The teacher turned learner; and appreciating every minute.

 

Students and tutors (hopefully indistinguishable) in a shared learning experience.

Students and tutors (hopefully indistinguishable) in a shared learning experience.

Every year for the past five years the research students working towards the degree of PhD within the Centre for Education and Research, here at the University of Northampton, organise a two day research conference. This provides students with an opportunity to present papers based upon their own research projects and to hear from invited keynote speakers of national and international repute, as well as engaging in lively debate on topics related to designing and managing research.

The conference is planned and managed entirely by the students, who invite speakers, arrange the programme, book the venue and organise the domestic arrangements such as refreshments and registration. This year, as in previous years the conference was a great success with students and established academic staff participating in a shared learning experience and listening to a series of excellent presentations. The invited keynote speakers made a tremendous contribution and provided encouragement and support to the students, and as a tutor responsible for supporting several of these neophyte researchers, I was immensely proud of the way that the whole event progressed.

The topics of their research varied greatly, from inquiries into the impact of glue ear upon learning in children,  research into quality assurance in Vietnamese universities and an investigation of the use of movement and games for teaching modern foreign languages, to a study of understanding and teacher awareness of autism spectrum disorders in Nigeria and another investigating raising challenges for able school pupils. As always at events of this nature I found myself listening to presentations on topics where I have a certain amount of expertise, but also to those where I was being brought new to the subject and had a unique opportunity to gain insights and new understanding.

As a tutor and therefore a guest at this student led event, my most important function over the two days was to listen to the presentations made by students, and to provide supportive comments usually prior to and immediately after their papers were given. For those of us who have been making presentations of this nature for some time, it is important to remember that it takes courage to have the confidence to stand before one’s peers and a number of well-established researchers and talk about work that is both personal and usually at a stage of emergence rather than completion. For those who are presenting in English as their second or even third language this is an even more daunting prospect. Yet, as I had expected these bright, enthusiastic young researchers performed with élan and demonstrated their expertise and learning as if they were seasoned academics.

As I listened to the student presentations I looked around the room to observe the audience and their reaction to this situation. I was particularly taken by the respectful manner in which the students listened attentively and without distraction to their colleagues. Nods of affirmation, smiles and generous applause were important in ensuring that each speaker gained in confidence and enjoyed the opportunity to express their ideas and discuss their work. This is no more that I had expected, but is so much different from the behaviour I often witness at conferences where professional researchers present their papers. Here, the distraction of laptops (or more often smart devices) are usually in evidence, along with a demeanour which can be interpreted as a form of points scoring as hard bitten cynical individuals cast a critical eye over the work of their colleagues. Over the past two days the student researchers have afforded each presenter a respectful and supportive hearing that should surely be the norm at all events of this nature.

I found myself wishing that I had video recorded the sessions of the past two days in order that I could remind colleagues of the enthusiasm and freshness of the new researcher. This conference demonstrated all that is good about the process of research and enthusiasm for inquiry and learning. As is invariably the case, those of us placed in the role of teachers can learn so much from our students and should take the time to reflect upon what it is they have to tell us. In years to come many of these new investigators will become leading researchers in their chosen field of education. I have no doubt that their work will become highly regarded and that they will contribute greatly to our understanding of how children learn, how teachers teach and the various influences that either assist or impede this process. As they do so, I hope that they maintain both their enthusiasm and the respectful manner in which they conducted themselves throughout the past two days. I look forward to following their careers and enjoying the product of their labours in the years to come.

Thank you to each student who presented over these days and provided me with such a rich opportunity for learning.

Questions from my fuzzy brain

Parents and children together as learners in Urumqi

Parents and children together as learners in Urumqi

True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.

Attributed to Socrates

I’m back in England and trying to shake off the jet lag. This might account for some rather fuzzy thinking today. Having spent the best part of forty years working in Education, I become increasingly aware of how little I know about the areas in which I am supposed to have some level of expertise. This is further compounded when I attempt to place my professional learning in an international context. But then, this is all part of the excitement of being a teacher, a researcher and a learner. Perhaps when the jet lag wears off things might become a little clearer.

Over the course of a few days in China I was able to have discussions with teachers and post-graduate students as well as visiting schools and embarking on some conversations (through an interpreter) with children. I encountered much that was familiar. Dedicated teachers who demonstrated their professional knowledge and understanding, and applied their skills to managing groups of children with a range of needs; students eager to acquire insights into how research can inform improvements in the lives of children and their families. Much of what I saw in schools and university classrooms was very similar to what I might have seen in England, India, Ireland or any of the other countries with which I am acquainted. But as with any other learning it is the unfamiliar that is challenging and ensures that we have the motivation to continue learning.

I always feel that it is good to come away from a situation that has raised a number of questions, and to make time to think about these.  I find that when I visit schools in countries other than my own, this is a  frequent, often challenging but invariably rewarding experience. An example of this  occurred a couple of days ago when visiting a facility for pre-school aged deaf children in Ürümqi. In one classroom there were more adults than children, all seated on the floor engaged in a range of play activities. There was evident enjoyment in the learning taking place and real purpose in the tasks I was observing. Talking with the teacher in charge of the school she explained that most of the adults I was watching were parents. This was a situation that I might have encountered in many schools in England, where parents are frequent visitors to classrooms. However, the next piece of information with which she provided me, surprised me and led to the questions that continue to buzz around my fuzzy brain.

The parents working alongside their deaf children in that lively classroom are required to attend the school with their child every day for a year. Many come from parts of Xinjiang Province  hundreds or even thousands of kilometres distant from the school (Xinjiang is China’s largest province and accounts for one sixth of  its huge total area). These dedicated and often anxious parents find accommodation locally in which to live and attend the school every day to learn alongside their children. This commitment is a requirement for the child’s attendance at this school, which provides specialist support from well qualified teachers, therapists and audiologists. The children whose parents cannot make such a commitment simply do not get a place. The teacher explained to me that the intention is that all children on reaching school age should have acquired the communication skills to enable them to attend a mainstream school. Furthermore, every parent should be equipped and confident to support their child as they commence formal schooling. The whole process appeared to be well focused on establishing learning founded upon a partnership between teachers, therapists, pupils and parents.

So, now to my questions. The parents I witnessed have made a huge commitment in time and finances to benefit the education of their children. Many are living away from their homes to be near to the school for most of the year in order to achieve this. What impact I wondered does this approach have upon family life and upon the siblings of the deaf children? Having worked in this intensive and well supported situation I would imagine the expectations of parents of what might be provided in mainstream schools may be raised. How are these expectations realised I wonder, and how do the teachers in the mainstream schools respond to the demands likely to be made of them? What about those deaf children in Xinjiang Province whose parents for legitimate reasons cannot make this commitment? How do their children fare?

Such an intense approach to working with children in a pre-school situation is beyond my previous experience and having come away from Ürümqi I may never have the opportunity to find answers to these questions. Maybe you have knowledge that can help me here. If so, then please come to my assistance. However, one of the great advantages of experiences such as these is that the questions raised can be discussed with colleagues and students in the weeks and months to come and may possibly result in new ideas and insights into how we might work with children. The joy of this blog at times is that people I have never met can also inform my understanding of phenomena such as these. This is of course a great relief, because until such time as the jet lag fades I have no real hope of sorting out these questions for myself.

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Found in Translation

Without the assistance of  Tao Yuhong (Dolores), my earning difficulties are exposed in China!

Without the assistance of Tao Yuhong (Dolores), my learning difficulties are exposed in China!

Inevitably when working in Asia I have language difficulties. Typical of most British people, my knowledge of European languages is limited, but when it comes to the languages of Asia I am completely at a loss. In India, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia I have usually found a number of people around me who speak a good level of English. In China, and particularly on this visit to Xinjiang Province this is most definitely not the case. In such situations I am obviously dependent upon an interpreter or two to get me through meetings, my teaching or conference presentations and to assist me in social situations where I am otherwise like the proverbial fish out of water.

Fortunately on this visit I have been assigned an interpreter with superb English and the kind of understanding of local custom and etiquette that keeps me out of trouble. Tao Yuhong (Dolores) has not only assisted me in teaching, but has been a constant presence at meals and in other social situations where I would otherwise falter. (Did you know that if you sit at the head of a fish at the dining table you must propose a toast to whoever sits at the tail? – no neither did I!). The professionalism of good interpreters always amazes me, not only do they need to know the language well enough to speak with authority, but they are also required to navigate the technical nuances of the subject of the person for whom they translate. Sitting with Tao Yuhong prior to sessions and going through presentation materials ensures that terms such as inclusion, assessment for learning and differentiation are understood. This enables an audience to be reassured and assists them to find the meanings and concepts through the translation. It also inspires confidence in the presenter.

I think it is quite good to place oneself in a relative position of helplessness such as is occurring with me at present. Finding myself in a situation where I cannot manage the spoken language and have no hope of reading the Chinese or Uighur script that surrounds me I have some idea of how many children who have learning difficulties must feel. As a normally (reasonably) self-sufficient and competent adult I have reverted to being as dependent as a child and look to others to support me in the most basic of situations.

Of course, a significant difference between myself and most children with learning difficulties is that I am in a very different cultural context and as a rare visitor to this part of the world nobody is suggesting that I be taught the language and gain a degree of personal autonomy. Also unlike children who have learning difficulties, in a few days time I will be back in familiar surroundings and will almost miraculously have recovered my learning competence.

Perhaps it would be good for all teachers to experience this situation from time to time if it made them think of the challenges faced by their pupils. Such an experience makes us re-evaluate terms such as independence and competence as well as encouraging us to think about how we go about understanding the world we find ourselves in.  For now I would just like to say thank you to Tao Yuhong (Dolores) for being my teacher and carer for a few days here in Urumqi. Your skills as an educator were greatly appreciated. I hope that I have not been too troublesome a child!

Similarities and differences across cultures

These teachers working on speech exercises with deaf children in Urumqi show great professionalism. It is hoped by all that these children on reaching school age with be admitted to mainstream classes

These teachers working on speech exercises with deaf children in Urumqi show great professionalism. It is hoped by all that these children on reaching school age with be admitted to mainstream classes

Working with colleagues at the conference here in Ürümqi today I found it interesting to observe the similarities and differences, in terms of the challenges that we face in developing more inclusive education systems. Whenever educators get together to discuss the promotion of inclusion there are familiar themes that emerge. The attitudes and apprehensions of teachers, the inadequacy of school resourcing, the pressures of a competitive assessment regime, these are all clearly of concern in China, just as they have been during similar discussions in the UK, India, Malta and in many other places I have encountered. There is no surprise that teachers are expressing their anxieties about what they perceive as being the additional challenges of working with a greater diversity of pupils in classrooms. Neither is it uncommon to hear discussions related to the possible impact that the presence of children with special educational needs might have on academic outcomes in schools.

What did surprise me a little was the continuing focus upon a medical-deficit model approach to special education provision that persists here in China. Where I was concerned to talk about inclusion through the development of appropriate teaching approaches and changes in classroom environment, many of the professionals who came to talk with me were focused upon children with specific diagnoses of disability or need. The hunt for a panacea in working with children with Down’s syndrome or autism continues, and whilst this is something I am familiar with at home, there many teachers have begun to look at teaching approaches and classroom management for the promotion of inclusion.

It is understandable that teachers who encounter a child who has been categorized with a label such as Down’s syndrome will want to find some information about this condition. However, if we can encourage teachers to examine how they can adjust their teaching and change their classrooms to make them welcoming to all learners, the need to spend so much time examining labels will lessen. Discussions of differentiation, child centred assessment and focusing upon achievement and progress rather than attainment often lead to useful suggestions about teaching practices and successful classroom interventions. These are of far more help to the busy class teacher than a series of medical facts and figures.

Whilst we can offer research evidence for the effectiveness of inclusion from western contexts, these are very different from those seen in China or other Asian countries. There is an urgent need for more data to be collected from within this country, and there are sufficient researchers committed to achieving this to make me believe that we will soon be seeing the kind of evidence that might enable schools to move forward.

The enthusiasm demonstrated by colleagues at the conference today and their willingness to engage in ideas leaves me in no doubt that progress in developing inclusive schools will be made here in China. The fact that education researchers, teachers and policy makers are eager to discuss these issues with professionals from other countries is a significant indicator of a determination to improve the situation for all children. I hope that the dialogue which was conducted here in Ürümqi will bear fruit and that we shall be hearing about further developments in inclusive education from China.

 

Making a journey with shortcuts

Relief in the Ancient Bazzar o Urumqui

Relief in the Ancient Bazzar of Urumqi an important city on the old silk route

The desert appears endless. Each time I jolt awake from the occasional nod, as I attempt the impossible mission of gaining some sleep in the cramped space of the aircraft seat, I look down through the window at a windblown landscape of sand and rock. It seems that the emptiness of this barren scenery goes on for hours, with little sign of habitation or herbage. Then suddenly breaking the distant skyline a jagged range of snow-capped mountains appears to relieve the pancake flat monotony and shortly after this the cultivated fields and dotted evidence of the housing of presumed agricultural workers. Before long a series of long blue roofs leads to the city and we are arriving in Ürümqi.

I am told that Ürümqi is the city furthest from the sea of any in the world, and I can well relate to the truth of this statement as the four hour flight from Beijing has carried me across land that was characterised for the most part by emptiness. It is certainly a relief to arrive, with an opportunity to attempt the next stage of sleeping off the jet lag in a hotel room.

This morning I was engaged in discussion with a group of Professor Meng Deng’s MA students, all Chinese with the exception of a bright young man from Zimbabwe. Issues of the development of inclusive education and a comparison between the challenges faced by teachers in western societies and those in China made for an interesting and lively discussion. The debates surrounding curriculum challenges, the training of teachers, school expectations of children with disabilities and the difficulties posed by state examination systems were all exercised. Many of the arguments rehearsed were familiar and I am sure that a similar discussion has been had in countries all across the world. As always it was exciting to see young people who are exercised about the injustices faced by marginalised learners and to hear of their endeavours to effect change, often against the odds, within the Chinese education system.

Dozing during the flight, my mind kept returning to a single issue debated during the morning. Having been asked about the historical development of inclusive school provision in the UK, I had outlined the evolution of schooling from segregated special schools in the 1970s through the provision of special units in ordinary schools to the more general acceptance of pupils with special educational needs in mainstream schools. This gradual process from the denial of a right to access to schooling, through to a more inclusive approach continues after more than forty years, but remains an unfinished venture, with many teachers and schools still challenged in their efforts to address the needs of a minority of pupils. In China, as in so many Asian countries that I have visited, in an effort to “catch up” with western educational models there is an attempt to by-pass much of the process that was undertaken in the west. The focus is clearly upon moving directly to mainstream education for children who have traditionally been excluded from schools. The middle stages of special school and unit provision, whilst not totally absent is seen to some extent as an undesirable element that could slow progress in this area.

Unsurprisingly the young people with whom I met this morning, pioneers for inclusive schooling and heavily influenced by the leadership of Professor Meng Deng, sense some frustration at the opposition they face in their quest for a more equitable education system. Unlike their counterparts in much of Europe and other western societies, they have a limited history of developments in provision for children described as having special educational needs. Whilst teachers in my own country have benefited from the learning that has taken place on a slow journey towards inclusive schooling, this historical context is less secure here in China. To an extent the apprehensions now felt by many teachers here are related to the apparent haste towards change. Is it possible to take this short cut to inclusion? However, for children who have been marginalised for so long, it is hard to justify a slowing of this movement, so it will be interesting to see how their opportunities are progressed.

I have no doubt that these and other issues will be high on the agenda during the next two days of a conference here in Ürümqi. I look forward to learning more on these matters from colleagues here and to have an opportunity to debate them further with teachers from local schools.

Maybe it’s a choice between being educated or passing an examination!

Are these students gaining an education, or will they simply be taught how to regurgitate facts for an examination? I hope that it is the former.

Are these students gaining an education, or will they simply be taught how to regurgitate facts for an examination? I hope that it is the former.

Whenever I visit other countries I make the effort to read the national and local newspapers, if they are available in a language that I can manage. Today I picked up a copy of China Daily – Asia Weekly for June 13th – 19th and discovered an interesting article by Xiong Binqi, who is described as the Vice-President of the  21st Century Education Research Institute. I have no idea what this presumably esteemed institute is or does, but Dr Xiong certainly provided an article of considerable interest. It was written beneath a banner headline “Education System in Search of Reforms”, a title that would sit just as well in the newspapers from almost anywhere in the world.

The tone of this article was of specific interest to me as it discusses the difficulties that exist in parts of China through the creation of “elite schools”, referred to in this piece as “super high schools” whose sole function appears to be cramming children to succeed in the national college entrance examination or gaokao as it is known here. These schools provide a narrow curriculum aimed only at teaching to the test and ensuring that students gain the highest possible grades. Despite this, there is a scramble from parents eager to enrol their children. In many instances students who have previously passed the gaokao, but with what is seen to be a low grade, attend these schools in order to reach a higher level. Xiong uses the example of  Lu’an Maotanchang High school in Anhui Province to illustrate his concerns. He states that:-

“The problem is that in some areas, students who cannot get admitted to a key university are regarded as failures despite having cleared the gaokao.”

Xiong points out that there are places at the “top universities” only for 8.5% of the successful gaokao students and therefore competition for places is extreme. Presumably this means that 91.5% of students can be regarded as failures! This is clearly nonsense.

This notion of a competitive drive for “top universities” is of course not restricted to China. In my own country gaining a place at Oxford or Cambridge is seen by many as the pinnacle of an academic education and here places are certainly restricted. As in China with their apparently more desirable universities, many places at Oxford and Cambridge are gained by students from what might be termed elite schools. A market driven education system can only serve to increase this type of competition, but it now sounds as if in China this situation is being driven to a new extreme.

Xiong tells us that:-

“The small town in Anhui Province from where the Maotanchang [super] High School operates is known as the town of the college entrance exam.”

He then goes on to explain that Maotanchang school forgoes all activities other than those focused upon passing the gaokao examination. There is no entertainment or leisure that might impede the progress of the selected students. This is apparently accepted because what he describes as the “gaokao business” is regarded as a “pillar industry” within the town. I must confess that this is the first time I have heard education spoken of as an industry, though I suspect we will hear the term again in the future.

I find myself wondering what the students from these super high schools must be like. How broad is their knowledge of the world? What do they know of history, music, theatre, literature or art, all areas that enrich the lives of much of the world’s population? Can we really regard students as well educated simply on the basis of passing examinations? How do they regard themselves alongside other students who do not attend these super high schools and presumably therefore have less chance of entering the “top universities”? More importantly in some ways, what happens to that inevitable proportion of students who despite attending these schools still fail to gain a place in a desirable institution? How is their self-esteem affected by such a predicament?

Education has always been competitive, but in the past it was also well rounded and provided students with an appreciation of a broad curriculum and a sense of social justice. I am not sure that the model described in Xiong’s article creates a situation that is either sustainable or desirable. I can fully appreciate the anxieties that he expresses with regards to the extreme pressures that the gaokao system is placing on the shoulders of both students and teachers.

I feel quite sure that an examination of Chinese society would reveal many highly successful individuals who have achieved much in their lives and for their communities without a degree from a “top university”. Just as there are many in my own country who without the aid of an Oxford or Cambridge degree have become leaders and innovators throughout the world. Furthermore, there are great numbers of individuals who without the aid of a university education  at all, make a significant impact on the daily lives of those who they now serve as nurses, teachers, shop workers, cleaners, taxi drivers or any one of a million or more essential jobs that keep our societies moving.

I wish good luck to all Chinese students sitting for the gaokao this year, but please remember that if you do not secure a place in a “top university” or indeed any university at all, this does not make you an inadequate person or any less valuable to the society that you live in, and to which you can undoubtedly contribute with great success in the future.

 

 

Mary’s learning is making a difference

 

Mary Feng Yan, a lifelong learner and leader in inclusive education in China

Mary Feng Yan, a lifelong learner and leader in inclusive education in China

A few hour ago I arrived in Beijing. I have been to China a few times in the past, but this is my first visit to the capital city. Sadly I will only be here for twenty four hours before moving on to Ürümqi with my colleague Professor Meng Deng to attend a conference and work with teachers, so I am likely to see nothing more of Beijing than the airport, a hotel and a university meeting room.

On previous journeys to China I have been in the company of a former PhD student Mary Feng Yan, but for a very good reason Mary is unable to be here this time. Whilst I am in China, Mary is attending a UNESCO meeting in Brussels with researchers, administrators and other officials working in the field of inclusive education. Having been selected to be the Chinese representative at this meeting I know she will make a very fine contribution to the deliberations there in Belgium.

My thoughts turned to Mary during the long flight from Birmingham to Beijing, as I reflected upon the comments made by the teacher about her perceived lack of need for further professional development discussed on this blog yesterday. Mary was the complete antithesis of this teacher and continues to have a hunger for learning that is truly professional. It is true to say that when she arrived in Northampton, initially to study on the MA programme, Mary had never heard the term inclusive education. Within a very short time she had read several of the key texts in this area and was beginning to question everything about the education systems with which she was familiar. Her appetite for learning was immense and led her to engage with a number of research projects, to attend conferences and seminars and develop her own views of inclusive schooling.

Following successful completion of the MA, Mary continued her studies and undertook research into inclusive education within a Chinese context. Specifically she examined issues of teacher motivation in respect of working with children with special educational needs and disabilities. As I had come to expect from her, Mary worked hard, and being a perfectionist gave a hundred per cent commitment to her research and writing. As a consequence of these professional endeavours Mary sailed through her viva voce, examined by Professor Roger Slee an internationally respected leader in this field and returned to China to make full use of her new doctoral status and armed with a wealth of learning. Furthermore, shortly after the viva, Roger Slee asked Mary to write a book based upon her research in a series that he was editing. This was an accolade indeed.

Mary is regularly in touch with me and is now participating in a major research project in China with my colleague Professor Philip Garner. She has faced many challenges in convincing all of her colleagues of the contribution of more inclusive teaching approaches in schools, though the importance of her work continues to be recognised internationally, hence the invitation to Brussels. As with all teachers and their students, I am immensely proud of her achievements and watch her developing career with great interest. I know that she continues to ask critical questions and to challenge her own learning and thereby maintains a commitment to her own professional development as well as that which she delivers for the benefit of others.

During the next few days here in China I will be using some of Mary’s research to demonstrate her critical thinking in respect of the development of inclusion here. At the same time colleagues in Belgium will be interested to hear about her work there. Mary’s influence may grow more quickly outside of China than within her home country, but then we are all familiar with the challenges faced by prophets in their own land.

Old dogs and new tricks

These teachers are students on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education Programme in Bangalore. They are totally committed to the improvement of teaching and learning in their classroom. And furthermore they have certainly taught this old dog a few new tricks!

These teachers are students on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education Programme in Bangalore. They are totally committed to the improvement of teaching and learning in their classrooms. And furthermore they have certainly taught this old dog a few new tricks!

I had what I would regard as a somewhat bizarre conversation with a teacher yesterday. This discussion took place in the car park at the university where I chanced upon this young woman, who I recognised as a teacher in a local school that I visited recently. In order to make polite conversation I enquired after her school and asked why she was visiting the university. Apparently she had just left a meeting related to teacher training and school placements and was now on her way home. Simply in jest I said to her “I thought perhaps you had come to sign up for the MA programme,” but I was then somewhat taken aback by her response. “I have been teaching for twelve years, what possible benefit would the MA course have for me?” I must have looked a little stunned, so she added (just for good measure), “I’m sure there are plenty of poor teachers out there who would benefit from a bit of extra training, but I’m not one of them.”

I must confess that I was initially speechless (not something I experience often), but eventually managed to splutter some ill-conceived response about even the best teachers always being prepared to consider new ideas, develop their thinking and inquire about their own professional practice. However, by then she was getting into her car and assuring me that she had all the learning she needed to do her job effectively.

Now I don’t know this teacher very well. I do know the head of the school where she works, who has previously mentioned that she is an excellent practitioner with the potential to move on to a headship of her own. I have no reason whatever to doubt that this may well be the case. I am none the less perturbed by the thought that any teacher might honestly believe that they have gained all the learning they need. Is this over confidence or arrogance I wonder? In my experience the best teachers have always been those who are hungry for more knowledge, keen to reflect upon and challenge their own practice, and exercised about how they can continue to move their own professional understanding forward. That has always seemed to me to be the mark of a true professional. But maybe it is me that is out of touch and perhaps the truth is that teaching is much easier than I always thought, or maybe it has simply become a mechanical operation, which once the basic skills have been acquired never needs to be modified.

At present my colleagues in Bangalore are busy recruiting students for a new cohort to begin studies on our MA programme in September. I am aware that the decision to join this course demands a great deal of thought on behalf of busy teachers. The additional demands upon their time through attendance on a course is inevitably an important factor in their decision about whether to join, or not. What will the tutors be like? Will I cope with the assessed tasks? Will the other students know more than me? Will I be able to apply this new learning in my clasroom? I am sure all of these questions and more go through their mind. I am equally sure from what I hear from those who join the course that they find it challenging but fun. They report that it has an impact on their classroom practice and develops their confidence as teachers.

Fortunately there are still colleagues working in education who see the need to challenge their own professionalism, to keep learning and inquiring about the vocation that they love. This is always heartening and encouraging to those of us who try to support our colleagues in their professional development.

I am sure that Philip, one of my recent PhD students will not object to me telling you of his experience. When he applied to become a PhD student, after many years of teaching and working as an educational psychologist, Philip suggested to me that he would probably not be deemed suitable for study at this level because of his age (let’s just say that his sixtieth birthday was a while back). As someone who advocates inclusion I was certainly not going to turn him away. Last week, after three years hard full time study he had his final viva voce examination and will soon graduate with the title Doctor before his name. Now here is someone who truly appreciates the need to continue to challenge his own learning, and I have no doubt that he will also put this new learning to good effect.

If you are hovering around a decision to take a course for your professional development, go ahead and take the plunge. I’m sure your pupils will benefit and hopefully it will also be fun.

Shaking a stick is unlikely to solve many problems!

Is there an inspector coming soon to your home? Will you make the parenting quality mark?

Is there an inspector coming soon to your home? Will you make the parenting quality mark?

Throughout my teaching career and certainly when I was head teacher, I believed that schools should be supportive of parents and recognise the important role that they play in the education of their children. As parents my wife and I were always committed to supporting our sons’ schools in any way that we could. We were similarly focused on supporting their learning whether this was through help with homework, attending parents’ evenings or transporting them to music lessons, swimming classes, cricket coaching or scouts. In these simple acts we were doing no more than the majority of parents want to do for their children.

It is no secret that there are some parents who for a variety of reasons do not offer the levels of support to their children that we would all wish to see. Is there a teacher anywhere who has not at some time been engaged in staffroom conversations about “the parents we never see” or those who are seen as inept or even negligent? I am sure that this has been the case throughout history. I am equally sure that even those of us who would regard ourselves as being good parents have, at some point, been less than perfect in our support of our children or their schools.

A conversation with a PhD student this morning led me to look at today’s Times newspaper. This was prompted by the obvious anger and furious response that this particular student, herself a parent and teacher, had to a feature on the front page. The article about the role of parents in the education of their children, or rather the outburst that prompted it to feature so prominently in the Times is reported across the UK media and has raised both hackles and questions. My own reaction to the reported messages is one of amazement and whilst I find that there is little to be gained by personalising situations, I am rather dismayed that the Chief Inspector of Schools in England has launched a tirade against what he sees as “bad parents”.

Sir Michael Wilshaw was himself a head teacher and has many years of teaching experience in schools and as an education administrator. In his article he reflects on his time as a head teacher when :-

“If parents didn’t come into school, didn’t come to parents’ evening, didn’t read with their children, didn’t ensure they did their homework, I would tell them they were bad parents”.

In his new role, as Chief Inspector of Schools, a position that carries a lot of influence, he states:-

“I think head teachers should have the power to fine them. It’s sending the message that you are responsible for your children no matter how poor you are.”

Whilst I agree that we should encourage parents to be as supportive of their children and the schools they attend as possible, I am not convinced that either the language he uses or his understanding of family situations are presented in a helpful manner. In particular I have concerns for some of the expressions used in this report.

Firstly, I am not sure how telling parents that they are “bad” remediates the situation. Simply applying a negative label does not enable a situation to improve. I recall when I was a head teacher I had several conversations with parents who had themselves had negative experiences of schooling as children. Often for these parents attending school, having to talk to teachers who they often saw as living totally different lives from their own, was a daunting experience. I
remember one mother telling me that she was physically sick before coming to a parents evening as she knew her son had learning difficulties and felt that she would be blamed.

I also recall going to visit parents who were unable to attend parents evenings because of family or work commitments. Arranging child care, or in one particular instance care for a sick wife presented challenges that it would have been easy to overlook. These were not “bad parents” but rather those in situations, not of their own choosing that may make them to appear inadequate in the eyes of Sir Michael Wilshaw.

Of equal concern is the notion that these apparently “bad parents” come from poor backgrounds and that they use this as an excuse for not supporting their children. The annals of child negligence and abuse record many instances where those from privileged backgrounds have been as guilty as any of poor parenting. Why single out those from poorer backgrounds as being more inclined to such “bad parenting.”

Finally, I am intrigued by the idea that head teachers should be placed in the role of policeman, judge and jury in imposing sentences and fines upon parents. This does not sound like the role of a head teacher in a caring school, and certainly not one that many head teachers known to myself would want to adopt. In my experience, and that of many of my colleagues, making the effort to engage with parents through positive actions and by recognising that they often have difficulties to confront in their lives which they see as overwhelming is more likely to reap benefits for both children and families.

Yes, there are inadequate parents, ineffective teachers and also poor inspectors. But surely working together to support each other in a process of improvement is better than shaking a stick and making furious noises – though of course this does not gain you the publicity that you may crave.

Inclusion – attitude more than location

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I visited a school today to observe a student teacher on teaching practice working with a class of children with special educational needs. Jennifer is in her second year of training as an early-years teacher and has opted to do this placement in a local special school. This is a bold decision for a young lady whose limited experience to date has all been in mainstream settings.

The children attending the special school where Jennifer is currently based have a range of learning difficulties and in some instances additional social, emotional and behavioural issues. In an ideal situation these pupils would be in mainstream schools, and the fact that they are receiving their education in segregated provision is more of an indicator of the lack of readiness of the mainstream to accept them than an indictment of those teachers who are currently committed to them in the special school. Students training to be teachers through the university are given the option of such a placement, most decline and those who take up this offer often do so with some apprehension.

I observed Jennifer working with her class today for about forty five minutes. She was well organised and prepared, made good use of available resources for teaching her English lesson and managed the two teaching assistants in her class effectively. Jennifer had clearly established a strong rapport with the children in her class and they gave every indication that they were enjoying the lesson. Knowledge of the needs of each individual in her class was an obvious strength of Jennifer’s teaching, but above all I was impressed by her expectations that all of the class would succeed and her calm and friendly approach to each individual.

Jennifer has taken the opportunity to learn as much as she can about the needs of every child in her class, but what was most reassuring to me was the fact that she regarded each individual as having the potential to learn, just as she would have done in a mainstream class. Whilst these children are attending a special school she is determined that they will all be fully included in learning. It may be argued that these children are not being included in the sense that most would understand the term, but they were certainly all engaged in the excellent activities that Jennifer had planned and were able to articulate their learning successes very well.

We need to think about situations such as that witnessed in Jennifer’s class today with some care. Certainly I believe that in an ideal situation these children would be located within mainstream classrooms. However, inclusion is not simply a case of location and I would contend that I have seen some pupils in mainstream schools who have not had good access to learning and are simply placed within a class. What Jennifer demonstrated to me today was that she had an inclusive attitude, based upon a determination that all children in her class would be challenged and would have an opportunity to learn. I believe that wherever she ends up teaching her pupils will benefit from this inclusive approach.

I am optimistic that as more student teachers like Jennifer have opportunities to work with children who are perceived to challenge the mainstream environment, so will they recognise that all children can learn and that their skills as teachers hold good whatever the situation. I feel confident that in the future, when confronted by children who may be perceived to be problematic because of their learning or behavioural difficulties, Jennifer will remember the work she has been doing with this class in recent weeks and feel ready to meet the challenge. Hopefully this means that children such as those in her current class will have greater opportunities to become effective learners in the future.

So thank you Jennifer for the privilege of watching you teach today, and good luck for what I am sure will be a successful teaching career.