Interlude

If a finer mode of transport than the bicycle has been invented I am yet to have discovered it!

If a finer mode of transport than the bicycle has been invented I am yet to have discovered it!

“Nous prendrons le temps de vivre,

 D’être libres, mon amour.

 Sans projets et sans habitudes,

 Nous pourrons rêver notre vie.”

Georges Moustaki

The last few weeks are always a scramble. Can the end of term really be so close? Yes it can – then suddenly it’s here! It does seem that every summer we are taken by surprise. The holiday we have been talking about for months is suddenly upon us, and as in previous years we are not yet prepared. It’s not that we don’t need the break – but just that life moves too fast for us to keep up.

Ready or not, it’s time to go. Our bicycles are loaded and for a few weeks we will bid adieu to turn the pedals and enjoy the delights of the quietest lanes we can find. So, until we return, hopefully renewed and ready for the next round of challenges, I would like to say thank you for reading and leave you with the famous words of Muhammed Ali and several dozen before him – “I will return!”

Suffer the little children

"Everyone, in theory subscribes to an international consensus that schools have only civilian and not military uses." - Gordon Brown. What will it take to move from theory to reality?

“Everyone, in theory subscribes to an international consensus that schools have only civilian and not military uses.” – Gordon Brown.
What will it take to move from theory to reality?

In yesterday’s Guardian newspaper (Monday 28th July 2014) former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote an article under the title Schools on the Frontline. Gordon Brown has always seemed to me to be a man with a strong social conscience. He has often spoken out and indeed chastised government bodies and other organisations on issues of poverty and has been a great supporter of humanitarian causes in Africa. Sadly, in an age of politics that is obsessed with image rather than substance, he was given a rough ride by the media in his role, as the Prime Minister who immediately followed Tony Blair, who by contrast didn’t lack charisma, despite having limited appeal in terms of either his intellectual capital or moral judgement. Perhaps Gordon Brown is a man out of time, but he has never been slow to stand up for those who are oppressed or on behalf of others fighting injustice.

In his eloquent piece in yesterday’s Guardian, Gordon Brown makes an impassioned plea for nations around the world to establish more rigorous guidelines and to take actions for the protection of children and schools in areas of conflict. Clearly disturbed, as many of us have been, by the horrific scenes of children killed or maimed, having taken shelter in what should have been the safe haven of schools in Gaza, Brown constructs an even-handed case for a cessation of the inhumane treatment of children in this devastated war zone. Making clear his view that both the Israeli government and the leaders of Hamas are complicit in this ever worsening war crime, he draws our attention to the irony that exists around the fact that this is the twenty fifth anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, that was enacted to ensure that the vulnerability of childhood was both recognised and protected.

In the Guardian article, the former Prime Minister cites the bombing of the United Nations school in Beit Hanoun in which women, children and neutral UN staff were killed, as an indication of the lack of moral judgement that surrounds this conflict. Israel has targeted schools which they believe to be harbouring armaments or shielding the entrance to tunnels used by Hamas to launch terror attacks on their State, this cannot have been done without the knowledge that innocent people, including children would die. Hamas, if indeed they have been using schools for militaristic purposes are equally culpable in the deaths of these innocents. In situations such as this it is clear that those leaders of the warring factions who attempt to take the moral high ground, are doing so in the knowledge that they are prepared to take whatever despicable actions they see fit in order to pursue their cause.

Gordon Brown’s article whilst balanced in its synopsis of an evil situation contains some strong statements that should be heeded by all who are concerned. He states his belief that:-

“Schools are not only essential to the delivery of opportunity and sustainable development; it is important that even in the darkest of conflicts, children see their schools as sanctuaries, as places of normality and safety. But there is another reason: in times of war, people need material help – food, shelter, healthcare. But they, especially young people, also need hope. It is through education that we do most to communicate the idea that we are planning ahead for a time free of conflict.”

Schools in this passage are seen as a place of hope. Gordon Brown perceives that they can be powerful institutions for the creation of sanctuary and for instilling a sense of values and justice in the minds of children. Education can be a mighty force for democracy, for enabling children to understand the world in which they live and to develop a sense of responsibility for taking it forward in the future. Yet I cannot help feeling when I see the television images from Gaza, and hear the platitudes and cowardly expressions of the politicians on both sides of this conflict, that they lack the capacity or the courage to ensure that children can be educated in this way.

I imagine that today in Gaza there are children whose view of school is significantly changed from what it may have been a month ago. It is distressing to think that many of these children are possibly now seeing school as a place of danger, somewhere they no longer wish to be, a place to fear. Equally disturbing is the fact that many of these children will grow up to hate those who have killed or maimed their friends and families, and that some of these innocents, who are now to have their childhood stolen from them, will be eager to seek revenge and thus perpetuate a situation that has existed in this region for far too long.

The article in the Guardian is only one amongst many that have been published across the media in recent days. Gordon Brown in presenting his case urges not only those with political power, but all responsible adults to stand up and voice their anxieties about this situation, and others across the world where children are being used and targeted in conflict. He draws our attention to the work of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, an organisation desperately trying to achieve some order out of chaos. But I can’t help wondering if the voices of rational people will simply fade and disappear.

To see for yourself the extent to which children have become victims and are abused by conflict across the world watch the video to which I have posted a link below. Scroll down the linked page to find the video.

http://www.protectingeducation.org/get-involved

 

 

 

Who do you think you are talking to?

Working in solitude in a study may have been OK for St Jerome, but if we want our research to have impact I would suggest we should talk to a far broader audience.

Working in solitude in a study may have been OK for St Jerome, but if we want our research to have impact I would suggest we should talk to a far broader audience.

 

“Why isn’t anyone interested in educational research these days?” The question came from a colleague who was clearly feeling a certain amount of frustration and needed someone on whom she could vent her considerable angst. “We do all this work, spend time devising research instruments, collecting data, analysing what we’ve found and then writing reports and papers, but then it seems nobody bothers reading it.” She was clearly having a bad day.

I’m sure I did little to ease her blood pressure by my response and now I am feeling a little guilty about this. “Perhaps more people are reading your work than you know,” I suggested, trying gently to move towards what I really wanted to say. “Or perhaps there would be people who might be interested if they knew about the research.” The minute I uttered this last phrase I knew I should have kept quiet. The repost was wholly predictable and came at me exactly as I should have expected. “But the work is there for all to see, it is published in a well-respected international journal, what else am I supposed to do?”

It is the end of a busy term and I didn’t want to get too deep into a philosophical discussion about why teachers don’t read research papers, or why policy makers appear to ignore empirical studies, so I made a few sympathetic noises, assured my colleague that her work was respected or possibly even revered by those closest to her subject, then made my excuses and left. However, having been subjected to her exasperated outpourings I did go away and think a little more about what she said.

It does seem to me that the problem which my colleague articulated is not so much about the value or efficacy of the research, but is much more closely related to the ways in which it is communicated. As “academics” we are encouraged and indeed expected to publish research in high ranking academic peer reviewed and preferably international journals. These are the rules of engagement that have been established by those “elite researchers” whose concern is to maintain high academic standards and ensure the quality of educational research. This is a perfectly valid system and one to which those of us working in universities have long subscribed. Those who assess the quality and impact of research do so through a journal ranking system, and like so many lemmings we have followed  the leading researchers in the field, in a desperate race to be first over the edge of the cliff. This then is the academic game in which we are all involved.

Returning to the frustrations of my colleague I can therefore sympathise with her dilemma. She wishes to establish herself as an acknowledged authority and key researcher and writer in her field of expertise. In order to do so she has rightly recognised that she has to play the game according to the rules. But returning to her original question, “why isn’t anyone interested in educational research these days?” I would suggest that perhaps she is too concerned with her own status as a researcher and needs to focus more on why educational research may have value. As someone who claims to undertake research because I want to improve the lives of children and their families and teachers, I recognise that this is not going to be achieved unless I can discuss my work directly with them. Publishing papers in journals or presenting my research at an international conference undoubtedly has a place. But the individuals for whom I claim motivation for my work are not going to access either of these outlets. Perhaps as researchers we should spend more time engaging with those whose lives we would hope to improve through our investigations, and less talking to our peers. Maybe we should be exploring ways of disseminating our work that reaches an audience other than our colleagues who are engaged in similar areas of research.

What I am suggesting will not, of course, gain points in the competition for promotion in academic institutions, neither will it attract a great deal of respect from the “elite researchers”, but it might mean that a wider audience expresses interest in research and even informs us about how me should improve and progress our work. Maybe we should be writing in plain English (or whatever other language is most accessible), and publishing in magazines, on websites or through other media that can be readily accessed by those who do not wish to wade through reams of literature, methodological discourse, statistical analysis or academic pontificating. Perhaps a more polymorphous approach whereby we make our work available to a wide range of parties that might include academic researchers, teachers, parents and children will enable research to reach a broader audience and command greater respect.

What is that scream I hear from the editorial board of that highly ranked journal? – Populist nonsense I hear them shout. Yes, that may be true, but I believe that unless we change our ways we are destined to become even more of an irrelevance in the eyes of teachers, policy makers, families and children. Those of you who disagree do carry on talking amongst yourselves!

 

A bibliographic dilemma shelved!

Christopher Hitchens - I never knew you could bring me such relief!

Christopher Hitchens – I never dreamed you could bring me such relief!

Newspapers in England used to refer to this, with some justification, as the silly season. Parliament is in recess, the schools have begun their summer holidays, the sun is shining and the “British public” have fled to the beaches for the annual ritual of pretence that a dip in the cold and murky North Sea on the Norfolk coast, can be likened to frolicking in the Mediterranean. The spirit is one of holiday optimism and I love it. Before long I too will be enjoying a break away from the oppression of e-mails and meetings, freed from a desk and indulging in those leisurely pastimes that I look forward to all year, but recognise as an artificial interlude in the realities of earning a daily living. Yes, the British holiday with its familiarity and orderliness gives us a brief respite, during which it is possible to become immersed in the self-delusion that life could be for ever strawberries and clotted cream.

There is, however, a slightly sinister aspect of the summer break that has troubled me over many years. Whilst others make New Year’s resolutions I always find myself, in the run up to August, making false promises of tasks to be achieved at home whilst away from the university.  For the past couple of years the same impending mission has occupied my mind and has left me with the merest soupcon of personal reproach as I have returned to my work after a couple of weeks of self-indulgence and a failure to accomplish my assignment. But early this morning my mind was eased and I now feel that I can spend a couple of weeks guilt free in the knowledge that I am not alone in my failures.

This Damascene moment came to me from the most unexpected quarter, when having woken early I was enjoying a quiet half hour reading in bed prior to rising for another working day. (Why is it incidentally that as I get older I seem to wake ever earlier?). When I say that relief from my annual summer anxiety came from an unexpected source, I suppose I should not really have been surprised, because my reading this morning involved what I always like to think of as a silent conversation with a writer who has at once the ability to amuse, infuriate, challenge and both confirm and deny my interpretation of the world. The late Christopher Hitchens, man of letters, humanist, scourge of the media, debunker of cant and thoughtful contrarian viewed the world both on a wide screen and through the lens of a microscope. I find myself agreeing with much of what he says and feeling offended by his opinionated arguments in equal measure, which is probably an indication of his genius as an essayist and social commentator.  Yet, never before today has he brought me much relief.

In order to understand the nature of this experience I must return to my afore-mentioned annual mission and its predestined anticipated failure. We live in a house full of books and I would have it no other way. Some visitors (often those who never return actually) suggest that there are too many books. Why, they ask, don’t you have a cull and take some to a local charity shop? After all this would make so much more room in the house. My response is usually brief, some may even say curt or brusque. Would you expel your brother or your best friend from your home? These books are after all, not merely pages between covers, nor are they simply the tools of my trade – though I know I could not make my living without them. Each volume, even that which may be oft neglected and shelved barely within reach, is a respected and much needed friend. Many have been lovingly caressed, some bear a beautiful patina of age and others a distinctive fusty smell acquired from others on the shelves of a second hand bookshop, where they sat long neglected, until I arrived to rescue them and give them a caring home. Many have been with me since my youth and some purchased in far off places during my travels. The very thought that I could now release a single volume to a distant source where it might suffer the potential abuse of dog-eared pages, scrawlings in margins, or heaven forbid, that most heinous crime of the folded back spine, makes me shiver and could give me sleepless nights!

I do accept that having  thousands of books around the house does require occasional management and this brings me back to the annual, never to be achieved summer challenge. As May gives way to June each year and then June fades to July my thoughts turn  to a master plan involving a re-arrangement of the shelves. The noble mission of bringing a certain order to what is seen by the casual observer as a degree of chaos takes over, and I invariably begin the mental gymnastics of considering how a realignment of  tomes might be achieved. When I say that this has been the fruitless agenda now for probably the past fifteen years, you will see that I am nothing more than an abject failure.

So returning to Christopher Hitchens, a man who I would never have thought could have eased my mind. Sprawled comfortably in bed this morning with a copy of his collection of essays “Arguably” on my lap, I read a piece originally published in the City Journal in 2008 with the title “Prisoner of Shelves”. Here was Hitchens (Hitch to his friends – amongst whom I would I am sure never have been numbered) describing exactly my dilemma. Would he, I wondered be able to proffer advice to see me through this annual conundrum? Could he present a solution to how I might embark upon, if not eventually complete this task? You cannot imagine my relief when he, a man of far greater intellect than most, reaches the conclusion that the problem is insoluble. Hitchens accepts that living amongst his disorderly library brings comfort, and that any interference with the status quo would fail to improve significantly upon either his lifestyle or his working patterns. If this predicament thwarted the intellectual Hitchens, then why should I ever believe that I am up to the challenge? – there we are, problem solved!

Thank you Christopher Hitchens. I can now move forward into the summer, much relieved in the knowledge that for all these years those pangs of guilt have been a false indicator of a chaos in need of control. The re-organisation of books is no longer a priority, after all, when friends come to stay I don’t tell them where to rest, who to sit next to or that they should tidy their appearance. One more week of work to go before I can enjoy a holiday free from the angst that comes with a failure to rearrange my books!

 

School’s out!

New learning opportunities on the horizon

New learning opportunities on the horizon

The school summer holiday approaches and is greeted with a cacophony of cheers and groans. The annual media frenzy framing arguments for and against a lengthy summer break has been in full flow for a few weeks now, and will doubtless be continued after children have returned to school at the beginning of September.

The debate around the long summer holiday focuses largely upon the retention of learning. A recent article in the Times Educational Supplement School’s out for summer – and so is the learning – July 18th 2014, is quite typical in expressing the concerns of some head teachers that during the summer holiday children’s learning regresses and they forget some of the skills and knowledge acquired during term time. There is certainly some justification for this concern and I recall in my days as a teacher in schools that the first few weeks of the autumn term were often spent going over previously learned materials.

I think that it is important to recognise that this discontinuity in learning is a natural phenomenon and one that most of us learn to cope with quite well. For example, occasionally in my work as an educational researcher I am required to use statistical procedures that I may not have practiced for several years. This usually involves me reaching for a text book that outlines how to complete the process and reminds me of learning that I acquired thirty years ago and could then manage without an aid memoire. The lack of frequency with which I complete these tasks today and my failure to have retained the required formulae means that my need to reach for the text book is heightened. However, this does raise a series of important questions about learning. Am I a poor learner because I cannot retain the information that was once available at my fingertips? Did those who taught me statistics fail in their task? Or did they perhaps teach me other skills, such as the ability to use sources of reference to compensate for this lack of retention, that now serve me well? Am I a better learner because I can apply approaches to supporting and supplementing my own learning? If learning was simply a matter of memory and retention of information I believe that teaching would look very different and would be far more likely to fail. On the other hand if it is about equipping children (and adults) with the skills and confidence to handle information and understand how to use those sources that can support us in our daily lives, we have increased opportunities to develop effective learners.

Maybe we should be worried about those things that children might forget over the course of a school holiday. Perhaps we should also consider that in many instances the extended break is an opportunity to encourage other forms of learning. My own school holidays tended to be occupied with a series of events, including attendance at scout camp, playing a range of sports, extended walks in the Gloucestershire countryside around my home and spending time with friends and family. It was also a chance to read books other than those that appeared on school syllabi and to become acquainted with authors never discussed in class.

I know that the activities I have just described may not be available to all children and that some parents are less able to encourage their children to participate in a broad range of experiences, However, I do think that it is important that we recognise that as well as being a break from school, the extended summer holiday can provide a chance for children to gain knowledge, skills and understanding that are beyond the remit of formal education. On a recent walk in the local countryside with visiting friends from India I was asked how I had learned about the many wild flowers, trees, butterflies, birds and insects that we encountered along the way. The answer was really straight forward. As a child I had been encouraged to spend time amongst these natural phenomena and frequently carried field guides and other sources of reference in order to understand what I was seeing and hearing. This was never a part of my formal school curriculum, but something I learned with the encouragement of friends and family during those school holidays.

My personal experiences were I know, very different from those of some of my peers and I am not suggesting that all children today have the opportunities for learning that I experienced. But I do believe that when we debate the impact of the summer holidays on education we need to broaden our perspective. Learning does not take place solely in schools, though this is obviously the most critical place for some of the education essential to all children. I suspect that teachers are for ever destined to address difficulties with the retention of skills and knowledge, but perhaps we could also celebrate those other aspects of learning that take place outside of the classroom and enrich so many of our lives.

I do hope that all teachers about to begin their summer holiday here in England enjoy a break and recharge their batteries. I also hope that all school children will enjoy the freedom of the summer and may have opportunities for new and even unexpected learning.

Spare the child and ditch the rod!

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Sections 16 and 17 of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act bans corporal punishment, stating that:-
no child should be subjected to mental or physical harassment or
expulsion”.

 

I remember on one of my earliest visits to an Indian school in 2000 being alarmed by the number of teachers who arrived at their classrooms carrying canes. I must emphasise that during visits to schools in India I have never seen a teacher using such an implement against a child, though the threatening action of slapping a stick hard down on a disk top is something I particularly recall from a visit to one school.  I should also add, that in recent years my visits to schools in several parts of India would suggest that (with one notable exception), the practice of carrying a cane is much rarer than it may have been in the past.

It has always seemed to me that teachers who need to resort to violence in order to manage their classes are demonstrating their own inadequacy rather than that of their students. In discussion with teachers in India, as elsewhere, the majority appear as appalled by the thought that corporal punishment should have a place in education as I am. One does not have to be the most astute observer of the world to see that where violence is used as a means of solving problems this quickly escalates, and often exacerbates a situation until it is out of control.

My parent’s generation and certainly that of my grandparents attended school at a time when the physical chastisement of children was still an accepted practice in English schools, and although it was not made illegal until an Act of Parliament in 1987, it was rarely used during my school days. I do recall children being caned at my secondary school, and indeed I was subjected to a milder form of corporal punishment administered with the rubber sole of a plimsoll. Such an act today would quite rightly lead to serious questions being asked about the conduct of a teacher, even if the transgression of the individual pupil was deemed serious.

Significant moves towards halting corporal punishment in Indian schools have been taken in recent years. A report by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2007 suggested that substantial numbers of children in Indian schools were still being subjected to violence from adults, and that this was having a detrimental impact upon both their physical and mental well-being. The 2005 National Plan of Action for Children and the Report on Child Protection for 2007-2012, called for the implementation of  The National Policy on Education (1986, modified 1992) which stated that “corporal punishment will be firmly excluded from the educational system.” As with all policies, the intentions may be good, but unless the spirit of the Act is applied through action, situations will not improve.

This issue came to the forefront of my mind yesterday on reading a report in several Indian newspapers, of children with visual impairments in a school in South India being severely beaten by teachers. We are not talking here of one or two strokes of a cane, which in itself would, in my opinion, be a heinous crime, but a sustained and vicious attack upon children unable to see what was happening or to defend themselves. Unknown to the teachers, their actions were caught on video and posted on various websites in order to emphasise the deliberate flouting of the law and the unacceptable behaviour of these individuals. The violence of adults who are entrusted with the care of vulnerable children should disturb the sensibilities of any compassionate individual, and should certainly challenge the complacency of those who have the ultimate responsibility to manage education and care.

A link to the video recording is provided here, though I must advise that it is extremely disturbing and would urge you to ensure that it is not shown to children.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFFSyPZag3Q&feature=player_detailpage

A report of this horrendous incident under the heading RTE Act Fails to Check Teachers’ Canes in the Times of India of 22nd July, emphasises the lack of authority with which legislation, including the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) is being implemented or monitored. The news report suggests that:-

“In most cases, corporal punishment goes unreported as children fear telling on their teachers. And in the rare instances when such incidents come to light, they do not reach a legal conclusion as parents work out a compromise with the school management,”

Such incidents will continue for so long as teachers and parents are complicit and do not stand up against violence in schools. It will certainly take courage on the part of many individuals if such behaviours are to cease, because many fear retribution against either themselves or their children, if they speak out or act.

India is a country with a proud history of overcoming oppressions largely through non-violent means. If the use of satyagraha could defeat an occupying administration it must surely be a lesser task to ensure that children can attend school without the fear of being subjected to violence.

 

Let not the facts get in the way of a “good” story.

 

Rachel Tomlinson - a head teacher both praised and under fire for taking a holistic view of the needs of her pupils.

Rachel Tomlinson – a head teacher both praised and under fire for taking a holistic view of the needs of her pupils.

A few days ago I wrote about Rachel Tomlinson the head teacher of Barrowfield School in Lancashire who sent a letter to each member of  a year group of her pupils praising them for their personal achievements beyond their examination results (Thank You for a Letter of Appreciation July 16th). This seemed to me to be the act of a caring professional eager to take a holistic view of learning and achievement and keen to show her pupils that she valued them as individuals with a diverse range of talents. It would seem, however, that my interpretation of this head teacher’s approach has not found favour with everyone.

Several friends and colleagues, directed me towards a mean spirited, poorly written and inaccurate portrayal of Rachel Tomlinson’s actions which had found its way on to the pages of the Daily Mirror (http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/david-cameron-should-sack-soppy-3884479) an English tabloid newspaper, under the headline David Cameron should sack soppy, hippy teachers not gutsy former Education Secretary Michael Gove. This piece written by the journalist Carole Malone describes Rachel Tomlinson as a “soppy headteacher” and suggests that she had told her pupils that “their exam results didn’t matter because being a nice person and being able to dance and paint a picture was more important”.

The freedom of the press in the UK is something that I hold dear. Having visited countries where the right to express an opinion that challenges authority or the status quo can result in imprisonment or even worse, I believe that journalists in my own country generally serve us well in encouraging debate and questioning our view of the world. However, there are times when poor and inaccurate reporting do a disservice to the readers of newspapers and the simplistic need of journalists to draw attention to themselves gets in the way of informed debate.

Carole Malone in her brief journalistic rant is guilty of placing her own opinion before a presentation of the facts. Furthermore, her mischievous reinterpretation of the words contained in Rachel Tomlinson’s letter to her pupils does a grave disservice to the headteacher and also to the image of good journalism (which this piece certainly isn’t). My discomfort with the journalist’s piece is not with the expression of her opinions, which I don’t for a minute doubt to be sincerely held, but with the way in which she has chosen to misinterpret both the tenor and presentation of the words that appear in Rachel Tomlinson’s letter. At no point in her message to pupils does this head teacher suggest that examination results don’t matter. Rachel Tomlinson praises her pupils for their commitment and personal endeavour in undertaking these statutory assessments. She most certainly does not suggest that being able to dance or paint a picture is more important, but does point out that these accomplishments are worthy of praise. As Rachel Tomlinson states, the results of tests tell us something about pupils, but cannot tell us everything.

Carole Malone concludes her article by stating that:

“to be told by teachers that being a nice person is more important than exam results, is stupid and dangerous”.

I am unsure whether she personally feels in danger from this perspective or whether she believes that those who achieve high performances in examinations are likely to pose less of a threat. Perhaps it has not occurred to her that it is possible to pass examinations and also to be a “nice person”. It certainly appears to have escaped her notice that schools have a responsibility beyond that of cramming children to pass tests (this despite the fact that at various times the Daily Mirror has harangued teachers for a failure to address the social and behavioural education of children). She has certainly missed the fact that there are many talented people who make a rich contribution to our country through their ability to dance or paint despite possibly having had limited success in other aspects of their education.

I recall when I was at school being given what were usually termed “comprehension exercises” where the requirement was to read a passage of text and write an accurate interpretation of its content and meaning. Teachers (none of whom in my experience warranted the appellations of “hippy” or “soppy”) instilled in us the importance of avoiding misrepresentation of the facts. My issue with Carole Malone does not relate to her right to express an opinion, even when it is one with which I disagree, but rather with her sensationalism for effect based upon a poor reading of a simple and sincere letter.

Of course, Carole Malone has every right to suggest that her interpretation is valid and that my reading of Rachel Tomlinson’s letter is inaccurate. The letter is published in full on my earlier posting on this blog and I am more than happy to let you decide for yourself.

It was George Orwell who wrote that:-

“Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper”.

Orwell was a great journalist with a commitment to fair and accurate reporting. He recognised that a failure to provide a balanced interpretation of information was one of the greatest dangers to a free press and was indicative of lazy journalism.

I concluded my earlier piece about Rachel Tomlinson’s letter by hoping that she and her staff enjoyed a well earned summer break. I now extend this wish to Carole Malone in the hope that she gets a summer holiday and returns refreshed to her work and possibly in a more generous frame of mind.

 

 

 

 

 

Newsworthy? Yes, but for how much longer?

Nordstrom have pioneered the way for models with disabilities, but why should this seem remarkable today?

Nordstrom have pioneered the way for models with disabilities, but why should this seem remarkable today?

Sometimes items that are deemed newsworthy by the media raise questions in my mind. This week the UK government underwent a cabinet reshuffle, through which the Prime Minister, David Cameron, appointed a number of new ministers whilst releasing others from their duties. This is an event which happens during the life of all governments and is inevitably followed by days of speculation about why some politicians have been raised in status, whilst others have been demoted. We are also subjected to debates around whether movement from one position, such as Secretary of State for Education to Chief Whip, is actually a demotion or simply a new opportunity for the outgoing minister.

This week’s reshuffle was particularly notable for the discussion surrounding the promotion of a number of female politicians to key posts. This we are told, enables the creation of a cabinet that more fairly represents the population of the country. We should, of course, congratulate all of those who have been elevated to positions of responsibility in government, and we certainly hope that they will do a good job in governing the country. However, I do not think that I am alone in being concerned that in the twenty first century it is still considered newsworthy when women are appointed to positions of power and responsibility. There was I feel, a certain irony in the announcement that women are being appointed to government positions on the date that would have been the 156th birthday of Emmeline Pankhurst, that most doughty fighter for the right of women to vote for their elected representatives. Is it not remarkable that so long after the sacrifices made by Emmeline Pankhurst and other suffragettes the appointment of women to the cabinet is still seen as newsworthy?  What does this tell us about the state of equality issues in today’s society.

On the same day as this parliamentary shuffling of the pack took place my attention was drawn to another news item commending the leadership of a fashion and design company called Nordstrom who since 1991 have been employing disabled models to sell their various items of clothing and accessories. Those of you who know me will not be surprised to know that the world of fashion and designer clothes has not featured highly in my purview of the world. Indeed one of my colleagues once described my general appearance as “comfortably dishevelled” (I’m not entirely convinced that this was intended as a compliment!).

For the first time in my life I went on-line to hunt down a fashion catalogue in order to verify what I had read. There indeed on the pages of a glossy publication, were photographs aimed at selling various items of clothing, modelled by women and men with disabilities. (I resisted the temptation to buy – after all I wouldn’t wish to put the economy of local market stall holders at risk!)

Just as with the appointment of women to position of political influence, the newsworthiness of an item about disabled models caused me to reflect on why newspapers are reporting in this way. I certainly applaud any organisation that has a policy of equal opportunities in employment and believe that we should welcome the fact that sectors of our society, who have previously been excluded and marginalised, are now achieving positions of influence. However, I am sure I cannot be alone in thinking that it is sad that we still feel the need to draw attention to what is obviously seen by the media as remarkable progress, even today.

I suspect that what these news items tell us is that we still have some distance to travel, until it ceases to be remarkable that women, people with disabilities or those from ethnic minority groups achieve positions of prominence in our communities. It is certainly good that children in schools have role models in positions to which they may aspire. However, it is only when this situation ceases to attract the attention of the media, that we will recognise that genuine progress has been made in ensuring that individuals from all sections of society have been included as full citizens in our countries.

Thank you for a letter of appreciation.

Teachers generally entered the profession to support children. Sometimes this means looking beyond their academic achievements.

Teachers generally entered the profession to support children. Sometimes this means looking beyond their academic achievements.

I always find it heartening to read about teachers who stand by their principles, especially when this is in support of their students. Teachers often work in a pressured situation where the agenda for schools is set by politicians and the expectations upon children are framed in terms that, in some cases can be intimidating or seem beyond their reach. Yet there remains a strong commitment within the teaching profession to maintain a focus upon the needs of individual learners and to celebrate their achievements and individuality.

A few days ago on this blog I wrote about three lads from a local school who had spoken to me in gloomy terms about their impending school reports and examination results (It’s a school report – not a crystal ball! – July 8th). I had tried to be positive and reassure them that there was more to life than end of year reports, but unfortunately it seemed almost impossible to shift their negative outlook. At this time of year, when there is an expectation from parents, teachers, pupils and inspectors that schools will laud their academic achievements, it is all too easy to lose sight of the other ways in which children can demonstrate their learning. This is why I was delighted to hear of a head teacher from a school in the north of England who has taken an initiative to demonstrate how much she values a holistic approach to learning in her pupils.

Rachel Tomlinson is the head teacher at Barrowford Primary School in Nelson, Lancashire, who as the school academic year is drawing to a close decided to send a letter to her pupils who had recently completed formal assessments . I reproduce it here in its entirety as I think it should be read by every exhausted teacher, anxious parent or concerned student facing the end of year results.

IF YOU CLICK ON THE PICTURE BELOW IT WILL ENLARGE FOR YOU TO READ THE LETTER

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Barrowford Primary School has just over 300 children on roll, and it seems to me that being part of a school managed by a head teacher who takes such an initiative must be a terrific learning experience. The school has adopted a motto which states – “Learn to love, love to learn”. Such sentiments can often be tokenistic, but here we clearly have, in Rachel Tomlinson, a head teacher determined to live up to this ideal.

In recent years teachers in schools in England have often worked in a state of anxiety, in the knowledge that at any moment inspectors may descend upon the school and pass judgement upon the quality of their work and the attainment of children. The perception, one that has been sadly perpetuated by some head teachers, is that the only achievements that matter are those related to academic standards. To stand against this regime and celbrate the learning and broader achievements of  children has demanded courage on the part of teachers, such as that demonstated by Rachel Tomlinson and her colleagues.

This letter certainly made my day, and hopefully had the same impact upon those children, teachers and parents who make up the Barrowford School community. It says so much about the values of the staff who work in the school and issues a challenge to those who fail to see children beyond the end of year results which schools are obliged to issue and report upon.

As the end of term approaches I do hope that Rachel Tomlinson and her staff enjoy a relaxing well-earned holiday. They should do so secure in the knowledge that their commitment to recognising and celebrating the achievements of every child at Barrowford Primary School is appreciated well beyond the boundaries of Nelson in Lancashire.

Do please vist the school website, available through the link below.

http://www.barrowford.lancs.sch.uk/#./home

Punitive measures alone will achieve nothing

These children in Bangalore attend a government school in one of the most deprived areas of the city. However, the commitment of teachers is great because of the respect and esteem in which they are held.

These children in Bangalore attend a government school in one of the most deprived areas of the city. However, the commitment of teachers is great because of the respect and esteem in which they are held.

I am seldom convinced that punitive measures in education work. I am even less well disposed towards these when they are applied in poor situations which have, to some extent, been created by those who would inflict punishment.

A number of news reports from the state of Bihar, one of India’s poorest districts have lately caused me to reflect on how a dire educational situation there could be improved. For many years there have been major difficulties in recruiting teachers to work in this deprived area of the country, which has often been singled out for the poor quality of its education and social provision. A few years ago a significant recruitment drive was conducted in order to fill the many teaching vacancies in Bihar, and with a stated intention of improving both school attendance and levels of pupil attainment. At one time, this was reported as a success story, with an increase in school attendance and progress being apparently made towards increased levels of literacy. However, in recent months all of this good news appears to have evaporated amidst scandal and intrigue.

Recent reports (see for example http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-28190261) indicate that more than 20,000 teachers recruited under a state scheme had forged their degree certificates in order to gain employment. It is claimed that almost 800 of these teachers have recently been dismissed from their posts and that others are to follow.  Furthermore, more than 60,000 primary schools lack principals who could provide leadership and direction for schools where the average pupil teacher ratio is currently one teacher for every 63 pupils (India’s national ratio is about one teacher for every 40 pupils).

All of this makes for depressing reading, but I believe that the information is not easily interpreted. Those unqualified teachers, many of whom are described as incompetent, who are currently working in Bihar’s schools, were presumably appointed by authorities who made very little effort to check their qualifications prior to appointment. One also needs to ask questions about why it is so difficult to appoint teachers to work in this area, whereas in some other parts of India this does not seem to be such a problem?

Part of the difficulty in this situation appears to be the low status afforded to teachers in India, particularly those who work in government schools. Having visited several of these schools (though not in Bihar) I am always aware of how poorly resourced they are when compared to the private schools in the same vicinity. The teachers working in these schools are often less qualified than their counterparts in the “elite” schools, and government schools regularly report difficulties with recruitment of staff. The majority of teachers working in government schools are women and many have second jobs in order to make a living sufficient to feed their families. Recruitment of men to the teaching profession remains problematic because of the low esteem in which teaching is regarded as a profession. In Bihar, which is regularly reported as one of the poorest Indian states, there are major difficulties in attracting a skilled and educated workforce. I am for example, aware of many migrant workers from Bihar and other deprived states such as Orissa, working on the building sites of Bangalore because of the difficulties of finding well paid employment at home.

Children need well qualified and competent teachers and it is quite right that the state officials in Bihar and those at national government level, should be not only expressing concerns, but also identifying those individuals who are working under false pretences and with forged qualifications. However, punitive measures alone will not alleviate this dire situation and it is surely essential that these same authorities address the situation, by enhancing the status of teachers and providing more effective training for those who have ambitions to teach. There are many examples from other countries, including my own, of the development of incentive programmes to encourage teachers to work in poor areas. The provision of assistance with housing is just one of the benefits that have been used to entice well qualified teachers to work in areas where there have been difficulties with recruitment.

I am not suggesting that this is an easily solved problem. However, I do wonder if those teachers who have illegally falsified their qualifications might also be the source of a potential solution to the current difficulties. Presumably some of these individuals have demonstrated a commitment to work in situations that other more qualified persons have avoided. Perhaps an initiative to raise their skills and support them to gain the necessary qualifications might be one part of the answer to the challenges of recruitment in this area.

I have witnessed in many government schools, even those that are poorly resourced and where class sizes are above sixty students, dedicated, highly motivated and competent teachers who are affording children learning opportunities that were denied to previous generations. At one such school, the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan BBMP school in Bangalore, which serves one of the most deprived areas of that city, I have seen enthusiastic and skilled teachers making a significant contribution to the lives of their students. This has been achieved because of the ethos of respect and appreciation created by the school principal and the gratitude of the community served. Whilst I am sure that many of the teachers working in that school could obtain better paid posts in private schools elsewhere in the city, their dedication to their students and the recognition they receive for the progress that these children make, ensures that they have status in their community and feel appreciated for their professionalism.

I do hope that the authorities in Bihar take the appropriate action to address the serious fraud that has characterised many of the schools in that state. But I would also urge them to look in more detail at the underlying situation that has led to this problem, and find ways of enhancing the position of teachers who would provide a commitment to the children in that area.