Gaining hope from a girl selling fruit


If you have time to read only one book this year, make it this one

If you have time to read only one book this year, make it this one

“Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit” is one of the most remarkable books I have read for some time. Written by a young artist from Bihar named Amrita Das the book tells the story of a journey by train to Chennai that is both simple and profound. If that may seem like a contradictory statement then I would recommend that you read the book and consider the voyage made by Amrita Das, and the observations that she makes along the way. The simplicity of the text, which in its entirety takes no more than twenty minutes to read is balanced by a thought provoking series of questions about the lives of women and in particular those who come from some of the poorer regions of India.

Without giving too much away, Amrita Das tells of her observations of a girl whilst making a long train journey to Chennai. She watches this young woman and wonders about her existence, the reasons for her travels and the kind of life she may lead. The story is immersed in empathy as the author reflects upon her own life and relates it to that of her young travelling companion. At the beginning of the book Das says “life is strange – you never know what awaits you” and so it is with this book where turning each page brings a new revelation and a shift in the thinking of the reader.

How can such a simple text be so profound? Part of the mystery of this book lies in the beautiful use of illustration. Amrita Das is an artist steeped in the Mithila tradition. Mithila was an ancient kingdom located in the Eastern Gangetic Plains of northern India, an area which today is located within the State of Bihar and originally extended into Nepal. In this area women traditionally learned how to paint images that adorned many of the village buildings. Many of these pictures represented images of local nature and some possessed a deep symbolic meaning. In the twentieth century some women began to transfer these images to paper and this is the path taken by Amrita Das. Whilst the text of this beautiful book can be read in minutes, each page can hold the attention for far longer in order to explore the complexities of the images, the rhythm of the shapes and the intricacies of pattern.

Writing of herself Amrita Das says:

“I started out not knowing much, certainly not about the outside world. I could paint, but apart from that there was not much I could do.”

This statement made me wonder just how little the artist’s talent may have been appreciated prior to the publication of “Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit.” There must have been a danger that the talent of this young woman could have remained hidden from the world, had it not been for those individuals in Chennai who encouraged her to produce this book. Her assertion that all she could do was paint should be of concern to every teacher. To have such a talent is surely something we would wish of all our students.

There are indicators throughout this work of the kind of life that Amrita Das experienced when she was growing up and that lead her to reflect on the life of a fellow train passenger. Expressions such as “my girlhood passed even before I knew it,” and “the rich go their way, and are what they are. I don’t really care to know them. I’m not drawn to them,” suggest that the opportunities she had when growing up were limited. Possibly most telling of all is a brief passage where she says of her childhood, “If you dream for a moment you’re asked why you are twiddling your thumbs.”

Fortunately Amrita Das has found an opportunity to dream, and in so doing she has provided us with a book that will surely endure and will be treasured by all who come to read it and enjoy her beautiful illustrations. I hope that you will make the time to obtain and read this magical text and especially to reflect upon the experiences that enabled the author to provide us with such a rich story.

“Hope is  Girl Selling Fruit” written and illustrated by Amrita Das is published by Tara Books. ISBN: 978-93-83145-02-7


This illustration from Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit has been developed by Amrita Das from the traditional Mithila painting of her home state.

This illustration from Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit has been developed by Amrita Das from the traditional Mithila painting of her home state.

Looking beneath the surface

This child has responsibilities but will he receive an education

This child has responsibilities but will he receive an education

I was not surprised when a colleague approached me making horrified noises about the contents of the Human Rights Watch report “They Say we’re Dirty” about which I wrote yesterday. The issue of bullying of children by their peers, and even more disturbing, their teachers, is clearly distressing and I would have anticipated that any of my colleagues might have had the same reaction. “Why”, she asked me, “don’t parents get together and do something about this?” This is a natural reaction, but I think we should try to see this situation from a number of perspectives.

In many instances parents in any education system can feel intimidated by what seems like a fairly alien and intimidating environment. In England I suppose it is easy to believe that because parents themselves went to school, they will feel comfortable in their dealings with teachers and in visiting classrooms. Yet those of us with experience of working in schools know that there are many parents who feel anxious in meetings with teachers. How much more intimidating might this situation be for parents who had a bad experience of schooling, or even more so for those who have never attended school?

It is evident from the Human Rights Watch report that there are many parents who do not know how to approach schools or to work with teachers, even when those teachers are keen to involve them. There may be many reasons for this, but one in particular stands out for me from this document. For many of the families living in the Indian communities discussed in this text, existence is a hand to mouth business. In order to feed their families and maintain any form of reasonable livelihood it is necessary to make the most effective use of all available labour. One of the children interviewed for the Human Rights Watch report states:-

“My mother stopped my studies and asked me to look after cattle. We have goats, sheep and two cows. I feel like going back to school. My parents are not ready to send me to school but otherwise I would go. Earlier they had asked me to stop going to school when my elder sister had a daughter. I like going to school a lot.”

For many of us, as parents as well as teachers it is hard to imagine the dilemma that exists in some of the poorer communities around the world. Caring for cattle or looking after a baby so others can work and in order that everyone can eat is a reality for many children, whose families live within or close to poverty. Whilst we might say that it is irresponsible of parents not to send their children to school, it may equally be said that it is negligent of a society to allow such a situation to persist. Who am I to criticise the mother cited above until I know more of the pressures under which she lives?

Maybe we need to be more sympathetic to the needs of families and to listen to their reasons for dropping out of the education system. Even more important might be the efforts that could be made to design learning opportunities that sit more comfortably with the life patterns of people living in poverty. Rather than creating education systems and expecting children and families to adapt to these, we might consider examining the life styles of these families and building education provision to support them. This of course demands thinking in a different way about schooling, but as professional educators isn’t this what we are supposed to do?

Many platitudes are voiced about education being the route out of poverty. There is, of course, much evidence to suggest that obtaining a good education improves life chances. However, education takes time and does not address the immediacy of families in need. Suggesting to a mother than her child’s schooling will have benefits in ten years time may appear meaningless when she is struggling to find the resources to provide today’s meal. There is no easy solution to this problem, but I am concerned that whilst reports such as “They Say we’re Dirty” serve an important purpose in raising awareness of the many injustices that limit opportunities, there is a danger of resting on indignation rather than seeking reasons and solutions. We need to look beneath the surface of these issues rather than taking a simplistic view.

For many parents their aspirations are for maintaining their current living standard, even when these are far from satisfactory. Some even fear that if their children receive an education they will leave their community to seek better paid employment and opportunities away from home. Perhaps the challenge for educators is to identify the ways in which to communicate to families that their lives may be improved by a generation of educated young people, whilst campaigning to ensure they receive the support that they need today. There are no easy answers, but I would be interested to hear what you think.

Confronting ignorance and prejudice


This report from Human Rights Watch raises a number of disturbing issues regarding obstacles to the creation of a more inclusive education system.

This report from Human Rights Watch raises a number of disturbing issues regarding obstacles to the creation of a more inclusive education system.

I suspect that anyone who has taught for any length of time has at some point had to deal with incidents of bullying or name calling, where one child has exercised power over another. Such incidents make life miserable for the victim and can cause anxiety and fear amongst his friends, who may distance themselves from him in apprehension that they may also fall victim to the bully. Schools should be safe havens for all children and fortunately most deal with bullying quickly and sensitively and do their utmost to protect children, but sadly some forms of bullying are particularly pervasive and vicious. When race, religion or caste are involved this seems particularly to be the case.

Human Rights Watch an independent, international organization that works to advance the cause of human rights for all has recently published a report with the shocking title “They Say We’re Dirty”.  In this report evidence from interviewing 160 people, including 85 children in four Indian States examines the obstacles preventing certain children from attending school. The report is written in response to the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (2009) that has focused on getting children from marginalised groups, including those from scheduled tribes, scheduled castes and with disabilities into schools. The Government of India has made a huge commitment to achieving universal education, as this report acknowledges, but the number of children out of school remains high. This inevitably varies from state to state with major socio-economic and geographical challenges placing considerable obstacles in the way of speedy progress. However, there are many examples that demonstrate that where there is a commitment, schools can become far more inclusive for the benefit of children who would previously not have received a formal education.

It is, in my opinion, important to recognise the many positive actions that have taken place, some of which I have witnessed during my visits to Indian schools. But that does not mean that we should ignore some of the disturbing details that appear in this report produced by Human Rights Watch. The very title of this report is an affront to the sensibilities of any reader. To give a report a heading which states “They Say We’re Dirty,” immediately suggests to the reader that there are going to be a number of negative statements within. This is indeed the case and even a cursory reading of the document leaves one with a certain feeling of despair. There are many critical points made within the report, I am still absorbing some of these and will probably return to the report over the next few days, but I must make reference to an issue that appears to permeate the whole text.

At the outset of this piece I highlighted issues of bullying, which many of us as teachers have had to address over the years. What we should never have to confront are blatant incidents of prejudice and bullying by teachers and pupils in collusion. This report suggests that such occurrences were seen frequently in the schools visited and were particularly aimed at children from scheduled tribes or scheduled castes. There are several references made to transcripts from interviews with children that describe their experiences of schooling. These are far from edifying and in some instances will surely provoke feelings of revulsion from any teacher or other adult concerned to create a more just education system. The quotation below from a twelve year old girl in Bihar is typical of several contained within the report

“I never knew about caste or what Dom [sweeper] is. I first came to know when I was in Class V. All the children used to make fun of me and say, ‘You are Dom caste, your mother doesn’t give you proper clothes.’ One day, I came home and told my father that the other children insult me. He decided to speak to the teacher. He said to her: ‘Do the Dom have no honour and dignity, are those children the only ones who have it?’ The teacher asked him not to interfere in the fights among children. So my father threatened to send a written complaint to the education department. She got scared and pleaded with him to not send a letter or she would lose her job. He relented, but not much has changed since then. Even now the children say such things.”

How do children become so prejudiced against others? What have they learned from the adults around them who have surely shaped their views of the world? Of particular concern is the apparent indifference of a teacher who is only prepared to address such issues when she feels that her own job is at risk. Is this not an affront to the whole profession of teaching?

It is, of course, easy to jump to conclusions in such situations. There is insufficient evidence in a report based upon very low numbers of pupils and teachers and in only four states to generalise about the behaviours within this report. However, even one incident of this nature is surely unacceptable and there is a clear indication here of the distance that needs to be travelled in order to fulfil the expectations of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act. In my experience the majority of teachers in India are anxious to do the best for all the children in their care and for those who are new to the formal schooling system. This report indicates to me the urgency of providing support to teachers in order that such attitudes can eventually be eradicated.

Bullying often results from stresses in the bully’s own life. Whilst this is not an excuse for the kinds of behaviour discussed in this report, the problem certainly goes much deeper than the individuals involved. Unless we examine and confront the causes of the prejudices reported in “They Say We’re Dirty,” progress is unlikely to be made.

Today students on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education Course in Bangalore are beginning a module examining issues of social emotional and behavioural needs. Sadly I will not be with them this week but my excellent colleagues will undoubtedly provide many opportunities for learning and debate. It seems to me that this report may well be pertinent to the issues at the heart of their work.

A full copy of The Human Rights Watch report: “They Say We’re Dirty” can be downloaded at the link below


Remembering Seamus Heaney

“Out of the Marvellous” a tapestry designed by the Czech artist Peter Sis to commemorate the great poet Seamus Healey and now located at Terminal 2 Dublin Airport

“Out of the Marvellous” a tapestry designed by the Czech artist Peter Sis to commemorate the great poet Seamus Healey and now located at Terminal 2 Dublin Airport

It must have been 1973 or 1974 when I was a student training to be a teacher and studying English literature, that one of our tutors Eddie Wainwright brought to Bristol a poet who at the time was highly regarded, but only later became appreciated for his unique genius. I suppose that none of us present that day, not even Eddie Wainwright, himself a well-respected poet, could have imagined that we were in the company of a man who years later would win the Nobel Prize for Literature. This was just a few years after the acclaimed anthology, Death of a Naturalist had been published and before us stood Seamus Heaney, slightly tousled and sparkling eyed from Derry in Northern Ireland.

From the moment he began to read I was transfixed. His words, delivered softly with a lyrical brogue drifted like musical notation across the room. Between reciting his poems he told us of his inspirations growing up on a farm in Northern Ireland, a hard existence on land shaped by his father, who was clearly held in great affection. Heaney has written of his father’s labours, toiling with a spade, and of the choice that he made for his own living, to substitute the spade with a pen. There are such juxtapositions in much of his work.

I am recalling this now, because a couple of days ago I arrived in Dublin airport on the day that a memorial tapestry titled “Out of the Marvellous” designed by the Czech artist Peter Sis, celebrating the life of Heaney was to be unveiled by his friend, the American singer songwriter Paul Simon. On the same evening there was a memorial event at the National Concert Hall where Paul Simon performed some of Seamus Heaney’s poetry set to music, and readings were given by a number of Irelands leading poets. These included Michael D Higgins, the President of Ireland who is also highly regarded as a poet. (I wonder if the world would be a better place if all leaders were poets?) Sadly I wasn’t expecting to be in Dublin and tickets for the event were sold out almost as soon as they were issued and long before I arrived.

The day after the unveiling of the tapestry and the event at the National Concert Hall the Irish national newspapers gave several pages of celebratory coverage to the memory of Seamus Heaney who died last year. I found myself wondering whether, had he been an English poet he would have receive such tributes in my own country? It is not so long ago that the English playwright and also a Nobel Prize winner, Harold Pinter died, an occasion announced with a somewhat muted response in much of the English media.

Ireland has always lauded its writers and held them in an esteem apparently reserved for footballers and film stars in many other parts of Europe. We live in an age of “celebrity” rather than accomplishment. There is, of course, a fine history of literature in Ireland – Jonathan Swift, Samuel Beckett, Patrick Kavanagh, Lady Gregory, Sean O’Casey, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats, Edna O’Brien and of course the finest of them all (in my humble opinion) James Joyce, are just a few of the great writers to hail from this relatively small Island.

The arts continue to be valued here and within the arts it would seem the written word above others. The pride a nation takes in its artists and authors is evident in schools as much as in the theatres and concert halls of Dublin and other Irish cities. The next generation of Irish children are growing up surrounded by the acclamation of creative genius. This must bode well for the development of Ireland’s future artists.

Of the poems read by Seamus Heaney when he came to visit us in Bristol that day forty or so years ago, I remember in particular one that evoked some of my own happy memories of childhood and post it here for you to enjoy.

Personal Helicon (from Death of a Naturalist 1966)

I loved the fork of a beech tree

At the head of our lane,

The close thicket of a boxwood hedge at the front,

The soft, collapsing pile of hay

In a back corner of the byre.

But especially, I spent time in the throat

Of an old willow tree

At the end of the farmyard,

A hollow tree, with gnarled, spreading roots,

A soft, perishing bark

And a pithy inside.

Its mouth was like

The fat and solid opening

In a horse’s collar,

And once you squeezed in through it,

You were at the heart

Of a different life.

Above your head,

The living tree flourished

And breathed,

You shouldered the slightly vibrant bole,

And you put your forehead

To the rough pith

You felt the whole lithe

And whispering crown

Of willow moving

In the sky above you.

Seamus Heaney





The building blocks of learning

Young architects and designers of the future learning through play with Lego

Young architects and designers of the future learning through play with Lego

In 1987 Sara and I, along with out two sons Tom and Toby cycled around part of Denmark. It was our first family holiday abroad and by travelling on bicycles and using youth hostels we managed to experience a new country and culture within our limited budget. We had a great trip taking in the Danish countryside, visiting museums, nature reserves and beaches and eating too many Danish pastries. Tom and Toby learned sufficient language to be polite and to order their favouring pastry and we all enjoyed meeting friendly people and the languid pace of travelling by bike – something that we have continued to do in many parts of Europe.

For the boys, one of the highlights of the tour was a visit to Billund and the original Legoland, which we managed towards the end of the journey. At home in England we were all familiar with the coloured plastic bricks and other components that make up Lego, surely one of the most incredible toys available on the market. Building houses, cars, towers and all kinds of imaginative constructions had occupied hours on the lounge floor and had brought pleasure and learning to the whole family. I am sure that I gained just as much enjoyment from Lego as did our sons and I am secretly looking forward to the time when our grandchildren are a little older and we can blow the cobwebs off the little plastic bricks and introduce them to hours of fun. (Actually, why wait? I might just get them out this weekend).

Yesterday I wrote a piece about the importance of play, citing recent research by David Whitebread who argues, with good reason, that play is important for children’s development and learning and should be recognised as such by parents and teachers alike. In response to my blog, my friend the artist Jean Edwards (do visit her work at ) drew my attention to a recent television programme about the importance of Lego. I use the word importance deliberately here, because the “Culture Show,” the programme, celebrating Lego as a toy also shows how it has had a major influence upon learning. In particular it focuses upon a number of significant architects, including Bjarke Ingels designer of the Tallin City Hall in Estonia and the Shenzhen International Energy Mansion in China who describe how their early informal experimentation with Lego shaped their ideas and taught them much about construction and design.

Early in the programme the presenter describes how a generation of architects, including Frank Lloyd-Wright and Le Corbusier had been inspired by Froebel’s simple wooden blocks to play at building and construction and experimenting with the use of shape and gaining an understanding of form and balance. However, Lego with its simple method of forming a more secure means of joining bricks afforded even greater opportunities for creative minds. Meccano, that other wonderful engineering toy also gets a mention and made a similar contribution to the development of others who went on to become significant designers – apparently it was a great favourite of Richard Rogers, architect of amongst others the European Court of Human Rights building in Strasbourg, the Welsh National Assembly Building in Cardiff and The Millennium Dome in London.

The Culture show programme, in addition to conducting interviews with a number of architects provides clips of children from across the last 60 years playing with construction toys – including Lego and Meccano. They are clearly learning, but equally important they are having fun. If ever there was concrete evidence (no pun intended) to justify the claims for the importance of play made by David Whitebread and others, it is to be found in this programme. Not only are the children shown learning how to handle materials and developing the fine motor skills required for construction, but they are also developing their imaginations, exercising natural creative instincts, solving problems and  experimenting with shape, space and form. Many of these skills and the knowledge that comes through experimentation are closely aligned to those that teachers of science, mathematics and technology seek to achieve, often through far more formal approaches. The imagination that is clearly portrayed in the excerpts of children playing with materials in the film must surely bode well for their potential as writers and thinkers.

It would undoubtedly have the potential for causing a nervous breakdown amongst some teachers if I were to dare to suggest that, even just once in a while, rather than setting homework they tell their students to spend a few hours playing and experimenting with any materials that come to hand. Yesterday I urged our politicians to make sandcastles or jump in puddles, today I am suggesting that we should all make time to build a den in the woods, dig a hole in the garden or get out the Lego bricks and better still do this with our children, our grandchildren or with other like minded adults. If you are frightened by the thought of how others might regard you, you could always do these things under the cover of darkness!

You can watch the Culture Show Programme at the link below


This 1954 Mecanno set shows French learners from two generations achieving engineering wonders with Meccanno

This 1954 box from a Meccano set shows French learners from two generations achieving engineering wonders with Meccanno

Let’s make time to play!

Summer is on the way - let's go and make some sandcastles!

Summer is on the way – let’s go and make some sandcastles!

“Puzzles not punctuation are key to clever toddlers,” thus ran a headline above an article written by Nicola Woolcock in today’s Times newspaper. The article reports the research of David Whitebread a respected academic from the University of Cambridge, in which he suggests that parents who play games with their young children are making a greater contribution to their learning than those who try to get them to read or solve mathematical problems. At a conference in Denmark Whitebread reportedly stated that if parents want their children to do well at school they should spend more time playing with them in early life. “Focusing on early reading achievement is, at best a waste of time, at worst damaging. Instead the parent should share something they love, such as making cakes or tinkering with engines,” says Whitebread.

Hallelujah! (sorry about that  – but that’s how it makes me feel).

Here is someone prepared to go against current trends that suggest we should be cramming children with formal learning virtually from the moment of birth, and is advocating a return to the common sense that contributed to effective child development for years. The urge to erode childhood and to treat children as empty vessels in need of filling with words and numbers seems to have dominated the discourse of education of late. David Whitebread is using his position and expertise to voice a concern that many of us feel with regards the need to respect children as self regulating learners.

As Whitebread reminds us, there is a wealth of evidence to demonstrate, how children who are encouraged to engage in exploratory play, and to interact in non-formal situations with trusted adults, become much more effective learners as they progress through school. Indeed, there is sufficient data to suggest that such children achieve better academic grades and are less likely to develop inappropriate behaviours or become involved in crime. Such facts are not popular with many of today’s politicians, but they need to be heralded with a far greater fanfare than has been evident of late.

The modern view of education, usually promulgated by those who have little experience of teaching or engagement in the school system, is that we should cram children with knowledge and rules, particularly in relation to mathematics and reading, as this will equip them better for today’s society. This does, however, lead me to ask a number of questions.  Firstly, is today’s society exactly what we want to replicate for the future? Should we be preparing children to live in society as it is, or would we rather have individuals capable of the kind of creative thinking that might assist us to improve upon the many challenges that we have created? Secondly, what kind of messages do we wish to convey to today’s generation of young learners? Do we want children who value learning other than that which takes place in formal situations and young people who learn to occupy their time in a constructive manner? Or are we happy to see a generation that has no appreciation of creativity, culture, spirituality or fun because it is not valued by the adults who determine their lives?

For me the most telling part of the Times article is where it quotes David Whitebread saying-

“Play is characterised as essentially unimportant, trivial and lacking serious purpose, something that children do because they are immature and will grow out of. On the contrary, play is one of the highest achievements of the human species. It enables the development of language, the arts, culture, science, maths and technology.”

Perhaps the problem might be that today’s education policy makers have themselves forgotten how to play.

So I say three cheers for David Whitebread and all others who believe in childhood. As for those who will undoubtedly attack him over the coming weeks I say, why not go to the beach and build a sandcastle, go to the park and fly a kite, find a few puddles to jump in, climb a tree, or if you must stay at home at least get out your building blocks?

Yes, today’s blog is another of those that is a bit of a rant – and no I don’t intend to apologise! (just off to play with my grandchildren)

Incidentally, today is William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday – now there was a man who knew how to play! Happy birthday Will.

“We were told…”


Generalisations and stereotypical labelling can be the bane of a teacher’s life. I can guarantee that any teacher reading this blog will be able to recall expressions used about children that whilst having no evidence base have become part of the folklore of education. I can personally recall many of these, some of which I found particularly irksome – “gypsy traveller children always have poor school attendance records,”“boys with ADHD are always going to be trouble in class.” I’m sure that you could add your own equally irritating examples to these. The saddest feature of such expressions is that they can become self-fulfilling prophecies when teachers or others begin to believe them and adjust their expectations accordingly.

Recently, my good friend Savitha Ravi an outstanding school principal from Bangalore sent me a link to a video recording (see below) which reminded me of a number of occasions when I was a head teacher and parents would tell me of the predictions made about their children. A typical example can be related from the parents of one of my former pupils, a young lady with Down’s syndrome, whom I often meet in the local town. They recall how when she was just two years old they were told by a senior medical officer that their daughter would probably never talk, and that she would most certainly need an intensive level of care for the rest of her life. Having been given this professional information they went home and prepared to adjust their lives to ensure that the necessary high levels of provision would be in place for the remainder of their daughter’s years.

Looking back on this these highly committed parents are now able to smile and reflect on how they, and their daughter have proven the professionals to be wrong. Their daughter is now married, has successfully managed a job and lives a largely independent life with her husband (about whom similar predictions were made) about a hundred miles from her parents. When discussing this situation they recall the many stresses that they have experienced as parents and particularly those which they feel were caused by well-meaning but sometimes ill-informed professionals.

The story of these parents is not so different from many others whom I have known and who often use the expression “we were told that…” in recalling their experiences. “We were told that he would never walk,” – “we were told that children like Dean are impossible to toilet train.” Some of you will have heard similar tales beginning with the expression “we were told…” without a doubt.

Whilst I am not being critical of my professional colleagues who may have used such expressions in the past, after all they are probably basing their predictions upon many years of experience, I am concerned that the potential for lowering expectations can have a detrimental impact upon the education of children. It takes a confident and determined parent to confront such a diagnosis and to defy the wisdom of the professional or challenge their assertions.  One such parent Kristine Barnett is portrayed in the video clip forwarded to me by Savitha.

Kristine is the mother of Jacob who at an early age was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. When Jacob was still an infant she was told that her son might never be able to speak and might never be able to tie his shoelaces. She describes how when she was given this prognosis she was “completely devastated” and that it was “pretty scary.”  She recalls that when told these things “I believed them. They were my doctors and therapists and people that we trusted.”  During the interview seen in the video she never challenges the professionalism of any of the medics or teachers with whom she dealt, but what she does demonstrate is a confidence in her personal intuition as a parent and her profound belief in her right to choose a path for Jacob. Kristine describes the decisions she made to take Jacob away from the specialist schooling that was being provided for him and to give him opportunities alongside “typically developing” children. She goes on to tell a tale of her son flourishing and revealing an extraordinary gift for scientific thinking, and an ability to learn abstract concepts and apply these in ways that other much older individuals never manage.

Jacob, at the age of fifteen, is working alongside well established scientists in Toronto and has demonstrated the potential to become a leading physicist and researcher. In the video we see that he is an engaging young man who is certainly articulate and very focused upon his scientific studies. I must confess that when he talks about quantum physics he leaves me well behind in terms of my understanding. At the end of the interview Jacob tries to reassure listeners that mathematics and science is really quite simple and that “anyone can do it.” He certainly demonstrates a belief in himself that is much greater than many predicted for him.

I am not, of course suggesting that every child given a diagnosis of autism is a potential genius. What does concern me is that for so many parents expectations are lowered at a very early stage of their child’s development. Professionals do have to err on the side of caution and we should accept that raising false expectations may be as damaging as predicting low attainment. However, it takes an exceptionally strong parent like Kristine to challenge the authority of the professionals and to provide an alternative view of the world for their child with special educational needs.

The video (to which there is a link below) provides a much better analysis of the challenges faced by Kristine and the accomplishments of Jacob than I could possibly achieve in this short blog. Sadly, I have no doubt that I will continue to hear parents using the expression “we were told…” but hopefully I will also find more who have chosen to raise their own expectations and prove the professionals wrong.


“A soul to the universe”

Leezan BG iraq_A2

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination
and life to everything.”


So much of what is on television today appears trite and banal. This is a shame, because at its best television can be a powerful medium for entertainment, information and education. With so many channels to choose from it would be easy to assume that there would always be something of interest to see, but perhaps it is simply my jaded palette that leads me to find much of today’s television content disappointing.

Having made this sweeping critical generalisation about the world’s favourite media, I have to confess that from time to time a programme is broadcast on our screens that leaves an indelible impression and cannot be easily shaken from the memory. Just such a programme featured in the television schedules last night; a documentary so thought provoking and desperately sad that it was the first thing I thought about this morning as I awoke.

“Dancing in the Danger Zone,” sensitively fronted by the reporter Evan Williams and produced for Channel 4, tells the story of the Baghdad School of Music and Dance, the only arts based school remaining in the troubled country of Iraq. In particular it follows the daily routines of two young students, Leezan an elegant and articulate ballet dancer and Mohammed a gifted musician, and the stresses that are part of their daily lives and that of their families. Both of these students express their search for excellence in their chosen discipline, and a determination to achieve a performance as close to perfection as they can possibly manage. Their enthusiasm and commitment portrays the most fundamental features of the relationship between teaching learning and passion for their chosen subject that characterises the best qualities of education.

If these two young people were in school here in England they would be widely admired for their talent, dedication and endeavours, but they would probably not have attracted the attention of documentary makers. The appalling reality of this programme was that it focused as much upon the dangers that these gifted young people face simply in attending school, as it did upon their artistic accomplishments. Early in the programme Evan Williams makes the astounding statement “Leezan could be the last ballerina in Iraq” and commences to describe how religious fundamentalism and sectarian violence has challenged the legitimacy of the performing arts within the country. The graceful movements and subtle expression of ballet so greatly admired around the world, have been illegitimately equated by religious zealots to acts of immodesty and even wantonness. Powerful clerics have deemed that acts of performance, whether these are of dance or music are ungodly and sinful and they have therefore sought to banish these from the country.

At one point in the programme Leezan tells Williams, “Inside the school everything is beautiful,” she then goes on to describe why there are armed guards posted at the school gates and the reasons why she never talks about attending this school, or her love of dancing to anyone. To do so could put herself and those she loves in danger. Mohammed in a tearful interview shows a poster he made to commemorate the life of his friend Ali another talented musician, who also attended the school, and was killed by a bomber. We see him play a Chopin nocturne with great tenderness, it was apparently one that Ali particularly liked and Mohammed states that when he plays it “I feel he is still around.” In a moving passage he describes in a stilted and choking voice his sadness at not being able to attend his friend’s funeral because he was from a different religious community and would not have been welcome in the area. The irony of this is clear, Mohammed is from the Sunni community and his lost friend Ali was a Shia yet they were best friends. These young people appear more willing to cross boundaries and learn to understand and respect their different backgrounds and beliefs than those who currently rule the country.

During the programme we are shown the homes and families of both of these students. Their families express both their determination to support their children in pursuit of their dreams, but also share their anxieties for the dangers they face every day simply for attending the school. There are now only two ballet teachers remaining in Baghdad, both recall earlier days when the school flourished and performances were eagerly awaited by the public. Now such a public display of talent would endanger the lives of students, teachers and any who cared to support them. The statement made by Evan Williams in the film that “each day here is an act of defiance” is chilling when one considers that this description is being applied to a school. Equally disturbing is the belief expressed by both students, that in order to pursue a career in the arts it will be necessary to leave Iraq.

Iraq is a country that was home to the great poet Muhammad Al-Jawahiri, the painter Faeq Hassan and the musician Nasseer Shamma who is well known as a peace activist working in support of the people in that region. These individuals and many like them continue to bring joy and understanding into the lives of people across the world, of all religions and none. It is hard to believe that there are some in Iraq who would wish to repress the creativity of such individuals and deny the dreams of gifted students such as Leezan and Mohammed.

School years should be a time of learning and joy, a period during which young people are encouraged to discover their talents and hone their abilities. This happens in situations where students are enabled to think freely, express their ideas and share their interpretation of their world with others. Wherever there have been efforts made to suppress creativity individuals and groups have found ways of defying and overcoming the regimes that fear the abilities of creative people to express their views, whether this be through the written word, music, dance or the production of visual art. I hope that in the future we may hear more about Leezan and Mohammed and others like them from Iraq as they enjoy successful artistic careers both within and outside of their homeland. I am equally hopeful that the good people of Iraq, who undoubtedly form the majority in that country, soon enjoy a return to the peace and stability that allowed a flourishing of free thinking and creativity throughout earlier periods of their history.

Until such a time arrives, as it surely will, we must be grateful to journalists such as Evan Williams and those who support him for the making of programmes such as “Dancing in the Danger Zone,” which ensure that the plight of young people like Leezan and Mohammed are brought to the world’s attention. This is television at its most relevant, which makes even this most cynical of viewers sit up and take notice.

Do visit the website below to find out more about the extraordinary young people mentioned in this blog.




To have and have not

“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”

― Mark Twain


Is there genuine grounds for optimism that these children will have a life so much better than that of their parents?

Are there genuine grounds for optimism that these children will have a life so much better than that of their parents?

A recently issued survey conducted by IPSOS MORI reveals that, the majority of adults in countries that have been at the forefront of economic development in the latter half of the twentieth century believe that the next generation of young people will experience a worse life than their parents and previous generations. By contrast, those from the so-called BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) as well as Turkey who have experienced considerable economic growth in recent years feel that there is an optimistic future ahead of their children.

In the survey 16,000 adults were asked: “To what extent, if at all, do you feel that today’s youth will have had a better or worse life than their parents’ generation?” 42% responded that life would be worse, compared with just 34% who thought it would be better. A further disaggregation of the statistics indicates that in China there is a high level of optimism with 81% of respondents believing that the lives of the youngest generation will be better than their own. This contrasts with countries that have experienced negative growth rates and continuing austerity measures in recent years, where positive responses fall to as low as 16% in Spain, 13% in Belgium and just 7% in France. In Britain, a country similarly gripped by economic difficulties just 20% of today’s adults think that the next generation of adults will have a better life than their parents, with  54% believing that their situation will be worse.

Statistics can, of course, tell us a great deal, but the interpretation of such figures is always a challenge (at least I find them so). Perhaps we should consider how lives have changed in the various countries mentioned in this report in order to ensure that we can reflect properly on what is being indicated. In my own country I have no doubt that my  life has been far more comfortable than that of my parents and certainly significantly improved on that of my grandparents or great grandparents. Like many of my generation I was the first member of my family to benefit from the opportunity to obtain an education beyond the age of 16. I was brought up in a period of unprecedented economic growth with significant developments in health care and national infrastructure and in a country which was largely peaceful and secure. By contrast my grandparents’ generation lived through two world wars, a great depression and a period where disease such as tuberculosis and rickets was still relatively common. In the UK life expectancy is now 81 years and rises to 83 years in Australia and as high as 86.4 years in Japan, figures which indicate a marked rise from the beginning of the twentieth century when in the UK these were 47 years for a man and 50 for a woman.

In the BRICS countries we can see unprecedented economic growth, though some indicators of prosperity remain relatively low. Life expectancy figures in these countries are 76.2 years in Brazil, 70 in Russia and India and 73.4 in China. According to figures from UNICEF in India 90 million females remain non-literate and around 20 per cent of children aged 6 to14 are still not in school. UNICEF figures also show that in India 56 children in every 1,000 born does not live beyond the age of 5, in Brazil and China this figure is 14 and in Russia 10. This contrasts with Australia and the UK with 5 children in 1,000 failing to reach the age of 5 years and Japan where the figure is 3.

Of course we could play around with statistics all day and behave like politicians in being selective about those we choose to use. It does seem to me, however, that there are two important considerations we should take. Firstly, it may be appropriate that those countries that have suffered social and economic hardship for so many generations now have an opportunity to prosper. When matching the optimism of adults in the BRICs nations to the apparent pessimism elsewhere perhaps we need to recognise that comparisons are invidious when not all are coming from the same baseline. A marked improvement in the lives of people in many countries may still leave them falling well short of the life style and opportunities that those of us living in more wealthy nations have experienced. Secondly, I wonder to what extent the reported optimism of people in the BRICS nations is truly representative of these countries as a whole. As an occasional visitor to India (I have never been to the others on this list) I have certainly seen over the last 15 years many people who have become richer and significant improvements in housing, health and infrastructure. However, I still see individuals living in abject poverty and now fear that the gap between the wealthiest and poorest in the country is growing rapidly.

I do hope that the IPSOS MORI poll provides a justified cause for celebration that the lives of people in socially and economically disadvantaged situations are now improving. Whilst I would obviously hope that my own grandchildren will have opportunities as great as those that I have experienced, it may be that a balancing of the distribution of wealth is about due. Is it right that we should remain in relative comfort and not wish for those who continue to struggle for the most basic day to day necessities of living to see improvements in their lives?

Commenting on the IPSOS MORI poll, Ángel Gurría, secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) stated that:

“Nothing is more explosive, more dangerous and more destabilising than having a whole generation of frustrated young people.”

Is it not strange that such statements are being made only now when this is perceived as a problem faced by those countries that have been economically advantaged for so many years? Was this not a factor in those countries which for so long were denied an opportunity to enjoy the benefits that we have come to expect? Perhaps the young people who have lived so much of their life in hardship have been compliant for too long.


Celebrate the learning of the craftsman

Pottery  such as this in the Archaeological Museum of Paphos from the  8th century B.C. has been produced in Cyprus for Millennia. The tradition of hand built pottery continues to this day.

Pottery such as this in the Archaeological Museum of Paphos from the 8th century B.C. has been produced in Cyprus for Millennia. The tradition of hand built pottery continues to this day.

George Georgiades is a potter living by his craft in the village of Lemba in Cyprus. His father was also a potter working his studio in Kyrenia before the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 that led to the ultimate partition of that beautiful island. Like so many Greek families from the north and Turkish families from the south of Cyprus, George moved away from his home and since 1988 has been established in his current studio amongst a community of artists in a village high above the Mediterranean Sea.

Half an hour of conversation with George, who delights in having an audience willing to discuss the finer points of stoneware and the mixing of oxides to create new glazes, is time well spent.  His passion for his work and his knowledge of the characteristics of the raw materials that he lovingly crafts, into a range of beautiful utility ware of outstanding aesthetic quality, provides the visitor to his studio with an experience both enriching and educative.  George Georgiades through the production of individual hand built pottery is not only providing a service to his customers, but is also maintaining a tradition that has existed on Cyprus for Millennia.

When I asked him about his training as a potter George described how he had learned his craft from his father and how he has similarly passed on many of his skills to his son. He has no piece of paper to accredit his undoubted mastery of his art, though his creativity and aptitude is self-evident to all who view his work. His artistry and innovation has been recognised with exhibitions of his work in many galleries in countries including Belgium, Malta and Greece.

Jug by George Georgiades purchased from his studio in Lemba

Jug by George Georgiades purchased from his studio in Lemba

A few days ago and before our visit to George Georgiades’ studio Sara and I were marvelling at the intricacy of pottery produced on the island of Cyprus more than three thousand years ago. The archaeological museum in Paphos houses many fine examples of utility ware, much with fine scrafitto or simple glazed design that provides evidence of craftsmanship similar to that exhibited in George Georgiades’ work today. Three thousand years of continued learning shared and no doubt often passed from father to son, or maybe daughter, down through countless generations.

We can of course today purchase mass produced jugs, cups, plates and other ware much cheaper than if we seek out the hand built pots of today’s studio potters. But each piece produced by George Georgiades, as with others that today are highly prized from the studios of artists such as Bernard Leach, Michael Cardew, Ray Finch or Shōji Hamada is unique, affording no perfect match. These are products wrought by individual genius that provide the user with a direct link to their creators.

The skills passed through the generations are maintained by teaching that requires an understanding not only of the pedagogical processes of transmitting knowledge, but also through a profound relationship with materials and a passion for long held traditions. This fine heritage will continue for just so long as we appreciate that the education of the craftsman, even when largely unaccredited, is of equal value to that  provided through more formal settings.

Some of the work of George Georgiades and his family can be viewed at:-