Making a distinction between attainment and achievement

These children want to show me their work because they are, quite rightly, proud of their achievement. But I wonder if their teachers are mostly concerned with their attainment?

These children want to show me their work because they are, quite rightly, proud of their achievement. But I wonder if their teachers are mostly concerned with their attainment?

Yesterday my good colleagues Mary and Julian asked me to do a short session with a group of special educational needs co-ordinators attending a course at the University of Northampton. Special educational needs co-ordinators (usually abbreviated as SENCos) have a statutory duty to manage provision for children described as having special educational needs in schools. In recent years teachers holding this post have been encouraged to take an accredited course focused upon providing them with the knowledge, skills and understanding required to manage the job efficiently.

Mary and Julian, along with other excellent colleagues provide a popular course based upon their years of experience and focused upon the ever changing demands made of teachers in schools, so to be asked to contribute to their course was something of a privilege. The session I delivered appeared to be well received, despite the failure of the projector, which meant that I had to proceed without the use of power point (a crutch upon which I feel sure we have all become too dependent). Whilst the teaching seemed to go well, as is often the case with sessions of this nature some of the best learning took place through the discussion at the end of the period.

During the session I had suggested to the SENCos that a critical part of their job was to assist teachers in considering the achievements of all pupils rather than simply concentrating upon their attainment. The distinction between achievement and attainment is one that I feel to be important, but does not always receive the attention that it might. Indeed, in some circumstances I have seen these terms used as if they have the same meaning, which they most certainly do not. There are, I would suggest, pupils who despite their attainment being well below age expectation, may be achieving far more than their most able peers. I have experienced this situation many times over my years of teaching. I have witnessed children who make far more progress in the development of, for example, their reading skills over a year than others in the class, but at the end of the year, because of the way we conduct assessments, their attainment remains behind that of their peers. They have made progress but not “caught up” and are therefore still seen as poor learners. The obsession of our education system with comparison of results across national and even international cohorts of similar aged pupils does a disservice to these learners and to those who teach them.

Similarly, in England, in common with many other countries, we have become fixated with academic attainment in a limited number of subjects and in particular mathematics and English. Sadly this means that some pupils who perform below average in these subjects, yet demonstrate outstanding performance in other subjects such as physical education, art or cookery, are not valued for their achievements when compared to their more “academic” peers. This denies the importance of these subjects and those who teach them, and also gives a message to children that being an accomplished athlete, artist, or cook is of no real significance.

I was however, heartened yesterday by one of the SENCos on the course who told me that her school had moved from the use of individual education plans based around targets to address learning weaknesses, to the introduction of a system that is focused upon pupil strengths. This means that a pupil who may be struggling in mathematics or English, or both, but who is an excellent swimmer or actor or musician, or who contributes through voluntary work in his community, has these achievements noted prominently in this new form of pupil assessment and recording. This does not prevent teachers setting targets for improvements in learning but does begin with identifying their strengths and enabling them to feel good about what they have achieved. A recent visit by inspectors to this teacher’s school had commended them for the attention given to the strengths of their pupils and the impact this has upon their self-esteem.

Listening to this SENCo talking about her experience and to the assent given to this approach from her colleagues was uplifting at a time when so many teachers feel that pupils with special educational needs are being placed at a disadvantage by bureaucratic assessment and reporting systems. I am quite sure that the actions taken by this school were seen as possibly high risk by the head teacher and staff, and they are to be commended for having the courage of their convictions to go against current trends in focusing solely upon academic attainment. This enables me to continue as promised, with a few days of optimistic stories demonstrating the progress being made towards a more inclusive educational approach.

Please, let’s not see children as business assets!

What is the value of a child?

What is the value of a child?

I am very uncomfortable with the marketization of education. Once children become commodities we lose touch with their humanity and personality and are in danger of forgetting what schools should be about. Yet I see some evidence that in legislations around the globe, schools are increasingly being treated as businesses with managers seeking to make a profit.

This came to the forefront of my thinking yesterday when Suchitra Narayan from Kochi in Kerala posted a response on this blog (Ever Decreasing Circles 12th May). Suchitra has been an advocate for inclusion for many years and has clearly been affronted by the attitude of a school in the area where she works. Here, a mainstream school had established a working partnership with a special school in order to begin a process of moving a child from segregated provision to learn alongside his peers. Examples of this joint approach to working have been cited from many parts of the world and have been seen as a positive step towards enabling children to be gradually accepted into a mainstream classroom. In schools where the staff may lack the confidence to move directly into fully including a child, the support of specialist provision has often been seen as an appropriate way of working. However, alarm bells are now ringing for Suchitra who tells us that:-

“Apparently the special school has told them yesterday, that unless they attend all days in the special school, their names will be struck off the list…as only full attendance will help the special school get grants!!”

So then, here is the motivation for keeping a child on roll, his or her presence there will attract financial rewards!

What does this tell us about the attitudes of the managers of a school that sees the child in financial terms rather than as an individual with a need, and indeed a right to receive an education?  The school apparently wants this child, not because they can provide him with the best of educational experiences, but simply because he will attract a financial grant to boost the coffers of the school.

I promised yesterday that I was going to post a series of optimistic reports – or to be more accurate I asked for positive responses to the Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action that would enable me to tell positive stories. So far everything I have posted in today’s piece sounds rather negative, for which I apologise. So let me then turn this around and tell you of a story that is the direct opposite of that provided by Suchitra.

Here in Northamptonshire, in a small town often regarded as having many social problems, a local head teacher declared that any child living within the catchment of his school would be welcome to attend. Furthermore, he would never exclude a child from the school and saw it as his responsibility and that of his staff, to serve all children in the area. Over the next few years he fought many battles, initially with some anxious teachers, some with parents who didn’t want their children taught alongside a pupil on the autism spectrum or with a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), some with psychologists who insisted on labelling children in inappropriate ways. He was, however, firm in his belief that children had a right to attend their neighbourhood school. He always listened politely to parents and won most of them around to his way of thinking, though sadly, a few decided to take their offspring elsewhere.

This head teacher committed himself to ensuring that all of his staff, not only the teachers, had access to high quality professional development and that there was open discussion about some of the challenges that existed around teaching and learning in inclusive classrooms. The reputation of the school grew and it was soon recognised as a centre of excellence for teaching in respect of all children. Consecutive inspection reports applauded the school for its contribution to the local community, its commitment to social justice and the quality of teaching and learning.

All this happened around twenty years ago and raised the eyebrows of many other headteachers in the area. When the head teacher left twelve years after beginning this initiative, I observed the school with some concerns. Would the new school leadership be able to continue along these inclusive lines or would there now be issues around children labelled as having special educational needs? I need not have worried. The culture of inclusive teaching and community commitment is now so embedded in that school that all of the staff, parents and other professionals simply see what is happening as the norm. The school continues to serve all children in its neighbourhood, regardless of need or ability.

How have they succeeded? I think the answer to this is quite simple. For the school community every child is a valued and respected individual. Not valued in monetary terms, but rather as a child with an entitlement to learning.

Take heart Suchitra. Development takes time, but with determined teachers who are committed to inclusive principles much can and will be achieved. So I hope that my confidence in and admiration for the dedication of colleagues in a school here has begun to fulfil my promise of a few days at least of optimistic postings.

Ever decreasing circles

The Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action was intended to promote a more inclusive education system internationally. Has it had an impact where you live?

The Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action was intended to promote a more inclusive education system internationally. Has it had an impact where you live?

Tim Loreman from Canada has been a regular respondent to this blog since it was first started. Whenever he posts his thoughts he has something interesting and often challenging to say, and I find myself thinking about his words and their implications for those of us working for the promotion of a more just and inclusive education system.  On June 8th Tim made a number of observations in response to a piece I had written Avoiding uncomfortable issues will not help children in which I reported on debates at a recent seminar in Cambridge UK, to discuss progress in supporting the development of education in countries experiencing social and economic difficulties.

In Tim’s response he directed readers towards a series of podcasts under the title ‘The Scholarship of Inclusive Education’ that he has recently produced. These feature interviews with a number of widely published writers and researchers most of whom have worked for the promotion of inclusive education for more than twenty five years. These recordings present the thoughts of individuals from several parts of the world, including Roger Slee (Australia), Phyllis Jones (USA) and Chris Forlin (Hong Kong) and are a useful resource for students, teachers and researchers working in this area. You can listen to them at http://education.concordia.ab.ca/inclusionpodcast/ I certainly intend using these interesting interviews for teaching purposes.

Amongst the recordings there is a discussion with Professor Mel Ainscow, a long standing colleague who has written and researched in the area of inclusion over a very long period. He has also acted as a consultant and advisor to government departments in the UK and internationally. Mel always has something interesting to say and in this recording is was noticeable that both Tim and myself picked up on his assertion that he feels:-

“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”.

The Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action initiated by UNESCO, was signed by representatives of 92 countries in 1994 making a commitment to promote more equitable education systems internationally, and to ensure that those children who have been denied access to mainstream education as a result of their special educational needs or disabilities gain a place in an appropriate school. At the time it was anticipated that this might be a significant driving force for change, and indeed it was a spur for policy makers, academics and teachers to debate educational provision around the world. Such is the significance of this document that it is cited in policies, academic papers and other publications and portrayed as one of the most influential documents in education internationally. For this reason I am not wholly in agreement with Mel Ainscow about change. At least the issues of children’s rights to education have been well debated, and this may not have happened without the influence of The Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action.

The frustration expressed by Mel and many of us working in this field is, I feel, most closely related to the fact that many individuals and policy makers still regard children and families as being the problem within the inclusion debate. How do we solve the problems of disabled children in schools? What are we to do with disaffected youth? How can we address the challenges presented by dysfunctional families? These and other similar questions appear to dominate much of the education debate and place the blame for educational shortcomings firmly at the door of those for whom we would claim to have concerns and some responsibility. Many of us have long felt that it is not these individuals and groups who constitute the challenge, but rather the inflexibility of our approach to schooling and our interpretations of the purpose of education. Are we simply rehearsing old arguments and going around in ever decreasing circles? As Tim stated in his response to my earlier item, we have spent so much time debating the nature of inclusion that this has become displacement activity and it has stopped us doing too much about it. This was never the idea behind Salamanca, which was intended to be a catalyst for action rather than simply a talking point for academics and policy makers.

So, I wonder what we would see as the successes of the inclusion debate that has raged over the twenty year period since that seminal meeting in Salamanca? To what extent has it impacted upon the lives of children? What actions have resulted from this debate where you live? It is easy to be pessimistic and to feel that progress is terribly slow, but surely some of you have examples of successes and commitment to improve the lives of children who have previously been marginalised within education and wider society.

I would like to make this the start of a period of optimism on this blog. To report on actions that have changed the lives of children and families. To highlight the achievements of children, teachers and others in the campaign for inclusion. I’m sure some of you must have good news to report and hope that you may be willing to share this with a wider audience. I am ever optimistic about hearing from you.

 

 

Poverty: a consequence of inactivity

poverty-no-accident

Contrast these two excerpts from recent news reports, both of which refer to the current situation in the UK.

Despite the financial crisis, the total number of millionaires in Britain has risen by 50% over the last four years (The Week May 16th 2014)

3.5 million children will be in poverty by 2020 (BBC News Website June 9th 2014)

How are we supposed to interpret these two contrasting statements? Should we be concerned? I suspect that this depends on your point of view. Possibly, if you find yourself in the category of those individuals mentioned in the first report you may feel comfortable and even satisfied with your situation. By contrast, if you are the parent of one of the children referred to in the BBC report you are likely to be anxious, worried and possibly angry. However, we should not assume that those who find themselves in a position of affluence are not concerned for the welfare of those in poverty, or that those struggling to survive don’t in some ways feel sorry for those who are most wealthy (this is a serious point). Fortunately there are many wealthy individuals in this country, as in others who are challenging the moral status of a society in which these starkly contrasted situations co-exist.

Of course, the disparities between individuals living in wealth and poverty can be found in all countries, but today I am most concerned for the situation here in the UK. In 2010 the then Labour government passed the Child Poverty Act and put plans into place to challenge those conditions that lead to deprivation and social exclusion. A target was set to reduce the number of children living in absolute poverty (a measure related to median income levels) to below 5%. It has just been announced that this target is now seen not only to be unattainable, but for the first time since the 1960s there will be no reduction in child poverty this decade.

I asked if we should be concerned about this trend. We most certainly should if we recognise the consequences of such levels of societal inequality. Evidence suggests that as poverty increases so does the potential for social tension, increased disaffection and decline in standards of health. Poverty can be a significant cause of disability as a result of malnutrition, poor access to health care and inadequate housing conditions. All of these factors have significant impact upon the stability of communities and the overall economic welfare of the nation.

It will, quite rightly, be argued that the levels of poverty in the UK cannot compare to those seen in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, or some South American or Asian countries. Poverty may well be a relative term and clearly manifests itself at different levels from country to country. However, when poverty is set to increase in what is still seen as one of the world’s most stable economies, there is surely cause for us to be worried. In particular we should be concerned that in a nation with such affluence our political leaders appear to be either unable or unwilling to tackle an issue that is set to blight the lives of so many children. The inactivity of policy makers in this area results in the apportioning of blame to those very individuals most at risk of falling into poverty, and places an additional burden of care upon those charities, agencies and concerned professionals who express concern. Of course, a realignment of current socio-economic policies could do much to arrest this decline in the nation’s status. Unfortunately I see little evidence that this is likely to happen and suspect that before long it will fall to the lot of teachers, social workers and medical professionals to pick up the pieces from the fallout resulting from increased child poverty. I am normally a very optimistic individual, but both of the news reports cited above left me somewhat depressed.

The spirit of protest remains alive and well in India

If parents and teachers were able to join together to ensure the implementation of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, it would eventually be impossible to ignore their voices

If parents and teachers were able to join together to ensure the implementation of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, it would eventually be impossible to ignore their voices

I recently finished reading Ramachandra Guha’s excellent book “Gandhi Before India.” Guha is one of my favourite writers on India, and along with John Keay and William Dalrymple has provided detailed insights into the many historical influences upon the development of that complex country. In this, Guha’s most recent book, he demonstrates how Gandhi’s experiences whilst training for the law in England, but more especially during his time in South Africa, were critical in shaping his social and political theories, and even more so his confidence as a leader and social reformer. In his early days in Natal, Gandhi was far from the confident and astute leader of men and spiritual guide that he became in the second half of his life. In “Gandhi Before India,” Guha discusses how Gandhi’s association with supportive Europeans and local Indian and Chinese leaders in South Africa and his reading of Tolstoy and Ruskin alongside the works of great Indian thinkers such as Raychandbhai, helped him to develop as an astute politician and community activist.

I have been reading Gandhi’s own writings alongside much of what has been written about him for the past forty years, and have come to admire him not as a saintly figure, as he is commonly described in some of the more hagiographic works, but certainly as a great social and political reformer and a man of outstanding principle and humanity. Whilst he was undoubtedly flawed, particularly in  relationships with  his family and in some of his denials of the values of certain aspects of modern science, such as the efficacy of modern medicine, he did provide an example of how we might live for the greater benefit of society, and in support of those who are the most vulnerable members of our communities.

I suspect that many people if asked to describe Gandhi’s greatest achievements  would identify his leadership in the campaign for Indian independence. Furthermore, they are likely to say that he committed himself to achieving this  through the use of nonviolent means and paved the way for other leaders who followed him in various struggles for freedom. Significant world figures such as Dr Martin Luther King junior, and Aung San Suu Kyi have cited Gandhi as influencing their work and the ways in which they have approach their struggles for justice. But it is also true to say that many less influential people have learned much about how they may conduct themselves in order to overcome oppression or injustice through his example. Gandhi gave us satyagraha (roughly translated as “soul force”) as a non-violent means of protest. This is often (wrongly in my opinion) interpreted as passive resistance, a term I don’t like, because the word passive implies that the use of satyagraha requires little action on the part of the protester. This form of protest or demonstration proved highly successful in Gandhi’s campaigns in  South Africa and India and remains a potentially potent means of effecting social and political change.

I was reminded of the importance of protest this morning when catching up with news through various Indian media outlets. My attention was drawn to a picture in the Hindu newspaper (June 5th) of two fathers seated cross legged at the door of the office of the Education Department in Puducherry along with their two children, a girl and a boy. The newspaper article reports that the two men, described as a hawker and a tailor were both protesting that a school, located near their homes was refusing access to their children, despite the requirements of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (2009). One of the fathers is quoted as saying:-

“This protest is not only for our children’s admission, we want the State government to implement the RTE Act in letter and in spirit.”

It is reported that the police eventually removed the protesters who were then allowed to return home.

A search across Indian media indicates that such protests are becoming increasingly common in various parts of India. Scores of parents from Pollachi, Mettupalyam and other parts of the Coimbatore district staged a sit-in protest at the offices of the Chief Educational Officer in the city on Saturday. These parents claim that schools are refusing to admit students  under the requirements of the RTE that expects the reservation of a quota to enable students from poorer families, scheduled castes or scheduled tribes, or those with disabilities to gain access to school. Some of the protesters claim that private schools were admitting children from “affluent families”  stating that they were legitimate candidates under the requirements of the Act.

Similar reports of protests can be found from many parts of India and it is clear that an Act that was well intentioned and gave a commitment to improve the educational opportunities of previously marginalised groups, has run into  difficulties.

At present the protests appear to be small scale and ill-coordinated and as such their impact is somewhat muted. However, in a democratic nation the right to protest is recognised and the voices of individuals and groups who feel that they are aggrieved can be heard. The spirit of non-violent protest is clearly alive and well in India and is being used in support of children and their right to receive a better education. I am sure that Gandhi would have approved of these potential new satyagrahis, though I also suspect that he would be raising his eyes at the fact that there appears to be little co-ordinated national response, towards those who are failing to ensure the fair implementation of an Act intended to change the face of Indian education.

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.

To be childlike may be a work of genius

L'Ane Vert by Marc Chagall. Childlike genius with a broad appeal

L’Ane Vert by Marc Chagall. Childlike genius with a broad appeal

I was in a school staff room briefly this morning and noticed a postcard pinned to a noticeboard depicting a painting with which I am familiar from the Tate Britain Gallery in London. As I was looking at the picture one of the teachers commented that it had been sent to the staff by a colleague who had recently retired, and that when it had arrived several of the teaching staff thought that the picture was of a painting done by a child. The picture “L’Ane vert” (The Green Donkey) was in fact painted by Marc Chagall the Russian artist who spent much of his life in France, where he died in 1985. Looking at the card I could see how someone may describe the picture with its somewhat naïve depiction of people, flowers and centre stage a sea green donkey, as somewhat childlike. However, I am sure that anyone looking closely at the original would have to agree, that it has been superbly crafted and composed and that it would take a child with real genius to produce work of this quality. Perhaps this creative genius is less easily seen on a postcard reproduction.

The conversation with this teacher was on my mind this evening and I found myself pondering a number of questions. Not least, about what it means to produce work that in its apparent simplicity achieves a childlike quality. I use the term childlike, as opposed to childish, because as I said, I cannot imagine “L’Ane vert” being produced by a child. One of the beauties of work such as this, is that children can often relate to the simple meaning of the picture and appreciate the way in which the artist has imagined and portrayed his subject.

When thinking about this encounter in the school this morning, I was reminded of a recent visit to the New Walk Museum and Gallery in Leicester with our good friends Tina and Philip. The museum houses a magnificent collection of ceramics produced by Pablo Picasso and donated to the gallery by Lord Richard Attenborough the actor and film director who won an Oscar for his direction of Gandhi. From 1954 Richard Attenborough along with his wife Sheila, became regular visitors to the Madoura pottery in Vallauris Southern France, where Picasso was based and worked for a number of years. Gradually over the years they built a collection of Picasso’s pottery and in 2007 as a memorial to their daughter and granddaughter tragically killed in the Tsunami of December 2004, they donated the collection to Leicester, the city in which Richard Attenborough was brought up as a child. The exhibition features plates, figures and jugs made by Picasso many of which feature simple designs depicting fish, birds or animals, or childlike human faces. As with Chagall’s painting, there is a directness and simplicity about many of these works, a playfulness that could be described as childlike.

This view of Picasso’s pottery was reinforced by a small collection of letters and drawings sent to the Leicester museum and gallery, from children who had recently visited as part of a school excursion. Amongst them was a simple crayon drawing on paper produced by a child under the heading “This is what I found out about their work.” Presumably the children had been asked to look at the work of various artists in the gallery and write something about these. This particular child’s work provided a charming representation of one of the Picasso plates “The pipe player.” Beneath the drawing the child had written:-

“I thought that Pablo Picasso painting was filled with different colours and it was like a little child had made the picture.”

Another childlike work of art exhibited at Leicester's New Walk Art Gallery and celebrating a child's appreciation of Pablo Picasso

Another childlike work of art exhibited at Leicester’s New Walk Art Gallery and celebrating a child’s appreciation of Pablo Picasso

This young artist had clearly related to Picasso’s “picture on a plate” and could see in its simplicity something to which he could relate as a creative force that is innate in most children. Far from being overawed by the undoubted genius of Picasso, the child viewed this masterpiece as familiar and well within his own compass.

Perhaps what we should take from artists like Chagall and Picasso is the recognition that expression and creativity can, even in the most apparently simple forms communicate to a broad audience. Picasso’s face on a plate had clearly impressed this child, and I suspect many others. Maybe this effect was different from that which the same work had upon myself and any one of the tens of thousands of other visitors who have seen this work of art in Leicester. Maybe that is one of the important contributions that art can make to our lives in reaching out to all of us in different ways and on different levels.

That Picasso and Chagall and many other artists retained a playful childlike quality in some of their work is perhaps an indication of the importance of play and the contribution it could make to all of our lives. Just as art does not need to be solemn and austere, (though at times it can and perhaps should be), neither should the lives of children be wholly controlled by formality and regulation. Those of us working in education would do well to remember this if we hope to see more Chagalls and Picassos in the future.

You can enlarge and enjoy any of the pictures on this page with a simple click of the mouse

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With the right support teachers can deliver.

These children told me that they don't go to school. They also told me that they would like to do so. Let's hope that their prospects may now be improved.

These children told me that they don’t go to school. They also told me that they would like to do so. Let’s hope that their prospects may now be improved.

I imagine that in India at present there must be many people wondering what the new Indian government under the leadership of Mr Narendra Modi may bring to the country. Whilst observing the Indian media I have detected extremes of elation and apprehension at the appointment of the new Prime Minister, and I have no doubt that his every move will be scrutinised over the coming years of his period of office. No matter what political affinities individuals may hold, one can only wonder at the monolithic task of conducting elections in the world’s largest and most diverse democracy. I am today struck by the contrast between the democratic processes that are one of India’s great successes and the sham which purports to be an electoral system in Syria.

As an interested bystander who observes India for the most part from a distance, and relies for news on a not always impartial press and media service, but more so on the discussions I have with friends and colleagues from within the country, I will be particularly curious to see how developments in respect of children and education are advanced under this new administration. The UNESCO Institute of Statistics reported in 2013 that the number of children out of school and therefore not having access to formal education in India is 37.7 million. That equates to approximately fifty percent of the world’s number of out of school children. The National Council for Education in India have been campaigning hard to address this issue, including taking action to the Supreme Court. The monitoring of this figure must surely be a priority for the incoming government.

The Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) (2009) has been a focus of attention for most individuals and groups who are concerned for the education and rights of children from marginalised populations. During his election campaign, Mr Modi, along with other members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promised to  “revitalise and reorganise” education in the country and specifically referred to improving schooling for those with disabilities and from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Since its implementation the RTE has been a source of dispute, anger and disappointment. It is often seen as well-intentioned but cumbersome, with many schools and education administrators finding ways to avoid its implementation.

For those watching developments on this front, the issue of schools seeking minority status from their State Governments, thus allowing them to avoid the retention of 25 percent of their seats for children from socially and economically disadvantaged students, will undoubtedly provide a critical focus. The legislation as it stands lacks clarity and many schools are identifying ways to circumvent the spirit of the Act. In some states, such as Tamil Nadu the target figures for admission of students previously denied education has fallen well below 50 percent of those anticipated. In many instances school principals have claimed that they had no applications from families who fall within the criteria. Critics say that they have adopted a stance aimed at repelling potential applicants and have made clear that such children will not receive a warm welcome.

It is, of course, easy to be critical of these schools and indeed the blatant obstacles that many have put in place are inexcusable. However, if the new government is sincere in addressing the challenge of children denied their educational rights, a first priority must be the preparation of teachers to address a more diverse school population. In my many meetings with teachers in India I have found that whilst some are adamant in their belief that a policy of inclusion should not be adopted, I meet many more who are concerned that they wish to see a more equitable system created. For many, their greatest apprehensions are centred upon their lack of experience of working with children from marginalised groups and their belief that they lack the skills to teach them. Even the most committed teachers who I meet during their attendance on courses, such as the MA programme we run in Bangalore, express some anxieties. If these dedicated professionals have concerns, how much greater must these be amongst those who have not as yet made the commitment to working for the development of inclusive schools?

The next few years are likely to be critical in the development of education in India and the full implementation of the RTE will be an important factor in the success or failure of the school system. I do hope that Mr Modi and his ministers have the courage to push forward the important initiatives that have the intention of improving the lives of millions of children and their families who have lived in poverty and exclusion for too long. Hopefully he will recognise that those who can deliver on these policies for him, the teachers in schools, need professional development and support if they are to succeed. I have the good fortune to work with teachers in India who are keen to deliver for pupils who have previously been denied their right to education, and undoubtedly will deliver given the right support.

 

 

Pictures of lost innocence

Children's art work often depicts their experiences and interests, such as this student's images of school life from Malaysia. However, in some cases they have become a powerful therapeutic tool.

Children’s art work often depicts their experiences and interests, such as this student’s images of school life from Malaysia. However, in some cases they have become a powerful therapeutic tool.

In April 1999, Sara and I spent a few days exploring the historical Czech city of Prague. During our stay we visited many of the interesting sights including the castle, so memorably depicted by the writer Franz Kafka, the art collection at the Schwarzernberský palace and the home of Bedrich Smetana, composer of the patriotic Ma Vlast (My Country). We were also fortunate in obtaining tickets to attend a concert at the Rudolfinum that included Mozart’s Prague symphony and the Czech Suite by Anton Dvořák. However, the most powerful image that remains in my mind from this visit to the Czech capital is that of the Pinkas synagogue, with its poignant reminder of the terrible discriminatory and destructive force of which man can be capable, and which was manifest in the holocaust instigated under the Nazi regime.

The walls of this simple building are inscribed with the names and dates of birth and death of 77,297, Moravian and Bohemian Jewish victims who died in European concentration camps during the second world war. Standing in silence reading these names is a chilling experience, but even this is surpassed when one enters the second part of this memorial. In rooms upstairs at the Pinkas synagogue a permanent collection of children’s drawings from the Terezín ghetto depicts the everyday lives of children who suffered terribly during this dreadful period of history. In order to assist children in their understanding of their lives, to remember better days and commemorate their experiences, a remarkable teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, ran art classes in the ghetto for children and encouraged them to record their troubled lives. Immediately prior to her own deportation to Auschwitz, where she was to die in the camp, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis filled two suitcases with around 4,500 children’s drawings and hid them in the hope that they might last as a permanent memorial to the children’s experiences. These were recovered after the liberation of the country and are now lovingly exhibited at the Pinkas synagogue museum.

Having been moved by the names written on the walls of the synagogue I found myself unable to cope with the powerful images produced by children who had suffered so much under such an evil regime. After ten minutes we could take no more and left emotionally drained and overcome by the messages contained within such simple drawings and paintings. I have often found myself recalling this visit and know that I could not bear to revisit this site, though I am glad that I did so then, and know that in some way the experience reinforced my beliefs about the necessity to challenge the ways in which children continue to be so badly treated in many parts of the world.

Why am I writing about this now? It is 15 years since making that visit to Prague, but this morning the memories of that trip, and particularly the images from the Pinkas synagogue are particularly strong. I am a regular reader of the UNICEF website and switching in to the site this morning came face to face with children’s drawings that were horrendously similar to those seen in Prague. Workers in Bossangoa in the Central African Republic have been encouraging children to reproduce through their art work, memories and experiences of their lives in a country torn apart through conflict. On the UNICEF site there are reproductions of some of these drawings that depict the violence and destruction witnessed by these young innocent victims of war. The use of art as a therapeutic process is articulated by Jean Lokenga, a UNICEF worker who is cited as saying:

“Many displaced children have witnessed violent incidents, and it’s still in their heads. If not addressed immediately, the long-term impact of their exposure to distressing events can be huge.”

The work of UNICEF in many parts of the world has been crucial to the rehabilitation of children and the restoration of some form of normality into their lives. Most children like to draw, but hopefully very few will be placed in a position of doing so in order to cope with the horrors of everyday life. Our reactions to the images that children produce are often emotional. In the case of drawings such as these they should surely prompt us to rail against the injustices and maltreatment that has become a part of the daily lives of innocent victims around the world. It would appear that in the words of George Santayana “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

An article about the drawings produced by children from the Central African Republic can be found at:-

http://blogs.unicef.org.uk/2014/05/30/drawing-helps-children-cope-trauma-central-african-republic/