Time to go home.

Homeword Bound

Homeword Bound

 

It’s very nice to go trav’ling

To Paris, London and Rome

It’s oh, so nice to go trav’ling

But it’s so much nicer

Yes, it’s so much nicer to come home

Written by Sammy Cahn and  Jimmy Van Heusen and most famously sung by Frank Sinatra

 

During my career I have been fortunate to work in several parts of the world. It is always a privilege to meet people from different countries, to learn something of the culture, history and cuisine of a country, and to try and understand how educational provision has been developed and managed. Exploring teaching and learning with professional colleagues provides an opportunity to share ideas, learn new ways of thinking and develop approaches to working that are often refreshing and interesting. Through such work I have established helpful professional networks and also made some very good friends.

One important aspect of this travel for work has always been ensuring that I have the ability to keep in touch with home. On occasions when this is difficult because of the remoteness of location and the poor availability of telephone lines, internet, or even electricity, this can be a source of some frustration.  Fortunately, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, and in particular the availability of skype, it is normally possible to maintain that vital link with family back home.

Last night was a source of some amusement as I made my daily contact from Malta with Sara, knowing that she would be having supper with my eldest son and his wife and our granddaughter Martha. As skype connected us, to my great delight the first face I saw was that of Martha and I immediately began talking to her just as I might had we been in the room together. But here for Martha was something of a challenge. At ten months old she was clearly bemused. As I watched her face,  staring at a screen I could interpret her look of confusion as saying – I know this is Granddad’s face, I recognise the voice, but what is he doing inside Gran’s phone? After a while it was clearly all too much and she retreated to the arms of her mother trying, I imagine, to work out the meaning of this strange situation. Ah well, such innocence will not last long, and I hope that it will not be too long before we can have a proper conversation when I am away. More importantly I will be at home by this time tomorrow and look forward to being back with my family, including Martha for some real life conversation.

My brief sojourn in Malta has been rewarding for the opportunity I have had to meet with children, teachers and other professional colleagues whilst undertaking my work in schools and education centres. As is almost always the case when visiting schools, the warmth of the welcome and the enthusiasm of staff has been considerable. These are the factors that always make work away from home most enjoyable. Add to this the fact that I have been working with a fine team of committed professionals who have been good company, and from whom I have learned so much as we have shared our tasks together during the past week on this Island, and I can understand why the time appears to have passed so quickly. So as I prepare to leave the sunshine of Malta and return to what I hear has been a somewhat cooler and wetter England I must say thank you to Amanda, merci Serge, diolch yn fawr Verity, tack Per and grazzi to the people of Malta, it has been an honour to work with you all and I hope that we will have an opportunity to collaborate again in the future.

 

A great team to work with along with the Minister of Education for Malta, Mr Everista  Bartolo

A great team to work with, Serge, Per, Verity and Amanda along with the Minister of Education for Malta, Mr Everista Bartolo

 

People First: ensuring that voices are heard

Gary Bourlet has been active with People First since its foundation in 1984. Having a learning disability has never prevented him from expressing an opinion.

Gary Bourlet has been active with People First since its foundation in 1984. Having a learning disability has never prevented him from expressing an opinion.

At various times in his life Gary Bourlet has been confused, angry and disappointed. He has been required to fight hard and argue for his rights and has often been patronised or ignored by those with whom he has been in dispute. However, he has never given up his determined effort to find justice for himself and his peers, and continues to represent their views and stand up for what he believes to be right. His story is not unlike that of many others who have a learning disability, but demonstrates a resilience and fortitude that many of his friends have been unable to sustain.

Over the years Gary has often made the news as a campaigner and particularly in his role as an advocate within the People First movement, an organisation that fights for the voices of individuals with learning disabilities to be heard. People First have been prominent as a campaigning organisation over many years, but have recently returned to the news with a focus upon encouraging people with learning disabilities to use their vote, particularly in next year’s UK general election through which Members of Parliament will be selected. Gary Bourlet is quoted as stating that:-

“Politicians get upset if they don’t get anyone from the grey vote, the black and minority ethnic vote, or young people. But when it comes to people with learning disabilities, it’s not an area they’re worried about.”

This statement may well be timely as increasing numbers of individuals in Europe become concerned for the impact that actions by politicians may be having upon their lives. In the UK the government’s welfare reforms have, as part of an austerity approach to addressing a national financial crisis, had a devastating effect upon many disabled people.

Scope, a leading charity representing the interests of people with disabilities in the UK commissioned research by Demos to examine the impact of welfare cuts upon the lives of individuals and families with a disabled member and concluded that disabled people were “bearing the brunt” of the government’s welfare cuts. Claudia Wood, an experienced researcher who undertook this study asserted:-

“What’s shocking is that the government doesn’t assess the likely combined impact of these changes, only the impact of each change individually…However, many disabled families are being affected by combinations of four, five and even six changes.”

Similar reports on the impact of reducing support for people with disabilities are emerging from across Europe and wider afield.

Changes in the funding of support for students with disabilities at UK universities means that many who were considering beginning studies in the coming academic year are now wondering whether they will be able to cope. In the past, students who have a disability were able to apply for additional support and were assessed against a well-established criteria to determine their need for specialist equipment or additional personal support. Recent announcements indicate that for many students this support will no longer be available and this is likely to deter some potential students from applying for a university place.

Gary Bourlet and many of his peers recognise that in the past individuals who do not have disabilities have campaigned in an effort to represent minority groups and ensure better living, working and study conditions. He asserts that now is the time for more people with Learning disabilities to stand up for their own rights and that ensuring they use their vote is one critical element of this process.

The People First website http://peoplefirstltd.com/states that: “There is an election coming and the rights of people with learning difficulties have been under attack. It’s time for action.”

At a time when Europeans are reflecting upon the implications of apathy amongst voters and the rise of right wing political groups and individuals, many of whom have made inflammatory remarks about people from minority groups, including those with disabilities, the concerns of Gary Bourlet and his peers need to be heard. These are people who have previously been denied a voice and have lacked opportunities to effect change in their lives. In the twenty first century we would be well advised to hear their concerns.

School on a mission.

The school is giving a message through this picture. But what does it tell us about it's "mission"?

The school is giving a message through this picture. But what does it tell us about it’s “mission”?

In recent years I have noticed when visiting schools that they have established a  growing trend for posting a “mission statement” in a position of prominence where it is one of the first things encountered by the visitor. This is not a practice with which I was familiar either as a pupil or a teacher, though I must confess that when I was headteacher this idea was just beginning to take hold.

I suppose the idea is that the school community asserts its beliefs and philosophy and demonstrates these to the world. Presumably they are intended to reassure those who enter that the school will uphold values and instil these in the children entrusted into their care. This is, of course a noble sentiment and we would all hope that schools maintain high standards and endeavour to help children to attain appropriate levels of attainment, behaviour and social conscience. However, I do have some concerns that these can at times appear as platitudes and may be meaningless if all they do is provide a hollow message.

The adoption of slogans is not restricted to schools. Many corporate bodies and indeed nations have adopted a “tag line” to assert the image that they wish to create. A few examples of these include Tunisia – Freedom, Order and Justice, South Sudan – Justice, Liberty, Prosperity and India – Truth alone triumphs. Each is well intended, but I suspect it might be argued that there are times when these honorable intentions have been difficult to live up to.

When visiting a school today in Malta my Swedish colleague Per and myself saw a different and we thought, interesting approach to asserting the school mission. Whilst there was a board with text espousing the verities to which the school aspired, of greater interest was a piece of art that had been commissioned to represent what the school intended to provide and achieve. I have included a picture of this work at the top of this piece.

What particularly interested us was that here we had a representation that did not tell the visitor about the school and its intentions, but rather invited the viewer of this work to make their own interpretation of what the school might offer. It immediately drew us into a discussion and had us contemplating what the values of the establishment might be. It did seem to us that it made a statement about what the staff in the school would try to provide through the curriculum and in their general demeanour towards pupils. The picture represented some of the activities that pupils will undertake as students, but also the kind of learning that they might gain from this. The prominent positioning of the brain with its two distinct hemispheres seemed to us to represent not only learning, but possibly reasoning and stimulation. Then there is that flight of birds, gradually taking flight and moving off into the distance, what could this represent? Pupils leaving school moving into their futures or releasing children’s imaginations? Clearly their could be many ways of seeing this image and maybe this the whole point of the work.

As with all works of art, I am sure that this piece could be interpreted in many ways. Maybe this is one of its strengths as an assertion of the school’s mission. It could be said that it challenges children to gain what they want from the school and to think about what they are learning in a creative manner. It perhaps makes a statement about the breadth of learning that the school hopes to provide. Or maybe I am reading too much into this picture. However, it did seem to both Per and myself that this was a more original and less bland means of making a statement about the school.

We were made very welcome during this morning’s visit and the children who toured us around were undoubtedly proud of their school and pleased to talk about what they were learning and their many achievements. If it has become necessary to state a “mission”, perhaps this school has found an effective means of doing this. They have certainly produced a talking point for visitors to the school and having spent a small part of the day with pupils, teachers and the school principal I certainly feel that we had an opportunity to witness some of the ideas and ideals that we had interpreted from within the art work.

Maybe our interpretation was right, possibly not. What would you expect from a school that displays its intent in the pictorial representation above? I’d be interested to hear your views.

If you click on the picture it will enlarge

Children should be seen and heard

Even the youngest pupils are capable of telling us what they like or dislike about school.

Even the youngest pupils are capable of telling us what they like or dislike about school.

Over an eighteen month period in 2002 – 2003 my good colleague Michael Shevlin from Trinity College Dublin and myself ran a  project called  Encouraging Voices. The expression “encouraging voices” was deliberately adopted as it has two meanings. Firstly it implies voices that encourage, and secondly it indicated a project that encouraged others to voice their opinions.

During this project Michael and I brought together a range of colleagues who were engaged in research with young people that was enabling them to express their ideas and opinions about their educational experiences. The project targeted individuals from marginalised groups, including those with disabilities, refugees, young people who had been bullied, members of the gay community and representatives of Gypsy Traveller groups to tell their stories of schooling. We were particularly interested to hear from these young people about what had enabled them to be effective in their learning, as well as those inhibiting factors that they had encountered along the way.  Each had experienced a form of discrimination but had come through this, often with the help of teachers and were keen to share their educational stories with others. The experiences of these individuals were recorded and reported in a book as a means of illustrating their educational experiences and in order to provide examples for supporting teachers who were keen to address the exclusion of children from positive educational experiences.

This project provided an important period of reflection for Michael and myself and over the subsequent years we gave continued to work together as researchers and writers with a commitment to involve young people in examining our education systems. The insights that have been provided, often by very young children, into their learning experiences have certainly shaped our thinking and informed our practices over the years, and whenever possible we have worked to ensure that such an approach is incorporated into the work in which we become involved as researchers.

Today I have had an opportunity to put these principles into practice whilst working with my Swedish colleague Per Skoglund in Malta. Part of our morning was spent interviewing a group of primary school children about their educational experiences and trying to gain insights into their daily lives. In order to do this we visited a school and talked as informally as possible to a small group of pupils. As was predictable, these young people didn’t disappoint and were soon in full flow, recounting stories from their schooling and expressing their likes and dislikes with great enthusiasm. As is inevitably the case in these circumstances the children were eager to give their opinions, but equally keen to interact with Per and myself and to provide elaborate examples to illustrate their responses to our questions. The warmth of Per’s personality coaxed even the most reluctant participant to respond and we passed an enjoyable hour in the company of these lively youngsters.

There have been times when I have been asked whether it is a genuinely worthwhile occupation seeking the views of children. In particular there are some who have questioned whether interviewing those described as having special educational needs or who are very young are capable of providing truly valid information. Doesn’t their limited experience mean that they will have little to say about their education, and how can you guarantee that what they tell you is true? My experience, and that of my colleagues such as Michael and Per who have worked in this way over a number of years is that this process is not only worthwhile, but possibly essential if we wish to understand children’s lived experiences. The abilities of children are too often underestimated or overlooked by adults who fail to recognise that they see the world from a unique perspective. They are often uninhibited in their expression and honest in conveying their experiences and interpretation of the ways in which adults have interacted with them. They are usually thoughtful in their responses and responsible in the ways in which they interact during these conversations.

As adults, our relationships with children are often founded upon positions of power and subservience. To some extent in the teacher child relationship this is inevitable. The ways in which we use our authority are important in terms of the messages that we convey to children. When we treat them with respect and demonstrate that we value their opinions they more often than not reciprocate. Such was the situation today.

As always when opportunities have arisen to listen to children talking about their educational experiences, I found today’s session with a group of youngsters both enjoyable and informative. I do hope that they too enjoyed the time that they spent today in conversation with Per and myself.

The student who leads her teacher

Valletta - background to a week of working in Malta

Valletta – background to a week of working in Malta

One of the great privileges of my job is that I get to meet and work with a diverse range of fascinating people, often in interesting and previously unknown places. So it is that this week I am working on an evaluation project for the Ministry of Education in Malta with colleagues from England, Wales, France and Sweden. Of course, when brought together for work with a team of colleagues, some of whom were previously unknown, this can be a recipe for disaster. What happens if we don’t get along? How might it be if we disagree fundamentally on issues to do with inclusion or management of schools? By contrast it can be a time for forging new friendships and gaining opportunities to learn from and with people who bring different perspectives and experiences of the world.

Fortunately Amanda, who was largely responsible for bringing this team together, had taken these matters into consideration and within no time we have jelled together as a cohesive unit. We appear to be working together efficiently and sharing our professional experiences as we tackle the tasks set for the week. I always think that a good indicator of how well a team will work is the ability to share in a sense of humour, and despite stereotyped images of all of our nationalities, we have already demonstrated an ability to laugh together as well as at each other.

A particularly pleasing aspect of this week’s work is to be working under the guidance of one of my former students. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to supervise Amanda as she completed her studies and research for her PhD. In all honesty this was a relatively simple task as she was highly motivated, bright and hard working. A copy of her thesis on teacher engagement with research in special and inclusive education has a position of prominence on my bookshelves at home. As with all my former doctoral students I have followed her subsequent work with some pride, noticing when she has published papers or chapters and seeing her gain promotions within the European agency for which she now works. She has attained a position of leadership and responsibility and carries her role with dignity and a friendly demeanour. To find myself now working under her direction and to witness her professionalism first hand is a great pleasure and brings back memories of the supervision meetings we held together. Today she acts as supervisor and I am very much in a learning role as we embark upon the week’s work.

I have in recent years had similar experiences of working with other former PhD students, Mary in China and Johnson in India being just two examples. It is rewarding to find that the theoretical models that they developed as research students, the methods that they learned and deployed and the knowledge that they gained is being put to such good use in their own countries. Even more heartening is the committed approach to inclusive working that they have adopted and the principled way in which they conduct themselves. Their focus upon improving the lives of children remains central to their work and they have already become effective leaders in their communities. As supervisors of research students we can offer guidance and critical appraisal, but this comes to fruition only through their own endeavours after they have completed their studies.

So, this week as I work alongside Amanda and watch how she directs the work of Verity, Per, Serge and myself I can reflect upon the value of her learning experiences and take particular note of the commitment that she is giving to teachers and children, not only here in Malta, but through her work across Europe. In observing her dedication I think about my current students and hope that someday in the future they too may find that their former supervisor is worthy to become a part of one of their teams.

 

Thanks for the memories.

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One of the interesting by-products of writing I find, is that whilst contemplating a topic or issue it causes some interesting idea or memory to come to mind that might otherwise have passed by. This serendipitous phenomenon is I suppose, a little like a Freudian word association test, delving into the subconscious in order to retrieve some long lost snippet of information. I have found, to my cost, that these fleeting windows into the past fade as quickly as they arrive, unless I take the time to write them down.

One such occurrence of this strange associative thinking happened yesterday when writing the piece about library closures and the protests by children from a Devonshire primary school. Whilst contemplating how important books have always been to myself, I recalled a number of influential teachers who had shaped my whole approach to reading. That is, reading for pleasure as much as for learning or information. I mentioned three of these in the text – Mrs Evans, who as Miss Kearsley had previously taught both my parents, Mr Passey, who had been a contemporary of my father at the same Gloucester boy’s school, and Mr Needham, a much loved and respected history teacher. Bringing these three to mind evoked fond memories of their approach to teaching and their personal philosophies which, whilst having subtle differences, were all founded on a belief that effective learning was a shared experience between the teacher and the pupil, rather than simply a process of knowledge transmission.

I remember a few years ago when there was a shortage of teachers, the UK Government ran an advertising campaign under the slogan “everybody remembers a good teacher”. As part of the campaign, various individuals would appear on the television fondly recalling an inspirational teacher who had shaped and  influenced their lives and inspired them to change or to achieve. Of course there were many cynics during this time who responded by saying “yes, and most of us can remember a bad teacher too!” Generally speaking however, it was good to see teachers gaining such good publicity.

So what is it about teachers that make them good? I suspect that there is no one particular factor that can be applied to all, but after naming three teachers in yesterday’s blog (two of whom are sadly no longer with us, and I have no idea where Mr Eric Needham is, but hope he is alive, well and enjoying a well-earned retirement), I began thinking about what it was I liked about them.

Mrs Margaret Evans, was affectionately known by us irreverent teenagers as “Faggy Maggie” because as soon as breaktimes came she reached for her packet of cigarettes. She was my first form teacher and English teacher at secondary school and I remember that one of the first books we read with her was John Buchan’s Greenmantle. Whilst I am sure that not everyone in the class enthused about this book, she recognised that I did and before I had reached the final page I was being given a copy of The Thirty Nine Steps to take home and read, as she put it “if you can find the time.”  This was not activity by command, but rather through encouragement. Find the time I certainly did, and for the remainder of that formative year Mrs Evans fed my new found habit, leaving me addicted and creating a long-term dependency upon literature. Thomas Hardy, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen and several other denizens of literature followed. Not once did she test me on any of these, other than as each was returned asking me if I had enjoyed the book, and if so why? She made time to talk about these texts and more importantly, she valued my opinion.

John Passey was a completely different character. At times he could be stern and even slightly intimidating. It was in his English class that we studied Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. We had read a little of the great bard before, but Mr Passey brought each character and every scene to life. Not only were we introduced to Elizabethan England but also challenged to see the relevance of the play to today. “Had we ever treated anyone so cruelly as Malvolio had been dealt with by the debauched Sir Toby Belch and Maria?” “Even though he was a pompous and irritating buffoon, could we really say that what befell him was justice?” These and other questions enabled us to live through Shakespeare where I’m sure that others simply followed the text to pass examinations. It also helped us to develop some kind of moral compass.

Eric Needham taught me to love history. For A level examinations we studied eighteenth and nineteenth century English social and economic history. He again had the ability to enable us to see how every aspect of the period affected our own lives. But what I remember most was that he refused to be constrained by the examination syllabus. About once a fortnight he would take a lesson in which he went completely off task. During these sessions I remember he taught us about a vast range of topics, including the rise of the Chartists, the D-Day landings, Simon Bolivar and the 1949 Chinese revolution. I remember some of my school mates feeling that this was a distraction from getting us through the examination, possibly even putting us at risk of failure, but Mr Needham’s response was, “I’m here to teach you history, not simply to jump through examination hoops. That involves a broader understanding than that imposed by the examination.” Well certainly it worked for me, leaving me with a strong  and continuing historical curiosity – and incidentally I passed the A level examination as did all others in Mr Needham’s class.

What brings these three teachers together as influential individuals in my life is the ability that each had to think beyond the conventional approaches to teaching and also to recognise my individuality. Each encouraged me to read and interpret the world way beyond the set text and in so doing to derive pleasure from my learning.

These teachers, whilst unique for me, may well have prompted your own memories of influential teachers. If so, I would love to hear about them. We should be celebrating such unsung heroes more often than we seem to want to do today.

 

Children are revolting! (with just cause)

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.” ―  attributed to Cicero

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”
― attributed to Cicero

The children of Braunton in Devon are revolting! Media sources report that children from the village primary school have been seen wielding banners demanding the retention of the village library. Petitions have been signed and the young revolutionaries are said to have the full support of their teachers. Will the authorities be quaking? I doubt it, but maybe they should.

I love books and have done so since I was a child. I was fortunate in having a number of inspiring teachers – (thank you Mrs Evans, Mr Passey, Mr Needham and others) – who pointed me in the direction of books that inspired, informed and challenged my thinking. So was a passion born that has remained with me and continues to excite. Sara and I live in a house full of books, we never travel anywhere without carrying something to read and whilst shopping is my bête noire I can browse a book shop for hours. As a teacher I have always seen books as the tools of my trade, but they are so much more than this. They are a source of pleasure, relaxation, knowledge and stimulation par excellence. I spend far more money on books than I do on clothes (some would say that this is a noticeable failing), but I like to think that in years to come my grandchildren may be reading my books, though I suspect they will not want my old socks!

Whilst buying books is a great pleasure, I am aware that for many people, and especially children, this may be seen as a luxury that they can’t afford. I would actually always dispute the notion that books are a luxury, but we must accept that there are many families who do not have the financial ability to build a library. This then is one reason why libraries play such a critical role in the educational health of a nation.

There has been considerable investment in libraries in England in recent years. Last year I visited the newly opened Birmingham City library, a wonderful repository of information and knowledge that will undoubtedly serve the people of that location very well. Whenever I visit London I arrive at St Pancras station only a brief stroll away from the magnificent British library, and I will often take an early train in order to make time to visit and enjoy some of the treasures within those hallowed portals. But the truth is that investment has been made into libraries in our large urban conurbations, whilst those serving rural communities are being at best neglected and often closed. Nationally  146 libraries, mainly in rural areas closed between 2010 and 2011, and in 2012 this figure was surpassed with the demise of a further 201.

It is then hardly surprising that the children of Braunton have instigated their protest. They are angry that a facility that has offered not only books, but so much more is to be taken from them. As one of the protesting pupils Izzy Nicholson states:-

“If it were to close then lots of children would be left with nothing to do as there’s lots of stuff going on in the library after school. If it shut then they’d do less healthy things like staring at a screen”.

Braunton library, like so many others these days provides a range of activities for children and families. School holiday events encourage children to get involved in community activities and instil in them a sense of belonging and social responsibility. They have access to all of the world’s literature through a library loan service and information through both paper and digital technology. And all of this free of charge.

Michael Rosen, the fifth British Children’s Laureate (2007 – 2009) in campaigning for the retention of libraries argues that:-

“Books are portable, durable packages where we can read slowly, toing and froing across the pages at a tempo that suits ourselves. Libraries are the treasure-houses that store these ‘packages’ and it’s here that we can browse for free, to find the books that we want or need to support our lives and interests”.

He expresses concerns that reading is being seen by education policy makers as a technocratic process and that they have failed to understand the immense value that books can offer to every individual:-

It’s clear that they [education policy makers] think ‘reading’ is about ‘doing literacy’ ie learning how to ‘decode’ print. What they don’t seem to understand is that literature is one of the main ways in which we can engage with difficult and important ideas in an accessible way”.

It will, of course be argued that the children of Braunton could travel to nearby Barnstaple to use the library there that is (currently) not under threat of closure. But of course, in order to do this they will need to be taken there by an adult who can make the time and has the interest to make the journey. So, I am all in favour of revolting children, those who are standing up for their own education and who value an opportunity for learning, social participation and community engagement of which they may well be deprived. Long live the reading revolution!

Don’t just take my word for it. Click on the link below to hear the views of some real experts. (With thanks to the children from St Oswalds Roman Catholic Primary school.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNBv8O5Cw1c

 

Is there hope for society’s soul?

Long days and nights on the street - an essential factor in feeding a family

Long days and nights on the street – an essential factor in feeding a family

When Nelson Mandela stated that “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children,” he was acutely aware of the vulnerability of childhood. Children feel secure and develop confidence when they are loved, cared for and feel wanted by the significant adults in their lives. When these conditions break down their situation can rapidly deteriorate and even reach a position of crisis. It is of course, easy to apportion blame when such circumstances occur and indeed there are times when the negligence or abuse of adults is abominable. However, a story in today’s Indian Express demonstrated how poverty often makes victims of whole families and creates situations that challenge our usual reactions to tragic circumstances.

Under a banner headline that read “Mentally ill boy tied to Mumbai bus stop is rescued, (and) taken to children’s home” the newspaper reported how a child with cerebral palsy and epilepsy was taken into care after having been tied to a bus shelter. He had been fastened in this manner by his grandmother, described as a “pavement dweller,” in order that she could leave him safely to make money by selling toys at nearby Girgaum Chowpatty. This is the only way she can ensure that the nine year old boy and his twelve year old sister, both of whom are in her care can eat and survive on the streets.

After being photographed chained to the bus stop, action was taken by the police and social workers and the boy was admitted into care. A shortage of places for destitute children meant that it took twenty four hours to find an appropriate placement for the young victim of this tragedy. Hopefully, having found a place this means that he will receive professional care and attention and maybe his life chances will improve.

However, the young boy, described as mentally ill, though I suspect that learning difficulties may have been more apposite, is not the only victim in this story. The article describes how his grandmother was fearful for the fate of her grandson and grateful for the intervention of the authorities. Her greatest concern now is that she will be able to visit him in the residential care to which he has been admitted. She is reported as asking police officers “Will they let me meet him every once in a while?” Her anxiety and concerns for her grandchildren demonstrate her own vulnerability in this situation. Apparently the children’s father died in 2010 and they were abandoned by their mother within a few months of this. The grandmother had clearly done all that she could to support and care for her grandchildren for the past four years.

Presumably the grandmother and the little girl are still living on the streets and struggling to survive, as is the case for many others, not only in India but around the world, including here in England. We could, with some justification take the words of Nelson Mandela used at the beginning of this piece and substitute the word children” with those who are vulnerable”, because certainly the grandmother is as much a victim in this story as the child. I have no doubt that some who read the report in the Indian Express will apportion blame to the family at the heart of this story, but Mandela is right when he indicates that there is something wrong with the soul of a society that continues to allow circumstances such as this to exist. A child is taken in to care, but what support is being offered to the grandmother and the boy’s sister?

In India, as elsewhere in the world there are increasing numbers of people who have attained incredible levels of wealth in recent years. At the same time the gap between these individuals and those who live in poverty has grown greater. The quality of life improves for many, whilst many more see no prospect of change. Sadly I suspect that stories such as that reported in the Indian Express are more common than we may realise, indeed on days where there is no shortage of newsworthy stories this report may not even have made the inside pages. If society really does have a soul it is to be hoped that it is found soon and certainly before stories such as this become so commonplace that they are no longer reported.

Let’s hope that both the children and their grandmother find themselves in improved circumstances in the near future.

An integral part of our identity

Interpretations of Paul Klee's Castle and Sun by four year old children

Interpretations of Paul Klee’s Castle and Sun by four year old children

Following a recent visit to a primary school here in Northamptonshire, one of our Indian guests, a student on the MA programme in Bangalore posted a comment on this blog reflecting on a particular aspect of the visit. Shweta had visited classrooms, met teachers and children and enjoyed an opportunity to see all the hurly burly of school activity and had clearly enjoyed the experience of a school context considerably different from that in which she works in India.

Having discussed the trip with her, I have no doubt that Shweta will retain many pleasant memories of her school visits and will hopefully be able to reflect on the value of what she saw in respect of her own teaching and learning. The comment that she posted was quite specific in its focus upon work in one class for four year old children and related to a display of art work completed by the children in that group. Shweta wrote:-

“On our visit to one of the primary schools, the 4 year olds had just put up a display of their interpretation of Paul Klee’s ‘Castle and Sun’ painting and we were blown away. 4 year olds !”

Shweta was clearly amazed that children so young had been encouraged to examine the work of an artist in such detail and then make their own interpretation of one of his pictures.

“it gave us pause to reflect how we should introduce art in context to appreciation, history etc and not just offer drawing classes as part of the curriculum in schools. It’s an integral part of our identity.”

As is often the case with comments made by teachers, these observations caused me to think about some of the things we have perhaps come to take for granted in classrooms, but which may be overlooked in the burgeoning rush to examine educational standards in narrow linguistic and mathematical terms. Shweta’s words provide some interesting insights into the ways in which we view children’s learning and why we teach particular aspects of the curriculum.

The Swiss painter Paul Klee, often used intense blocks of colour in his paintings, especially in the depiction of landscapes, and these often have a particular appeal to children. The work of four year olds exhibited in the classroom display pictured at the head of this posting gives a colourful interpretation of his work Castle and Sun and has enabled the children to experiment with colour, shape and form. Shweta was clearly surprised that four year olds could deal with such a sophisticated representation using elements of the abstract to present an image. My own reaction to this is that most four year olds have wonderfully vivid imaginations and seldom have difficulties in seeing and interpreting the world in different forms, but that as they get older many lose elements of this understanding as they become more “conventional” in their thinking. The apparently simple images created by Klee are, of course, founded upon a discipline that involved intense observation, subtle choices about colour and form and an understanding of perspective, and I am not suggesting that the process through which the four year old children went in their lesson is the same as that pursued by Klee.

The most profound part of Shweta’s observation seems to me to be centred upon art as an integral part of our identity. She recognises that the need to express ourselves is a fundamental part of our being, and that the children in this school have been encouraged to present their own ideas whilst using Klee’s work as a stimulus for their learning. Certainly those educators who wish for a more formal approach to learning could be to an extent pacified with notions that in producing these colourful images children are being introduced to mathematical concepts such as shape and size, they may also be relieved by the idea that the pupils are being given opportunities to practice fine motor control that might ultimately have benefits for their handwriting. These proposals are undoubtedly true. However, I would hope that we could consider the elements of personal expression and interpretation as being of equal importance in learning of this nature, and that at least some of these children will continue to explore their world through the production of images that give both themselves and others pleasure.

So, thank you Shweta for taking the picture and sharing it with us. Thank you also for your thoughtful comments and for using this blog to enable us to think more about what we may value in our classrooms. Perhaps when I am in India in September I will find similar work in classrooms, possibly interpreting the works of M.F. Husain or S.H. Raza, both of whom retained a playful element to their work similar to that of Paul Klee.

 

Thanks for your response.

Learning to play or playing to learn? Let them enjoy their brief childhood.

Learning to play or playing to learn? Let them enjoy their brief childhood.

When I started this blog, which I must admit I did with a certain level of cynicism (I’ve always been a bit of a Techno-Luddite!), it was with the intention that it might provoke some discussion and debate, particularly amongst students participating in the MA programme in Bangalore. Whilst this remains an important primary function I am not sure that it has been wholly successful in this regard, though perhaps it has served as a means of gauging the opinions of others who make up a wider audience. It is always reassuring when a response is posted on the blog, as at times it can feel a little indulgent, or appear like talking to oneself with an imminent danger of someone coming to find me with a straight jacket!

When individuals do post remarks they are generally thoughtful and make a significant contribution to my own thinking on issues around children’s rights and inclusive education. When this happens I try to respond positively to these comments in the hope that the debate may be continued. Sometimes the observations made are so powerful that they inspire me to write further on a topic and thus keep the discussion going. Such was the case yesterday when I read the comments posted by Saneeya from the UK and Tim from Canada.

I had written about Rooban, a child featured in the Hindu newspaper who rises each morning at 4.30 to deliver morning newspapers around Bangalore (Trying to deliver a better future May 20th). After two hours of working he goes home to collect his younger brother and prepare for a day at school. The money he earns from his job is aimed totally at ensuring that the two boys can obtain an education without becoming a drain on the family income. Whilst this young man is clearly demonstrating a noble commitment to self-improvement, I raised concerns that his childhood is fast disappearing and that society is failing in its duty to enable him to lead a balanced life. My own concerns when reading about Rooban were reinforced by the comment posted by Saneeya who wrote that:

“One of my main concerns, however, is that in shouldering such heavy burdens from young ages, so many children are robbed of the enjoyment of mundane childhood activities such as old-fashioned play time with their peers outside of school, reading for pleasure, and so on, which are so essential for the nurturing of their characters and personalities”.

Saneeya juxtaposes two interesting concepts here, firstly the acceptance of a burden of responsibility and secondly the nurturing elements of play. These are wise words indeed as they go straight to the nub of the issue. Whilst children certainly need to learn elements of responsibility and we should undoubtedly encourage them to recognise their duty of care towards others, this should not be at the expenses of their own development through engagement in play with their peers. Childhood is short and should be recognized as a critical phase of life during which children learn to form relationships, explore materials and their environment and understand how to utilise the skills acquired through play for the benefit of themselves and others.

Tim takes these concern further by citing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which he rightly says emphasizes that:-

“The child shall have full opportunity for play and recreation, which should be directed to the same purposes as education; society and the public authorities shall endeavour to promote the enjoyment of this right.”

Of course, there will be many who argue that through his work Rooban is learning to explore his environment, co-operate with others and develop a broad range of generalizable skills. This is undoubtedly true, but at what cost? The importance of play in the formation of well adjusted, inquisitive human beings has been well researched. Children deprived of these opportunities often have difficulties adjusting to social mores, in forming lasting relationships and knowing how to solve problems.

Both Saneeya and Tim express concerns that appear to be debated less today than might have been the case a few years ago. In many quarters it is now simply accepted that childhood is a necessary period of high dependence and economic demand which needs to be endured prior to individuals becoming effective workers to support national economies. If you think that this is an exaggeration, I would urge you to read the recent UNICEF report on progress towards the Global Education for All Goals that recognises child labour as one of the greatest obstacles to achieving universal education.

In posting his remarks on the flouting of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Tim is careful not to apportion blame. He highlights that addressing these issues is the responsibility of “society and the public.” He then closes with a perceptive comment:-

“I think ‘society and the public’ means us. We have some work to do!”

Well said Tim, and Saneeya and thank you for responding.