18 SEPTEMBER 2002
School heads have refused to take responsibility for the abuses in the school transport following union directives issued from the Malta Union of Teachers.
MUT chief John Bencini told The Malta Financial and Business Times yesterday the directives urged school rectors not to take such responsibility, "Supervising school transport is simply not part of the rectors job description. School rectors already possess hefty work loads. Other school employees can monitor bus services."
Several headmasters contacted by this newpaper said they knew nothing of the directives. Other headmasters seemed unmoved by the problems in the bus transport service, which caters for over 18,000 students.
"A lack of ownership" of the school transport problem was outlined by a National Audit Report as opening up avenues for more abuses and service shortcomings. The report recommended "a more effective monitoring function through greater ownership of the system by schools".
Speaking to The Malta Financial and Business Times Labour Spokesperson for Education Evarist Bartolo said that in that respect the NAO report had its shortcomings, "Headmasters are educators and have to be allowed to carry on with their duties", Mr Bartolo argued.
The Labour Spokesman said headmasters have considerable administrative duties that forbid them from monitoring the situation. "The senior management team of a school cannot cope with added duties to their already packed schedules. Maybe there is need to define better the role of administrator."
The National Audit Offices report on the governments school transport system for the 2001-2002 scholastic year, entitled Performance Audit School Transport Scheme, revealed a list of costly abuses.
At least Lm89,490 has been overpaid by the Government for non-existent school transport services. Of the Lm1 million paid for services provided by 739 buses, 10 per cent of payments made in 2001 to service providers were found out to be for non-existent routes. Other monies lost through amalgamated trips "could not be effectively audited," the report stated.
Inconsistent pick-up times, lack of supervision in buses and at bus-stops, overcrowding and trip amalgamations were part of the list of service shortcomings. The report said the lack of documentation of routes performed or missed and their related invoices had contributed to grave overpayments.
The transport system is operated by three service providers who negotiate a package along with the school transport section at the education division. The report identified the existence of a cartel allowing operators to raise prices without improving the quality of the service. The cartel can use its unilateral power to block healthy rivalry among competitors and set the rules regarding price, quality and quantity.
No formal contract exists that regulates the level of service expected and that enforces penalties in the case of non-performance and other abuses. The service has been operating without a formal contract since 1976.
The report stated the education divisions school transport section was poorly managed by one official whose duties range from planning and setting routes to finalising payment for the service.
Asked by The Malta Financial and Business Times what steps would be taken following the reports findings, an official from the Ministry of Education referred this newspaper to the recommendations in the NAO report.
More efficient planning, management and control was needed to remove the inadequacies at the education division. This included constant monitoring and updating of all trips performed and nation-wide inspections of the school transport system
Speaking in parliament, Education Minister Louis Galea said he had received a draft of the NAO report on July 30 and since then the education division had started making amends to the school transport system. Dr Galea said the NAO draft report had just arrived when negotiations with the service providers was being negotiated.
Earlier this week, Education Division Director General Charles Mizzi, wrote to the Police Commissioner to investigate the possibility of fraud in the transport service.