Measuring Inclusion?

Getting down to work to define a set of school principles to promote inclusion.

Getting down to work to define a set of school principles to promote inclusion.

On arrival at the Brindavan Trust training room this morning the warmth of greetings between students who have been apart for a few months was heartening to see. Equally reassuring was the welcome we received as tutors and the positive comments of anticipation about this week’s module.

Whereas at the outset of the first module our students were apprehensive and a little reticent, today it took them no time to engage in discussion and debate as the second module got under way. Active learning is the order of the day on this course. I am a firm believer that students learn more when they participate in problem solving activities than they do by simply listening to tutors. This group of students respond with gusto to every task we set. They question each idea presented, interpret issues in light of their own experience and challenge each other and the course tutors whenever a seemingly simplistic idea is presented.

Gauging the effectiveness of schools in addressing pupil diversity was the main focus of the day. Accepting that inclusion is a journey that follows many paths which twist and turn according to the influences of pupil need, teacher understanding and policy initiative, is it possible to assess the adequacy of the response of a school? Many efforts have been made to develop tools that it has been suggested might assist in assessing the inclusiveness of schools. Two of these, The Index for Inclusion and the Inclusion Quality Mark were scrutinised today. Students speedily identified the potential advantages and pitfalls of these instruments. Accepting that there are many cultural inadequacies in documents that were not designed for an Indian audience, they were none the less able to relate to many of the critical issues covered. Engagement with parents, the sharing of principles, involvement with the local community and respecting individuality are all factors to which the students could relate. However, in common with many other teachers they were concerned that this means of “measuring inclusion” was open to abuse and misinterpretation if simply used as a checklist to be ticked off in order to be able to describe the school as inclusive.

A couple of issues provoked particular debate. When documents refer to parents is there a danger that this will be translated as “mothers”? Child caring and educational responsibility is often delegated to mothers here in India as elsewhere in the world. Fathers can at times play a minor role on the periphery of schooling. This, our students suggest, can be a particular difficulty where a lack of male role models presents boys with a challenge. In some Indian families fathers are more educated than mothers, should they not therefore play a more active role in supporting their children? A more heated discussion centred on the idea of interaction with the community. Definition again presented difficulties. Should the school go out to the “community” or should the “community” be encouraged into the school? What is this community and how does it relate to the wider concept of society? Consensus on this matter was not achieved, and the questioning will continue throughout the week.

As a final activity of the day the students in groups compiled a list of principles for their ideal school. Many of the ideas expressed in each group were similar, though, as expected, each had their own unique take on what might be achieved. Returning to the Index for Inclusion and the Inclusion Quality Mark they concluded that these may be of help, but a far more valuable process would be to debate these principles in each school and develop their own approach to assessing success in addressing diverse needs. Throughout the week we will be referring to these principles as we consider a range of classroom management and teaching issues.

Finally, a reflection on one question that arose today. One of the groups had a principle that stated that violence of any kind perpetrated by children or adults should not be tolerated. “But if there is violence in our school, how should we deal with it?” asked one of the students. Perhaps the way forward is to adopt a Gandhian tactic. When there is violence in school the Principal will fast until it stops! Not a popular proposal with most Principals I suspect.

This was a highly stimulating day when teaching was at once challenging and rewarding. I look forward to the rest of the week.

One group trying to get a shared understanding

One group trying to get a shared understanding

Individuality Matters

“the identity of an individual is essentially a function of her choices, rather than the discovery of an immutable attribute”

Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity

Here is today’s challenge. Bring together 50 teachers for a daylong workshop beginning at 10.00am with the aim of generating a document upon which they all agree by 4.00pm. To this task add the necessity to take into account the views of parents and pupils and the additional factor of managing this on a Saturday in Bangalore. Why, you may ask, does the location matter? Surely the task would be the same in Northampton, Sydney, Washington or elsewhere? If you believe this is true then I suggest you read Amartya Sen’s excellent book The Argumentative Indian. Consensus can be achieved in such a group, but only after much debate and disputation. This is a country that values debate because here, individuality matters.

This factor was in truth of considerable help today. The topic of the workshop was the generation of individual education plans (IEPs) in support of pupils with special educational needs. The intended outcome was the production of a format that meets the needs of teachers, parents, pupils and school managers with a plan for implementation and evaluation. Respect for the individual was high on the agenda and the commitment of teachers working throughout the day demonstrated their desire to take seriously the individual needs of each pupil.

As expected every teacher on the course worked hard, sharing their considerable experience and discussing their ideas with enthusiasm. Potential formats were proposed and discarded, content generated and rejected, procedures debated and cast off. At first it seemed that we might never gain agreement, but then as is invariably the case, a little give and take prevailed and finally agreement was reached. Nobody was surprised – individuality matters, yes but teamwork is vital.

By the end of the day we had arrived at our destination. An agreed IEP format, a set of principles for implementation and a proposal for evaluation. I would like to suggest however, that the final destination was probably of secondary importance to the journey. This was a day of shared learning, of team teaching with a much valued colleague and of exploration of ideas.

We agreed that the development and implementation of IEPs should be an enabling democratic process whereby pupils, parents, teachers and school managers are encouraged to share in the provision of more effective and enjoyable learning experiences for all. This meant that we were all required to see learning from the perspectives of others, to abandon personal agendas and work together as a team. Whilst everyone had the opportunity to express their ideas and to have their opinions heard, it was equally important that we listened to the voices of colleagues. It is through the latter process that we  become more effective team members.

This was memorable day, not only for its outcomes, but more especially for the learning, the laughter and the sharing that happened along the way. The heat of debate subsided into the warm glow of achievement – a job well done. Teaching today was a privilege and a pleasure. The end result may be described as corporate but it was certainly the respect of individuality that mattered.

P1030206

Why are we here?

Blackboard outside of school in Jayanagar, Bangalore inviting applicants for pupils from marginalised groups under the RTE

Blackboard outside of school in Jayanagar, Bangalore inviting applicants for pupils from marginalised groups under the RTE

It’s a long way from Northamptonshire to Bangalore, a journey that I have made many times and one that lately I have shared with my colleagues Mary and her husband Tom and with John. Is the journey valid and worthwhile? This is a question I have often asked as I have wandered aimlessly around Dubai airport in transit from Birmingham, or whilst attempting to shrug off the jet lag during the first days after arrival. However, it takes only a little time until as a result of the kindness of friends and colleagues, a sort of confidence is aroused and I am reaffirmed in my appreciation of why we are here.

I suppose that in common with many other teachers I have always believed in education as a means of empowerment. In my own experience education has been a source of liberty, providing me with opportunities that were denied to earlier generations of my family. Education has to be a vehicle through which learners, many of whom have been marginalised or disenfranchised and others who have become disaffected can gain the confidence they require to participate fully within their communities. Without such a purpose its objectives are often contrived around policy agendas and are therefore likely to be sadly limited. For some this notion of education as empowerment is clearly easier to comprehend or to achieve than it is for others, but the challenge of engaging those who have traditionally been viewed as difficult to reach has always been part of the thrill of teaching. The empowerment of teachers is equally important. Teachers who feel that they are respected and have their professionalism recognised are more likely to maintain their commitment to their pupils. When they believe that they are being sidelined and their experience and expertise devalued, they too become disaffected.

I remember many years ago reading the late Nate Gage’s inspiring book The Scientific Basis of the Art of Teaching (1978). In this work Gage suggests that whilst effective teaching is systematic, organised and carefully planned in a scientific manner, it fails to inspire unless it is touched with artistry. Gage called upon teachers to look to research to inform their practice and observed that it is impossible to devise a single system that is likely to address the needs of all pupils. Teachers need to make decisions which are sometimes based upon instinct, to take risks and be inventive in the way they present their materials. Herein lies the creativity and the artistry of teaching. Nate Gage wrote his text more than 30 years ago, yet it would still resonate with many teachers today.

Sadly, politicians and legislators in England, having adopted a narrow and prescriptive view of education have done much to limit the creativity of teachers. In situations where teachers are required to work to formulae with an emphasis placed upon the measurement of a limited range of learning outcomes and where views of teaching approaches are restricted, artistry is diminished. A pseudo-science of education such as has emerged in recent years and which sees the purpose of teaching in only limited utilitarian terms has left many creative teachers feeling despondent and demoralised.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Both here in India, and at home in England I see teachers who have risen above the current trends and continue to exhibit exactly the kind of artistry that Nate Gage called for. Many of those teachers who have given a career commitment to finding ways to support young people who defy conventional teaching approaches have recognised that creative teaching is essential if progress is to be made. They innovate and shape their teaching environment in a manner that ensures that every pupil has access to learning. They do this, of course, by recognising that not all pupils learn from the same approach and indeed not all of them need to learn the same things. In some instances it takes courage to put your head above the parapet. Thank goodness that we continue to have courageous teachers.

As part of the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme here in Bangalore teachers are required to design an intervention for use with a pupil or group of pupils, to put it into place and then evaluate its effectiveness. They are systematic in their approach, rigorous in planning and thorough in their assessment of the intervention. Yet what shines through in so much of their work is the creative ways in which they have thought about issues and designed their approaches. Even on occasions when the intervention has not been as successful as they may have wished, they are able to find positivity from pupil responses and participation, and reward from the relationships they have established with each individual. Such is their enthusiasm that our own resolve as tutors on the course is heightened and helps us to increase our endeavours, as we continue to work in partnership with students, teachers and children who are so committed to the art of teaching. This really is why we are here.

One last note from today. Whilst walking the backstreets of Jayanagar yesterday we came across a blackboard outside a school which makes a statement about the Right to Education Act (RTE) and the recent requirement that all schools accept onto their roll pupils with special educational needs or from disadvantaged groups (see photograph at the top of this page). For those readers who may be unaware, this Act has provoked a certain controversy as it expects that all schools, state and private, enrol pupils who may not formerly have been part of the school’s population. Written on the board is this year’s quota and an invitation to potential applicants to be made before February 8th. The board intriges me. What does it suggest I wonder? A new found commitment to children or their reduction to a set of numbers designed to limit the impact of the Act? Only time will tell. Your insights may well be better than mine. – All observations welcomed, after all this is partly why we are here.

 

Arrival

5.00 am. I recall in particular the blast of blistered air that hit us as we left the cool of the airport and crossed a car park strewn with sleeping bodies not yet responding to the dawn. The obstacle course negotiated we tumbled gratefully into the back of a leather seated ambassador and out into the early morning mayhem of Madrasi roads. The journey into Chennai, even so early in the morning assaulted the senses. Colour, noise, scent and movement, all in excess and way beyond mere western comprehension. And, of course the unremitting blast and honking of horns that is so much a characteristic of travel throughout all of India.

That was late July 2000 and a first visit to India for Sara and myself. I have been back many times since, but even now when I disembark from the plane, those first few hours of arrival never fail to remind me that I am in a land so different from my own. A place of half-familiarities and contradictions that never fail to amaze. This, of course, is an important fact to always keep in mind. Here I am a stranger, a visitor come as a teacher but in truth more of a learner excited by the prospects of what lies ahead.

On recent visits the feeling of arrival has in at least one respect changed. I know now what to expect from the clamouring insistent taxi drivers at the airport door, each with a better offer than his peers vying for a fare into the city. I am no longer alarmed by that first nudging of the taxi’s bonnet into the traffic joining the flow of vehicles with no apparent concern for cars, lorries, auto-rickshaws, cattle and bicycles appearing from all directions. Drivers in India have a refined spatial awareness that appears to enable them to take their vehicles through gaps that drivers in England would never dare to contemplate.

Other changes are perhaps worthy of note. My first airborne arrival in Bangalore several years ago had been to the old airport near the centre of the city, where at night leathery, ragged bats flew low around the trees in the adjacent car park. Today as on other recent visits the journey from airport to Jayanagar is one I dread. After hours of flying, airport lounges and changes of time zones on arrival at Bangalore airport one really just wants the comfort of a shower and some rest. Instead the laborious taxi run from airport to city, winding between the never ending road works and rubble associated with the building of the metro appears to take as long as the flight from Dubai to Bangalore. I am told that the completion of the metro will eventually ease passage into the city. I anticipate that my infant grandchildren may have graduated from university before this becomes a reality!

At one time travelling by road in India was a nerve racking and tortuous event. Today I am inured to the jolting across potholes, the lugubrious meandering of cattle and dogs crossing the roads, the two lane highway with its six or more vaguely defined rows of traffic and even the constant sounding of horns that is typical of Indian cities. The journey into Bangalore is frustrating but I am resolved to closing my mind and pinning all my faith in the driver who I know will do his best to arrive with as few mishaps and diversions as can humanly be achieved. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I can sit back and relax, but I can at least draw upon experiences that suggest that eventually I will arrive! Why is it incidentally that every journey between two known points in Bangalore follows a different route? Is there a reason why we can’t take the same and simple route each time?

Whoever it was that stated that “to travel hopefully is better than to arrive” had clearly never been to Bangalore. My arrival in this city is accompanied by renewed anticipation. Over the years I have made so many friends here and experienced a hospitality and generosity of spirit that has been a constant inspiration. I arrive full of expectation for the days ahead when I will renew old friendships and probably build new. This is a time for working with teachers and students in a shared atmosphere of learning, curiosity, enquiry and debate. An opportunity to explore issues of teaching and learning and to share in the challenges of creating more inclusive learning environments. Most of all, as ever in India I will spend much of my time trying (and often failing) to understand this beautiful, infuriating, wonderful land. As the Irish poet Brendan Kennelly put it

The learning goes on forever.

A pigeon dozing in the ivy

Is sending out bulletins

I am trying to decipher.