge to the government,” Mr Caruana Carabez concluded.
'Commissioner seems to be advocating for segregation' - NGOs
In a statement, a group of 19 human rights and social justice NGOs acknowledged that the transition to multicultural classrooms had been "marked by tension and struggle" and insisted the challenges faced by educators, administrators and students could not be ignored.
However, the NGOs said the Commissioner's analysis provided a "one-sided perspective" that ignored growing evidence based on the experiences of migrant and ethnic minority students.
"It is disconcerting that his evaluation appears to be steeped in cultural stereotypes and hearsays that fail to capture the complexity of the context," the groups said.
"We also note that the Commissioner ignores the demonstrated strengths and benefits of the pluricultural and plurilingual classroom. We believe that a classroom environment embracing different worldviews and cultural practices, encourages students to absorb knowledge and skills necessary to navigate an increasingly globalised world.
"Instead, the Commissioner seems to be advocating for separation and segregation."
The NGOs highlighted the fact that the 2014 national policy on bullying had identified migrant and ethnic minority children as vulnerable and more susceptible to bullying, and lamented that the Commissioner had not assessed whether this policy was achieving its aims in safeguarding victims of bullying.
They also questioned why no mention had been made of the fundamental human right to education, in light of the Commissioner's core duty to improve the educational services for all members of the community, especially the most vulnerable.
"The undersigned non-governmental organisations therefore flag the Commissioner’s report as inappropriate. We invite the Office of the Ombudsman and the House of Representatives not to take note of his key findings and recommendations. Our children deserve better. Our students deserve better."
The statement was signed by aditus, the African Media Association, Catholic Voices Malta, The Critical Institute, the University of Malta education and social wellbeing faculties and the gender studies department, the Foundation for Shelter and Support to Migrants, the Integra Foundation, Isles of the Left, the Jesuit Refugee Service, Kopin, the Malta Emigrants Commission, Moviment Graffitti, The People for Change Foundation, Richmond Foundation, Right 2 Smile, Solidarity with Migrants Group and Spark 15