An Education Directorate internal report seen by The Times gives background on truancy from compulsory education. The newspaper’s headline is on the low recovery rate from fines imposed on parents whose children missed too much school. Since this is hardly about public revenue – we are not talking about the government failing to collect capital gains tax here – I would argue the headline misses the point.
The real point, as I see it, is deep down in the story which identifies as a principal cause for truancy the fact that many households simply cannot afford to kit out their children in uniforms, school bags and the other basic ongoing costs of basic education.
The imposition of fines, and the insistent recovery of the amounts owed to avoid critical headlines in the newspapers, in these situations is entirely pointless if not counter-productive. Fines are useful to shake up parents who are indifferent to education but do nothing to change the realities of those who simply cannot afford it.
It should be shocking to be having Dickensian conversations which this country has not had since Elvis Presley was in uniform. What is really shocking is that we are not really having these conversations, are we? As some of us rake in on the rental of an empty basement registered to some West-African politician or Russian oligarch, we do not really want to be speaking about the families whose entire income is now spent on the rental of hovels and the purchase of bad food.
In the best of times, Franciscans, more used to tending to the poor in South America or the Sub-Continent, are opening a soup kitchen in Valletta so that some people who cannot afford it can still have a warm meal. We have not had soup kitchens in this country since the misery of the world war.
It is obvious but oddly necessary to remind that not reaching a chunk of our population with even basic education unleashes the trap of perpetual poverty, social immobility, cultural stagnation, unemployment and sometimes crime. I do not mean to suggest that it is criminal to be poor.
But it is criminal to make the poor poorer.
Originally the post was published with a photo of a local school. Its head wrote in to complain. Here’s her letter:
Dear Mr Delia, Without prejudice Good morning. I am writing in my capacity as Head of School of St.Catherine’s High School Pembroke. It has been brought to my attention that you have utilised a photo of our School in your article entitled “Too poor to learn”. Kindly note that you are requested to remove our photo from your article immediately. I must admit that I am extremely disappointed that you have used a photo of our School first of all without our permission and secondly in a context which is definitely not befitting our school (we have no truancy issues at all). This is definitely professionally unethical. I also request an apology from you posted on the blog. Best Ms Sue Midolo Head of School St. Catherine’s High School Pembroke
In the unlikely event the the photo of the specific school suggested to anyone I was describing a specific and exclusive problem of Ms Midolo’s school I am happy to apologise. I have no doubt Ms Midolo, as a professional educator, is otherwise just as concerned as I am about families who can’t afford to send their children to school, even though it would seem none of her students have such problems.