Hungry to learn?

The Trussell Trust, a major charity providing food banks, has recently stated that between April and December last year, around 500,000 people were given three days’ worth of food at its banks. This figure suggests that 8 per cent of the population have had to resort to charity food hand-outs.

The Trussell Trust, a major charity providing food banks, has recently stated that between April and December last year, around 500,000 people were given three days’ worth of food at its banks. This figure suggests that 8 per cent of the population have had to resort to charity food hand-outs.

According to the Global Prosperity Index when last issued in 2013, the UK ranks number 16 in a table of 142 of the world’s most wealthy and stable countries. This places the country just behind Germany and Austria, and a little ahead of Belgium and Singapore. Topping the table is Norway, closely followed by Switzerland, whilst at the opposite end of the figures we find the Central African Republic and Chad. India incidentally is ranked at 106, with China at 51. The widely respected Legatum Prosperity Index uses eight equally weighted sub-indices to achieve an overall ranking of a country’s relative prosperity. These are the state of the country’s economy, security of governance, entrepreneurship and opportunity, education, health, safety and security, personal freedom and social capital and when combined these are said to be a fair indicator of what it is like to live in each country.

I have no intention of focusing solely upon statistical data for this posting, but having used the Global Prosperity Index a few times recently when teaching I decided to return to the document yesterday after reading an article in the Independent, a UK national daily newspaper. The headline above the article stated –

“Liverpool’s next Archbishop, Malcolm McMahon warns of child poverty problem.”

In the article the Archbishop designate describes the superficial nature of wealth that is evident in the country. He warns against viewing the dangers of seeing things at only surface level and recommends that we should be taking a more analytical view. There are indeed many wealthy people living in the UK and maybe the image we would like to portray as a country is that these are typical of the population as a whole. But Dr. McMahon suggests that what we see is a veneer that masks many of the problems that exist for families and children today. Writing of the schools which he sees in many of our cities he states that:-

“There is a poverty which we witness every day in our schools,”

and he expresses a concern that,

“Children come in and we know that they’re not nourished properly, they can’t keep up with the other children, with their lessons.”

Other religious leaders in the UK, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, and the Methodist Church’s public policy adviser, Paul Morrison have been joined by the leaders of charitable organisations such as Alison Worsley from Barnardo’s, in voicing anxiety about increasing child and family poverty in the UK.  Adding her input to the debate Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner for England warned that young people were hit very hard by the current Government’s austerity programme, stating that:-

“the poorest families, and therefore their children, are paying the price now.”

If the UK is rated as 16th in the league table of the world’s most prosperous countries how is it that these eminent and knowledgeable individuals are expressing such concerns? When walking around many of the UK’s cities today, and particularly in London, it is evident that there are huge investments being made in infrastructure, with significant projects aimed at improving transport systems, new retail centres and hi-tech offices in many of these areas. At the same time we hear that the leaders of our major banking and utilities corporations along with many other captains of industry are performing at a level that justifies million pound bonuses, on top of their already substantial salaries. It was recently announced that an English footballer was to be paid £300,000 a week, that is £1,785 every hour and just under £30 every minute in order to retain his services at his football club. Whilst I am not questioning the undoubted talent of these individuals, I do think that that there are serious questions to be asked about the situation that we have allowed to develop in this and other western countries. All of this affluence seems to be in contrast with the reality reported for many families who are currently struggling to maintain a basic standard of living.

Leicester is a city about  25 miles from where I live here in the English Midlands, it was recently announced that 23,000 children, that is 29 per cent of the city’s total are currently living in poverty.  Leicester is typical of many UK cities having received considerable investment in its development over the past five years. It appears to be the case that the investment made, whilst undoubtedly welcome in creating a more pleasant environment, is adding yet another layer to the veneer identified by Dr. McMahon. Can we really have created a society in which we value bricks and mortar above the well-being of our children?

Perhaps today’s blog may sound like something of a rant. That was not what was intended when I started writing. I am, however aware that I will be visiting a school later this week where more than 60% of the children come from families dependent upon local food banks run by volunteers to ensure that they can have at least one meal a day. The teachers in this school ask the hard questions every day about the kind of society in which these children are growing up and the dangers of a resentment that they may eventually hold towards those whose life is so different from their own.

Teachers in schools can only do so much to teach children about social justice. A stronger lead must surely come from our politicians. But in the meantime as teachers we must ensure that we do not remain quiet in respect of issues such as this which are a blight on the lives of the children for whom we claim to have accepted some responsibility.

If this is the situation in the 16th most prosperous country, it is hard to imagine the lives of children far lower down this list.

The Legatum Global Prosperity Index can be accessed at the link below:-

http://www.prosperity.com/#!/

 

Much more than a good read

The Bravest Gentleman in France. A book with a twist of personal irony

The Bravest Gentleman in France. A book with a twist of personal irony

Looking for something specific on the extensive bookshelves at home can sometimes have interesting consequences. Last evening, whilst seeking an account of a visit to Stonehenge by a Victorian school party, which I had said I would lend to a historian colleague – I know I have it somewhere but it still alludes me; I found myself pleasantly diverted by other books that have lain neglected for too long.  Whilst not locating exactly what I was looking for the time spent, far from wasted proved quite fruitful.

This form of book grazing, particularly for an omnivorous reader, can provide endless hours of worthwhile distraction. Though onlookers often completely fail to see the point and have even been known to offer unhelpful advice such as “can’t you find what you are looking for on the internet?” Conveyors of such ill-chosen words have, of course, completely missed the point.

Had I not been so wholly engrossed in this deliciously relaxing pastime yesterday I would have missed an opportunity to reflect upon the poignancy of a particular book which I chanced upon, completely unrelated to Stonehenge or Victorian school trips, but in many ways not too far removed from this topic. The  book in question is a 1908 hardback illustrated edition of “The Bravest Gentleman in France: A Tale of War and Adventure in the Days of Louis XIII,” written by Herbert Hayens. I confess that I have never actually read this book, but it is nonetheless one that I treasure. I do so because of the inscription inside that reads:-

Gloucester Education Committee

Linden Road Council School

Presented to: Henry Terrett

For Efficiency and Regular Attendance during the School Year Ending October 31st 1910

School open 417 times

Attended 417

P.Barrett Cooke, Sec.

Henry Terrett was my grandfather’s elder brother, my great uncle Harry. He and my grandfather both invoke strong and fond memories from my childhood. Uncle Harry on leaving school became a wheelwright and could turn his hand to making anything in wood. A skilled craftsman who took immense pride in his work and commanded great respect because of both his aptitude and his gentle nature.

Opening the book, which then became a worthwhile focus of my attention for the next hour, this inscription caused me to pause and think, not only of my late uncle, but also about the inscription and the timing of the award. At the time of the presentation  of this school prize, Harry Terrett would have been 13 years old and about to enter his final year of formal education. I always remember him as a very clever man, he won numerous prizes for solving crossword puzzles, was always someone I went to if I was struggling with maths homework and seemed to have a marvellous memory for events, particularly those of a sporting nature. Yet I suspect the thought that he might have continued his studies beyond the age of fourteen would not have been within the purview of his parents. In those days young people from a working class background in the city of Gloucester seldom had the opportunities that those of us of later generations have enjoyed.

Reading the presentation plate at the front of the book gives an indication of why I am pleased that when my Uncle Harry died, it came into my possession. I have no intention of parting with it and hope that it will remain in the family long after I have gone. However, there was another and more disturbing thought that went through my mind as I read the inscription. The book was awarded in 1910 and just four years later Uncle Harry along with thousands of other young men from Gloucester departed for France. His first time out of the UK was to travel to the battle fields of France to fight alongside his comrades in the trenches of the First World War. Unlike so many, he came through four years of war and lived to see peace (albeit short lived), but like so many others I don’t recall that he ever spoke of the horrors that he witnessed on the muddied plains of France and Belgium.

His school prize is not the only possession of my Uncle Harry’s that I treasure. Amongst the items found in his house another book came into my hands alongside the first. This is a historical account of the 2/5th Gloucestershire Regiment with which he served in that terrible war. Inside this book I found a newspaper cutting, undated, that reports that Sergeant Harry Terrett of 2/5th Gloucesters has been awarded the D.C.M. (Distinguished Conduct Medal) for bravery in the field. In addition to this book I am humbled to now have this and his other medals in my safe keeping. Uncle Harry was clearly promoted after his deeds in the field because the account in the regimental record reads.

“A small party of B Company under Sergeant Groves reached a house near Snipers House and a platoon of D Company under Lieutenant London reached its objective: the first was overwhelmed and Sergent Groves was killed; the second, finding itself unsupported, withdrew under the cover of the mist and smoke, and on its return journey surprised a German post and brought in a machine gun and some prisoners. Lieutenant London and five of his men were wounded, but all were got safely back. One section of D company in the centre under Corporal Terrett dug in beyond the river and held its ground until night, when it was attacked and driven back. Corporal Terrett received the D.C.M. and privates Livings and Barrett were awarded the Military Medal.”

Looking at the school prize I couldn’t help but think how ironic that Uncle Harry chose a book titled “The Bravest Gentleman in France.” He could never have imagined how the next few years would shape his life and the bravery of so many who gave their lives in such a tragic war. I wonder how much different his life would have been had he been born in a different era and had the opportunity to gain an education beyond his short school years.

As I returned the book to its place on the shelf I thought – there is so much more between the pages of many of these tomes than simply pictures and words. Perhaps as we commemorate the beginning of the First World War this year I will make the effort to read “The Bravest Gentleman in France.” In so doing I will try to think of Uncle Harry and imagine him reading the book happy in the ignorance of the years immediately ahead of him.

Tomorrow’s leaders for change in Indian Education

 

he students in this picture are destined to become leaders for inclusive education in India

he students in this picture are destined to become leaders for inclusive education in India

Over the past few days I have been working my way through various drafts and snippets of writing sent to me by students from Bangalore who are writing their MA dissertations. I have, of course, been marking work of this nature for many years now, initially from UK based students but increasingly from colleagues teaching in India. When reading my way through these texts I am often struck by  both the similarities and differences of the experiences described by Indian teachers with those of their peers in England.

There are obvious parallels in respect of their commitment to their pupils, their concerns to understand those children who appear to defy learning by conventional means and their innovation in adjusting their practices. The quality of work from Indian students is not noticeably different from that I receive from English based colleagues and they express their ideas and understanding in much the same way. The differences between an English cohort and their Indian counterpart are more often related to the day to day practicalities of working in schools and applying new ideas.

In England the special educational needs agenda has been prominent since the 1970s. By the 1990’s this had metamorphosed into a debate around inclusion with a focus upon provision in mainstream schools. Early in the twentieth century a debate around the existence, or not, of an inclusive pedagogy was provoking discussion about how teachers plan, differentiate and assess to address diversity in the classroom. This evolution has in many respects been a slow process, but one that has encouraged professional reflection and innovation in classroom practices. The danger at present is that some within the teaching profession believe that we are at the end of a journey. All the challenges have been confronted and we can now move comfortably into an inclusive era. Personally I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s only my personal paranoia, but I detect an undercurrent of political manipulation that is attempting to turn back the tide. When government documents are published containing expressions such as “we will end the bias towards the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools,”* I feel a certain apprehension.

The contrast with the situation in India, and one that comes strongly through the work of students on our MA programme is quite noticeable. Many of these students are working in situations where the term inclusion is almost (if not entirely) unknown. Often they feel that they are striving in isolation to have the needs of children fully acknowledged and to encourage colleagues to recognise their responsibilities as teachers of all children. The commitment of our Indian students is immense and they are, in many instances, in the vanguard of the development of inclusive education not only in their schools, but in their states.

Aishwarya leading the way towards the development of inclusive pre-school provision in Bangalore

Aishwarya leading the way towards the development of inclusive pre-school provision in Bangalore

There are similarities in the work I read from Indian students today to that which I was reading in the UK a few years ago. I sense many of their frustrations, but also marvel at their determination. They are working in an environment where local or national literature about the education of marginalised pupils let alone the creation of inclusive learning environments is very limited. This will undoubtedly change over the coming years but certainly presents a challenge at the moment. The introduction of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (2009) (RTE) about which I have previously written is causing much debate and not a little discomfort in India at present. Just as happened in England a few years ago, the status quo in education is being challenged and this is resulting in significant change not only in schools, but also in the lives of children who have previously been denied opportunities for learning and for those with the responsibility for their education. However, there are many for whom this change is uncomfortable, and the students with whom we work in Bangalore often find themselves subjected to criticism for the commitment that they have made to children who are seen by others as challenging.

Students and tutors debating issues on the Bangalore course

Students and tutors debating issues on the Bangalore course

Just as in England the changes will be slow and the battles to gain a more inclusive education system will be hard fought. However, I am greatly heartened by what I read in the work of our students and the determination that they demonstrate to be at the forefront of change. They write with passion and conviction about the children with whom they work and the changes that they are making in their classrooms, and this makes reading their work into a particular pleasure. Whilst it may take time for them to effect the changes they wish to see, I am convinced that the students you see in the pictures on this page are going to be leaders in the field of inclusive education in India over the coming years. As more join them I am sure there will be no turning back.

*In their 2010  Party Manifesto the UK Conservative Party stated an intention to “end the bias towards the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools.” This phrase was reiterated when they came to government in coalition with The Liberal Party in Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability (March 2011) a government Green Paper.

Our next cohort of students will be joining the MA programme in Bangalore in September 2014. If you are interested in joining the course please contact Jayashree Rajanahally  jayamar@gmail.com

Defying the stereotype

Luigi. an inspirational student with a great determination to achieve

Luigi. an inspirational student with a great determination to achieve

I suppose that it was inevitable that having featured a documentary “Indelible” on this blog (“I wanted to be normal, I became special.” March 23rd) that others would provide me with examples of similar films. Indeed the fact that others are prepared to share their experiences and ideas is one of the most pleasing aspects of maintaining this blog. Responding to the piece about “Indelible”, Time Loreman from Canada drew my attention to a film from Italy.

“CI PROVO” (Try I will) is a documentary film about a 22-year-old student with Down syndrome from Italy who was awarded an Erasmus scholarship to study in Spain. The film follows Luigi as he begins an independent life in rented accommodation with new friends, finds work and enjoys a social life. The honesty of the film which, far from presenting a rose tinted view of his life, shows some of the challenges that Luigi faces, enables the viewer to consider these issues from both his perspectives and those of the people around him.

At one point we see Luigi learning to manage tasks in an unfamiliar kitchen environment, in a scene which is notable for the patient way in which a friend guides him, without taking away from his determination to maintain his independence. Watching this section of the film I was struck by the effectiveness of the teaching that was taking place in this quite informal situation.

Luigi has ambitions to become an early years teacher and is attending a university course which provides him with opportunities to gain practical experience, alongside an understanding of pedagogical theories. A tutor from the University of Bologna explains how he takes exactly the same course and sits the same examination as his peers. She states that he is neither brilliant or inadequate as a student – much like the rest of the students in his group. She does, however, believe that Luigi is more reflective than many of the students on the course and asks himself more questions about his ability to succeed in his studies.

A particularly interesting passage of the film shows Luigi working at the Villa Gaia Playschool in Reggio Emilia. Here we see him engaging with children in a drama session based upon Red Riding Hood, assisting  them at lunchtime and interacting in a soft play area. He appears relaxed and confident with the children, and whilst it is evident that some of the adults around him wonder how he will cope, the children in the playschool have few apprehensions about his abilities.

Luigi certainly faces many challenges, we see him preparing for an oral examination and confronting self-doubt, but throughout this process he conveys a spirit and commitment to his ambition that enables those around him to maintain a belief in his potential. At one point whilst reflecting on what he might do if he fails a test he says, with some confidence “I’ll do it again.”

The film shows many of the aspects of life for a young man that we might expect. The complexity of personal relationships, the tensions that sometimes arise in friendships and with his parents, are typical of those that might be experienced by any student. Eventually we see Luigi travel to Murcia in Spain to experience life as an Erasmus student. Here we see him settling into an interesting phase of his studies and hear tutors reflecting positively on his entitlement to be there based solely on his merit. It is, they suggest, his right to be there because he has proven himself as capable as any of his peers to succeed on his chosen path.

There is much more that can be said about this powerful film, but my words cannot possibly do justice to Luigi and the story that is told. I can only assure you that making the time to watch (it lasts about an hour) will be an interesting experience that will make you think about many of the issues of stereotyping that still need to be confronted.

Thanks Tim for bringing this to our attention. I would be pleased to know what others think of Luigi’s experiences.

The link below will take you to “CI PROVO.”

http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/9561/CI-PROVO–TRY-I-WILL

 

 

The long road to independence

Plotting a route to independence is best managed through a partnership between schools and parents

Plotting a route to independence is best managed through a partnership between schools and parents

A few days ago I referred to a blog written by Nancy Gedge (No Right of Access to the Ordinary World March 16th). Nancy often has interesting things to say about her experiences as both a parent and a teacher. On March 24th she posted a piece titled Getting Children to do Stuff in which she describes her feelings about gaining a balance between giving children direct instructions and expecting them to conform, and giving them opportunities to make independent decisions. At times she reflects upon this issue in relation to her own son Sam who has Down’s syndrome.

Many parents can recall times when they made decisions that involved an element of risk. The first time that their child was allowed to cross the road alone, or stay out with friends late into the evening is often an occasion of some apprehension for parents. Thankfully all usually ends well and gradually the same challenges lessen until we are happy that our children can conduct themselves safely in a range of situations which were previously viewed as fraught with danger.

Nancy makes a number of interesting observations about these situations and how the way she perceives them may be different in respect of her son Sam. The protective instinct in parents is an important feature of enabling children to grow up in security and to move gradually towards independence. But as Nancy relates:-

“Sometimes, the Down Syndrome means that we are treading the same old paths for longer than we ever thought possible.  Sometimes I admit that I just want them to do what I want them to do because I want them to do it and that is that.”

When I was teaching in schools I often heard colleagues referring to parents as being “over protective.” It is an interesting expression and I appreciate the fact that we should be encouraging children to gain independence. However, I would rather a parent who was over protective than one who might be negligent. But as Nancy reminds us, not all children will move at the same pace and we need to ensure that a balance between protection and independence is maintained.

How we achieve this balance is a difficult question to answer. Nancy discusses this issue using some interesting words. Combining her roles as teacher and parent she says:-

“So when I look at the children around me, both at home and at school, I know that the very last thing I want for them is blind obedience.  I especially don’t want it when it is coupled with compliance.  And I certainly don’t want to see those qualities celebrated in end-of-term assemblies.  Yes, they need to do as they are told, yes, there are times when they need to do it straight away, no questions asked; but as they grow, as they turn from the children they are into adults, I want them to turn from obedience to discipline.”

I am interested in the journey that Nancy describes here; that involving a transition from childhood to adulthood with recognition that there should be a lessening of compliance and a move towards self-discipline. Like any journey this is generally taken in stages from unquestioning obedience through choice and decision making to independence. For all children this is a gradual progression, but for some it is a much harder route to follow. The decisions that parents have to make are often difficult and the influence of schools can be great. Teaching children to make independent choices, to understand the consequences of their actions and to recognise risk is something that can be managed within the relative security of the classroom. Opportunities to begin learning these skills need to begin early during schooling, but in some instances is left until far too late in the education process. As Nancy states, compliance can be a stifling factor on the road to independence and schools need to be aware of this.

For parents of children described as having learning disabilities the journey to independence can be longer than they would wish and certainly more arduous than for many of their children’s peers. Schools can do much to support both children and their parents on this journey if they choose so to do.

Nancy’s blog piece “Getting Children to Do Stuff” can be read at:-

http://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/getting-children-to-do-stuff/

 

Conveying positive images

Pavitra Chalam, Director of the award winning film "Indelible."

Pavitra Chalam, Director of the award winning film “Indelible.”

I am grateful to Bharati who in response to yesterday’s piece on this blog “I wanted to be normal but I became special,” pointed me in the direction of a review of the film Indelible that I had highlighted, in The Hindu newspaper. Interviewed for the review, the film’s young producer Pavitra Chalam says of the individuals with Down’s syndrome in her documentary:-

“They taught me how to look at life positively. Archana, who is a Special Olympics gold medallist, says in the film ‘be proud of who you are, of you, of your life’. We are all worried about tomorrow and yesterday. They really teach you to live in the moment. This is not just a film about the syndrome. It’s a film about life.”

This notion of living in the moment was one that interested me in relation to Indelible. It did so in particular because of my experiences of working with parents several years ago when I was a head teacher. Parents of children with learning disabilities spend more than their fair share of time worrying about the future. When they see their son or daughter’s peers growing through the years and gaining greater independence they may have anxieties about how the future will look for them. In the past I have had many conversations with parents in which they have expressed their concerns, that their children will have difficulties in being accepted in a wider society or making friends.

The individuals with Down’s syndrome in Pavitra Chalam’s film demonstrate that they have found their own niche in their local communities by emphasising their abilities, rather than allowing others to focus upon their difficulties. Of course, the subjects of this film were in part selected for their exceptional skills, for example as athletes, dancers or poets and we know that not all have these levels of accomplishment. However, watching this film again early this morning I found myself wishing that it had been available to me in those days when I was a headteacher. My reasoning is simple, I would have liked to have a film that I could use to accentuate the potential of young people with learning disabilities and the ways in which they can contribute positively to the communities in which they live.

Pavitra Chalam’s assertion that “This is not just a film about the syndrome. It’s a film about life” may sound a little clichéd but I can understand what she is trying to say. The film focuses far less upon the fact that her subjects have Down’s syndrome than on their contribution to the lives of those around them. As parents what more could we wish than that our children play a positive role in the lives of their communities. Both Bharati and Jayashree in posting responses to yesterday’s blog responded positively to Indelible. Jayashree used the term inspired to describe her own reaction to the film. It would be good to think that others may find it equally inspiring.

Pavitra Chalam uses a different term when she says:-

“We tell stories of hope. Without hope, we have nothing. I’m quite a crusader for hope. I never know what the next story is going to be since it’s really like falling in love. It’s an organic natural process and I gravitate towards a story as much as it gravitates towards me.”

Maybe the provision of hope is something that can be achieved through a range of media. Pavitra Chalam has been eloquent in her use of film to present a positive story about a group of remarkable individuals. If we are to promote greater understanding of the possibilities of inclusion, we will need to use a range of approaches in getting a message across. Films of this nature may well make a significant contribution by conveying a positive image to an audience, many of whom remain in ignorance of the great diversity that makes up our normal population.

Pavita Chalam’s film “Indelible”  won the Award for Outstanding New Asia Pacific Documentary Talent DocWeek Film Festival 2014 in Australia.

“I wanted to be normal, I became special.”

Indelible_short_film_1

Over the past couple of months I have written a few times about the importance of learning from parents and also about the challenges surrounding the labelling of children. Perhaps it was these pieces that prompted my good friend Suchitra Narayan from Kochi to send me a link to a short film that in many ways considers both of these issues. “Indelible” is a remarkable film about the lives of several mainly young people with Down’s syndrome. During this short film we hear young people and their parents talking about their experiences and feelings about living with Down syndrome, and see them enjoying participation in a range of sporting and cultural activities with great accomplishment and pride.

I have watched the film several times and each time it provokes different emotions and thoughts. I will probably return again to some of these, but for today I would like to share my thoughts on a few expressions uttered within the film that I found particularly poignant.

The first of these is spoken by a young lady early in the film. She says:-

“I am Down syndrome, so what?”

This is simply said but sounds remarkably like a challenge. Having heard her make this statement several times, I still hear this as her way of saying something along the lines of “if you’ve got a problem with this, that’s too bad for you, because I couldn’t care less.” I am always aware of the danger of misinterpreting the words of others, but her facial expression, gesture and shrug of the shoulders are all indicative to me, of a young lady who is self-confident and at ease with her situation. Certainly watching this film I was impressed by the confidence and enthusiasm of the individuals whose lives were featured. These were not all young people, and I found myself wondering what kinds of educational experiences they had encountered and how these had shaped their current self-awareness? One individual in particular, a self-assured mature lady who writes poetry, would have been of school age at a time when attitudes towards people with Down’s syndrome in many instances would have been negative. Who were the influences in her life that enabled her to talk with such confidence about her situation? What was the support available to her that enabled her to present herself with such poise and composure?

I suspect that the role of parents in the lives of all featured in this film would have been critical. Many will have fought hard battles to enable their children to find their place in their local communities and to gain the many accolades that we hear in the film. The simple enjoyment that Ashwin demonstrates in playing cricket with his friends, the grace with which Sandhya dances, and the pride of Archanan who won a gold medal for cycling at the Athens special Olympics provide a fitting tribute to those who believe in their abilities to achieve and see their “special needs” as only a secondary characteristic of their individuality.

One expression that stood out for me amongst the many wise words spoken by people of this film came from Archana Jayaram who states quite boldly:-

“I wanted to be normal, I became special.”

What particularly moved me in this statement was the idea that Archana “became special”. Once the label of Down’s syndrome was applied to her it changed the way in which she was viewed by others and possibly the way in which she sees herself. I find myself asking the question, is it the label that we apply that makes the individual special? If we did not apply the label Down’s syndrome to Archana but substituted it with “gold medallist”, or “athlete” how might this change perceptions and expectations?

This point gains particular significance when listening at another point in the film, to Dr Surekha Ramachandran, the Chair Person of The Downs Syndrome Federation, India and herself a parent of a daughter with Down’s syndrome who states:-

“Let us be what we are.”

In describing her experiences as a parent she says:-

“My goal was charted out by this girl. The fact that I gave birth to the most amazing person who has been more my guru than anyone else.”

Dr Ramachandran emphasises the point that learning is a shared experience. When we enter the classroom we should not only do so in order to teach, but we should be prepared to learn from those pupils with whom we work. For Dr Ramachandran being a parent of a daughter with Down’s syndrome has been viewed as a positive learning experience and enabled her both to see the positive aspects of her daughter’s life, and to share this learning with others.

There is so much more to be said about this film. I hope that you will watch it and share your own views of what you take from doing so. I may well watch again and return to this over the coming days.

The link below will take you to “Indelible”

“Indelible”

 

 

 

 

Gearing up for 2015 and beyond

World leaders making promises at the World Summit 2000.

World leaders making promises at the World Summit 2000.

 

“Eradicating extreme poverty continues to be one of the main challenges of our time, and is a major concern of the international community. Ending this scourge will require the combined efforts of all, governments, civil society organizations and the private sector, in the context of a stronger and more effective global partnership for development. The Millennium Development Goals set timebound targets, by which progress in reducing income poverty, hunger, disease, lack of adequate shelter and exclusion — while promoting gender equality, health, education and environmental sustainability — can be measured. They also embody basic human rights — the rights of each person on the planet to health, education, shelter and security. The Goals are ambitious but feasible and, together with the comprehensive United Nations development agenda, set the course for the world’s efforts to alleviate extreme poverty by 2015. “

United Nations Secretary-General BAN Ki-moon

 

The year 2015, which is fast approaching, is one of particular significance to groups and individuals that have campaigned for a more just and inclusive education system. Next year we can expect to see a plethora of publications either celebrating great educational achievements, or decrying the failure of governments in many countries to make adequate educational provision for significant numbers of their population. I anticipate that during this period we will see some careful massaging of figures by the governments of some countries and significant hand wringing by politicians and agencies in the more economically advantaged countries of the world. This will be followed by a collective finger pointing and the apportioning of blame, and by calls from some quarters to renew efforts in the fight to eradicate poverty, whilst others will gaze inwardly and say that we should look after “our own” rather than focusing upon the needs of others.

The reason that the year 2015 assumes such significance is related to the eight Millennium Development Goals agreed by the majority of the world’s governments in September 2000 with the laudable aims of improving the lives of millions of people who live in poverty and have poor access to decent health and education services and in communities that are becoming increasingly less sustainable. Present at the momentous signing of the document introducing the goals were 149 Heads of State and Government and high-ranking officials from over 40 other countries. When these goals were published a target date of 2015 was established with a view that significant progress would by then have been made towards their attainment.

Many recent reports have highlighted the progress made in addressing issues that impact upon the quality of life of people living in economically disadvantaged situations. The United Nations Millennium Development Goals Report 2013 highlights a number of successes:-

  • The proportion of people living in extreme poverty has been halved at the global level
  • Over 2 billion people gained access to improved sources of drinking water
  • Remarkable gains have been made in the fight against malaria and tuberculosis
  • The proportion of slum dwellers in the cities and metropolises of the developing world is declining
  • A low debt burden and an improved climate for trade are levelling the playing field for developing countries
  • The hunger reduction target is within reach

We should, of course, celebrate the endeavours that have led to progress in this areas. However the language used in emphasising this progress is interesting and whilst highlighting undoubted achievements should give us cause to exercise a little caution. Terms like “improved” and “within reach” are a sure indication that whilst the journey is underway, the destination may be some way off.

It is quite right that we should applaud the efforts made by governments, by NGOs and by other civil organisations and individuals to achieve goals that would improve the lives of many millions of people. In 2015 a full appraisal of the progress made will lead to the setting of a further tranche of targets and may even identify new areas of concern. The fact that a further set of goals is seen as necessary is in itself an indication of the global challenges that continue to blight the lives of many, and perhaps a reason to re-examine the ways in which actions are taken to achieve the desired outcomes.

For those of us working in education and other caring professions, the need to emphasise a significant weakness in the existing Millennium Development Goals is apparent. A report issued by the Global Campaign for Education Equal Right – Equal Opportunity: Inclusive Education for Children with Disabilities highlights a significant omission in the original goals. One of the staggering statistics included in this report emphasises that of the 57 million children worldwide estimated to still be missing out on school, more than 40% are thought to be disabled. As the authors of the report state:-

“The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), designed to combat extreme poverty, remarkably, failed to mention the one billion people across the world with disabilities – the largest ‘marginalised’ group and often among the poorest citizens in any country. There is no mention of disability in any of the 8 goals, 21 targets or 60 indicators.”

When the post-2015 development document is written it is to be hoped that this serious omission is addressed. In many countries as wealth has increased and the social and economic conditions of many have improved the gap between these more fortunate individuals  and those who are most disadvantaged has widened.

The introduction of the Millennium Development Goals was a tremendous initiative and has undoubtedly helped to maintain a focus on the challenges faced by a significant proportion of the world’s population. Let’s hope that in 2030 the need to update the goals and set yet more new targets will no longer exist.

The report of the Global Campaign for Education, Equal Right – Equal Opportunity: Inclusive Education for Children with Disabilities can be accessed via the link below.

http://www.campaignforeducation.org/en/campaigns/education-and-disability

 

Looking beyond the horizon

This painting on a wall at The Valley School near Bangalore was created by an Adavasi artist

This painting on a wall at The Valley School near Bangalore was created by an Adivasi artist

My schooling was largely mono-cultural. It wasn’t that I didn’t have friends whose families were from different cultural backgrounds. In fact had a number of friends whose families had originally come to England from India, Pakistan, Jamaica, Poland and other countries. It was more a case of what I was taught at school being firmly rooted in English heritage. The dominance of English literature, geography, history and art in English schools is, of course, what you might expect. Indeed I think it very important that children are taught about their own background, history and traditions in schools and that this should provide a firm foundation for learning about the wider world.

By the time I left school at the age of eighteen I had explored a reasonable breadth of English literature. Some of the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Lawrence, Dickens and other literary giants were familiar and similarly in history I was relatively well versed in the industrial revolution, the English civil war, and life in early medieval Britain. I had a reasonable knowledge of the physical and social geography of the British Isles and I was fairly confident in navigating my way around local government, the legal system and democratic processes through a subject called “civics”. I suppose if there was one subject in which British culture didn’t dominate in my school days it was music. Whilst composers such as Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Britten did receive honourable mentions, it was Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart and other mainland European composers who were instilled upon us as the greats.

It was not until I left school and started my higher education that I began to encounter the wealth of literature and the significance of history from around the world. I remember having been introduced to Camus, Voltaire, Mann and Dostoyevsky early in my studies and greedily devouring all of their works. A greater appreciation of history brought me briefly in touch with Alexander the Great, Garibaldi and Simon Bolivar and gave me a greater appreciation of how borders were formed and countries reshaped. My reading around the Moghul Empire and the tragedy of post-independence partition provided my first introduction to Indian history and also encouraged me to explore the music of Ravi Shankar, Zakir Hussain and Ustad Bismillah Khan. Having acquired the learning bug I have ever since been trying to catch up lost time in understanding more about the world in which I live. It is, of course a frantic race and one that none of us is destined to win, but that is half of the fun in trying.

Schools in England today have changed and reflect the multicultural society in which we live. A visit to any English school will demonstrate a celebration of diversity and the efforts made by teachers to ensure that their pupils have a greater understanding of the diverse communities in which they are growing up. This morning I visited a secondary school in Birmingham, around the walls were many illustrations of the endeavours made to reflect the rich cultural mix of the local neighbourhood. Alongside English script on children’s work and displays I found text in Urdu, Polish and Punjabi. There were examples of school activities for the celebration of Eid and accounts of visits made to a local church and a Gudwara.

I find it refreshing to see teachers assisting children to understand the cultural traditions of both their own and other countries, and to celebrate the art, music, dance and scientific achievements of different peoples. I am particularly pleased to see the emphasis upon respect and understanding that is given during these lessons, which has replaced a formerly more jingoistic approach to teaching.

At this time of year Sara’s year group at school celebrate all things Indian. They work with a teacher of traditional Indian dance, learn Indian stories, consider aspects of Indian religions, hear music, and learn about Mahatama Gandhi. They create art work based upon that created by Adivasi peoples and even cook an Indian meal (though they go lightly with the spices). Sara’s classroom is filled with artefacts brought home from visits to India providing a colourful backdrop to the full range of activities.

I wonder, if children in England and other European countries in the nineteenth century had been encouraged to develop an understanding and respect for cultural diversity, might the history of the twentieth century have been different? I am sure that a greater emphasis on teaching world geography and history in American schools could ultimately have benefits for foreign policy. I am equally convinced that encouraging greater links between children and schools across cultures could influence the ways in which we all regard our neighbours. With modern technology perhaps this will become a little easier.

I have posted on today’s blog a display of some of the work from Sara’s class in celebration of India.

Learning through spontaneous combustion.

Let's put some of the hot air back into teaching!

Let’s put some of the hot air back into teaching!

Yesterday I described how I had been taken to task by one of my students for too long a sequence of gloomy pieces posted on this blog. She urged me to write something positive about education in order to redress the balance and to demonstrate that I still retained an optimistic perception of the future for teachers. Feeling suitably chastened I wrote yesterday’s piece “Reasons to be cheerful!” I have not seen my student critic today, but I hope that this latest writing has restored her faith in me as someone who believes in the ability of teachers to rise above the pressures and deliver quality teaching to their pupils.

I was pleased to see that “Reasons to be cheerful!” had encouraged one posting providing another example of a positive experience during a visit to a school. Saneeya a Kenyan student who has spent a while in English schools wrote about her time observing a teacher and was clearly excited by what she witnessed.

“It was a lovely sunny day, and so the Year 4 teacher decided to conduct the Art lesson outside in the school yard. Students took their crayons and art materials and sat outside in the sunshine discussing, debating and then drawing their versions of ‘A Village in Africa’. I will never forget that lesson, because it illustrated to me the spontaneous, yet wonderful combination of teaching whilst enabling children to make the most of a lovely day.”

On reading Saneeya’s comments one word stood out for me in relation to something I have always valued in teaching. Spontaneous is a term that I seldom hear used today from teachers in English schools, yet spontaneity always seemed to me to be an important factor in the teaching and learning process. Seizing the moment or grasping the opportunity can often lead to exciting learning experiences and should be welcomed by schools. As I was reflecting on Saneeya’s comments two particular events from my own days teaching in schools occurred to me.

In the midst of a lesson in my classroom in Somerset back in the 1970s one of my pupils suddenly let out an excited yell – “look Mr Rose, look at the balloon”. Sure enough glancing through the window I just caught a glimpse of a hot air balloon passing low over the school roof. Within minutes every child and member of the school staff was on the school field staring over a fence into farmland, where the balloon was making a rather bumpy landing. The excitement of the children (and most of the staff) was tremendous. For the next half an hour we all watched as the crew of the balloon man handled it to the ground and packed it into the back of a trailer that had arrived as we watched. The next day one of our teachers, a very creative Australian character, organised balloon building for the whole school. A day was spent with what seemed like acres of coloured tissue paper and glue, working to the teacher’s pattern until by mid-afternoon we had a fine armada of craft ready to launch. Hair dryers at the ready the balloons were carefully filled with hot air and released, forming a spectacular flotilla over nearby roofs and away in the direction of Frome town.

What did the children learn that day? I suppose we could have analysed every part of the day as contributing to their knowledge of science, technology, history (I’m sure somebody mentioned the Montgolfier Brothers), art, mathematics and English. When I think of it now I can see that there were opportunities for addressing each of those subjects during the day. In truth I don’t remember any of us thinking in those terms. What we were doing was enjoying a learning experience together and building upon the spontaneity of the occasion.

A few years later, when in the role of head teacher, I recall a time when snow had fallen steadily for several days and the school field lay beneath a cold white blanket. I was in my office when a teacher new to the school knocked at my door. “I wonder, she asked, if it would be OK for me to take my class on to the field to build a snowman.” How sad I thought that she feels the need to come and ask. “Wait a moment,” I said “let me grab my coat and I’ll come and join you.” Within the next hour every class had their own snowman looking in the classroom windows. It’s not every year that we get enough snow to take advantage of  a learning opportunity like this.

Spontaneity for the combustion of learning – long may it last!

Have you had a spontaneous learning or teaching moment? Is so, why not share it with others by posting a response to this blog?

I’ve posted one of mine just below.

It was January 2013 and no-one was around. So Professor Rose (on the pretence that he was on a learning mission) crept into the garden and built a snowman to surprise his wife when she returned from shopping!

It was January 2013 and no-one was around. So Professor Rose (on the pretence that he was on a learning mission) crept into the garden and built a snowman to surprise his wife when she returned from shopping!