The government has started to think about how to get the country back on its feet after the COVID-19 pandemic, including in the sphere of education. One hopes that the same spirit of cautious responsibility that has governed the successful response to the pandemic so far will also underpin the way schools will reopen.

To be sure, this is not going to be an easy decision. The reopening of schools and care centres is not simply about the educational experience of the children. It is also about making their parents available again to reboot the economy.

In countries now pushing for schools to reopen, there are fears that this may undermine efforts to bring COVID-19 under control.

Yet, this is not a simplistic tug-of-war that pits the bottom-line interests of multinationals against public health imperatives, as it is sometimes being portrayed. Soaring unemployment, poverty, loneliness and homelessness, the by-products of COVID-19 in many countries, are at least as deadly as the pandemic itself.

Until a vaccine has been trialled and approved, which according to testimony at the US Senate this week may be later rather than sooner, we need to come to terms with this intrusive and dangerous interloper. 

So it is appropriate that Minister Owen Bonnici has set up a think tank (I managed to avoid quite a bit of treacherous spelling there, ‘tank’ God) to look at the way forward.

We do need to understand how teachers and schools can really make best use of the impressive range of resources at their disposal. And not only for the continuation of COVID-imposed distance learning.

This experience can show us new ways how we can use a judicious mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning, both physical and virtual, to teach more effectively.

The problem is that this government has yet again exercised its absolute prerogative and infinite capacity to do the right thing the wrong way. One problem is with the membership and this think tank. The other is with the remit.

The think tank includes five non-educationalists, most of whom are leaders or have international reputations in their field. It has the makings of an excellent ‘disruptive thinking’ group that, in a properly functioning executive, would feed into a coordinating committee made up of experienced educationalists and education stakeholders. It would be this committee who would be actually considering what educational recommendations to make to the minister.

Such a committee does exist, at least on paper: it oversees the implementation of the National Curriculum Framework, that is still nominally the legislative instrument that since 2012 guides national schooling. One could make the case that the remit of this committee is not wide enough to cater for post-compulsory provision. The obvious response would have been to expand the remit and membership of this committee accordingly.

Instead, Minister Bonnici chose to effectively replace this expert committee with the think tank. The state, Church and independent schools, the two experienced directors general and their staff, the University of Malta, the parents, students and their representatives – all these, we are told, will be duly ‘consulted’.

Unfortunately, we already have a taste of what such ‘consultation’ might mean.

So-called consultation without genuine stakeholder involvement in the decision in hand is, at best, a crippled policy exercise- Sandro Spiteri

In 2017 the ministry decided that the End-of-Primary Benchmark exam had run its course and needed to be reviewed. To be sure, there was a wide consultation process through surveys and interviews. But the tentative recommendations that were emerging from the analysis of this information were not shared with stakeholders, who had no say in the evolving thinking of the working group.

When the recommendations were finally made public in 2018, they came as a surprise and many aspects were strongly contested. In the end Minister Evarist Bartolo did not implement the recommendations. 

So-called consultation without genuine stakeholder involvement in the decision in hand is, at best, a crippled policy exercise.

This year we celebrate 25 years since the ground-breaking empowering vision of ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ that first put the school community at the centre of educational policy for improvement.

We also celebrate 20 years since the first truly inclusive national policy formulation debate that constructed the national minimum curriculum. We are just a few months away from the new Education Act that purported to give greater autonomy to schools.

I never thought that we would need to have to say, again: “no decision about us without us”.

As to the remit of the think tank, it had to be the Maltese Association of Parents of State School Students (MAPSSS) to point out that “the vision for the education system for Malta is already mapped through the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) which is based on an extensive consultation process and national consensus. In view of the fact that the NCF is still at the implementation stage, MAPSSS wants to understand the terms of reference for this new working group.”

Kudos to the MAPSSS, who articulated what neither of the two teacher unions thought of saying up to now, with their exclusive focus on being invited to the think tank’s table.

So, what will be the think tank’s remit? Will it recommend ways how blended learning can become more a feature in everyday schooling? Or will it feel free to suggest ‘what works’ quick fixes of neo-liberal inspiration, in line with current government educational policy?

If this is Minister Bonnici’s idea of bulldozing through a new educational policy agenda, all I can say is: no ‘tanks’.

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