Students address the House on poverty

Malta, 10 May 2010. They might be young but students speaking at a debate at the House of Representatives on Friday demonstrated keen awareness of serious issues such as poverty and social exclusion.

Students from St Joseph School Sliema, Stella Maris College and San Andrea School sat on the benches usually occupied by the opposition as they discussed the issues in a manner which an MP described as "better than some speeches one hears in Parliament".

Among those present at the debate were European Commissioner John Dalli, Education Minister Dolores Cristina, William Martin, head of the European Commission Representation in Malta, Julian Vassallo, head of the European Parliament Office in Malta, and the Parliamentary Secretary for Youth, Clyde Puli.

Poverty and social exclusion were words that sounded distant for many, a Form 3 student from San Andrea School said, but they might be closer than one might initially suspect.

"A year ago, my family hosted Andrea, an Italian friend of mine at home. As his family was visiting, they got the news that the Abruzzo earthquake had destroyed his home and his family, who lived relatively comfortably, was forced into poverty. It became even more of a problem as his father was embarrassed of writing the address of the shelter they were living in when applying for jobs," the student recounted.

Labour MP Michael Farrugia said Malta's 15 per cent rate of people living in poverty or at risk of doing so was below the EU average of 17 per cent. It was worrying, however, that 22 per cent of children were poor or at risk of poverty, Dr Farrugia said, with some families not sending their children to their first days of school because they could not afford copybooks.

The state, he added, had to give tools and avoid the "benefit trap" at all costs.

Speaker Michael Frendo said the EU had an already far-sighted view of the role it had to play in the world, with the 60-year-old Schuman Declaration reading: "With increased resources, Europe will be able to pursue the achievement of one of its essential tasks, namely, the development of the African continent."

Speaking on this, a girl from St Joseph School, Sliema, said it would be a better idea if instead of providing technological means to Third World countries the money was spent on education, adding it was also the key towards better family planning.

Labour MEP Edward Scicluna noted that, more often than not, the best help was given by NGOs who went to villages themselves and carried out specific projects for the community. A girl from San Andrea School said women were underrepresented in Parliament and in management positions, meaning their voice was not taken into account as much as it should be.

A boy from Stella Maris College took this point further, saying "schools should cater for our needs, not vice versa", adding that "inclusion is about all of us", moving Dr Farrugia to call for an applause.

Education Minister Dolores Cristina said investment in education was an investment in social policy. "Whatever career you choose, I urge you to seek the happiness and serenity you deserve," she told the students.

(Author: David Schembri, source: Times of Malta)