Après le déluge

 

A picture of concentration typical of students getting to grips with the challenge of identifying a practical research topic

A picture of concentration typical of students getting to grips with the challenge of identifying a practical research topic

 

Ah, the best laid plans, and all that. Yesterday I mentioned the need for a good night’s sleep before teaching all day today. Sadly nature, in the form of the monsoon, conspired against me. At two o’clock this morning I was sitting up in bed reading as the deluge roared outside my window allowing for only minimal respite. Sleep throughout the night was intermittent and I was not quite bushy tailed on rising this morning. However, predictably the adrenaline of teaching and the stimulation that comes from a group of enthusiastic students saw me through the day. Let’s hope for a quiet night tonight.

It is easy for those of us who work in universities and engage with research all the time to forget how daunting the prospect of writing a dissertation can seem. This morning I was conscious of the apprehensions felt by a number of our students as we began the journey to prepare them for writing the major piece of work associated with the MA programme. I hope they were strengthened when I showed them a dissertation received just this morning from a student from an earlier cohort who has completed her studies, and assured them that they are all more than capable of completing the task. The students I work with here in India are amongst the most able I ever encounter, the challenges they face are far more associated with the approaches to teaching and learning that they encounter on this course, many of which differ greatly from their undergraduate experiences, than with any conceptual or intellectual issues.

This morning our students have begun to consider the research that they will undertake over the next year, and it was soon apparent that they have already begun to reflect upon their experiences and challenge themselves to address a range of complex issues. At the core of all their thinking is a desire to conduct research that will benefit children, teachers and parents and help them to enhance their own roles as professionals with a commitment to inclusive learning. Listening to their ideas and engaging with them in debates about the justification for their studies sharpens my own thinking and reminds me of why I first entered this profession.

Their professional lives as teachers feel very familiar in many respects, though I also find myself wondering at the considerable differences that characterise the systems in which we work. The discussions today were far ranging from the relationship between a Montessori approach and principles of inclusion, through the pressures upon siblings of having a brother or sister with a disability and the nature of behaviours seen as disruptive by some teachers but not by others. As these students strive to develop their ideas for a research project they explore their own beliefs and attitudes and consider how their own actions may shape the education institutions in which they work.

By the end of this week I am confident that every one of these highly professional colleagues will have found the basis of a project that will add to our understanding of inclusive teaching and learning in India. My hope is that on completion of their studies each one of these individuals may influence the attitudes, expectations and understanding of colleagues with whom they come into contact on a daily basis. For some this will be an easier task than for others. But with the commitment I see before me in class here in Bangalore I wouldn’t put anything beyond their abilities. I anticipate the coming days with some excitement.

 

 

“Tomorrow We Ride”

Johnson and Jayashree - two Indian colleagues who will hopefully pick me up whenever I stumble over the next couple of weeks.

Johnson and Jayashree – two Indian colleagues and good friends who will hopefully pick me up whenever I stumble over the next couple of weeks.

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you have to keep moving”

Albert Einstein

 

At times like this the title of a book written by an outstanding racing cyclist, largely about his brother, an even better rider and three times winner of the Tour De France comes to mind. “Tomorrow We Ride,” was a phrase shared by Jean and Louison Bobet every day as they prepared for the many races that they rode and often won in the 1950s, and was used as the title of the book that has become a classic for the cycling tifosi, riders and fans around the world. It is the title of the book, rather than the story it tells that came to mind this evening as along with my colleagues we put the final touches to our preparations to teach here in Bangalore tomorrow.

Working here always feels a little like a ride. Maybe not the pushing on the pedals, leaning over the handlebars flat out lung bursting exhilaration of racing on a bicycle, but more like a wild, tumbling, helter-skelter dash into the exciting and always unpredictable challenge of ensuring a positive experience for our students, in a situation that is often outside of our comfort zone. When I say “our” comfort zone, what I actually mean is that of myself and my colleague Mary who have come to India from the UK as guests in a country that we both love but continue to struggle in our efforts to understand. I am sure for Jayashree and Johnson, this is less of an issue.

I suppose it might be assumed that after nearly forty years’ experience of teaching, delivering a couple of MA modules should be as simple as falling off a bike. (I have had this latter experience and believe me it is not to be recommended). Actually I always find myself a little apprehensive before every session that I teach – outwardly I hope I appear calm and in control, but I can assure you that there is a lot of splashing taking place beneath the surface. But here in Bangalore there is an added frisson to the task in hand. This relates not so much to the subject content or the preparation of resources; it certainly has nothing to do with confidence in my colleagues with whom it is a privilege to work. The apprehensions I feel are far more related to undertaking this work in India, where the educational experiences of our students, the expectations of those who have previously been their tutors and the methods by which they have been taught are so different from our own educational journeys.

Addressing questions of inclusion in someone else’s country, in a culture that is so different from that in which my own thinking has been shaped, and with teachers whose lives are so different from my own, requires a significant degree of adjustment and understanding. How to approach the teaching in a manner that is respectful and inclusive has always been the question to the forefront of my mind. The horror stories I have heard about “wise men” from the west arriving on these shores to instruct teachers in the ways that they should teach, leave me cold and add to my apprehensions. How then should we approach tomorrow and every other day that we are here? This is a question I have pondered for the past fifteen years during which I have worked with colleagues here in India and still I seek the best answer which may enable me to strike the right note.

The nearest I can come to a solution is to approach every teaching session as a learner as well as a tutor. By listening to the students with whom we work, and trying to appreciate their stories; by respecting their interpretations of the ideas we ourselves express, and through an effort to immerse ourselves in the rich culture in which these teachers live and work, we may hope to create a learning environment in which we can all share. I am sure, like teachers everywhere, there will be times when we get things wrong. When this happens, I hope that our students will have the confidence to tell us and help us to learn.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I will retire to bed tonight, hopeful of a good night’s sleep. Because “tomorrow we ride” and I can guarantee that over the next couple of weeks we will climb many hills together, hopefully gain some free wheeling down the other side and cross the finishing line feeling that we have given our all and ridden a good race. I look forward to working over the next fortnight with good colleagues and with students old and new as we endeavour to ensure that we are inclusive in all that we do through this great learning experience.

 

 

 

Not Everything That Counts Can Be Counted

Getting a good education costs money. But if you haven't got the money you can't get a good education. If this is a fact what does it tell us about education policy makers?

Getting a good education costs money. But if you haven’t got the money you can’t get a good education. If this is a fact what does it tell us about education policy makers?

Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray)

When I opened my emails yesterday evening I was pleased to receive a document sent to me by a good friend from the North of England. The accompanying message urged me to read this document as he put it, “in order to recognise that you are not alone in your concerns.” Far away from home it’s always good to know that there are friends thinking about your welfare.

The document sent for my scrutiny is titled “Measuring Social Value: the Gap between Policy and Practice” and was written in 2010 by Claudia Wood and Daniel Leighton.* In around 100 pages these authors discuss the need to consider the ways in which we can measure the importance of enterprise and initiative through an analysis of social impact, rather than simply looking at economic factors. The tenor of their argument indicates that there are some projects which if undertaken are unlikely to reap financial rewards but may still be valuable in terms of the social benefits that accrue. As they suggest “this is particularly the case for the third sector, where often unquantified social returns can be far greater than in the commercial world”.

Within this interesting document they discuss what is termed a “Social Return on Investment (SROI) model” which assists organisations in understanding how some actions might be undertaken for the good of a community or section of society and have a significant and sustainable impact, which makes the activity worthwhile in respect of long term consequences. An example they give is in the implementation of effective rehabilitation schemes for young offenders, which appear very expensive at the outset, but if they are successful and prevent re-offending may have long term benefits that are both social and economic.

The reason my friend sent me this document relates to a conversation we recently had about the marketization of schools, colleges and universities and the profit driven motivations that seem to dominate activities across the education sector. I had expressed my anxieties that education, which in times past was seen to be a process for the social good of individuals and the communities in which they live, has in many instances been driven along a route to ensure that children leave school equipped solely to foster the economic well-being of the nation, with little concern for the personal and social development which may enable them to adjust to a fast changing world. This change manifests itself in a utilitarian curriculum and a devaluing of those subjects that are seen as less likely to equip school leavers as drones for the workforce.

As this process has happened, a presumably unintended consequence has been that, the importance of addressing the needs of those seen as “less able” or “with poor social adjustment”  has been side-lined with some schools, and certainly a number of education policy makers suggesting that investment in these children takes away essential resources from those more likely to become more efficient “economic units”. The language of commerce and business now dominates schools and universities as never before and, is already contributing to the greater marginalisation of young people.

Here in Bangalore I am always conscious that whilst working to support teachers in any way we can, to establish a more inclusive education system, and to provide long term and sustainable benefits to children who have previously been denied opportunities for learning, we still fail to reach most of the teachers who could really make a difference. Far too many teachers here in India would struggle to obtain the fees necessary to enrol on the programmes that we offer. Even if they could join such a course, their facilities for studying at home or accessing the resources to support them are severely limited. In the future this will be seen as a sad indictment of our education system, and will ultimately lead to a condemnation of those of us who are complicit with this way of working,

I am fortunate in working here with colleagues who are not motivated by money or the need to balance the books. However, as we go about our work we are ever aware of the shifts in education that mean that every move we make is scrutinised and assessed to measure whether we provide value for money. Universities in the past have always been institutions for the promotion of intellectual debate and social change. The Social Return on Investment (SROI) model suggests that it is essential that those who have responsibility for courses such as that on which we are engaged in Bangalore, look into the future to see the changes that the teachers we work with can bring to India’s schools. Sadly such change will not come over night, and I suspect that many of the decision makers who oversee our lives are looking for a quick return on their investments. In the past I feel sure that universities would have engaged with the proposition put forward by Wood and Leighton in this document. My confidence in their ability to do so today is all too regularly shaken.

 

*Measuring social value: the gap between policy and practice, written by Claudia Wood and Daniel Leighton is published by Demos.

 

The return

Coconut vendors on the streets of Jayanagar. Bangalorians must have been involved in such activities for centuries. Will scenes such as this still be a feature of the city twenty years from now?

Coconut vendors on the streets of Jayanagar. Bangalorians must have been involved in such activities for centuries. Will scenes such as this still be a feature of the city twenty years from now?

Early morning Bangalore. I recognise this pattern. Despite having arrived tired and dishevelled from long flights late last evening I was awake early, turning in the sheets and unable to regain my slumbers. After a few minutes trying to delude myself that sleep will return, I accept defeat and decide to make some use of the minutes before others in the building stir. It will take a couple of days to fully adjust, and I have learned from past experience that the best of strategies is simply to give up on any efforts to make a hurried change in my routine, and just let my body dictate action. I suppose each of us has our own experiences and means of dealing with the consequences of changing time zones. So here I am, six in the morning India time, wide eyed and seated at the laptop.

Beyond the bedroom window I can hear the distinctive and instantly recognisable sounds of Jayanagar. Even at this relatively early hour the sounding of car horns, accompanied by the occasional trill of squirrels and the low mumbling of voices on the street punctuates the start of  day. This raucous cacophony will increase as the city shakes off the last vestiges of night and grips the population of this district in another morning of hurly burly motion and Bangalorians wipe the sleep from their eyes and descend for their early morning chai and idlis.

In recent days the monsoon has at times achieved what mere men have become incapable of doing. It has brought sections of the city to a near standstill as the drains, often strangled with the detritus of packaging and other discarded materials, have failed yet again to cope with the excessive quantities of rainwater. I was once told that waterlogging, a phenomena whereby the thoroughfares become flooded forcing pedestrians to wade rather than stride along the streets, is the consequence of British engineering and the installation of English sized drains in ignorance of an Indian monsoon downpour. Is this truly yet another consequence of imperial rule, or does the quanity of street rubbish play a significant role in these matters?

Last night, descending to the runway the sky was ripped with lightening and the heavens roared a welcome as  we returned to this confusing but all-embracing city. At the airport door a smiling face behind a card bearing my name was a welcome sight, as the designated taxi driver approached with a friendly namaskar and the trademark headshake instantly recognisable to anyone who has spent time in this region.

Approaching the city and squinting beyond the taxi windscreen wipers,  pathetic in their efforts to contain the thrashing deluge, I sought the familiar landmarks that mark our progress and road signs that count down the final miles of our journey towards Jayanagar. Bangalore has changed since my first visit in 2000. The comforting small roadside communities of low level housing, shops and temples are being speedily consumed by the heavenward soaring shiny glazed apartments that are lauded on the billboards that dominate the main road into the city from the airport. Luxury in the skies apparently. Will these become new vertical communities fostering the sense of identity that was so evident in the housing they replace? Or will they become so many more of what the American folk singer Pete Seeger described as “little boxes made of ticky-tacky” to which the more affluent members of this city aspire only to find that they no longer know their neighbours? Only time can possibly tell. This is all too often the problem with what we assume to be progress; its impact is unrecognisable and then suddenly it’s too late.

Today will be a day of final preparation, meetings to ensure that the coming weeks of teaching run smoothly and that at least some of the players on the stage have an indication of their intended entrances and exits. Timetables will be once more scrutinised, roles and responsibilities reassessed and the props and resources for teaching will undergo one final check and possible tweeking. This weekend will be a time of coming together with old friends and students, all in anticipation of the events that will occupy the coming days. We approach Monday’s starting line with a jumble of excitement and wonderings – just like infants at Christmas waiting to know what is hidden inside the wrapping paper that is almost within reach.

It feels good to have returned to this whirling, chaotic and mystifying city. Not so much for the jumbled landscape of concrete, glass and neon that have become the trademark of material aspirations in cities across the globe; but more for the privilege of working alongside those people who amidst all this superficial sprawl, are working hard to retain those values espoused by the fathers of the nation, and to include those citizens who live at the edge of those transitory first sightings that provide a surface gloss to Bangalore.

A squirrel calls again from somewhere near my bedroom window, and determined to be heard above the rising crescendo of the city din there is even birdsong, once the listener makes an extra effort and becomes attuned. As Bangalore revs its engine and once more picks up speed, I think of those passengers who have gained a ticket for this headlong dash into the future, but reflect more upon the fate of those who remain as pedestrians in this fast changing city.

Leaving on a jet plane

The Marchioness of Ely aboard which Fanny Parkes made her journey to India in 1822

The Marchioness of Ely aboard which Fanny Parkes made her journey to India in 1822

I face the next twenty four hours with mixed emotions. On the one hand I am looking forward to arriving tomorrow evening in Bangalore ready to meet up with old friends and new. On the other, the thought of long cramped hours in an economy class aircraft seat trying to get some sleep and being away from my home and family is always a daunting prospect. To be fair, the cabin crew on Emirates flights are always friendly and considerate, and at least there is an opportunity to stretch legs at Dubai airport when breaking the journey. So, the prospects of passing the time reading and probably catching up with films I missed at the cinema should not be regarded with anything other than resignation.

Contemplating the journey ahead, last night I reached for the diary of a remarkable woman, Fanny Parkes who recorded her experiences in India in the first half of the nineteenth century. Unlike so many English ladies who ventured to India at this time, and indeed since, Fanny Parkes committed herself to understanding the country and its people, learning languages, playing the sitar and getting to grips with the traditions and religions of the land. Her journals, which lingered far too long in obscurity were revived by the writer and historian William Dalrymple and published in a collected edition in 2002*. For anyone who wants to gain insights into life in northern India during this period they make fascinating reading.

It was whilst contemplating my own journey over the next day or so that I decided to remind myself of Fanny Parkes’ departure from England aboard the Marchioness of Ely and her eventual arrival along the estuary of the Hoogly river into Calcutta. Fanny left the Kent coast of England on June 18th 1822 arriving in Calcutta on November 13th. In her journals she describes watching whales and turtles, catching a sea snake and enjoying magnificent seascapes and sunsets. She also writes of the time when the ship was becalmed for eighteen days and when the wind returned being blown at seven knots in the wrong direction.

Travel at the pace with which Fanny Parkes journeyed to India on the Marchioness of Ely, must have many positive aspects. Though I suspect that she endured many discomforts and inconveniences along the way. I suppose her experiences watching the natural fauna and the changing seascapes are the equivalent of today’s inflight entertainment systems. Whilst it would be enjoyable to travel to India in a leisurely manner, it would hardly be practical in terms of providing two weeks of teaching!

It is with such contemplation that I will pack the final few items in my luggage and head off to the airport in anticipation of renewing my acquaintance with the sights, sounds and smells of Bangalore. In a few days’ time I am sure that it will feel like I have never been away, as I share new learning experiences with long established friends and students and a new cohort joining the MA in Special and Inclusive Education. I have no doubt there will be much to report over the coming days and weeks.

* William Dalrymple (2002) Begums, Thugs and White Mughals. London: Eland

A new departure from an old debate

 

This young lady smiles with her eyes. What does this picture communicate to you?

This young lady smiles with her eyes. What does this picture communicate to you?

“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

Mark Twain

 

Debates around school uniform, the appropriate appearance of students and the adoption of current fashion trends, have been a common feature of education for as long as I can remember. I recall that when I was a student at secondary school there were definite views about the acceptable length of hair that boys should be allowed to have, just as there were requirements that we should wear blazers, ties and charcoal grey trousers. I don’t think many of us openly rebelled against the clothing rules, though in the late 1960s being told that we should wear our hair short – remember that this was the era of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and numerous other long haired music groups –  did seem like a serious infringement of personal liberty.

Over the years it has been noticeable that school students have found various devices for flouting the rules regarding uniformity. It is amazing how many variations on wearing a tie have been achieved, and the ingenuity of individuals and groups of students in devising minute changes to uniforms is a tribute to their creativity. I suppose it was a simple device for girls at school to adjust the length of their skirts once off the school premises, simply to challenge the rules regarding how far beneath the knee the hem should appear whilst in school.

I suppose this cat and mouse game of habiliment challenge is as old as education itself, and I can imagine that in the past there may have been times when children were sent home for failure to arrive wearing a school cap, or carrying the wrong kind of satchel. In one respect I can see the purpose of school uniform and its function in establishing a whole school identify, I also recognise that it may have a levelling effect, which means that those who can afford “designer clothes” ( a term I have never fully understood) do not look down upon others from less affluent (or maybe more easily led) families. However, there is a significant part of me that believes that the donning of a school uniform probably has little, if any impact upon a school’s primary function of teaching and learning.

Whilst the discourse around uniforms has done little beyond raising a few hackles and confirming entrenched views for at least the past century, of late there has been a more complex issue added into the equation. This has been yet again highlighted by newspaper reports of a young Muslim student from a school in Camden, London, being refused access to lessons because she has chosen to wear a niqab which covers a significant part of her face. This is not a new story, but rather one that re-emerges in the press at regular intervals and provokes heated and thoroughly entrenched arguments about whether girls should or should not be entitled to wear the hijab or the niqab in school.

On the one side of the argument there are proponents of this form of dress, who suggest that a ban upon such divestment is an affront to the religious sensibilities of the individual. Some argue that opposition to such choice is Islamaphobic and demonstrates the prejudices of those who make the rules. On the opposite side of the argument sit those who suggest that the wearing of the niqab creates difficulties for teachers who are unable to communicate effectively, or pick up on the visual cues and expressions that they obtain from other students. Both arguments it seems to me are indicative of  a reluctance to move beyond the superficial nature of debate.

In a statement from the Camden school a representative of the governors states that:-

“teachers need to see a student’s whole face in order to read the visual cues it provides”.

The school argues that the niqab inhibits teacher student interactions and is therefore unacceptable.

This is far from a straightforward issue and it will undoubtedly continue to generate heat for some time to come. However, there are a couple of questions that continue to bother me with regards to some of the statements made. The first is what seems to me to be a spurious suggestion that an inability to see someone’s face leads to a breakdown in communication. Surely if this were the case the telephone as an invention would never have progressed much beyond the drawing board, and far fewer people would today be walking around the streets with their cell phones firmly attached to their ears. I recall some years ago observing a teacher at work who was completely blind. She had excellent classroom management skills, was greatly respected by her students and was a very effective communicator in lessons. Her inability to see the faces of her students may have had some disadvantages but certainly didn’t appear to be a major impediment to teaching.

I once visited a classroom in a college in Malaysia. Here it was noticeable that all female students, and the teacher, were wearing a head scarf. About fifty per cent of the female students in classes also wore the niqab. This being a largely Muslim country was seen as the norm and nobody questioned the situation. The classes I observed seemed to be efficient, orderly and full of lively interaction. The question of costume as a barrier to learning never emerged.

Perhaps the matter under debate here is not truly one of pedagogy or school rules, but simply an indication of the difficulties we have in coming to terms with the challenges of living in a multi-cultural society. Some teachers are undoubtedly confused by students who adopt a form of dress different from that with which they are familiar, just as they may be challenged by those for whom English is  a new language or others who may have a disability or learning difficulty.  I personally feel that having a debate about these factors is an important feature of living in a democracy. So long as the arguments put forward on both side are reasoned and constructed in a polite manner we may have an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and others within our society. But if we limit this debate to a suggestion that an inability to see a face means that we are unable to communicate, we are surely deluding ourselves and shying away from the real reasons why we feel uncomfortable when faced with individuality and difference.

Trying to ensure a shared understanding

Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel Laureate, educator and composer of the National Anthems of both India and Bangladesh.

Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel Laureate, educator and composer of the National Anthems of both India and Bangladesh.

One of the joys of working over many years with friends and colleagues in India is that I have been able to establish links between individuals both in that country and elsewhere in the world. Usually this has been a case of putting teachers from India in touch with colleagues in the UK and enabling them to exchange ideas and learn from each other. The opportunity to develop an appreciation of other cultures and the ways in which educational provision is made in different countries is one of the great pleasures of working internationally.

One particular joy has been the linking of a young boy in India, the son of one of our MA students with a girl who attends the primary school in which my wife teaches. These two young people share a passion for cricket, a game which they both play and of which they are very knowledgeable. On a couple of visits to India I have been exposed to the quick bowling of this young Indian tyro, usually in fading light, at the end of a day’s work and having had absolutely no practice (well that’s my excuse for batting so badly! – I’ll be there next week looking to do better.) and I can certainly vouch for his emerging talent. Likewise, having pupil at my wife’s school I am equally cogniscent with her enthusiasm and knowledge.  An exchange of letters between these two children has enabled them not only to share a mutual interest, but also to learn something of their home lives and the very different cultures in which they live.

Earlier this year my MA student, along with others from her cohort had an opportunity to visit Northamptonshire and in particular the school where my wife works. Here she was able to see a display that included letters and pictures sent to England by her son taking pride of place within the school, and indicating the importance of this personal link between children. She was also able to spend time with the English pen pal who proudly took her around the school and talked about her own educational experiences.

I do believe that international contact such as this can play an important role in helping children and adults to understand the differences of culture, religion, diet and expectations that shape our world. Perhaps more importantly, I believe that the more we spend time in the company of those who come from different backgrounds, the more readily we understand the similarities in our lives that bind us together as human beings.

A couple of days ago I received a video recording sent from India by my student and her son. It shows children in an Indian school teaching the meaning of their National Anthem. The film was made to celebrate Teachers’ Day (September 5th). At the end of the video the children proudly proclaim that they have taught the viewers of this short film something that they probably didn’t know. They then ask that we should make the effort to teach them something new.

The Indian National Anthem, “Jana Gana Mana” was written by Rabindranath Tagore, himself a great educational pioneer who believed fervently that children should learn not only about their own cultures, but also those of others around the world. I feel sure that he would have enjoyed the video recording linked from this page and would most certainly have approved of the invitation made by the children to see learning as a shared experience.

Click on the highlighted words to view the video.

National Anthem

The Bengali script (Bengali was Tagore’s first language) of the anthem I always think looks particularly beautiful. However, in case you have only as much Bengali as myself, a translation of the Indian National Anthem is posted here followed by the lovely Bengali script

Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people,

 Dispenser of India’s destiny.

 Thy name rouses the hearts of Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat and Maratha,

 Of the Dravida, Utkala and Bengal;

 It echoes in the hills of the Vindhyas and Himalayas,

 mingles in the music of Yamuna and Ganga and is

 chanted by the waves of the Indian Ocean.

 They pray for thy blessings and sing thy praise.

 The saving of all people waits in thy hand,

 Thou dispenser of India’s destiny.

 Victory, victory, victory to thee.

 

জনগণমন-অধিনায়ক জয় হে ভারতভাগ্যবিধাতা!

পঞ্জাব সিন্ধু গুজরাট মরাঠা দ্রাবিড় উৎকল বঙ্গ

বিন্ধ্য হিমাচল যমুনা গঙ্গা উচ্ছলজলধিতরঙ্গ

তব শুভ নামে জাগে, তব শুভ আশিষ মাগে,

গাহে তব জয়গাথা।

জনগণমঙ্গলদায়ক জয় হে ভারতভাগ্যবিধাতা!

জয় হে, জয় হে, জয় হে, জয় জয় জয় জয় হে।।

 

A return to as near to normality as might be achieved.

I wonder if this boy has returned to school? How might this differ from what he left behind last time he was in class?

I wonder if this boy has returned to school? How might this differ from what he left behind last time he was in class?

Here in England the new school term is well under way. Children have settled into their new classes, made friends and in some cases become acquainted with the expectations of unfamiliar teachers. The start of term is always greeted by both teachers and children with mixed emotions. For some who have enjoyed the freedom of a summer break and the opportunity to spend unstructured times with friends, the return to school can seem like the imposition of inevitable incarceration until the next school holiday. In reality however, most soon readjust and settled into the routine of a new term.

For teachers too it may take a little time to get back into stride. Though they have doubtless spent many hours during their break preparing lessons and resources for the coming weeks, once the doors open to a new class there are the usual questions about how quickly they will settle, and what challenges they will bring that permeate every teacher’s mind. Just as with the children, after a few days the routine is re-established and the holidays will seem like a distant dream.

For some children the beginning of this school year is viewed through a very different lens and will hopefully bring renewed hope and security. The UNICEF website currently features an unattributed article under the headline Children in Gaza: “It is beautiful to be back at school with my friends.” The text describes how after fifty days of relentless terror and bloodshed some children in Gaza, supported by aid from UNICEF are returning to their schools for the first time in a few months. Their enforced break from education resulted not from a holiday, but was necessitated as a safety precaution against the bombing and fighting that has marred their nation. In some instances their schools were commandeered to provide shelter for families made homeless by bombing. Many of these children now look forward to a return to some form of normality, or at least a respite from the violence that has characterised much of their young lives. Their experiences have been so harrowing that it is hard to imagine how they will re-adjust to the routine of classroom life and the need to concentrate upon their studies.

One seventeen year old boy interviewed by UNICEF states that;-

“I have seen so much violence, I don’t know how to cope with it. All I wish for is having peace of mind. I wish everything could be like it was before, that my house were still standing.”

Whilst a ten year old said:-

“It is beautiful to be back at school, free to leave my house and to play outside with my friends again.”

These children, living in an abnormal situation clearly hunger for the simple normality that most of us are fortunate enough to experience in our day to day lives. That which at times may appear to be a dull and routine existence to many children in my own country, is something which these young people long to experience. For them schooling provides far more than an education, it gives them an opportunity to touch the normality that most of us take for granted.

The world in which they live is mismanaged by adults who have simply failed to find a means by which they can live together and try to understand their differences and similarities. The children themselves are powerless victims in a situation that is out of the control of all but a few powerful individuals. These men (they are almost exclusively men) who hold such power over life and death are clearly able to shut the images of children from their minds, as they continue their relentless pursuit of their own selfish ends. Mohammed, an eleven year old boy cited in the UNICEF article says:-

“I was so happy to be able to get out of my home at last, after so many weeks confined at home. I was frightened that some of my friends might also have been killed, but thank God, I found out this morning that it is not the case.”

Unlike Mohammed, many children returning to their schools in Gaza will be mourning the loss of friends and family. Inevitably they must wonder whether when violence next erupts, as it almost invariably will,  they will lose more friends, or indeed might themselves become victims of this appalling mayhem .

Schools to these children afford a safe haven where they can learn and play with their friends. The teachers working in these schools will face a major challenge in enabling their students to come to terms with the violence that has become a feature of their lives. It is almost certain that without the professionalism of such teachers, and the values that they instil in their students, today’s children will become embroiled in the violence of the future.

Perhaps the political leaders of Israel and Palestine should return to the classroom and spend some time learning alongside the children who have faced such terror in recent months. I am sure that there is much they could learn by listening to the voices of these innocents.

If it’s a choice between a toilet or a mobile phone, which will you choose?

This public sanitation block opposite the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan School in Srirampuram, Bangalore provides a basic facility denied to many others in India and elsewhere in the world.

This public sanitation block opposite the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan School in Srirampuram, Bangalore provides a basic facility denied to many others in India and elsewhere in the world.

I remember that during my primary school years many teachers imposed a simple rule in class that was no doubt intended to ensure a minimising of disruption to lessons. The order of the day was that if you wanted to go to the toilet during lesson time, you must raise your hand and ask permission. The implementation of this rule appeared to vary according to the interpretation or maybe in some cases the mood of the individual teacher. In my school experience most were sympathetic and would grant permission, often with a reminder to “wash your hands and hurry back”, though I do remember one particular teacher whose response was usually something along the lines of “it will be playtime soon – (possibly half an hour away) – you can wait until then.” This could have dire consequences, and I do recall an occasion when I found myself seated next to a very distressed friend who being unable to contain herself until playtime experienced the inevitable embarrassment attendant upon sitting in a puddle on her chair.

Hopefully today’s teachers in English schools are far more sympathetic to the natural needs of their pupils and no longer see these as an impediment to their teaching. Though I suspect that there may still be a few who see the discomfort of a child as being insignificant when measured alongside the importance of their lesson content.

This may seem an odd topic on which to reflect in this blog, but I have been moved to write after reading an article in The Hindu newspaper (September 19, 2014) and also reading extracts from a speech made by the United Nations Deputy Secretary General, Mr Jan Eliasson, in which he emphasised that 2.5 billion people still lack the “improved sanitation facilities” which were a priority established in the Millennium Development Goals in 2000.

It would seem to me that adequate sanitation, defined under the Millennium Development Goals as those that “hygienically separate human excreta from human contact,” should be seen as a basic necessity if reasonable standards of health and human dignity are to be attained. However, the article in The Hindu reveals that a survey conducted as recently as 2013, shows that “10 per cent of elementary schools (nearly 2 lakh schools) in India still do not have functional toilets.” This is clearly a concern in respect of the welfare and health of both students and teachers, but is also a critical factor as India strives to implement the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) as the leading legislation for achieving education for all children. This is a fact acknowledged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who vowed to improve this situation in his speech to teachers and children delivered this year on Teachers’ Day, 5th September.

There is a strange irony in the fact that some politicians and policy makers in India are cited by The Hindu newspaper as believing that “no correlation could be found between the presence of toilets and learning levels of children in school; therefore toilets are an unnecessary expense,” and that “since most poor rural children did not have toilets at home, they would not miss them in school either. What they needed was education, not toilets”. As the newspaper article rightly points out, the lack of even the most rudimentary toilet facilities in schools is a major inhibitor of school attendance and an affront to the dignity of students and teachers alike. To deny a correlation between the most fundamental sanitation and access to schooling demonstrates a significant lack of credibility amongst some policy makers.

Furthermore, where toilets are provided these are often inadequate and do not provide segregated facilities for girls, resulting in many students feeling vulnerable and at the very least embarrassed, when needing to fulfil the most basic of human functions. An examination of complaints made to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights in India over a two year period, indicates that a significant number related to the administration of corporal punishment concerned incidents where students had been subjected to physical chastisement following “toileting accidents.” Both lack of toilet facilities and corporal punishment have been identified as a major factor in the drop-out of girls from Indian schools.

It is to be hoped that Mr Modi’s speech may lead to some action. However, it would appear that at present  the three main government departments, the Ministry  of Human Resource Development (MHRD), the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) and the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS) who could make a major difference, prefer to spend their time arguing about who should take responsibility for improving this situation.

One could be forgiven for thinking that action in this area might be high on the agenda. However, a shocking revelation from Mr Eliasson in his speech is the fact, that in much of the world more people have access to mobile phones than to toilets. I wonder what this tells us about the priorities established in today’s society? If you had to make a choice between a mobile phone and a clean and easily accessible toilet which would you choose?

 

Not all politicians make good teachers.

Children listen to the words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Children listen to the words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi

“Education should be imparted with a view to the type of society that we wish to build. We are working for a modern democracy built on the values of human dignity and equality. These are only ideals: we should make them living forces. Our vision for the future should include these great principles.”

Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

In India, as in many other countries around the world (but not here in the UK) there is an annual “teachers’ day” during which the nation celebrates the work of teachers and their contribution to the well-being of the country. This  event is held on 5th September to coincide with the birthday of Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the philosopher and statesman who became the second President of India (1962 – 1967). Having held professorial positions in both Calcutta and Oxford, Radhakrishnan believed that teachers held a unique position of influence in society that should be supported and respected, and that learning in schools should draw upon the best of Indian and western ideas. When his students suggested that they would wish to commemorate his birthday he asked that this should become a day to celebrate teachers rather than focus solely upon his own accomplishments.

In many societies today, teachers struggle to command the respect that was once commonly afforded to individuals within the profession. In many of the world’s poorer countries teachers are badly paid, have little access to training and often work with inadequate teaching resources. Whilst the nomination of a day to celebrate the profession may not address these issues, it does at least send a message to the wider public that teachers should be held in some degree of respect for the services that they provide within their communities.

This year, teachers’ day in India came with a departure from the traditional celebrations and marks of appreciation that draw attention to the work of professional colleagues. An announcement was made that on this day a speech to the children of the nation would be given by the Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi, and that teachers, students and others in education should switch on their radios or televisions to hear what he had to say. Schools duly obliged and in some instances made elaborate arrangements to ensure that the Prime Minister’s address could be heard.

In a wide ranging speech, Mr Modi considered issues that included the learning to be gained from reading biographies, the provision of improved toilet facilities in schools, the responsibilities of doctors and engineers to engage with schools and the need for students to participate in physical exercise. Little of what he said was controversial, though he did seem to dwell rather on how challenging his own work was and made very few references to the dedication and professionalism of teachers.

The speech given by Prime Minister Modi, being somewhat bland in nature did not in itself provoke much debate. However, the very fact that he appeared to some listeners to hijack teachers’ day for political purposes has raised a number of hackles. In particular there were some strong feelings expressed about the fact that by drawing attention to himself, the Prime Minister diluted the purpose of the day which should have been focused upon teachers.

The speech itself was not delivered without some difficulties. A particular issue for some teachers and children was the fact that Mr Modi spoke in Hindi and sought some assistance from translators, but was unable to communicate effectively with many students, particularly those in Government Schools working in local languages. In some parts of the country technical difficulties meant that the broadcast was not easily accessed with large areas of Rajasthan and Kerala unable to hear Mr Modi’s words.

During his speech Mr Modi paid tribute to Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, stating that the late President still remains an inspiration for the entire country. This is undoubtedly true and I often hear teachers and academics in India referring to  Radhakrishnan in reverential tones. His achievements and his commitment to education remain as a fine example of his professional focus as a politician, philosopher, statesman, and of course as a teacher. I suspect that had it been Dr Radhakrishnan addressing schools his words may have been greeted in a manner completely different from those of Mr Modi.

Whilst the actions of statesmen such as Narendra Modi are often undertaken with good intentions, they can lead to a variety of interpretations in respect of motivation and purpose. As an outsider it is not for me to pass judgement and say whether this was a triumph or an ill-conceived idea. However, I do hope that in all the brouhaha that has surrounded the Prime Minister’s actions the dedication and critical role played by teachers in ensuring that children receive the education they need is not overlooked. I for one, look forward to my forthcoming visit to Bangalore as an opportunity to celebrate the work of my teacher colleagues and to learn both from and with them in the coming weeks and years. I do hope that our British Prime Minister does not attempt to emulate the initiative of Mr Modi!

Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. The instigator of Teachers' Day in India.

Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. The instigator of Teachers’ Day in India.