Trying to deliver a better future.

All kinds of goods are delivered on bicycles around Bangalore

All kinds of goods are delivered on bicycles around Bangalore

In today’s edition of the Bangalore edition of the Hindu newspaper there is an article that appears as part of a series about the “men and women who make Bangalore what it is.” The article features a boy named Rooban who describes, with considerable pride his work as a newspaper delivery boy working in the city. Rooban states that:-

“I have been delivering newspapers to people’s homes in Malleswaram every morning for over a year now”.

He describes how each morning he rises at 4.30 to cycle to pick up his newspapers and deliver them to local houses and flats, a task that takes him about two hours.

When I read this article I recalled my own experiences as a morning paper boy, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, delivering daily newspapers to houses near where I lived in order to gain some pocket money. There is a long established tradition of paper boys and girls delivering the daily news to houses in most towns and cities across England. It was this initial recollection that attracted me to the Hindu article, but as is often the case when considering my own experiences and those of individuals in India, I found myself pondering on the totally different circumstances that surround a seemingly familiar situation.

For a start, my paper round usually commenced at around 7.00 am. and took at most an hour to complete. But this is not the main difference between Rooban’s experience and my own. Whilst my paper round was undertaken purely to provide me with pocket money to support my hobbies and interests, Rooban says that:-

“I wanted to be able to pay for my own education and that of my younger brother”.

He goes on to say that:-

“My parents don’t want me to work. But I want to, so that I can help them and they can save their money for our everyday needs”.

Rooban describes how after completing his paper round, he cycles back home so that he and his younger brother can get ready for school. This is a well-established routine and it is with evident pride that Rooban reports that he doesn’t miss a school day, even when there are exams.

Like Rooban, I used to return home from my paper deliveries, and after a good breakfast would make my way to school, sometimes I suspect with less enthusiasm than that exhibited by Rooban. I wonder now if I should feel slightly guilty about this, because it is the clear commitment towards his education, and that of his brother, that motivates Rooban to get up before dawn, to pursue a task that might just enable him to have aspirations towards a better quality of life. His recognition that by fulfilling this role he is supporting his family and enabling everyone to have their everyday needs more readily addressed, indicates a maturity of thought that we might not always expect of someone so young.

How, I wonder, does Rooban cope with the expectations of a school day after having risen at 4.30 am. in order to complete his day’s work? In England concerns are often expressed about children who arrive at school having had insufficient sleep and possibly missing breakfast. There is a plethora of evidence to suggest that such circumstances have a detrimental impact upon the ability of children to concentrate and learn. Yet it would appear from the Hindu’s reporting of this boy’s life, within a column celebrating the lives of “men and women who make Bangalore what it is,” that the editor sees this as part of the normal expectations that enable the city to function.

When I did my paper round I did so out of choice. Had I chosen not to take on this job I suspect my life would not have been greatly different. I suppose it may be argued that even this rather trivial task taught me something about responsibility and self-discipline. I had to get myself to work on time, deliver the right newspapers to the correct houses, keeping them dry when it rained, and learn how to fend off the occasional nasty tempered dog (it lived at number 16 and is permanently etched in my memory!) For Rooban, the choices he has made are very different from my own. He has reasoned that delivering newspapers can help him to secure a better education for himself and his brother, and make life easier for his parents. I look back on my experiences as a paper boy with quite fond memories as a task that enabled me to do some of the things that I might not have been otherwise able to do. In the future, Rooban may recollect his days delivering newspapers as a critical factor in enabling him to gain a more secure position in life, that enables him to provide a better childhood for his offspring than he has experienced in his youth. This is the wish that I have for him and thousands in similar situations in Bangalore, let us hope that his dreams are realised.

 

 

 

Taking learning across continents

How might this teacher in her village school in Kerala interpret work from and English classroom? How much of this might she be able to apply?

How might this teacher in her village school in Kerala interpret work from an English classroom? How much of this might she be able to apply?

Our visitors from India have gone. After ten days in their company everything appears quiet and we are already missing their friendly banter. They made the long journey from Bangalore to attend lectures and workshops, meet English teachers, visit schools and of course, enjoy some social time and see a little of Northamptonshire. I hope that they all return to India with fond memories and that they will be eager to make return visits before too long.

Throughout their attendance at taught sessions and their visits to schools they will undoubtedly have reflected on what they have seen, heard and done, and will probably be considering how much of this may be applicable in their own schools in India. Obviously as their tutors and hosts we hope that they have seen much that they will feel is relevant and it may be that they are already formulating plans with regards to what they may use on their return to their classrooms. There is however, a need always to exercise a little caution in these situations and to take time before making decisions that might influence changes of practice, or the implementation of new ideas. On too many occasions I have visited schools in other countries where attempts have been made to transfer directly those ideas that have been gained elsewhere. Even worse than this, I have experienced situations in which tutors from western countries have visited India and advocated the use of teaching approaches, methods or philosophies, that have worked well for them, but without any concern or understanding for the context in which Indian teachers work.

I have no doubt that many of the approaches discussed and seen during the past ten days could have educational currency in an Indian context. I am equally convinced that if these are to succeed it will be necessary to make adaptations and to consider how the circumstances in which these were used differ from those in Indian classrooms. Whilst international collaboration brings many benefits for all of us working in education, this is most effective when partnerships founded upon mutual respect for culture and traditions are achieved. I often hear colleagues declaring that inclusion is a “western concept” and that countries in Asia and elsewhere in the world are following a European or North American lead. This not only indicates an unwarranted arrogance, but represents a lack of awareness of the many sophisticated aspects of teaching and learning that have been long established in these countries. There is a good reason why inclusion has been so difficult to adequately define, and part of this is embedded in the differing cultural interpretations of the purpose of education and the ways in which this relates to the needs of each individual in different countries.

Over a number of years I have been privileged to see highly professional teachers in Indian classrooms, often managing groups of sixty or more children with few educational resources, but vast quantities of enthusiasm. In this situation I have witnessed teachers who have an astute level of awareness of the needs of their pupils, and  have often developed personalised teaching approaches and resources in order to ensure access for those who might otherwise struggle. They may not always teach in a manner that those of us from countries of greater socio-economic advantage would term “inclusive”, but their commitment to the children in their care cannot be doubted. I have learned from my Indian friends that they are grateful for the opportunity to share ideas and discuss how these might be applicable in their classrooms, but have become wary of being instructed about what they should do rather than encouraged to find their own solutions. By working with students on the MA programme and alongside teachers in Indian classrooms we as tutors have gained some insights into the challenges faced in schools. and have been pleased to accept a lead from them in terms of the content that we teach and how it is delivered. The traditional teacher student relationship as one of transmission of knowledge has only a limited value when working outside of a familiar culture.

The evidence of the effectiveness of any teaching is to be found in the impact that it has on the lives of children and families, the confidence of teachers and the sustainability of approaches over a period of time. This can only be understood when the tutors on courses aimed at promoting more effective inclusion subject themselves to a critique from their students and demonstrate a willingness to participate with them as learners as well as teachers.

I have no doubt that in September, when we next meet our students who have spent time with us in Northamptonshire, they will want to tell us about the learning that they have applied within their schools. I am also quite sure that they will be confident enough to tell us about those approaches that they have seen and discussed over the past ten days that appear not to work in their classrooms. I hope that together we may be able to analyse both the successes and those things that have perhaps fallen a little flat. These will of course, form the basis of a fruitful discussion and hopefully we will all learn and move forward. I am equally sure that they will want to recall their visit to the theatre, the treasure hunt around Northampton, visits to the countryside and socialising with our PhD students which have been fun, but have also presented many opportunities for learning.

Bon voyage

Anita overwhelmed by a giant puppet made by children

Anita overwhelmed by a giant puppet made by children

Visiting schools in other countries is always interesting. Taking visitors from other countries around schools locally is equally informative. So has it been over the past two days as our Indian visitors from the MA course in Bangalore have spent time in Northamptonshire schools.

In my experience teachers and school principals are always generous with their time and keen to show their schools to visitors. They single out particular successes and demonstrate innovations that make their own establishment unique. As an observer during these visits I am often in awe of the professionalism on display and the enthusiasm of our teaching colleagues. Today with five of our students I visited Fairfield School in Northampton where one of the Deputy Head Teachers, Sarah showed us around and described how the staff work with pupils with complex and often multiple learning needs. As she presented specialist facilities and resources, including a soft play area and a light stimulation room her knowledge of their utility and the application of these with specific children gave a clear indication of her professionalism. When our visitors asked question she answered in depth and demonstrated a dextrous ability to contextualise and generalise information.

Invariably during visits of this nature teachers are able to focus on those aspects of schooling that they have in common. During the visits over the past two days my Indian colleagues related well to some of the challenges faced by the teachers in English classrooms and the ways in which they develop effective learning relationships with children. It is equally true to say that they are able to hone in on differences across the two educational cultures. These are not restricted to material matters, though the availability of teaching resources in England makes our Indian colleagues envious, differences in terms of the expectations upon teachers and their accountability through inspection procedures appeared to occupy many of their concerns.

Over the past two days in addition to seeing children in classrooms in various schools our Bangalorian colleagues have scrutinised teacher lesson plans, school curriculum and assessment documents and policies related to inclusion and special educational needs. They have debated the various merits and problems presented by these, considered their applicability to their own school contexts and tried to gauge how the documentation impacts upon teaching and learning. Our hosts in Northamptonshire schools have given a great deal of time to engage in discussion and debate and have, I hope enjoyed the opportunity of this inter-change as much as have our Indian students. I am greatly impressed by the willingness of English teachers to share the work they have developed with colleagues from elsewhere. The exchanging of ideas and resources has been critical for teachers who put the needs of children at the head of their agenda. I do hope that our Indian students will be able to further share both their own ideas and the learning they have gained in England on their return to their own country.

The use of symbols to report school activities - here related to the school pupil council - was a source of interest and this approach may well turn up in a Bangalore school in the near future.

The use of symbols to report school activities – here related to the school pupil council – was a source of interest and this approach may well turn up in a Bangalore school in the near future.

Making time for professional discussion has always been an important feature of the education of teachers. Securing time to reflect on current issues in teaching, the development of strategies and approaches and in gaining insights into the reasoning behind the work we do is invariably useful. The opportunities to do this with colleagues from a very different education system and who work in contrasting conditions and with a range of conflicting expectations adds a further dynamic to the discussion. It is essential that as teachers we take every chance we have to increase our understanding of how children learn by participating in discussions of this nature.

As we say goodbye to our Indian visitors, we do so with a hope that they feel that they have had learning experiences that may have benefits for their work once they return home. In September we will meet again in Bangalore where I know I will continue to learn from opportunities to debate with colleagues and gain insights into the challenges that they face in their schools. So as they leave us we wish them bon voyage and thank you for allowing us to introduce you to the teachers, children and schools of whom we are particularly proud here in Northamptonshire.

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Moved by our learning

Vincent Van Gogh's Sunflowers. Universally loved and able to move

Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Universally loved and able to move

It is interesting how the arts can affect our emotions and have a bearing upon the ways in which we view the world. I wonder to what extent education has an impact upon this?

This thought came to mind a couple of days ago when talking to Shweta, one of our visiting MA students from Bangalore. This is Shweta’s first time outside of India and on Sunday, with great excitement and anticipation, along with several of her classmates she made a visit to London. Taking me through the sequence of events that formed the schedule of the day Shweta described a trip by boat along the Thames, riding the London Eye, seeing Buckingham Palace and St James’ Park and a visit to Trafalgar Square. Asking her about her favourite moment from a trip that she had clearly thoroughly enjoyed I had not anticipated her response. Amidst the excitement of walking around the capital city with a group of friends the most memorable moment recorded was standing before Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery off Trafalgar Square.

Shweta reported that this was a picture that she knew so well from school, but never in her wildest dreams had she imagined that she would ever see it in-situ. She told me that as she stood looking at this world famous image one of her colleagues became alarmed and asked her why she was crying. She was simply overcome by the emotion of seeing a picture that meant so much to her and that she had always wanted to see.

I think Shweta felt that I might be surprised by this reaction or even regard it as strange. Not at all. I recall Sara exhibiting exactly the same response on seeing Botticelli’s Birth of Venus at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. More recently when visiting Madrid with our good friends Tina and Philip I felt similar overwhelming emotions when confronted by Picasso’s Guernica, with an opportunity to reflect on the terror and destruction which that stunning painting represents. Indeed I had to return later in order to see the picture more objectively and with less emotion.

Unfortunately it seems that the place of the arts in education has been questioned or pushed to the margins of the curriculum in many educational administrations and schools. The potential contribution of art, music, dance and theatre has, in some instances been seen as peripheral to the main functions of learning, something to be added on when the real work has been done. In schools today teachers talk about results of assessments in mathematics, English and science but rarely have the opportunity to celebrate children’s creativity or imagination. Yet Shweta, as is the case with many learners, demonstrates the ability of the arts to engage our sensibilities, and give cause for reflection that may be hard to achieve through other means. Van Gogh, Botticelli and Picasso along with other artists and performers have enabled us to see the world through their perspectives and in so doing have challenged us to place our own interpretation on images and events. With their genius and artistry they enable us to reflect on the world and its events and develop our own thinking and imagination.

In bringing our MA students from India to England our purpose was to enable them to gain insights into the English education system, to meet with teachers and of course to enjoy some aspects of English culture and life. Experiences such as that described by Shweta at the National Gallery did not feature in the formality of our planning. Yet I would imagine that this was a moment that she will remember long in to the future and that maybe it provided a unique moment of learning, beyond anything that we could have scheduled. If we underestimate the arts and the contribution that they can make to the lives of children it may be that moments such as these will be lost to future generations. That would be unforgiveable.

Bringing colour to the classroom

A fascinating aspect of working with colleagues from other countries is the opportunity we have not only to learn about their ideas and working practices, but also to observe subtle differences in relation to aspects of their everyday lives. Our appreciation of this is greatly enhanced when amongst the observers is a friend who has the trained eye of an artist and who notices variations in pattern and, texture and shape that many of us may overlook.

Indian pattern 2

So it has been that this week with the visit of students to Northampton from our MA programme in Bangalore. Jean Edwards, the artist whose work and blog I have mentioned on previous occasions (http://jeandrawingaday.wordpress.com/) has kindly joined us during some of the week’s activities and has been interested in the beautiful patterns to be seen in some of the fabrics worn by our visitors.

Indian pattern 1

Such features are difficult to capture with words, and even challenge the photographer’s lens, but can be clearly depicted through the skilled use of pencils and colours when in the hands of an artist such as Jean. The patterns presented here were gathered quickly and unobtrusively as our students engaged in a range of activities and represent a brief moment of time captured to remind us of the occasion. Seeing these pictures I am reminded of the intense light and vibrant colours of the Bangalore markets which can overwhelm the senses of the visitor from outside of India. Anyone from my own country who has visited India will, I feel sure recall the shock of colour, smell and noise that appears to dominate the first few days in an Indian city.

Indian pattern 3

I am grateful to Jean who has given up some of her time this week to join us, and recognising that my words are inadequate to convey the fascination of the patterns that she has captured, I will write no more, but leave you to enjoy her contribution to this page. So thank you to all of our students for bringing colour into our classrooms, and to Jean for providing us with a permanent reminder of the occasion.

IF YOU CLICK ON THE IMAGES THEY WILL ENLARGE

There can be no holding back the tide

This teacher, with her class of sixty children, is typical of many I see who have given a commitment to welcome all children from the locality into her classroom. Her professionalism means that inclusive schooling is a real possibility.

This teacher, with her class of sixty children, is typical of many I see who have given a commitment to welcome all children from the locality into her classroom. Her professionalism means that inclusive schooling is a real possibility.

An article in yesterday’s Times of India – “Confusion Prevailing over RTE Act Impedes Admission Process”, (12th May) reports that schools are finding reasons not to provide places to children from marginalised communities. The deadline to submit applications for students from disadvantaged circumstances for admission under the Right to Free And Compulsory Education Act (RTE) ends on May 18, yet it seems likely that many will still have difficulty obtaining a school place.

The implementation of new education legislation, particularly in a country as populous and diverse as India, was always destined to prove challenging. The logistics of managing such change and the difficulties associated with getting information to the right people inevitably impacts on the administration of such radical change. However, as we say here in England, where there is a will, there is usually a way. Unfortunately the necessity to have the will appears to be a stumbling block in terms of making progress in this particular case, and it is evident that many children and families are destined to be denied the opportunities that they desire for their children.

Half way through this brief article a sentence stood out for me that brings into question the significant features of the responsibilities of schools to children and families. When questioning school principals about the reasons why they are not complying with the requirements of the RTE, one (who demanded anonymity) is reported to have stated:-

“We tell them that it will be difficult for their children to adjust in our schools.”

I would not question the fact that for children who have previously been denied an opportunity to attend school that this is a considerable change that will inevitably bring new difficulties. Learning to be part of an unfamiliar community, making new friends and learning routines are challenges that all children face on entry to school and this will be no different in India. Certainly there are added challenges when children enter well established classrooms where friendships are already formed and classes are familiar with the expectations and ethos of a school. But in my experience children quickly adjust and are soon accepted by their peers and teachers alike.

My concerns are founded upon the notion that children need to adjust to schools, rather than considering how schools may change to accommodate children. The expression from the anonymous principal (presumably anonymous because he or she lacks the courage to stand by their opinion) seems to me to be an affront to the very professionalism that committed teachers show to their pupils. Effective teachers adjust their teaching to accommodate the needs of their pupils and in successful schools differentiated teaching and the development of personalised teaching resources has become the norm. Certainly children are adept at learning how to conform to the requirements of schooling and this is an important part of their social education, but where schools are so intransigent they are certainly destined to create problems for themselves.

The statement made by the school principal quoted in the newspaper indicates that either they do not understand, or that they are opposed to the movement towards inclusive education. There is an assertion here that it is not the responsibility of the school to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that children are welcome and encouraged to learn, but rather that children and families must conform to an established and restrictive school pattern. This surely begs the question who are the schools for? Are they establishments set up for the convenience of teachers with a focus on ensuring that they have a comfortable and relatively undisturbed life? This would seem to be the interpretation given by the principal quoted above. By contrast there are many school principals who would advocate schools as flexible institutions that welcome children, celebrate diversity and have a commitment to exploring teaching and learning in order to address the needs of all children. Of course, this latter approach to education is far from comfortable, makes demands upon teachers and school managers and requires a commitment that every member of the school population is prepared to rise to these challenges and be a learner.

I have been fortunate to visit many innovative schools in India managed by principals with passion and vision and in which teachers are eager to demonstrate their dedication and professionalism. These schools are already showing how their commitment to welcoming learners of diverse needs, background and ability is having a major impact on the communities that they serve. It is, I suppose, inevitable that some school principals will continue to bury their heads in the sand and try to halt the flow of progress towards a more just and equitable education system. It is to be hoped that those charged with the responsibility for the implementation of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act have the courage of their convictions and see it through to its desired conclusion. They will undoubtedly face opposition and obstacles, but if the teachers who I work with regularly in India are in any way typical of those in schools across the country, there will be no holding back the tide that is moving inexorably towards a more inclusive education system.

These teachers from the MA Special and Inclusive Education Course in Bangalore are a formidable force at the vanguard of inclusion - dinosaurs beware!

These teachers from the MA Special and Inclusive Education Course in Bangalore are a formidable force at the vanguard of inclusion – dinosaurs beware!

Please, don’t keep all this learning to yourself.

There is often as much learning through discussion at a social gathering as there is in formal lectures.

There is often as much learning through discussion at a social gathering as there is in formal lectures.

“Share your knowledge. It is a way to achieve immortality.” 

Dalai Lama

I had many interesting conversations with our Indian students from the MA in Special and Inclusive Education course that we run in Bangalore at various social events over the weekend. Whilst most of these were light hearted in tone, one colleague was particularly keen to discuss an issue that seems to trouble teachers in many parts of the world. The implementation of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act in India, she suggested has added much to the stresses upon specialist teachers. “Everybody looks to us to tell them what to do”, she said. “They see that we are the experts and therefore it is our responsibility to deal with all the problems. They do not see this as a shared concern”.

This, I tried to reassure her, is not a situation unique to India. In my experience mainstream classroom teachers everywhere I go express anxieties about children described as having special educational needs, and sometimes feel helpless in their efforts to find effective ways of enabling them to learn. Where legislation is put in place, there is a need for those with the skills, knowledge and understanding to take a lead in ensuring that the requirements are addressed. At such times it seems only natural to me that colleagues who are uncertain about meeting new challenges will seek the support of those who have shown a commitment and possibly developed additional expertise in supporting children who have difficulties with learning.

I have expressed concerns about the notion of “expertism” on several previous occasions, but feel that there is an aspect of this situation that is an indication of our status as professionals. Quite rightly we should expect all teachers to accept responsibility for all children in their classes. It is unacceptable that there are teachers who are prepared to abdicate this responsibility and hand over children to be dealt with by an “expert”. However, it seems equally wrong that those who have made a commitment to obtain additional professional development and qualifications in the field of special and inclusive education, adopt a critical or even negative stance towards those who have not done so. Having sought to acquire expertise, knowledge and skills in relation to teaching children who have traditionally been marginalised, and in some cases excluded from education, surely we have a responsibility to accept a leadership role in supporting those teachers and others who lack confidence in this area.

I remember when I was training to be a teacher, one of my tutors, Ken Jones, who subsequently became a good friend, told us that every teacher on entering the profession must accept that they have a critical leadership role to play. He went further in saying that this role should extend beyond the classroom, to the communities in which we lived and worked. This concept sits readily with the idea of teaching as a vocation and of a commitment of service to others. However, it is not always easily achieved.

So here perhaps we have a conundrum. Whilst we want all teachers to accept their responsibility towards all children, we need to accept that many will look to those who have specific expertise to provide guidance and leadership. So perhaps the message I should be giving to my colleague who is a student on the MA programme, is that she will have to appreciate that others will look to her to give a lead, but that in doing so she will need to share her expertise, until gradually her fellow teachers gain in confidence and take on more responsibility for themselves. This will only happen when the expertise that we have is shared and we do not feel precious about keeping it to ourselves. If every teacher is to become an expert then some must assume the role of mentor in order to ensure that this can be achieved. “I have worked hard to gain this new learning,” said our student. “If others want to develop such expertise they should join the course”. Part of me sympathises with this argument, and yes, we would love to see more teachers signing up for the programme, but the responsibility to support those who either cannot, or will not attend such courses must lie with those who have been afforded the opportunity.

Our current visitors from India have certainly developed a broad range of knowledge and understanding. and are skilled in applying this in their own classrooms. The greatest challenge ahead is in ensuring that this expertise is shared widely for the benefit of greater numbers of teachers and children.

Sharing experience across cultures

English and Indian teachers taking an opportunity to learn from each other

English and Indian teachers taking an opportunity to learn from each other

For ten days we have visitors to the university in Northampton from India. A group that includes students from our MA programme in Bangalore are with us for a series of workshops, seminars, school visits, and of course some social activities. For some this is their first time away from their homeland, whilst for others travel has become a regular part of their lives.

As hosts there is a natural anxiety that the arrangements made are comfortable to our guests whilst they visit a country which is in so many ways different from their own. Whilst matters of climate and costs are something over which we have no control, we have endeavoured to ensure that those associated with diet and social expectations are accommodated. We are aware that as visitors our Indian colleagues will be as keen not to transgress in matters of etiquette as we are as their hosts. The secret of success is to make them feel welcome and easy in our somewhat staid English company.

Yesterday as part of the programme arranged for our visitors we had a fairly informal meeting with a group of teachers, each of them a manager of special needs provision within  a Northamptonshire mainstream school. These dedicated professionals carry a weight of responsibility for matters of assessment, planning and co-ordination of the learning of children with a diverse range of needs and abilities. In addition they provide advice to their teacher colleagues, many of whom may not have either the experience or in some instances commitment to children who may be perceived as “difficult” to teach. These English colleagues had given up their afternoon to join in a dialogue with teachers from India who have a similar focus on the needs of children, though working in a very different cultural and educational system.

My good colleague Mary managed the discussion with her usual professionalism and flair and before long these teachers were exchanging ideas and experiences. Mary’s dextrous identification of issues of common interest meant that the conversation flowed and before long everyone had the confidence to express their ideas and opinions. Teachers everywhere enjoy talking about their own experiences of working with children. Often they focus upon the challenges they face, but before long this invariably leads to an exchange of possible solutions through a comparison of approaches and strategies. In next to no time the common ground between colleagues was established and from the periphery of the discourse, I could observe much nodding and the occasional smile of approval.

The two groups of teachers, coming from different backgrounds and experiences soon realised that they had much in common. In their classrooms they experience similar attitudes, understanding and challenges. Furthermore they have at times come to similar conclusions about how these may best be addressed. Certainly there are significant differences between the contexts in which they work – I suspect that none of our English colleagues have managed classes of sixty or more pupils, as some of our Indian friends certainly have, and similarly Indian teachers were surprised by the level of expectation with regards to the monitoring and financial accountability for provision for children with special educational needs expected of their English counterparts. But far more than these differences was the common ground that these professionals shared.

A showing of materials and sharing of ideas provided food for thought and I am quite sure will have some influence on the future actions taken by these colleagues. This was a valuable experience for all. Time well spent and an opportunity for professional reflection that was clearly appreciated by the participants. In the hands of professionals such as these the security of the education for pupils who have often been overlooked or marginalised is most certainly assured. It was a pleasure for me to be able to learn from both English and Indian teachers at this event.

Perhaps a personal learning passport designed by an English teacher will be further developed in a school in Bangalore.

Perhaps a personal learning passport designed by an English teacher will be further developed in a school in Bangalore.

 

Pause for thought. Tavistock Square in the rain.

The Gandhi statue by Freda Brilliant, Tavistock Square, London

The Gandhi statue by Freda Brilliant, Tavistock Square, London

I was in London yesterday to attend a meeting and was pleased to find that this was to be held in Russell Square. This is one of several green enclosed spaces in the Bloomsbury district that provides some level of respite from the hurly burly of London traffic. In order to get to the meeting venue my walk took me from the recently modernised St Pancras Station along Euston Road and then through Tavistock Square my favourite of the series of green squares that stretch between Euston and Holborn. If you are ever in this area and have time to idle for a while it is well worth exploring this bijou space.

Tavistock square is dedicated to champions of peace and those who have campaigned at various levels for human rights. Within the square there is a tree planted to commemorate the victims of the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and nearby a rock adorned with a plaque serving as a tribute to the lives of conscientious objectors to war and as a reminder of many of the atrocities of the twentieth century. The first Prime Minister of an independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru came here to plant a copper beech tree and other leaders have visited to pay homage to the victims of war and oppression.  Tavistock Square has been the focus of many meetings of organisations committed to working for peace and human rights over the years.  Throughout the square there are benches labelled with small brass plaques, many with inscriptions to individuals for whom the tranquillity of this place had some significance, and elsewhere trees have been planted in the memory of loved ones who made a significant contribution to their community, for example Sir John Barbirolli, the composer and the author Virginia Woolf.

There is one statue, created by an artist named Freda Brilliant, that takes centre stage in Tavistock square and is probably more visited than all others. Unveiled in 1968 by the then British Prime Minister Harold Wilson the statue of Mahatma Gandhi has become a focal point for visitors to this part of London who have campaigned for peace and human rights. I must have stood before this statue many dozens of times over the years, just as I did yesterday in pouring rain, huddled beneath my umbrella, pondering on the contribution that this unique man made to the history not only of his country, but to the lives of many around the world. In particular whilst the water dripped from my umbrella yesterday, I thought of some of the articles I have been reading lately in the UK media that have encouraged an increasing negative view of education and others that have seen this as a contested area, sometimes praising teachers for their care and professionalism, whilst on other occasions blaming them for many of society’s ills.

Gandhi believed in a largely Platonic view of education based upon the notion of developing human values and virtues. Writing in his book The Philosophy of Gandhi, the theologian Glyn Richards said of the Mahatma, “he saw that one of the ways in which basic human rights could be restored was by the provision of equal opportunity in the field of education”. During his life time Gandhi experimented as a teacher, with varying degrees of success, whilst attempting to educate his own children and those of others in the communities that he founded, including Phoenix in South Africa. In his autobiography he wrote of the difficulties he experienced in a teaching role and was candid about his failure to always connect as he would wish with his pupils. However, throughout his life he campaigned for the adoption of compulsory education and for the education of women. He advocated a focus upon vocational training and stressed that respect for manual labour should be an important component of any education system.

Whilst he emphasised the importance of improving the literacy levels within his own country he wrote that “Literary training by itself adds not an inch to one’s moral height, and character-building is independent of literary training.” Indeed he believed that illiteracy should be far less of a concern than what he termed character deficiency. Knowledge he believed to be important but the application of learning for the benefit of others was far more dependent upon children learning concepts associated with justice, duty and service.

When reading Gandhi’s ideas on education today some aspects of his thinking appear to be out of touch with developments in the twenty first century. In many quarters he is viewed as too idealistic to have relevance to the modern world. I would though contend that the underlying principles of his educational philosophy contain a strong message that resonates with many teachers who now find themselves striving to move beyond teaching as a mechanical and technocratic process. Education for Gandhi was about enabling individuals to become independent critical thinkers who based their actions upon social justice and used knowledge to benefit their communities.

Whilst I know that even amongst many of my friends in India there are misgivings about some of Gandhi’s ideas, it does seem to me that the tenor of his beliefs provide at the very least an important starting point for debates about education and the ways in which we live. Should you be in the vicinity of Tavistock square in the future perhaps you too may pause by this statue to consider the ideas of a man who attempted to live by a philosophy of service to others.

What can we do to enable children to understand humanity?

Teachers - surely much more than purveyors  of knowledge?

Teachers – surely much more than purveyors of knowledge?

Incidents of violence against teachers in schools in England are rare. This is why the recent fatal stabbing of a teacher, Ann Maguire in a school in Leeds was particularly shocking. Mrs Maguire, in her 40th year as a teacher was about to retire from the profession after a long and distinguished career of service. Quite rightly the expressions of grief, incredulity and anger from her colleagues, students and the general public dominated the media for several days. The perpetrator of the crime, one of her pupils, is currently under arrest and awaiting trial.

I had more or less promised myself that I wouldn’t write on this topic, not wishing to join the immediate, and understandable outpouring of rage that followed the event. It is hard to be rational in the face of such an outrage and far too many intemperate words have already been written. Lynch mob mentality appears rife at times like this and it is difficult to make a reasoned contribution to the inevitable debates that surround such an incident. So it was that I decided not to join in the discussion on this media. That was until I read two short pieces in the New Statesman (2nd – 8th May edition 2014) that in their expressions of sympathy identified a number of important points that should encourage us to ask questions about the purpose of schooling and the status of teachers.

The articles within the magazine are brief, but clearly intended to promote consideration beyond the immediate reactions that have dominated the media when reporting this tragedy to date. The specific expression that prompted me to rethink my decision about writing on this matter came from the New Statesman editorial,  which quoted a student from the school where Ann Maguire taught who stated “she taught me humanity.” This, I felt was a particularly poignant  assertion that revealed an understanding on the part of this student that education has a fundamental purpose that is much more than the transmission of subject knowledge. How perceptive, I thought of a young person to see beyond the everyday flotsam and jetsam that washes around the prescribed lessons in school and identify a more fundamental aspect of the role of the teacher. I was especially drawn to the idea that this student has identified an outcome of her interaction with a teacher on a profound level, that has instilled learning which does not feature in any written school curriculum or assessment documentation. To be taught humanity seems to me to be a most rewarding outcome of the education process.

Peter Wilby, in his column in the aforementioned edition of the magazine describes other superlatives applied to Ann Maguire from those who knew her. However, it was his assertion that the ideological stance adopted by certain factions of the media that should be of concern in relation to this tragic event than held my attention. The image of teachers portrayed in some quarters says Wilby, is of individuals who, “enslaved by left wing ideology instruct children in atheism and immorality, tolerate low standards and don’t work hard enough.” He goes on to say that there are many who will look to see where they may apportion blame for this terrible one-off incident – ”permissive liberal values, welfare benefits, violent video games, social media  and the abolition of corporal punishment,” are all likely causes to be identified over the coming months.

There may well be another equally significant, or even greater factor in this situation that contributed to this horrendous crime, suggests Wilby. This he describes as the “routine denigration of teachers”. Politicians and much of the media, he states have made a significant contribution to the undermining of respect for teachers within UK society. Those who continue to show contempt for the teaching profession would do well to listen to the voices of others who knew, and now pay tribute to teachers such as Ann Maguire In so doing they may gain insights into the dedication that is to be found in almost every classroom in the land.

Can there be a greater testimony to a teacher than the tribute paid by a student who recognises that “she taught me humanity” ? Perhaps as teachers we have been complicit in the portrayal of education as a means of filling children full of facts that they can then regurgitate for an examination. Maybe the time has come to return to debates about the broader purpose of education. Certainly we want children to become knowledgeable effective problem solvers, who are literate and numerate, and have an understanding of geography, history and science, but perhaps we need to pay greater attention to the ways in which they may consider and apply their learning and the ways in which they are enabled to interpret their humanity.

Having stated that I would not write about this subject, and spent a day pondering on whether to post this piece, I hope that what I may have done is move beyond the initial tragic story and raised a few questions that many teachers appear frightened to address. The articles in the New Statesman identify a number of significant areas of concern with regards to the ways in which teachers are currently presented. Sadly many of those committed professionals have become cowed and fearful of putting their heads above the parapet to challenge current politically driven educational dogma. There is a danger that adopting a position of silence may be seen as providing assent to those who continue to spin the line that our classrooms are out of control.