New Education Minister Clifton Grima has just assumed one of the most delicate jobs in the country. He tells Mark Laurence Zammit how he would like to see the educational system change under his watch.

Education and Sports Minister Clifton Grima. Video: Karl Andrew Micallef

Clifton Grima on... good governance

MLZ: You replaced Justyne Caruana, who just resigned over the scandal of a contract she awarded to her friend Daniel Bogdanovic. Do you agree that she should have resigned?

CG: Justyne Caruana felt she should shoulder political responsibility. We don’t see that happen often in this country. Many find it difficult, but she took that road and responsibly stepped down.

MLZ: But the question was whether you think she should have resigned. If you were in her position, would you have resigned?

CG: What’s important is loyalty to the prime minister, the people and the country. You take a decision like that when you feel your position is no longer tenable. And if in my conscience I feel that my position is no longer tenable, then yes, I would take that decision as well.

MLZ: Was it you who asked the former permanent secretary Frank Fabri to resign?

CG: I worked with Frank for a number of years, because I was parliamentary secretary within this ministry, and he was one of the first people I spoke to when I became minister. And he contributed greatly to the sector. Frank and I spoke and in the best interest of the sector that he loves, he decided to seek another path.

MLZ: What does he do now? Does he have a role?

CG: Frank still has a lot to give to the public sector and we’re evaluating different possibilities.

MLZ: So, he doesn’t have a new role yet.

CG: No, he doesn’t.

MLZ: When the Bogdanovic contract was revealed, people were concerned that this was part of a widespread culture here. Since you’ve been here, have you checked whether there are other contracts like that one? And did you find any?

CG: I checked, of course. I asked for a breakdown of contracts and it seems like there are no other contracts like that one. When I got here, the Bogdanovic contract had already been scrapped.

Clifton Grima on... Joseph Muscat's downfall

All smiles: Grima sits between Joseph Muscat and Robert Abela in this Labour family photo from 2019.All smiles: Grima sits between Joseph Muscat and Robert Abela in this Labour family photo from 2019.

MLZ: In his book and in an interview with Jon Mallia, Mark Camilleri claimed that back in the political crisis of 2019, you were one of six rebel cabinet members who were calling on Joseph Muscat to step down. Is this true?

CG: Mark writes many things. I am loyal and respectful of people and their office. I always acted ethically and was guided by my conscience. I will always tell the truth. I was raised like that.

MLZ: So, what’s the truth in this case? Were you a rebel during that time?

CG: I always worked with great respect for the office of the prime minister…

MLZ: So, you weren’t a rebel?

CG: I always worked tirelessly in the national interest.

MLZ: And what was the national interest back then, according to you?

CG: I spoke with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. It’s no secret. And we still speak. Today, on work-related matters I speak to Prime Minister Robert Abela. What I can tell you is this – if I had such conversations with Joseph Muscat, those were between me and him, head to head. I always spoke to him with loyalty and respect, and now we’ll let history be the judge of that. They weren’t nice times. I would be walking with my family and people would insult me.

MLZ: On the street?

CG: On the street yes, and people would stare at me judgmentally. Others would hurl insults.

MLZ: But do you understand why people may feel that you and the rest of the cabinet were partly responsible for what was happening? The public inquiry into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia found that the State, including cabinet, is also responsible for her death. You were part of this cabinet. Do you feel responsible?

CG: I became part of cabinet in 2017, and I’m honestly proud…

MLZ: Exactly, you were part of cabinet when Daphne was killed.

CG: I had just become part of it when Daphne was killed – and I condemn that murder and all others. Those are not the values we stand for. Since then, Robert Abela’s cabinet has, in fact, implemented reforms in this aspect.

Clifton Grima on... the education system

Grima: "They say it takes a village to raise a child, imagine what we need to educate all the children.". Photo: Pierre Sammut/DOIGrima: "They say it takes a village to raise a child, imagine what we need to educate all the children.". Photo: Pierre Sammut/DOI

MLZ: If you’re back in government after the election do you think you’ll be reappointed education minister?

CG: I will do my job and the rest is up to the prime minister.

MLZ: Do you wish to be appointed education minister again?

CG: I love the work we do here. My mission is to serve, and the education and sport ministry can improve so many people’s lives. What else would I want? What could possibly be better than that?

MLZ: I notice that you frequently express gratitude towards educators and thank them for their service. Can you move from words to actions and promise them a raise? Because they have miserable salaries.

CG: I think it would be unfair to gauge respect for educators by the money. I believe there should be structures that support them better, I believe schools should have better environments. A lot has already been done, from all governments, and we need to continue our work in that direction.

About the financial package – during this legislature we signed a collective agreement – dubbed by many as historic – that saw a rise in salaries. Today, teachers begin their career earning as much money as teachers used to have when they ended their careers.

We must remember that teachers have a complex job, but it is also a profession, a vocation, and that’s why I thank them for their work because I am aware most of them go over and above what is required from them to do a good job. So yes, I think that should be acknowledged.

MLZ: Acknowledged even with a higher pay?

CG: Yes, why not. Most importantly, any collective agreement must be sustainable.

MLZ: It seems like everyone complains about the education system in Malta. Many people believe we are not critical thinkers because of how we were taught in school, and the problems we’re facing now are a consequence of an education system which did not teach us the essentials. And this seems to have been a problem under PN as well. What are you doing, concretely, to change this?

CG: If we want an education system that gives more to our children, we must look at where we came from, where we’re at, and where we want to go. I really believe we need to strive for a holistic education for our students. They say it takes a village to raise a child, imagine what we need to educate all the children. We need the whole country. And that is why we must work together in that direction.

MLZ: But what should schools be doing differently for the system to produce a better generation of Maltese people?

CG: Firstly, we must understand that not all students have the same needs. It can be easy for a huge education system like ours to operate on a one-size-fits-all system. That system does deliver results with a number of students but marginalises many others.

Consequently, many students feel left out of the system, so they’re not motivated to pose questions. We must work on that, to have a system which fosters the abilities of our students, to give them the opportunities… I also think as a country we don’t give enough importance to science.

We must increase exposure to scientific subjects at the primary level. Some people may think it’s too early, but that’s where we’re wrong. We must create an environment which stimulates students to ask questions.

I would be walking with my family and people would insult me

MLZ: But many Maltese people don’t ask questions, because they’re afraid of defying authority. In school we were taught not to challenge our superiors, fearing reprisals. And we grow up into adults who are afraid to speak up when we see wrongdoing. We’re terrified.

CG: I don’t agree Mark. You and I, we’re both products of the Maltese educational system and you’re asking me all the questions you want and we still respect each other. If we do a good job, we can ensure a healthy environment of dialogue in our schools. Our educators already teach these principles. You may not agree with the methods or their efficacy, but our schools today are way more open to dialogue, not just with students, but also with parents. I really didn’t like when you said people are terrified.

MLZ: Don’t you think Maltese people are afraid to speak up?

CG: I don’t think so.

MLZ: Last month on social media a mother posted a picture of an ethics question in her son’s assessment. The question asked students: “Imagine you are left in a room with a baby for 15 minutes. And you are told that this baby will grow up into a dictator who will kill millions. You know you will not get caught if you kill this baby. What would you do, and why?

CG: What would you do?

MLZ: I wouldn’t kill it.

CG: I wouldn’t, either. I would save him and raise him to be a good man, because I have faith our education system can do that.

MLZ: But my question is, do you agree with such questions in our students’ assessments?

CG: A few minutes ago, you were telling me our system needs to foster critical thinking. That is exactly what this question does. So yes, I agree. That doesn’t mean all the questions should be this macabre, but the truth is a question like this challenges students to think and trains their minds to take better decisions. Because they will need to take good decisions when they grow up.

MLZ: Last week, the bishop of Gozo said this during a homily: “We’re going through a great educational crisis. Nobody knows exactly what they should teach, nobody knows where they want to lead their students. Schools used to form strong characters and turn children into mature men and women. Today, the only aim is to make profit off them. The system strives to transform children into nuts and bolts that are able to fit perfectly into a machine that generates profit. And we’re experimenting 365 days a year – teachers will tell you something about this.” Don’t you think he’s right?

CG: The system does way more than that. One of my first meetings as minister was with the Chamber of Commerce. I wanted to know what the employers think about the government’s vision for education.

MLZ: That’s exactly what I’m saying. Ask the capitalists, because that’s what they want from you – to produce efficient employees, because that’s how they will make money.

CG: I see it differently. Our system must bring out the best in our children, so by the time they finish school they have all the necessary skills, mindsets and freedom to choose the life they want for themselves. That is why I insist on a holistic education for our children. We need to run a good economy as well. We need to generate some profit, because that’s how we can reinvest it in the system. Over the last few years, we tripled our capital expenditure on education and we doubled our recurring investment. We’re investing heavily in our children.

MLZ: But there’s a problem there as well. Four years ago, the EU published a report on schooling in the member states. It confirms that we’re among the biggest spenders, as you say, but it also says we’re among the poorest performers. It says: “The performance of Maltese students in international assessments remains poor, especially in science, reading and maths.”

CG: That report wasn’t published yesterday. It’s four years old. We would score differently today. I’m not saying we’re in first place now, but we’re better off, and it’s all thanks to my predecessors. We have higher rates of literate people; early school-leavers are down as well. Am I happy? No, and I’m worried because few students opt for sciences and languages. That’s where we need to work.

MLZ: Do you think we should raise the school-leaving age to 18?

CG: I agree we should provide students with all the tools to reach their full potential.

MLZ: Do you agree they should stay in school till they’re 18?

CG: Why not? Let’s discuss.

Clifton Grima on... the Ħal Far racetrack

Racing enthusiasts will soon have a track to speed along, Grima has said. Photo: Matthew MirabelliRacing enthusiasts will soon have a track to speed along, Grima has said. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

MLZ: The racetrack.

CG: It will happen.

MLZ: When?

CG: When the permits are issued, of course. We have the land, we have the money and we did the ground work.

MLZ: When you announced this with the prime minister, you had insisted that the racetrack will, in no way bother the residents of Birżebbuġa. You gave us the plans and we realised the track goes round the migrant centre in Ħal Far. Aren’t those residents as well? Experts are now suggesting the migrants should even be relocated. Will you relocate the migrants? And is there a chance they won’t need to live in containers anymore?

CG: You’re only quoting one sentence from the report. We are taking all the mitigation measures to ensure that the sound bothers nobody.

MLZ: So the migrants will stay there?

CG: We have studies confirming that residents will not be bothered by the racetrack, including migrants.

MLZ: Malta aims to become carbon neutral by 2050. By how much will this racetrack set us back from reaching that target?

CG: I think we’re attributing unfair blame on the racetrack. First of all, we can regulate what vehicles can enter the track. We will abide by international standards, and motorsports is slowly become electric-powered as well. We know what we’re doing, rest assured.

Clifton Grima on... the Olympics

MLZ: The Olympics. We’re very good at praising the athletes who manage to make it to the competition, but we never win medals. What are you doing to try change this?

CG: With the right attitude and investment, I’m convinced we will win a medal. We have the potential. If not in Paris in 2024, then in Los Angeles in 2028.

MLZ: You’re promising us we’ll win a medal…

CG: There are two children in particular who I believe would win us a medals. I won’t say who they are, but they’re already showing they are the best on an international level.

Watch excerpts of the interview online on Times of Malta.

 

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