It’s my label and I’ll wear it if I want to!

A considered approach to teaching by a skilled and empathetic teacher can have a significant impact upon the confidence of the learner. But is this made easier by applying a label?

A considered approach to teaching by a skilled and empathetic teacher can have a significant impact upon the confidence of the learner. But is this made easier by applying a label?

Yesterday I wrote a piece “When in doubt apply a label” in which I discussed the controversy that surrounds the categorisation of children. Within the article I mentioned Julian Elliott’s recent work published in his book The Dyslexia Debate. A couple of respondents from Canada, Ireland and India posted comments on this blog but I also received an interesting observation from a friend here in the UK. She was unaware of the blog until her daughter, a local teacher, drew her attention to yesterday’s piece. Having read what I wrote she felt obliged to telephone me and give me her perspective.

She began the conversation by telling me she thought I had overlooked an important point. She wasn’t angry, at least not with me, but she was disappointed by an education system that had failed her at school. She went on to tell me that at the age of twenty two, she was assessed and diagnosed as dyslexic. This diagnosis, she related came after having been labelled as a complete failure at school by many of her teachers and also by her father. Alice (not her real name) had finished school at age sixteen with virtually no qualifications and left only with a feeling of relief that her school days were behind her. As far as she was concerned she was finished with education which she saw as having provided her with little more than misery. She left school with a negative view of teachers and very few friends. Even worse, her father who was a successful business man, accused her of being lazy and wasting her educational opportunities.

Having left school Alice had a succession of jobs, none of which she found particularly satisfying until an opportunity arrived for her to work for a national chain of florists delivering flowers to individual customers and floral displays for corporate events. She enjoyed this work and at last found some satisfaction in her life. At about the same time she married and all was going well for her. Then fate took a hand in her life. After two years in her delivery job her boss approached her one day and offered her a promotion to work in the office. Alice says that she immediately panicked, knowing that she would not be able to cope with the demands of office work. Her boss was surprised when she turned the job down, he knew she was newly married and would probably appreciate the increased salary that came with an office job and he believed she had the right personality for the position. He pushed her to take the post and with great apprehension Alice agreed to give it a try for three months on the condition that she could return to delivery work if it didn’t work out.

Alice told me how after a week in the office she was in a complete panic. She found herself adopting the very same strategies that she had used in school to avoid demonstrating the difficulties she had with reading and mathematics. She spent a restless weekend after her first week in the office post and on the following Monday had resolved that she had to see her boss and give him the full truth about why she couldn’t do the job. She described to me how much courage it took for her to sit in the office and tell her boss that she had difficulties performing the required level of reading tasks and that she didn’t want to continue in the post. However, she had not expected the reaction that she got from the man sitting opposite her.

Her boss asked her about her experiences at school and she told him about her struggles with learning. He immediately sympathised and told her that his experiences had been similar, but that the school which he attended rather than seeing him as lazy or stupid decided to provide him with extra support. With the cooperation of his parents he was given additional structured lessons to assist him in overcoming his reading difficulties. He described how a teacher had built an entire reading programme for him built around Leicester City Football Club match programmes and other related materials knowing that was his area of interest. With time his reading improved and he managed to leave school having done reasonably well in his final examinations, but more importantly feeling confident in his own abilities.

Alice’s boss told her that he would not let her give up the office job as he thought she had the personality to make a success of the post. He wanted her to stay on in the office and would give her an assistant to help with the things she found difficult, but on one condition. He would arrange for Alice to have an assessment of her learning needs and the company would then pay to provide any additional training that she needed. At this point Alice told me she had dreadful visions of returning to the classroom, but her boss was both insistent and kind.

I listened to Alice’s story over the phone recognising that it was probably a bold decision that she had made to call me and tell me her story. I attended to what she had to say without interruption as she then carried on to recount how she had gone for an assessment with a very sympathetic lady. The assessment lasted nearly two hours after which she was asked, “has nobody ever suggested to you that you might be dyslexic?” Alice says that she had never heard the term until that point. The specialist who had conducted the assessment explained how the word dyslexia was being used and that with the right kind of support many of Alice’s difficulties could be addressed.

From that day on, Alice told me, I realised that I was not stupid and that there was a reason why I struggled so badly at school. “I read your article on the blog”, she told me “and I thought someone should tell you the other side of the story.” Following the assessment Alice returned to reading lessons and quickly learned strategies that had never been made available in school. She retained the office post and was in fact promoted further a couple of years later. She remains bitter (her word) about her school experiences describing these as lost years. She is convinced that had the label of dyslexia been applied to her early in her schooling she would have been more likely to receive the support she requires.

Alice may be right. There’s no way we can tell. I personally don’t believe that we should wait until a formal diagnosis has been given before we recognise that children need additional help with learning. I also believe that it should have been possible to provide the support Alice needs without applying the term dyslexia.

I sent this piece to Alice so that she could read it and give me consent to post it on this blog. She was happy to do this (as long as I changed her name) saying that maybe it would encourage others to think more about her experiences. We discussed my view that a label should not be necessary in order for a child to receive appropriate teaching. She tells me that she agrees but equally that she thinks me naïve and suspects that many more children will consider themselves to be failures and furthermore will believe it is their fault unless they are given the right messages. “For me,” she said, “knowing that I am dyslexic and not stupid or lazy, is important. It’s my right to wear this label if it helps me to feel better about myself ”.

Thank you Alice for sharing your story. I do hope that others might contribute to this discussion.

When in doubt apply a label!

I wonder which labels this young boy in China feels most happy with?

I wonder which labels this young boy in China feels most happy with?

I have mentioned the concerns that many of us have about labelling before on this blog. My own main concern is that once we apply a label of any kind we are in danger of encouraging stereotyping. Let’s just take two examples to illustrate my point. If a child is described as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) this will raise alarm bells for many teachers and other professional colleagues. Individuals so labelled are likely to be perceived as problematic, presenting with difficult behaviours and unreceptive to conventional teaching approaches. These same teachers are therefore sometimes bemused when the pupil arrives in school and is withdrawn and quiet.  Stereotyping a child according to his label will often lead to such confusion. A contrasting example might be provided when we look at the label professor. To illustrate this point let me tell you a story.

In 2011 I was visiting a school where a good friend of mine was the headteacher. Prior to my visit he told the pupils in a class of 10 year olds, “today my friend Richard is coming to visit us, he is a Professor at the university. Why don’t you draw a picture of what you think he might look like so that you can show him when he comes?” Now, my friend has a good sense of humour. He knew what he expected and he wasn’t disappointed. When he took me to visit this class, all the pupils had produced pictures of the visiting professor. Some of you may already have an image in your mind of what they had produced. Many had drawn predictable pictures of a wild haired, bespectacled, quite elderly man, in many instances wearing a white lab coat. I suspect they were quite disappointed that I didn’t look like a real professor (well not much anyway!).

As I hope the two examples demonstrate, there is a certain danger in applying labels to people. This is an issue of which many of us working in education have been aware for a number of years, yet there is still a newsworthy quality to debates in this area.

Of all the labels applied to children it is “dyslexia” that appears to make the news with the most alarming regularity. When I arrived home this evening I recognised the easily distinguishable voice of a colleague from the University of Durham coming from the television in the sitting room. Professor Julian Elliott is a respected teacher and researcher whose work in the area of special and inclusive education is well known in the UK. Julian’s views on what he has in the past referred to as “the myth of dyslexia” are well known, but he is currently in the news for his latest book “The Dyslexia Debate.” Interviewed about this book Julian stated that:-

“Typically, we search for a diagnostic label when we encounter problems because we believe that this will point to the best form of treatment. It is hardly surprising therefore, that the parents and teachers of children with reading difficulties believe that if the child is diagnosed as dyslexic, clear ways to help them will result.”

Julian suggests that many children have reading difficulties and that parents and teachers often search for a reason to explain these. In particular, he believes that middle class educated parents feel more at ease if their child with a reading difficulty has the label of dyslexia. Having a diagnosis makes it acceptable to have a difficulty. There is however, says Julian, no scientific justification for using the label and if a child has reading difficulties he needs carefully planned teaching approaches that are equally beneficial for others who have similar difficulties but no label.

As might be expected Julian’s views do not find favour with everybody. Dr John Rack, who is head of research, development and policy, for a national organisation called Dyslexia Action has argued that the term has a legitimate scientific and educational value. When confronted with Julian Elliott’s ideas he said:-

“We don’t buy the argument that it is wasteful to try to understand the different reasons why different people struggle. And for very many, those reasons fall into a consistent and recognisable pattern that it is helpful to call dyslexia.”

 “Helpful for individuals because it makes sense out of past struggles and helpful for teachers who can plan the way they teach to overcome or find ways around the particular blocks that are there.”

So, which side of this debate do you come down on?

The issue is not helped by the fact that for some children and their families it is much easier to obtain resources to support their child if they can obtain a formal diagnosis. This applies to other learning needs and is not specific to dyslexia. Who can blame parents who seek these diagnoses when they believe that it will make life easier for their child? Similarly, we should not blame teachers or school managers who know that if they can have a child assessed and labelled they will be provided with additional resources to make their teachers’ lives easier.

As I argued in an earlier blog, the teaching approaches that have been developed specifically to address the needs of children who have a label, whether this be dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder or any of the numerous others applied, often have some value in the pedagogical armoury of the teacher. When these techniques are carefully applied they may well benefit just as many pupils who don’t have a label.

My concerns remain. Once we apply a label we create an image of a child, and that can often have negative connotations and in particular a lowering of expectations about what a child might achieve. But as I have also indicated, the application of a label may result in a pupil gaining additional support and access to well trained and dedicated professionals.

This is a debate that is destined to continue well into the future. It is however one that is important to have as we strive to assist teachers to become more inclusive in their teaching. Do feel free to join the debate, your insights may well help those of us who are struggling.

Now where did I leave my lab coat and wild wig?


The Dyslexia Debate  by Julian Elliott and Elena L. Grigorenko. Cambridge University Press (2014) ISBN: 978-051135870

The Dyslexia Debate by Julian Elliott and Elena L. Grigorenko. Cambridge University Press (2014) ISBN: 978-051135870




Who is capable?

Having made a commitment to protect the rights of children Benny must now wrestle with the challenges of being a research student.

Having made a commitment to protect the rights of children Benny must now wrestle with the challenges of being a research student.


Research seminars are a regular feature of life in the Centre for Education and Research at the University of Northampton. These provide opportunities for researchers, including students to present their work in progress and to encourage discussion of ideas related to their studies. They are attended by a gathering of experienced and novice researchers who are keen to learn from each other and share issues and ideas.

On Friday, one of our PhD students, Benny from India presented aspects of his research on the use and efficacy of learning mentors in primary schools. Benny’s research is interesting and the presentation was engaging, but whilst the subject of his study held the attention of his audience, comprising students and researchers from the UK, Viet Nam, China, Hungary and Kenya, it was a specific issue related to data collection and research ethics that provoked much discussion. The debate began with a consideration of the challenges of obtaining informed consent from research participants before proceeding to interview them or observe them in class. Benny described the frustration that many of us have felt when he has obtained the consent of a parent to interview their child, but then the child refuses to give their own consent and therefore the observation or interview cannot proceed.

This is not an unfamiliar issue, but rather one that comes up all the time. The argument is usually put that children are minors and that if we have the consent of their parents it is perfectly OK to conduct and interview for research purposes.  This is of course true, if we have parental consent the researcher can interview or observe the child. However, there is a further consideration here and one that I (along with many other researchers) believe to be important.

Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) states that

“Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.”

Every member state of the United Nations with the notable exceptions of the United States of America and Somalia signed up to this agreement. This being the case I believe that as researchers and teachers we should recognise the spirit and intention of the convention and try to abide by its principles.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was written in the knowledge that children are vulnerable and in some circumstances have been ignored or even abused by people in positions of authority. Its intention is clearly to afford protection to children but also to instil respect for their views, and ensure that they are encouraged to understand those actions that might affect them. For this reason I take a particular view and express to my students the belief that children need to be consulted and their consent obtained before we involve them in research. Though we often debate this point it is one that most educational researchers appear happy to accept because they too are concerned for the wellbeing of children. However, there is one part of article 12 that always gives cause for concern and confusion.

The article emphasises that “the child who is capable of forming his or her own views” should be consulted and recommends that due consideration must be given to the “age and maturity of the child.” These are clauses that I often find problematic. They usually result in my asking the question “who is capable?” For those of us working in the area of inclusive education, a commitment to full participation of the child is important and we would like to think that we take all appropriate measures to ensure that they are fully included in all aspects of decision making that concern them.  Yet it is not only my students like Benny, who find this issue challenging. There are many complications surrounding this matter, but two of the most common issues I will raise here.

Firstly, when conducting research that involves children who may have learning difficulties, challenges with communication or of social adjustment how can we be sure that they understand what we are asking when we seek consent? Over a number of years some of my research has involved young people with multiple disabilities and complex needs. Some of these children who have no spoken language, and severe cognitive impairments are dependent upon adults for all of their basic needs. Are such children capable of giving their consent to be a part of my project? If so, how do we go about obtaining their informed consent? I do not believe that there is a simple answer to these questions; however, I do believe that there are principles that may guide us in this area. At the outset I think it important that we assume that all children can understand far more than they are often given credit for. It is important as researchers that we err on the side of caution and take every measure possible to ensure that each child is consulted and is comfortable with the decisions we make. For those with the most complex needs we should seek the assistance of those who know the child best and may therefore have ways of communicating with them that we cannot hope to achieve in a limited period of time. We need to take the advice of these more knowledgeable individuals to ensure that the work that we are doing is not causing stress or in any way discomforting the children at the centre of our work. For pupils with such complex needs the consent of parents or carers is particularly critical to our work, but we need others who know the child well to be around at all stages of the research to be sure that we are not inadvertently causing any distress to the individual.

The second issue (there are of course others), relates to the notions of age and maturity. My colleague Jane Murray recently completed an interesting study of children as researchers. Her work involved observing children in nursery settings to investigate their powers of inquiry and investigation of their world. Her study, and that of others working in this field suggests that very young children have a refined sense of justice and that they are able to demonstrate both verbally and in other ways that they have opinions and beliefs. We should not therefore assume that there is an age after which we should believe that children are capable. The onus is upon us as researchers to find ways to engage children in our research and to ensure that we work not only within the recommendations of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, but that we actually challenge the narrow views of capability and maturity that may afford an escape clause to those who wish to deny the application of these rights in respect of a vulnerable population.

Benny is not the first to wrestle with these issues, neither will he be the last!






Let’s think about training.


Sharing expertise  specialists and generalists can offer insights that benefit us all

Sharing expertise specialists and generalists can offer insights that benefit us all


I can always depend upon Savitha Ravi to post thoughtful responses on this blog. A few days ago I wrote a piece with the title Sharing the expertise (February 20th) in which I suggested that we need all teachers to establish skills, knowledge and understanding in order that they may feel confident in working in classrooms with a diverse range of needs. At present I argued, schools tend to be too dependent upon special educators who are quite rightly recognised for their expertise but can have only a limited impact in the way that schools are organised.

Savitha responded by expressing a concern that very few courses for training teachers in India have sufficient focus on special educational needs issues. She stated:-

“I’ve spoken to heads of training institutes to include such modules, may be if we can make this happen, it will definitely help more teachers feel confident and equipped to work with any child”.

I believe that Savitha is quite right in identifying training as a key factor in promoting teacher confidence and thereby supporting the development of inclusion. However, I suggest that we need to think carefully about what form such training may take.

There appears to be two current approaches to providing teachers with the skills and knowledge that will enable them to be effective in addressing a range of learning needs. The first aims to supply teachers with detailed knowledge of specific diagnosed needs such as dyslexia, autism spectrum disorders (ASD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The premise being that an understanding of the causes of the learning difficulties associated with children with these labels will make it easier to equip teachers with the means to plan to meet their needs. A second approach, and one that is certainly in vogue in the UK is to encourage teachers to develop skills of planning and differentiation in teaching and assessment in order that all learners can be accommodate in classrooms. The theory being that effective teaching can address the needs of all pupils.

Are these two approaches exclusive or can they both make a contribution to the way in which we promote inclusive education? My personal experience of teaching students on post-graduate courses in the UK and those undertaking the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme in Bangalore* leads me to make a few observations.

Many of the teachers who attend these master’s degree courses are those who have already established a commitment to working with children who experience difficulties with learning. Some join the course with several years of experience and considerable expertise in addressing the needs of individuals with specific diagnoses. Others have become frustrated by the challenges they face day to day in their teaching and are seeking the means to gain confidence and competence in addressing these difficulties. On the MA programmes in which I am involved we tend to focus upon the principles of inclusive teaching, effective planning for diverse learning needs, differentiated instruction and the development of inclusive learning partnerships with families and other agencies. Teachers on the course respond well to this approach, but I wonder if to some extent they do so because of their previous study of specific “conditions”?

It would be ridiculous to deny that some of the expertise that these teachers have acquired does not support their commitment to working in inclusive learning environments. For example, I work with students who have undergone extensive training in teaching children on the autism spectrum and are well versed in the use of visual structure and the development of personalised learning environments. Similarly students who have completed courses on the use of multi-sensory teaching approaches with children labelled as dyslexic have acquired an understanding and commitment that has proven advantages in their teaching.

We know that many of the innovations that have emerged from special education, such as the use of augmentative systems of communication or the development and implementation of alternative modes of accreditation, can be used effectively in inclusive classrooms. So does this have an implication for the ways in which we train teachers?

I think it probably does. I also believe that the way we approach this training is important. Teachers need to be provided with the principles of developing inclusive classrooms and to have an understanding of how we plan to address the needs of whole classes of diverse learners. This surely will provide the foundations of good inclusive teaching. But I have learned from my students that at this point it may well be appropriate to examine some of those specific pedagogical approaches that have been developed for pupils with special educational needs, and to see how they may be utilised in inclusive classrooms. However, it is most important at this point to recommend that those approaches traditionally used with pupils with a specific diagnosis such as dyslexia, may also be applicable to other learners. I am not convinced that there is a particular approach for children with dyslexia or autism spectrum disorders that is only to be used with those who have such a diagnosis. But I am sure that the detailed attention that those teachers who have shown a commitment to these pupils has assisted in the development of effective teaching.

Savitha has given me food for thought (thank you Savitha). The secret now is to ensure that this leads to a balanced teaching diet. I have a feeling that there remains much to be debated on this issue. I am far from reaching a conclusion on these matters. It is likely that I will return to this topic very soon, but I still need help in clarifying my thoughts. What do you think?

A couple of readers of this blog recently contacted me through the University of Northampton to ask about the MA programme in Bangalore. We are now recruiting for a cohort to start in September 2014. Details can be obtained by contacting Jayashree Rajanahally If you do join I look forward to debating these issues with you face to face.

Inclusion: not simply a matter for education.


Simplification of issues rarely helps when trying to understand complex problems. A number of recent news items in the UK have focused upon the challenges of eradicating child labour, including the negative impact that this has upon education in India. The BBC this morning ran a news item on the radio about child cotton pickers in Andhra Pradesh, and stated that 400,000 children under the age of 18 work on cotton farms across India. Other news reports describe children being taken into domestic service, working in factories, restaurants and even in the mines of Kanataka. According to a recent report by the International Labour Rights Forum based in the USA more than half of these children are under the age of fourteen.

Until quite recently (2012) the India Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1987, allowed for children under the age of 14 to be employed in “non-hazardous” industries. This was, of course contrary to the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (2009) (RTE), which requires all children between the ages of 6 and 14 to attend school.  In August  2012, India’s Union Cabinet implemented legislation banning labour for all children under the age of 14. Yet this remains an issue and many children continue to miss out on education and thereby limit their opportunities for better employment and ultimately a more secure life style.

The situation is grim, and for those of us working in the area of inclusive education it is a source of exasperation. Fundamentally we believe that all children should attend school and receive an education alongside their peers. Quite rightly campaign and human rights groups such as UNICEF have demanded changes and are putting pressure upon national governments in countries where child labour is an issue. In the UK companies that have sold clothing made by child labour have been singled out for negative publicity that has both damaged their profits, and in some instances altered their practices.

But as I said at the outset of this piece, viewing this issue in simple terms may not have the desired effect. Several campaigners, politicians and journalists have emphasised that simply stopping child labour without examining its root causes or addressing the consequences of its eradication is not appropriate. As Karen Graham writing in the Digital Journal  (Feb 7th 2014), has stated that, for many families living in poverty “Work is not an option, but a necessity.” It seems likely that the majority of child labourers are working simply so that their families can survive. Poverty forces them into employment and prevents them from attending school. In situations where families have such low incomes they are dependent on every family member making a contribution to ensure that they can eat and keep a roof over their heads.

An example of the pressures that exist was provided by Vaibhav Ganjapure, a journalist working for The Times of India who wrote (Febr 1st 2014):-

“For Shyamabai Kale, her two daughters help her in washing utensils at many homes”. Shyamabai Kale says  “My husband works in Madhya Pradesh and I remain alone. I can’t leave them at any government school as it involves risk. If they study, when [will] they learn the work necessary for survival?”

India has undergone a period of unprecedented economic growth. Yet for many millions of Indian families their financial situation has not improved and they still find themselves living in poverty. Indeed, it has been suggested that the period of economic expansion may even have contributed to the problem. The head of Bachpan Bacchao Andolan, a Delhi based charity working with children and families has stated that

“This is the most ironical part of India’s growth. The middle classes are demanding cheap, docile labour.”

Sadly, this cheap labour has often been drawn from a juvenile population that would be better served through obtaining education. When India’s economy cools, as it has already begun to do, will this situation get better or worse?

How should we react as teachers to this situation? If we are to become embroiled in campaigns for the right to education and the elimination of child labour, then we must surely be aware of the causes of the problem and demand changes in other areas. Inclusive education must be viewed in the context of wider societal issues. The education we provide must be much broader and must not only be aimed at children. We need to assist families by working with them to see how education can be a route out of poverty. This may be a longer term goal than the immediacy of bringing in an income through child labour, but must be seen as assisting in lifting families above their current difficult situations.

The Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) has noble intentions and needs to be enforced as was originally intended. However, this needs to happen alongside other measures of social welfare and awareness raising if this is to happen. As teachers we need to work beyond the classroom to assist families in gaining a greater understanding of the advantages that can accrue from education. We also need to develop more flexible schooling arrangements that recognise that simply telling children that they have to attend school is not working, and find ways to work with families to see what can be done to encourage them to work with teachers for the ultimate benefit of their children and their community. Shyamabai Kale expresses concerns that attending school will not prepare her children to learn “the work necessary for survival”. Perhaps it is time for us to review the kind of education we are offering and to see how Shyamabai Kale can be assisted in recognising that education may not just provide the skills for survival, but also a route to a better standard of living.

Sandra returns!!

“God save us from people who mean well.”

Vikram Seth – A Suitable Boy


Sometimes when you try to help it appears to cause more confusion. I think I need to go and lie down!

Sometimes when you try to help it appears to cause more confusion.
I think I need to go and lie down!


On Friday afternoon wandering across the foyer of the library at the university I chanced to meet Sandra. Those of you who have been regular readers of this blog may recall Sandra, she is the student teacher who came to see me to ask what she should do about Kevin, a boy in her class on teaching practice who has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. (Those who may not be a regular reader can find out about our meeting on the blog entry for 3rd February). During my initial meeting with Sandra I had emphasised that she needed to look at his learning strengths rather than the deficit label that had been applied to him. On seeing me coming across the area Sandra got up from her seat and greeted me.

Sandra: Hello, Professor Rose

RR: Hello Sandra, how are you? I told you to call me Richard.

Sandra: I’m fine thanks. You remembered my name.

RR: Yes, you are on placement at XXXX school and have Kevin in your class. How’s it going?

Sandra: Really good. You were right; Kevin isn’t a problem at all. He’s a really nice boy and he’s working fine.

RR: Good, I’m glad to hear it.

Sandra: Yes. I found out he loves tennis, so I’ve developed a lot of teaching materials around tennis. And you were right, lots of the other kids are using the materials too and it’s working really well.

RR: Well done Sandra, that’s excellent. I’m really pleased to hear that it’s going so well.

Sandra: No, Kevin’s not a problem. He’s absolutely fine. It’s the teachers that are the problem.

A few alarm bells started going off in my mind at this point!

RR: Oh Yes?

Sandra: Yes. Whenever they mention Kevin all they talk about is his autism and his problems. They don’t see the real Kevin. I don’t think they really want to see him. They say that he would be better in another school with teachers who are trained to teach him.

RR: Well, maybe they haven’t had a chance to think about Kevin in the way that you have. Perhaps they will think better of him when they have had the opportunity to work with him for a while like you have.

Sandra: Oh no, that’s not it. Some of the teachers have had him in their class for a whole year and they still think he is a problem.

Those alarm bells are getting louder. I need to be careful what I say in order not to be seen as critical of a school with which the university has a working relationship

Sandra: I told them what you said, that they must look at Kevin as an individual, not at the autism label he’s been given. I told them that was how I was working with him.

RR: And what did they say about that?

Sandra: They said that it was all very well for people to sit in their universities and pontificate about an ideal world. That you don’t have to teach him every day.

RR: Well they do have a point there. Though I don’t think the issue is simply one about me and working in a university. I think there are a lot of teachers doing very well with children like Kevin by emphasising the positive aspects of his learning.

Those bells have become deafening!

Sandra: That’s more or less what I said. I told them that you had been a teacher for donkey’s years and a head teacher, and that you’d taught hundreds of children like Kevin!

Donkey’s years? – hundreds of Kevins? The cacophony of bells is worsening!!

RR: I see, and what did they say?

Sandra: Not a lot. So I suggested they should invite you to a staff meeting to talk to them the way you did with me, and explain that Kevin is not the problem, that they are the problem.

RR: You said that? I don’t remember ever suggesting that the teachers were the problem. This is far more about the stereotyping of children and the dangers of seeing labels rather than learners.

Sandra: Yes I know.

RR: And what did they say about the staff meeting?

Sandra: Oh, I don’t think they will bother. They don’t see that it’s an issue worth discussing. But if they did ask, would you come?

RR: Of course I would. I’d be pleased to meet with the teachers and discuss my views on the effects of labelling children, and I’m sure it would help me to understand their perspectives too.

Sandra: Great I’ll tell them next week when I’m back in school.

RR: Jolly good. But Sandra, do choose the language you use carefully. Just as we should not lower our expectations of Kevin by seeing only his label of autism spectrum disorder, neither should we blame teachers if they are apprehensive about meeting his needs.

Sandra: Right, I see. I’ll get back to you then. Bye.

RR: Bye Sandra.

                                                         THE BELLS! THE BELLS!


Travel to learn or not at all

How limited is our own learning and understanding when working in other cultures? Calligraphy - Shaoxing China

How limited is our own learning and understanding when working in other cultures?
Calligraphy – Shaoxing China

“I fear the Greeks, even when they offer gifts”

Virgil Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes – The Aeneid

Between 1822 and 1846 a most remarkable English woman named Fanny Parkes lived and travelled in India. The wife of an official responsible for ice making working within the strictures of the East India Company, Fanny Parkes arrived in India confident in the superiority of European culture and customs and prepared to live the life of a typical memsahib under the protection of the British Empire. Hers could so easily have become a familiar story of a woman living a sheltered existence under the British colonial authority  that dominated the Indian sub-continent at this time, but unlike so many of her counterparts, Fanny Parkes came to respect the history and culture of the country in which she was a guest (when so many others felt they were there by right). The Scottish historian and writer William Dalrymple has lovingly collated Fanny Parkes’ papers and diaries and published them under the title Begums, Thugs and White Mughals* and in doing so provides readers with her personal insights into life in India during the early nineteenth century.

The reason I am so fascinated by the account of Fanny Parkes’ life is that at a time of repressive imperialism when not only British officials, but others from across Europe thought that their own form of “civilization” and life style was superior to that of other nations, she recognised that by respecting the cultural traditions of others it was possible to learn and understand that alternative interpretations of the world had much to offer. During her time in India Fanny Parkes travelled widely – a particularly enjoyable part of the book is her account of a lengthy journey by boat along the Ganges, but she also learned languages, studied Indian music including the playing of the sitar, art and cuisine and developed an appreciation of the intricacies of both Hindu and Muslim religious practices and their texts. Dalrymple, who is surely one of the finest European chroniclers of Indian history presents us with a picture of a lady who by showing respect for local people found that this was reciprocated. Yet she was derided by many of her English contemporaries who saw her as eccentric and failing to uphold the dignified aloofness expected of a representative of empire.

Fanny Parkes lived during an era when the imposition of western ideas and beliefs upon the rest of the world had become the norm. Fortunately the twentieth century saw a diminishing of the power held by previous colonial powers as countries  across Asia and Africa gained their independence and began to take greater control of their own destinies. Many of us now look upon the writings of Fanny Parkes and others like her, with admiration for the stance she took in trying to bring to the attention of others, the great histories and culture of peoples who had been looked upon as subjects to be shaped into the mould of Europeans.

I would suggest that the lessons we can learn by reading the accounts provided by Fanny Parkes and others of like mind are relevant to those of us working in education today. Not only does she provide us with an example of someone who demonstrated the importance of respecting tradition and culture, but I believe she gives us food for thought about the ways in which we conduct ourselves as teachers working within international contexts. Increasingly today we find international collaborations between individuals and the institutions they represent, with academics, teachers and researchers travelling to visit unfamiliar circumstances in the name of educational advancement. These opportunities are to be welcomed so long as we are clear about what it is that motivates action and have well established principles that guide the way we  work.

Universities in particular have adopted the language and behaviours of businesses operating in an international market place. Sadly I often hear and read these days expressions such as, “China is a growing market for education”, or “Brazil offers rich opportunities for the expansion of university activities”. Whilst it is certainly true that universities need to keep themselves abreast of opportunities for the recruitment of students and the development of knowledge on an international scale, there are potential pitfalls that need to be considered. Not least of these are the motivations for the work to be undertaken. If universities focus solely upon economic gain they will most certainly find that after a relatively short time they will fall out of favour with the countries that they are currently wooing.  It is important to ensure that international partnerships are developed in which all involved are equal partners. The days of educational benefice should be confined to the past as we move forward with an intention of shared learning and understanding.

This shared learning is, for me, at the core of what we should be aiming to achieve. In my own field of special and inclusive education I have seen too many academics from western universities and other institutions travelling like colonial missionaries intent on bringing the good word of European, Australasian or North American education to those in need of enlightenment. Such retrograde behaviour must be rejected and confined to the annals of history.

The principles which should govern our international partnerships need to be expressed clearly by all involved. A partnership of equals needs to be established, but with host countries setting the agenda and inviting the participation of outsiders. It must be the educationists in the countries where work is to be undertaken who identify the needs which are to be addressed and the outcomes that they desire to see. There surely must be an obligation on those who visit countries for work to learn something of the history, culture and context of the places where they will operate. In this way respectful partnerships may be achieved and all involved will be able to learn and work together. Those who believe that western educational practices can simply be transferred to other contexts are both naïve and disrespectful to the rich educational heritage that has often existed in those countries far longer than those in our own lands.

In her lifetime Fanny Parkes failed to convince many of her contemporaries of the need to understand the people and culture of India and other countries that were under British subjugation. Even today there are individuals and organisations that believe themselves superior to those whose traditions, religions, or customs are different from their own. As teachers we should be committed to rise above these spurious notions and strive to achieve partnerships based upon respect and dignity.

Above all, when we travel to teach we should recognise that we have a unique opportunity, to learn from the people with whom we work. This will only happen if we see ourselves as neophytes and recognise our responsibilities as guests in the places that we visit. Those who travel in the belief that they are in some way superior would be best advised to stay at home.

*Begums, Thugs and White Mughals: The Journals of Fanny Parkes. (2002) Edited by William Dalrymple Published in London by Eland. ISBN: 978 090787188-0


Reaching out to and from The Valley

With Satish Inamdar, a great friend who has always made me welcome at The Valley School

With Satish Inamdar, a great friend who has always made me welcome at The Valley School

In 1998 a chance encounter at a conference in Fort Lauderdale USA was instrumental in facilitating my first visit to India and a long association with teachers and other friends in that country. This initial meeting proved to be significant in establishing an enduring friendship that continues to be important in the support of my work during regular visits to Bangalore.

Satish Inamdar is the director of The Valley School, a unique institution outside of Bangalore and located in lush tropical forest where bauhinia, palash, neem, banyan, jacaranda and amaltash trees provide shelter and homes to more than 250 species of birds, 20 species of reptiles and a numerous mammals. The school serves a group of children drawn largely from privileged homes who are encouraged to explore the environment and to learn from nature guided by a team of enthusiastic teachers and other professionals.

A commitment to maintaining the cultural heritage of India is an important feature of The Valley School where the construction of an art village has enabled pupils to explore their creativity through pottery, music and other media. On my last visit a group of Dhrupad musicians were encouraging children to explore sound and understand the complexities of singing the refrains within the Hindustani classical tradition. All this while monkeys leaped across rooftops and swung amongst the trees surrounding the lessons with their high pitched chatter and the ever present wall lizards scurried from behind cupboards and pictures hung around the classroom walls.

I'm never quite sure how much the monkeys learn whilst hanging out around the classrooms of The Valley School

I’m never quite sure how much the monkeys learn whilst hanging out around the classrooms of The Valley School

Pupils and staff all learn together in a music workshop

Pupils and staff all learn together in a music workshop

The Valley school website states a philosophy founded upon the works of Jiddu Krishnamurti. The educational aims of the school are stated as:-

  • Relationship between the student and the teacher- is human to human rather than position to position.
  • Emphasis is on learning and facilitation and not teaching and absorbing.
  • Recognize the fact that each child is unique and one size does not fit all !
  • Methodology and pedagogical techniques that ensure that there is no hierarchy of knowledge and suitable for differential learning capacities and learning speed
  • Art, music, dance and sports form an integral part of the learning process
  • Learning from nature is facilitated by the bounty all around

There are many sentiments expressed here that sit well alongside the promotion of inclusive schooling. Not least the recognition of the individuality of each child and the emphasis upon facilitation and learning which are characteristics of many schools that have endeavoured to reach out to a more diverse population.

During many visits to The Valley, I have been provided with the warmest hospitality by Satish and his lovely wife Sushama. During my stay I have had opportunities to talk with teachers and share ideas about the values that we share within education. Indeed many of the teachers there and former teachers who having served at The Valley have since established other educational institutions and have become good friends and colleagues with whom I am fortunate to work on a regular basis.

Critics of The Valley School may point to the fact that pupils are drawn from a narrow sector of privileged society and that the wonderful facilities provided at the school are not available to the majority of Indian children. This may largely be the case but we should be critical only when schools such as this do not take any responsibility to support others within the community who do not have such opportunities.

Over my years of visiting The Valley I have come to recognise that many of the teachers working there are eager to reach out to the wider population and to provide learning opportunities for children who are otherwise denied chances to reach their potential. Early seeds were sown in The Valley by my good friends Jayashree, Bela and Harsha and their work is being continued by others. A unique initiative is The Kaigal Environment and Education program (KEEP) whereby staff and children from The Valley School work with local people in the  Kaigal Valley in the Chittoor District of Andhra Pradesh on environmental projects. Here the children from local tribal groups and villages are involved in learning projects supported by staff from The Valley School affording opportunities for young people to learn from each other’s vastly differing life styles and experiences. Whilst this may not be inclusion in the ways that we have interpreted it in western societies, the video link here demonstrates how children who have otherwise been denied an opportunity to formal schooling are now becoming effective learners.

Change takes a long time and my good friend Satish knows that I will never rest easy at The Valley School until such time as they have overcome some of the challenges they face in becoming a more inclusive institution. As in many schools there is resistance to overcome and apprehension amongst many associated with the school. The hope that Satish holds towards creating a more equitable education system remains firm and is an inspiration to others, and his friendship is something I treasure greatly. He has worked hard in his efforts to share a vision for a more just society not only through his work at The Valley School, but also through the many talks he has given across India and internationally.

The experiences that are provided to pupils attending The Valley should become a model for all educators and I hope that Satish and his colleagues will forge ever stronger links with other teachers and former colleagues in Bangalore for the promotion of a more inclusive society. Much remains to be achieved and strong leadership from educators like Satish will be needed in order to realise the vision that many of my colleagues in Bangalore share.

The following links will enable you to see some of the excellent work being undertaken through The Valley School

Sharing the expertise

All teachers are experts. Making time for discussion can enable for a greater pooling of expertise and the development of partnerships that benefit all learners (including teachers)

All teachers are experts. Making time for discussion can enable for a greater pooling of expertise and the development of partnerships that benefit all learners (including teachers)

A few days ago I referred to a posting by Kanwal Singh who had responded to my article “Empathy not blame – a critical component of change”. Kanwal had suggested that in working with teachers to promote inclusion we needed to approach this task “not as ‘experts’ but as ‘partners’”. This is certainly a notion to which I relate but also one that I feel deserves a little more consideration.

Whenever we experience difficulties and need to seek help we look to someone who we feel has the expertise to assist us. If my car breaks down I seek out a qualified mechanic who I hope will understand how to fix the problem. I do so in the knowledge that the mechanic has far greater expertise than myself. It is therefore understandable that teachers who may be experiencing difficulties in addressing the needs of a child will look for a special education “expert” to provide assistance.

Over the years a good number of teachers have devoted their time to gaining professional expertise and knowledge aimed at supporting pupils who present teachers with a range of difficulties. I myself was just one such teacher and for many years worked as a “special educator” teaching children who were seen by others as problematic, and also trying to pass my knowledge on to others. For a number of years now I have taught on university accredited courses which have aimed to provide teachers and other professionals with the understanding and knowledge to themselves fulfil the role of special educators and to support their colleagues in school.

I believe that this work has been worthwhile and hopefully beneficial to many teachers and the pupils with whom they work. But I also have some apprehensions about this way of working and will highlight just two of these here.

Firstly, if we continue to invest all of the expertise in a few teachers who then become special education experts are we enabling other teachers to abdicate their responsibilities for those children in their classes who have difficulties with learning? I am not suggesting for a moment that these teachers are in any way deliberately negligent. I know for a fact that most are committed professionals who work incredibly hard to provide learning opportunities to their pupils. However, there is a risk that by perpetuating a model of special education expertise, these teachers may not themselves feel the necessary incentive to further their own knowledge, skills and understanding and become more effective in addressing diversity in the classroom. In these circumstances ownership of the difficulties and responsibility for their management remains with the expert and other teachers do not themselves gain the necessary expertise to become more effective.

My second concern is for the special educators themselves. Is there a danger, I wonder that these dedicated professionals may be seen as being in possession of unique knowledge that is beyond the remit of other teachers? Might it be the case that others will view them as having an expertise that is unattainable for the majority of teachers? If this is the case is there a risk that when the special educator is unable to “solve the problems” of a child that they will lose credibility and the pupils needs will go unmet? If this happens it is both the special educator who has difficulties in loss of credibility and the pupil whose “problems” are seen as insoluble. After all, if the expert can’t address the issues, what hope is there for the class teacher? My concerns here centre around the mystique that can, if we are not careful, surround the skills, knowledge and understanding associated with the special educational needs expert.

This is a difficult issue and one that needs careful management if we are to avoid either losing expertise or perpetuating the model of teacher dependency that we may have created. I am certainly not suggesting that we do not need teachers who have exceptional skills and understanding in relation to pupils described as having special educational needs. I have seen the benefits that both teachers and pupils have gained through working with such expert professionals. Subject expertise has always been an essential feature of our schools. Indeed we know the advantages that specialist maths teachers or modern languages teachers bring to a school and would not wish to deny the application of any expertise for the improvement of our education systems. I know of teachers who have studied hard and developed significant expertise in planning for the needs of specific groups of learners who have been labelled as having social emotional and behavioural difficulties, or autism spectrum disorders for instance, and I am sure that children, teachers and families have appreciated the knowledge that they have been able to share.

The point that Kanwal made and to which I referred at the outset of this piece is important. We need to establish effective partnerships whereby expertise can be shared and nurtured for the benefits of all children and all teachers. Special educators can certainly take a lead in these partnerships but a realignment of their purpose may well be required. Can we not develop the kind of partnership that is focused upon increasing the general level of expertise in all teachers, whilst accepting that some will become leaders in their area and that this may well be in the field of special education?

Primary schools in England have subject co-ordinators whereby a teacher will take the lead for mathematics or science or English for example. My wife happens to be the co-ordinator for art in her school. However, everyone in the school teaches art, mathematics, English and science. It would, quite rightly, be seen as unacceptable if my wife stated that she as the art co-ordinator did not need any expertise in teaching English or mathematics. She certainly needs to have a level of competence and confidence that enables her to teach these subjects appropriately at a level suitable to her class. This model does not yet exist in terms of the role of the special educational needs co-ordinator, who often is seen as a trouble shooter responsible for sorting out the needs of their colleagues.

Kanwal is right. We need to develop a model whereby every teacher has a level of competence and confidence in teaching children with diverse needs in their classrooms. The expertise of the special educator may well be most effectively deployed in leading such school partnerships to enable this to happen.


Let’s make the mainstream school special


School Jayanagar Bangalore

I was recently disturbed by a discussion I had with a colleague who has given forty years of her life to working with children described as having special educational needs. Early in her career she taught in a small school for children who had just left what at that time was known as a “long term mental subnormality hospital” where children had been labelled “mentally handicapped”. These children had for the most part known no home other than a hospital ward and their experiences outside of the high hospital walls were negligible. This teacher soon developed a reputation for her dedication to children who had been institutionalised, many of whom had developed stereotypical behaviours and through lack of opportunity had poor social and communication skills. Through her commitment and that of her colleagues, many of the children with whom she worked made great progress, learning the skills they required to leave school into employment and semi-independent living. Throughout her teaching life this dedicated teacher has made a determined effort to understand all that she can about how children learn and how to address the many obstacles that many of them have faced in their lives. She has gained additional qualifications and read widely around all aspects of special educational needs and has taken all the actions of an exemplary professional. In a few months’ time she will retire, but sadly she does so feeling devalued and unhappy about the way in which her service to children is now perceived.

When groups of teachers, researchers and policy makers gather together to discuss the development of inclusive schooling, nothing generates as much argument as the place of special schools in our societies. There are many committed “inclusionists” who see the existence of special schools as nothing less than an abomination and an affront to the dignity of children. Others, and I would include myself here, take a different line. I would suggest that this is a far more complex issue than that which is often painted in black and white, and that we need to spend more time examining why, even in those societies that claim to have become “fully inclusive”, special schools continue to play a role.

I think most teachers, like myself would agree that in an ideal society all children would attend their local school and learn alongside their neighbourhood peers. If we are committed to creating a more just society then children need to grow up learning to respect individuality and difference, and to recognise that everyone has their own needs and abilities. I firmly believe that this will be most readily achieved in inclusive schools. Furthermore, there is evidence to demonstrate that in inclusive schools, where teachers learn to address a range of learning needs and plan to ensure that all children have access to an appropriate curriculum, then levels of attainment and achievement rise and all learners benefit.

The case for inclusion has been well defined, so why do I feel so uncomfortable when I hear colleagues attacking our remaining special schools? Well, the truth of the matter is that there are children and young people who continue to be rejected by the majority of mainstream schools. In my own country exclusion rates remain too high, with children refused access to schools on the grounds that their behaviour is unacceptable or that their needs are so complex that they cannot be met without specialist facilities. Accepting that some schools try far harder than others to address these needs, are there underlying principles in respect of teaching these rejected pupils that we need to explore? Too often at present we need special schools to act as a safety net; a place where there are teachers who are willing to pick up those children who have been ejected from the mainstream system.

Whenever I visit special schools I find teachers and other professionals who are in every way as dedicated to their pupils as those who I see working in the mainstream. Furthermore, I often find that these teachers are as committed to inclusive schooling as others but are aware of the fact that the children with whom they work have not always been made welcome in a mainstream environment. I regularly visit the special school where the teacher I mentioned at the beginning of this posting works. The school provides for children with a range of needs, many with complex medical conditions and some with limited life expectancy who are taught by teachers who have committed themselves wholly to providing quality learning opportunities in their classes. Sadly my colleague tells me that she now feels like an educational pariah in some situations where others are discussing inclusion. Some teachers, including those who have never visited her school believe that in respect of inclusion she is a problem, not part of the solution. She finds this particularly distressing as she knows that some of her professional colleagues who work in mainstream schools would resist the admission of the children she works with into their classrooms, yet still feel able to criticise the enrolment of pupils into her school.

So, what is the solution here? I would suggest that some pupils need the best of both worlds. I don’t believe that it is right for any child to be denied access to their peers, but can see that some of our most vulnerable children need access to the specialist teaching and therapeutic approaches most commonly available at present in special schools. Surely the time has come for every special school to become part of the mainstream. Can we not create learning environments where specialist facilities are available for every child that needs them, but locate these in situations where pupils may freely move between those facilities most readily seen in the special school and the mainstream provision?

If we can blur the boundaries between mainstream and special schools through co-location of facilities and by making sure that all pupils have access to a curriculum that addresses their needs, then we will be taking a large step towards inclusion. As market forces increasingly dictate the kind of schools that are being advocated in our societies we are in danger of increasing the gap between special and mainstream provision. By creating a dialogue between special school teachers and their mainstream counterparts we can find common ground and also share expertise and experience for the benefit of all learners. At the same time we should ensure that those teachers who have opted to work with pupils who many others have chosen to reject, are respected for their commitment and professionalism. In this way we may all learn from each other.

I am saddened that my colleague is now seen as a problem when she is so willing to contribute to finding solutions.