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Elementary education in Malta during the early British period

The Governor’s Palace, Valletta, at it looked in the early British period.

The Governor’s Palace, Valletta, at it looked in the early British period.

The long, bumpy road to compulsory primary education in Malta during the British period took 146 years to come to fruition. The Compulsory Attendance Ordinance was enacted and published on February 1, 1946, in the Malta Government Gazette Supple­ment No 11, wherein it stated that “in no case should a child be allowed to leave school before attaining the age of 14”. Stringent measures were discussed in Parliament to ensure that school attendance was strictly observed, so as to avoid a repetition of what occurred following the enactment of the Compulsory Attendance Act (Act XII) of 1924.

It was no coincidence that this happened in the immediate post-war period. Major wars act as a national audit, and the Maltese people clamoured for more education. In the immediate post-war period, as Britain embarked on its ‘Secondary education for all’ campaign, in Malta an ‘Elementary school for all’ campaign was launched.

In the Education Department’s 1946 annual report, then director of education J. Brennan said: “The war years have rendered the people acutely conscious of the benefits of education and the vast majority had already registered their children and were eagerly pressing for their admission, and when the net was cast in October 1946 a negligible percentage of small fry was caught against its will.”

The history of education in Malta goes back to medieval times, and documents reveal that the Mdina Università invested heavily in its ‘grammar school’ in the ancient capital. During the Knights’ rule there was a proliferation of private schools, particularly in Valletta and the Three Cities, teaching Italian, French, Latin, Mathematics and navigation.

During their brief stay on the island (1798-1800) the French closed down all private schools which were mainly administered by the Church, and they made a feeble attempt to introduce elementary education on the island, in line with Jean Jacques Rousseau’s principle that these institutions should be entirely secular without any interference from the Church. French academics, led by Jules Simon, professor of education at the prestigious University of Sorbonne, supported by famous novelist Victor Hugo and philosopher J. J. Rousseau, also advocated compulsory education for all children. the French introduced matelot schools to teach adults, while the University was reduced to an ecole central. However, it was evident that the French had made education, particularly in the Inner Harbour Area, a public concern.

The state of education in these islands at that time was in complete disarray to such an extent that in 1833, Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby was compelled to admit that elementary education in Malta was a disgrace

In the turbulent early British period, scant attention was given to education, particularly during the respective terms of office of Donald Cameron, Sir Alexander Ball and Sir Hildebrand Oakes between 1800 and 1813, when Britain was still at war against France and Malta’s status was still undecided.

However, one of the first recommendations in 1813 made by Secretary of State for the Colonies Lord Bathhurst to the first official Governor of Malta, Thomas Maitland, clearly stated: “The establishment of public schools where the reading and writing of English might be taught on the simple and economical principle lately introduced in the Kingdom would be of very beneficial effect and I am to request you will promote such establishments and give them the support of Government.” Maitland completely ignored Lord Bathurst’s instructions on public education, but to his credit, ‘King Tom’ reorganised the University to an acceptable level and founded, with little success, the Greek College, with the aim of drawing wealthy academics to the island.

At this stage, the benevolence of private individuals, both Maltese and English, came to the fore with the establishment of the Normal School Association in 1819 to cater for those children whose parents could not afford to pay for private schooling. They collected enough funds to send a promising educator to England who subsequently returned to set up a Normal School for boys in Valletta, while a school for girls was run by Catherine Nuzzo.

In Żejtun, on the initiative of Rev. Dr Luigi Camilleri, a Normal Free School was opened in 1820. Some financial assistance from the government started trickling in, and in 1834 another Normal School was set up in Senglea by Canon Panzavecchia, which included boys from Vittoriosa and Cospicua.

The first register of schools, now kept at the national archives in Rabat, sheds a lot of light on the prevailing political, social and economical situation in the early British period. Hardly a dozen Maltese citizens had a thorough knowledge of the English language, although a substantial number of Maltese in Valletta and the Harbour Area had a good knowledge of Italian and French. At that time Malta became a haven for British expats who took up all the top posts in the civil service. Many of these later opened private schools to teach English, mainly in Valletta, and later in the Three Cities and Sliema.

The government notice issued on September 18, 1827.The government notice issued on September 18, 1827.

On September 18, 1827, a government notice was issued from the Palace, Valletta, by command of Fred Hankey, Chief Secretary to Governor, stating: “The Lieutenant Governor, having been instructed by His Majesty not to allow any person in these Possessions to keep a public school without his express permission; and also in reference to Book V Chapter IX of the Code de Rohan on this subject, is pleased to notify that regular licence will in future be issued from, and registered in the Office of the Chief Secretary to Governor, instead of the mode heretofore used in granting such permission.”

In the 1830s, the Maltese islands were in a pitiful state. Pestilence, rampart poverty, sheer ignorance and widespread unem­ployment gripped the islands and as a result, in 1832, the Comitato Generale Maltese was set up, ably led by Camillo Sciberras, George Mitrovich and other prominent members.

Britain’s coat of arms still adorns Tarxien primary school’s facade. Photo courtesy of Prof Joseph FalzonBritain’s coat of arms still adorns Tarxien primary school’s facade. Photo courtesy of Prof Joseph Falzon

Mitrovich volunteered to proceed to London to present the miserable state of the island to the British Parliament. It is to his credit that, with the support of his friends in London, a Royal Commission composed of Sir George Cornewell Lewis, who had extensive experience in Ireland, and John Austin, were sent to Malta. Fortunately, Austin was accompanied by his wife Sarah, a hard­working reformer and an assiduous educator who personally opened various elementary schools for the poor and the needy.

Before the commission’s departure to Malta, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, fully aware of the rigid religious bigotry on the island, sounded a word of caution:

“The extension of elementary education to all classes of the inhabitants… demanded by the Maltese... this national demand should be accomplished as extensively as possible... always bearing in mind that such an interference would inevitably fail, and would probably be productive of positive mischief, unless it were guided by a vigilant regard to the religious opinions and feelings of the Maltese people.”

The state of education in these islands at that time was in complete disarray to such an extent that in 1833, Governor Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby was compelled to admit that elementary education in Malta was a disgrace, stating that “nothing can be more discreditable than the state of education in Malta. The government does little about it, the Church scarcely anything, and the attempts of individuals towards so laudable an object are necessarily very limited for want of means”.

The commission took three years to complete its investigations and severely criticised the colonial government for its incompetence, particularly in its complete failure to provide free primary education. Immediately, important measures were taken

The commission took three years (1836-1839) to complete its comprehensive investigations and severely criticised the colonial government in Malta for its incompetence, particularly in its complete failure to provide free primary education.

Immediately, important measures were taken, particularly in the field of education, as the Normal Free School in Valletta that catered for boys and girls was taken over by the government, while central locations in Malta and Gozo were identified for new schools. The first group included Mdina, Vittoriosa, Żurrieq, Lija, Żejtun, Żebbuġ and Victoria, with the pious hope that they would also be attended by children in the nearby towns and villages.

The primary school in Tarxien was built in1889. Photo courtesy of Prof. Joseph FalzonThe primary school in Tarxien was built in1889. Photo courtesy of Prof. Joseph Falzon

Subsequently other schools were opened in Cospicua and Senglea, followed by Mosta, Qormi, Birkirkara and Żabbar. Another new school was established in Nadur. Elementary schools were sub­sequently established in other villages, including Tarxien in 1889, where the school still stands as a kindergarten.

The religious strictures emanating from London were at all times strictly adhered to during the British period, with the Catholic religion being a compulsory subject under the direct supervision of the parish priests.

In the middle of the 19th century the Jesuits set up a number of schools, which although meeting the approval of the colonial govern­ment, were surprisingly enough not at all welcomed by a substantial number of the Maltese intelligentia, as can be gleaned from the following incisive attack in the influential Italian newspaper Il Mediterraneo of 1842 (No. 202

“Today’s Jesuits are not know­ledgeable except for the work of the missio­nary. They are definitely not famous and erudite, neither are they academic his­torians nor anti­quarians, nor legalistic or mathematicians. Consequently why prefer Jesuit teachers?”

Of course, this is the perfect antithesis of the Jesuit Order’s reputation today.

In the light of the newspaper’s bitter condemnation of the Jesuits, their application to open a boarding school is not without significance.

On April 27, 1877, Rev. Fr Jones, provincial of the Society of Jesus in Eng­land, was granted permission “to establish a boarding school in this island entirely under the direction and management of English Jesuits, with the condition that should it ever be found necessary to employ in the said school foreign Jesuits, a special application shall be made in each case”.

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