Avoiding uncomfortable issues will not help children

Are the people who live in this slum community to be blamed for their own poverty? There appears to be some who would suggest that this is a reasonable argument.

Are the people who live in this slum community to be blamed for their own poverty? There appears to be some who would suggest that this is a reasonable argument.

Several months ago on this blog I wrote a series of short pieces in response to the Global Monitoring Report on progress towards the Education For All (EFA) goals (February 2014). This report considers the actions taken to improve educational opportunities focused in the main on those who live in socio-economic disadvantage or in areas racked by conflict or natural disaster. The EFA goals are to be revised next year with a new programme of actions to be announced by UNESCO which will hopefully renew the focus upon the state of the world’s children.

Amongst the many criticisms of the Global Monitoring Report was the lack of attention given to children with disabilities who constitute a significant proportion of the world’s children who are out of school. Placing an exact figure on this excluded group is far from easy, but I was reminded in an email earlier this week by an esteemed colleague, Professor Peter Mittler, that a lack of focus upon this population devalues the interpretation of the statistics provided within the UNESCO report. There can be few individuals who have campaigned more avidly for the educational rights of disabled children over the past fifty years, and in my experience, when Peter expresses concerns we should all take notice.

Peter had been prompted to write to me on seeing the programme for a seminar held at Cambridge University at which I had been invited to speak on the topic of respectful research when working in international contexts. Quite rightly he was not particularly interested to hear what I had to say, but far more concerned that this seminar should place the issue of the education of children disabilities at the centre of debate. The seminar, sponsored by the British Association for International and Comparative Education  (BAICE) had the title “Education for Social Justice: Framing an Agenda for Disability Research and Action in the Global South” and brought together representatives from Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and academics researching in the area of children’s rights, inclusion and disability. I must say that these types of events are often characterised by the generation of a lot of hot air and it is not unusual to come away feeling quite frustrated that little of substance has been discussed, and that our understanding of issues has failed to move forward. Yesterday’s event provided a very pleasant exception to this rule.

Unlike many seminars dealing with complex issues, those in attendance at this event were prepared to engage in critical debate and did not steer clear of controversy or contention. Professor Pauline Rose (to whom I am not related) confronted some of the concerns about the UNESCO report, accepting that when the 2015 goals are constructed that there is a far greater need to place an emphasis upon disability issues. She was able to present some proposals for these goals following recent discussions at UNESCO that did indeed appear to recognise previous shortcomings.

By far the most lively debates were provoked by the paper given by Professor Helen Penn who presented a critique of the ways in which international non-government agencies have, in her view, pandered to the political agendas of governments, and complied with them in the implementation of narrowly focused and short term strategies of early intervention that place a focus of blame for poverty and exclusion on the very people who are living in destitution and marginalisation. Helen’s paper raised hackles, and especially and not surprisingly amongst the NGO representatives in the room. As often happens in the heated debate that followed, some of the rationality of discussion was slightly lost in emotion. But I think that, whilst not agreeing with everything Helen had to say, she raised a number of important points.

We have certainly seen in my own country a government that has identified those who live in poverty and others who have needs associated with disability  being labelled at best as feckless and in many instances singled out as  scroungers and negligent in terms of their personal responsibilities. The move from a caring and humane society to one that seeks scapegoats and apportions blame to the most vulnerable within the country has happened relatively quickly. Helen demonstrated how this is fast becoming a universal trait and that at a time when more people are gaining in wealth and social prosperity, the gap to those living in need is widening and the willingness to improve their circumstances has waned. Helen’s argument is that governments, needing to be seen to take action have looked for short term solutions that emphasise the ineptitude of those in need, rather than attempting to address issues of wider societal change. Hence, for example, a focus upon early intervention aimed specifically at those described as having disabilities, special educational needs or sociability difficulties, which are very visible as actions, rather than addressing wholesale societal change to create greater equality and social justice.

I think that probably most people in the room could agree with much of what Helen had to say. For the representatives of NGOs the uncomfortable feeling that they were in some way complicit in this situation did not sit easily. Personally I felt that those of us in the room who are employed as researchers or academics had no reason to feel guiltless in this situation or complacent about our roles. It is too easy as a researcher to sit on the side-lines and observe what is happening without having the courage to comment on that which we see as having a negative impact upon the lives of children.

The revised goals to be provided in 2015 will be welcomed as a renewal of focus upon critical issues. They will however, only have an impact if more people engage in debates of this nature and make a commitment to get involved in working towards change in the lives of children who remain marginalised in all our countries. If we simply sit back and watch as our political masters continue to blame the most vulnerable members of our society for their own difficulties, rather than challenging this current trend, then we do a disservice not only to those in our classrooms, but also to the dignity of our profession as teachers.

6 thoughts on “Avoiding uncomfortable issues will not help children

  1. Thoughtful post, Richard. In my latest podcast episode (shameless plug!) Mel Ainscow reveals his disappointment that at a recent event to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Salamanca Statement the conversation had not seemed to have changed all that much since 1994. This echoes my own feelings of frustration when I attend this or that conference or meeting and the discussion shifts to “What is inclusion?”. That conversation, it seems to me, just goes around in circles, never ends, and ultimately distracts from the business of getting on with it and making things better for kids. (As an side I’ve tried to address the ‘What is inclusion?’ question definitively many times in articles etc. in order to put it to bed, but still the question re-surfaces). We could all use a good kick in the pants at times – a reality check – and people like Helen, occasionally raising people’s hackles, are exactly what we need.

    As far as Helen’s argument goes, it might be tempting to blame this sort of thing on 4-year election cycles. However, the Alberta experience has shown that even with the same government in power for 40+ years and with a massive, unbeatable majority, long-term thinking of the sort she seems to be advocating is unfortunately in very short supply.

    Regarding my shameless plug above, those interested in listening to ‘The Scholarship of Inclusive Education’ podcast (featuring in one episode an interview with the great Richard Rose) can find it on iTunes or go here:http://education.concordia.ab.ca/inclusionpodcast/

    Apologies for the inappropriate self promotion!

  2. Hi Tim,
    Thanks for this thoughtful response. I agree that we still spend a lot of time trying to define what we mean by inclusion – really it is quite simple, where children are excluded there is no inclusion! (that perhaps sounds a little flippant, it wasn’t intended in that way.

    Mel’s concerns are well justified and I think you are right that we all do need a (metaphorical) kick up the pants in order to move things forward. There are some interesting responses on your pod casts. I may well feature one of them in a coming blog.

    An interesting aspect of the seminar I attended was a somewhat barbed comment I received after my presentation. I suggested that those of us who engage in research should not remain neutral but be active in our pursuit of research as a means of gaining social justice. I was afterwards informed by a “well respected” academic colleague (undoubtedly one of my betters), that researchers who become activists place the research community in jeopardy in terms of access to funding. Heaven forbid that our commitment to fairness for children and families should get in the way of the money!

    • I think that colleague may be confused – as if ‘activism’ and objectivity in research can’t sit side-by-side (they can). I think you and I are activists in as much as we want to see practice follow the path research has shown to be effective. Also, access to funding is surely a secondary consideration. Having a million dollar grant on your CV is pointless if your research went nowhere (unless of course the goal is to brag about how much funded research you do).

  3. Well said Tim. It is important that people know exactly where we stand as researchers and that our research is directed by a moral stance.

  4. Global Monitoring Report addresses on progress towards the Education For All (EFA) goals.. Inclusive education means “that students with disabilities are served primarily in the general education settings, under the responsibility of [a] regular classroom teacher. When necessary and justifiable, students with disabilities may also receive some of their instruction in another setting, such as [a] resource room”.The emphasis, however, is upon the student to fit the system rather than the system to adapt to meet the educational needs of a student. In India, “integrated education” has been provided mainly to students with mild disabilities who are considered “easy” to include into regular school programs.The IEDC program was also designed to promote the retention of children with disabilities in the regular school system.Even after introduction of RTE (Right to Education to all) , people, including parents and school personnel, are largely unaware of the full intent of the recent legislation passed by Indian Parliament. A large number of school personnel are also not aware of funding available to include students with disabilities in regular schools.. This all creates a lot of difficulties for getting admission in regular schools for children with even mild disability..Not all the places are such type of integrated schools are available and even residential schools are a dream for disable children in India but situations are entirely different in foreign countries.. Therefore, unless the challenges are carefully identified and systematically addressed, inclusion will remain a policy on paper. Government (HRD, Social Justice) , NGO, researchers or academics should join together for proper growth inclusive studies for disable children in India..

  5. Hi Meena,
    You are quite right that there is a need for NGOs, researchers, teachers and parents to join forces to work for a more inclusive education system and thereby achieve a more just society. The RTE is certainly well intentioned, but as you rightly state it is not being adequately implemented and supported and in many instances communication about the system is inadequate. This is why encouraging more discussion about this is so important (an why it is good to have you on this forum).
    Your point about fitting children to systems rather than adjusting schools to welcome children is central to the debate. However, we must recognise that many teachers feel ill prepared to address what they see as the challenges posed by a more diverse school population. It is therefore an important responsibility that we have to support them in gaining confidence and feeling that there are colleagues prepared to work with them to understand how inclusive schools can be created. I do feel quite strongly that India has many excellent teachers who are more than capable of accepting this challenge. Unfortunately the lack of a co-ordinated response to training and networking to increase understanding is limiting progress in this area. It is important that committed individuals, such as yourself, take a lead here and encourage others to get involved in debating and thereby understanding the issues at the core of the inclusion agenda. Thanks for your thoughtful posting.

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