“My mother used to say: ‘Education starts with a caring smile’,” says Sue Midolo, Head of School at St Catherine’s High School in Malta. Having succeeded her in the headship, and continuing a century-old family business, Midolo is keenly aware of the responsibility that she carries to promote compassionate education.
First set up as an all-boys school in the Vatican City, St Catherine’s later moved to a small house in Sliema, Malta. Today, it occupies spacious premises in the town of Pembroke, with abundant air and light, and views over the Mediterranean Sea. St Catherine’s is now a fully co-educational private school, and teaches children from the ages of two to 16. It also runs a specialised master’s and educational diploma course for undergraduate-age students.
As the daughter of the previous principal and the granddaughter of the one before that, Midolo has been at St Catherine’s since the age of four. In a sense, she was there even earlier, since her mother continued to teach at the school during her pregnancy. “My dad, my aunt and my sister – not to mention my cousins – have taught here as well,” says Midolo. “The one thing we all have in common is an equal passion about that sense of care and soulfulness with which we do things here.”
Ever since the school was founded in 1909, the principles of care and compassion – which were not then fashionable in education – have continue to be defining tenets. A great deal of attention is paid to creating a sense in all the children that they spend their days in a home away from home. “We hope that our students will carry with them a feeling of belonging, even after they have grown up and moved on,” says Brian Gauci, who, together with Sue Midolo, manages human resources and pastoral care at the school.
St Catherine’s was established as a Roman Catholic school, but welcomes pupils of all cultures and faiths, and provides facilities for all forms of worship. “We sadly lost one of our Muslim students in a car accident recently, and we felt very honoured to be the first women, men and children to be invited to the mosque for the funeral,” says Midolo. “It meant a lot to us, and sent a signal that we can all live happily together.”
Though rooted in its founding principles, St Catherine’s is committed to innovation in its teaching systems. In addition to making the process of assessment less formal and more child-centred, it has also scrapped homework for five-year-olds, and recently introduced parent and child conferences.
“These start with the children giving us their feedback, rather than just the parents and the teacher talking about them,” says Midolo. “That’s a very new thing in Malta.” Indeed, the success of the school’s pioneering teacher training and professional development schemes has led to requests from staff at other schools for help in adopting them.
At St Catherine’s, the staff take pride in knowing the background and story of every pupil. And there is no room for the concept of a failing child. “We just don’t accept that,” says Midolo. “We never give up on any child, whatever their ability, whatever their faith. We will stay with that child and we will help him or her achieve success in his or her story. Failure is a no-go here.”