Violence against children – a measure of cowardice.

Childhood - not a time of joy for everyone.

Childhood – not a time of joy for everyone.

Doreen Lawrence, now formally ennobled as Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon is well acquainted with the effects of violence. On the 22nd April 1993 her son Stephen was murdered by a group of racist bigots whilst waiting for a bus not far from his home in London. Stephen, who at the time of his death was studying technology and physics, and was hoping to become an architect, was stabbed to death by a group of white men, simply because of the colour of his skin. It was not until January 2012 that two men were convicted of his murder and sent to prison. Throughout this period of what must have been anguish and frustration, Doreen Lawrence whilst campaigning for justice maintained a quiet dignity that won her the respect of millions, not only in this country but around the world. It is therefore fitting that she has written the foreword to UNICEF’s recent report Every Child in Danger (2014).

The report makes harrowing reading as it reports upon the many situations in which children around the globe live in fear of violence. According to the report every five minutes a child somewhere in the world is killed by violence, and In 58 countries, more than half of children are violently disciplined in their homes or at school. It is quite evident that in many societies adults not only have power and authority over children, but that they wield it, and often do so indiscriminately and with dire consequences.

Some of the atrocities against children do receive high profile reporting and make international headlines. The attempted murder of the recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, and the kidnapping of 276 school girls by the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram are just two examples of such high profile cases. But most of the violence against children receives little attention, and in some societies has become so endemic that it is no longer deemed newsworthy. The report indicates that children who live in the world’s poorest countries are more likely to suffer from violence especially in cities that are impoverished and isolated. It is no surprise that those living in countries ravaged by conflict are amongst the most vulnerable, with high percentages suffering either physical or mental harm.

All of this makes for distressing reading but what shocked me most about the report was the section that discusses violence in schools. I suppose many of us still like to see schools as providing a place of safety and care, a safe haven where the troubles of the world are given second place to providing a good education, and secure social opportunities. But the UNICEF report provides a number of worrying statistics that indicate that often this is far from reality for many children. According to this document, in Uganda 58% of girls who experience physical violence report teachers as being the perpetrators, and a similar situation is described for Tanzania. In many countries the excessive use of corporal punishment is seen to have caused lasting damage to children, and sadly for many children the levels of violence do not lessen greatly when they return home. The report suggests that in South Africa, a third of child victims of murder are killed by their mothers and one in five by their fathers or another family member.

In some countries children never have an opportunity to attend school because of the ever present threat of violence. An example of this is given in the report from Pakistan, where parents often refuse to let their daughters attend school if they think it is not equipped to ensure their privacy and guarantee their safety. Armed violence against schools, colleges and universities by terrorists, state militaries, or criminal groups over the past five years have become increasingly common meaning that many potential students are afraid to attend for an education.

We should not think that violence against children occurs only in those countries suffering social and economic challenges. The report indicates that in the UK more than 17,000 children were taken into care after suffering abuse or neglect in 2013, in Canada 14 per cent of high school students reported being bullied online or through text messages, and in Australia 1 in 10 parents believe it is acceptable to use physical means to punish a child.

Surely one of our duties as teachers must be to ensure that the children and young people entering our establishments feel secure, and recognise that they are in places where care and learning are the primary objective. It is evident that at home and in their communities many children are vulnerable, and are regularly subjected to violence. The onus is therefore upon those of us who are educators to establish places of safety where children can learn and thrive in the knowledge that they will come to no harm. It would be good to think that at sometime in the future there would be no further need for reports such as this from UNICEF.

I’m going to take a few days break – but I will return!


Who has difficulties with behaviour?

Whilst children do not necessarily see themselves as having behaviour problems, teacher certainly do!

Whilst children do not necessarily see themselves as having behaviour problems, teachers certainly do!

“I have a boy in my class with behaviour difficulties, he disrupts the whole day.”

“Tell me about the difficulties he is experiencing.”

“He’s always off task, he interferes with the work of others in the class, he makes inappropriate noises during lessons; he’s just a perpetual nuisance.”

“But I asked you about the difficulties he is experiencing.”

“I just told you, he is just generally badly behaved all day.”

“Yes, I see that, but does he see this as a problem? What you have described to me are the difficulties you, and probably others in the class are having, they are not necessarily the difficulties he is experiencing.”

I could see that this was not going to be a straight forward conversation. Susan, (not her real name) a newly qualified teacher who began her first teaching job in September had found me in the coffee bar near the university library and clearly wanted some reassurance. We had had several conversations during her years as an undergraduate student at the university, and I knew that she was a bright and thoughtful young woman and very committed to her profession. I also know that she is not the kind of teacher who looks for an easy solution, but is more than capable of thinking her way through complex issues in her classroom and coming up with ideas to improve her situation.

The conversation, though a little convoluted at first, did improve as we shifted the focus to looking at the situation from the perspective of the pupil. I am quite sure that John (also not his real name) does not see his behaviour as being problematic. To John, the way he behaves is probably the way he has always behaved, and he is unlikely to change his behaviour unless he can see how such a change might benefit him. The person with the difficulty here is Susan, who is clearly frustrated and confused and wants to do the best she can for John and the rest of her class. However, as is often the case, Susan has become focused upon John’s behaviour and its consequences and has started looking for a means of intervention rather than re-examining the cause.

Many pupils who present with challenging behaviours appear to be quite unperturbed by their actions.  Whilst they may be causing havoc all around themselves, this does not significantly impact upon their own situation until such time as an adult intervenes, usually to impose some form of punishment or sanction. Before long a cycle of poor behaviour, punishment and resentment becomes the norm and this pattern is extremely difficult to break. The causes and consequences of negative behaviour are discussed in classrooms far less often than the behaviours themselves and as a result the critical understanding that might assist in the resolution of problems is rarely gained.

There are no quick and easy solutions to this situation. Susan and I discussed how John might be enabled to review his own behaviour, and how he could be encouraged to discuss strategies that may enable him to consider how he can manage himself more effectively in class. You will note the use of the terms “might” and “may” in the last sentence; I have never believed that there is a single solution to any challenge in the classroom. We talked about the possibility of supporting John in raising his self-esteem and taking some responsibility in class, and before long Susan was formulating ideas for how she might implement a system of daily self-review and personal planning for her wayward pupil. Ideas about how John could be encouraged to record his good behaviour were considered and I was happy to just listen as Susan began to unravel the situation and devise new strategies.

After an hour’s discussion I don’t believe that we necessarily solved any of Susan’s problems. However I hope that having an opportunity to talk to someone about these may have enabled her to think about her situation differently. Susan left with a set of ideas that she intends to apply in her classroom during the next half term. We agreed to meet again in a month or so in order to review progress.

Watch this space.

Change comes slowly, but at least it is coming

Is there a place for every child who needs it in this school?

Is there a place for every child who needs it in this school?

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can
change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

―Margaret Mead


At various times during the past ten years I have had an opportunity to work with two of China’s leading university teachers, researchers, and writers on matters concerning inclusive education. Having spent time with Professor Meng Deng at Beijing Normal University, and with Dr Feng Yan from Shaoxing University, I am aware that they have made a significant commitment to assist teachers in their appreciation of the rights of all children to obtain appropriate schooling. They have contributed to the development of courses, the conducting of research, and through their writings, a communication of ideas aimed at promoting a more equitable and inclusive education system. I also know that at various times they have been faced with indifference, dismissed as being focused upon an area of minor concern or even castigated for their audacity in providing a critique of the current education system in China. However, neither of these dedicated colleagues have shirked from their determination to work for a more inclusive educational community that recognises the needs of all children.

It was therefore with some interest that I read earlier today an article brought to my attention by a Chinese student, and published at the website of the All China Women’s Federation. I must admit that I had never previously heard about this organisation or visited its website. The article appears under the headline “China Badly Needs Special Education Teachers, Schools” (I assume there should be an ‘and’ before the word schools). In this article written by someone named Chen Bai, the experiences of parents of children with special educational needs in China are described, with a suggestion that there is a need to move forward to make more appropriate provision for children who have often been denied schooling.

The author claims that “The issue of caring for special needs children has been increasingly discussed as China embarks on sweeping educational reforms. By law, all children are entitled to basic education through public and special schools.” She then goes on to present examples of the struggles that parents have had to obtain schooling for their children as a result of the apparent challenges that they present to teachers. This, she postulates, is a reason why the law has been so difficult to implement and progress towards inclusion has been slow. A lack of funding, social stigma attached to having a child with a disability and the small number of teachers trained in special education are reasons that she puts forward, for the lack of momentum towards the provision of better educational opportunities for some children.

A national plan issued by the Chinese Government in 2013, aims to ensure at least 90 percent of children described as having special educational needs have access to compulsory education by the end of 2016. The current figure is said to be around 72% which in itself represents a significant improvement over the past ten years. Both Meng Deng and Feng Yan have been working hard to secure this kind of progress in their own regions of the country and it appears that they now have an increasing number of allies. “‘Inclusive education’ that recognizes and meets the learning needs of all students in all schools should be the main theme running through China’s education system in years to come,” Xu Jiacheng, Dean of the School of Special Education at Beijing Union University is reported as saying.

During my visits to China over the past few years I have often been disappointed by poor provision made in schools to support children who are experiencing difficulties. I have sometimes been dismayed by the lack of interest that some teachers, and especially those working in universities, have exhibited towards providing training opportunities aimed at increasing the confidence of teachers in addressing issues of diversity. Perhaps now the tide is beginning to turn. Elsewhere in Asia, during visits to Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and India, I have been impressed by the innovation of teaching colleagues and their commitment to address the needs of children who have been previously denied opportunities for learning. Maybe mainland China is now recognising that both economically and morally, a failure to address the educational needs of the most vulnerable in society will have long term consequences for sustainability and resilience within Chinese communities.

In 2010 Feng Yan wrote:-

“Although China has a firm commitment of educating students with SEN in regular classrooms, there are many obstacles to overcome if these students are to be provided with appropriate education. Some of these are logistical and economic. Others reflect deep-rooted cultural values.”

Let us hope that some of these obstacles are now being removed and that an increasing number of children who have been denied their right to education may at last be welcomed into their local schools. If this is the case, the expertise of Meng Deng and Feng Yan is going to be in great demand as more teachers seek the professional development that will increase their confidence and competence in this area.




A role reversed


Is it as a student or teacher that I embark upon the latest round of marking.

Is it as a student or teacher that I embark upon the latest round of marking?

I’m quite sure that every teacher in all kinds of schools, colleges and universities knows the feeling. You have identified a period of time in which you simply have to get down to doing the marking. Looking at the pile of scripts, you brace yourself, take a deep breath and reach the first from the top with a determination to do justice to work that represents the hard endeavours of a group of students. Over the past week this is a ritual that I have followed on several occasions, fitting in the marking between all of the other tasks that have quickly filled my diary since returning from India.

Teachers display differing reactions to marking, which can be seen as either a chore, or potentially an opportunity for learning. Without a doubt the worst experience of marking that I ever endured involved 150 undergraduate examination papers, each providing the opportunity for an individual student to make their own interpretation of the same few questions. This was my one and only experience of examination marking and I sincerely hope that it is one that I never have to repeat. By the time I had marked the first ten I was beginning to look forward to a single paper that was in any way different from those that had gone before. After fifty I was beginning to lose the will to live, and by the time I had reached the hundredth near identical script any remaining semblance of sanity had completely deserted me.

Marking doesn’t have to be like this and my most recent experience has been a total contrast to the mind numbing process of assessing examination scripts. Whilst in Bangalore we collected the dissertations written by our first cohort of student studying for the MA in Special and Inclusive Education. A 15,000  word report of an independently conducted research project along with an associated review of literature related to the chosen subject. This represents the final major assessed component of two years of hard study, and an opportunity for our student colleagues to demonstrate their expertise as researchers and subject experts. Just as I had predicted they did not disappoint and from the comfort of the sofa in my study I have enjoyed several hours of learning from the work that has been produced.

The topics selected by the students have been varied and challenging. The research conducted has been original, well constructed and thoughtfully applied, and the knowledge and understanding in evidence is a clear indication of the expertise that these enthusiastic professionals have gained. But one of the most important aspects of this assessment process for me is the reversal of roles in which I become the learner, gaining new insights and knowledge from the work submitted for this final part of the course by students who have now assumed the role of my teachers.

Some of the issues discussed in this work are those with which I am familiar and draws upon literature that I know quite well. But in some cases I find myself reading work related to subjects that are at the periphery of my knowledge, and that provides me with insights into topics that I had not expected. A study of the experiences of children who have gone through processes of adoption raises questions about their social needs and how these may be addressed by teachers and families. A critique of processes of assessment, and a study of the impact of family breakdown on the educational experiences of children both afford opportunities to enable teaching colleagues to reassess their practices. Studies about the ways in which specialist teachers support their colleagues and disseminate their expertise and about parental expectations in relation to the education of their female children identify the difficulties experience by families and professionals. And two highly original projects, one focused upon the life experiences of a disabled young woman living in a rural community and another considering the preparation of students with learning difficulties to work in the retail industry are just some examples of the diversity of research undertaken.

As this final hurdle of the course is taken I cease to become a tutor and revert to the exciting role of being a student. Whilst I retain the responsibility for assessment of this work, I am conscious of the unique opportunity I have to become a learner from the students with whom I have worked over the past couple of years. This reversal of roles is not only an indication of the route that we have travelled together, but also of the opportunity that these colleagues now have to move the inclusive education agenda ahead. I look forward to seeing the smiling faces of these excellent students and their families as they celebrate their graduation, but I am especially relishing observing the differences they make to the lives of children and teachers in the future.

No longer any reason to remain ignorant.

This SOMO Report provides harrowing examples of the exploitation of children

This SOMO Report provides harrowing examples of the exploitation of children

I had a conversation this morning with one of my PhD students, a young man from India who is nearing completion of his studies. During the course of our meeting we were reflecting on the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the India child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi, about whom I wrote on this blog yesterday, and why it was that neither of us, prior to this award had encountered this man and his work. Of the possible reasons we discussed, having read much about him over the past week, two seem to have some currency. Firstly, he appears to be a modest man who is immersed in his work and has not sought the publicity that might have followed his actions. Secondly, and much more disturbing, that the problems associated with child labour and trafficking are so great that his efforts to challenge these have been lost in the enormity of the task.

The humble nature of Kailash Satyarthi is apparent in the many recent interviews that have inevitably followed the Nobel prize announcement, but I would venture that the second factor that we considered, that of the extent of child labour is far more significant. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates, that all work done by children under the age of 15, and all hazardous work done by children under the age of 18 is illegal. Yet there are many reports of the abuse of this aspect of the Convention and these include estimates that there may be as many as 200 million children illegally employed around the world.

Since 1973, SOMO an independent, not-for-profit organisation working on social, ecological and economic issues has investigated multinational corporations and the consequences of their activities for people and the environment around the world.  A recent report published by this organisation highlights the extent of the problem and provides case examples from several countries.

An example from India presented in the report describes how girls are deployed in the yarn and textile spinning mills in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. They are apparently contracted for periods of up to five years in a scheme known as ‘Sumangali’  which means ‘happily married bride’ in Tamil. The promise being that they will earn enough money after a period of time to provide a good dowry for their marriage. However, the SOMO report found that the girls, who live in appalling conditions, are forbidden phone calls home and are not allowed unaccompanied visitors to their hostels. They earn barely enough money to survive.

When reading details such as this from the SOMO report one realises the enormity of the challenge that Bachpan Bachao Andolan, the organisation founded by Kailash Satyarthi faces in making progress towards the eradication of this problem. It takes little imagination to understand that there are many with vested interests in maintaining the status quo who will do all that they can to oppose the implementation of the law and the upholding of children’s rights. The actions that unscrupulous employers and business men are prepared to take to uphold their illegal regimes are possibly another reason for Kailash Satyarthi to maintain a low profile. He has already survived a number of brutal attacks during his efforts to defend children and expose child labour. These included an assault on himself and his associates at a Delhi garment sweatshop in 2011 and several raids upon his offices by people intent on halting his activities.

So, returning to our previous ignorance of the activities of Kailash Satyarthi, I suspect that our theories related to his personal modesty and the overwhelming nature of the atrocities of child labour both have an element of truth. Sadly for many children the interventions of campaigners such as Kailash Satyarthi have had insufficient impact, but others have benefited from his determined interventions, and hopefully the publicity that his work is now receiving will make the life of ruthless employers and child traffickers that much more difficult in the future.





There is no balance in the lives of many children


Kailash Sathyarthi Nobel Prize winner and champion of children

Kailash Sathyarthi Nobel Prize winner and champion of children

From the age of twelve and throughout my secondary school years, in addition to studying at school, at various times I had a number of paid jobs. The most consistent of these, which I maintained for six years was as a newspaper delivery boy, walking around  the streets near my home, pushing newspapers and magazines through the letter boxes of customers who had ordered them from the local newsagent. Each morning I would rise at 6.00 am, have breakfast, then collect my large bag of newspapers from the shop to begin my round, which on most mornings would take  around 45 minutes to complete. The job involved few skills, other than remembering which newspapers or magazines had been ordered for each household, and that of avoiding a particularly unfriendly dog at number 18 Granville Street (a snarling black demon that on more than one occasion caused me to leap a wall in order to avoid becoming a dog’s breakfast!).

Once the summer holidays arrived I would seek further employment and amongst the  varied jobs that I managed to obtain were periods as “van boy” assisting a driver with the delivery of groceries around the county’s villages, and assistant to a butcher which I recall involved a lot of cleaning of equipment and organisation of a walk-in refrigerator. These jobs served a number of purposes, not least of which was giving me some experience of working with a broad range of people from different walks of life, a certain self-discipline in getting myself organised for work and taking some responsibility for the task in hand, but to be frank, the greatest motivating factor was the fact that I was able to earn enough money to follow my interests and pursuits and to not be dependent upon my parents. In general I enjoyed the work; it was never onerous, and afforded me a certain independence that I relished. Whatever work I undertook did not interfere with my education and fitted well into a balanced routine of study, work and leisure.

My personal experiences led me to believe that gaining some kind of  early employment opportunity might  be beneficial, and I certainly would never have discouraged others from adopting a similar pattern to that which I had experienced as a youth. However, there are a number of important factors related to this  statement about which I have been pondering for the last few days. Firstly, the choice to engage in limited paid employment during my school days was mine, nobody coerced me into labour, neither was I instructed that I should pursue any specific form of work. Secondly, and most importantly, the work that I did enabled me to follow my interests and in particular to continue to study and achieve the kind of education that has held me in good stead throughout my adult life. Finally, all of the employers for whom I worked were empathetic to the fact that I was still in education and recognised that they had a duty of care to ensure that my labours did not interfere with my ability to study. Furthermore, I can state quite confidently that I was never expected to undertake any task that might have placed me in danger, and that those who employed me were appropriately concerned for my welfare, (in all honestly that brute of a dog was far slower than I was and never really threatened me with any serious harm).

So, why have I been thinking about these matters for the past few days? Last week joint winners of the Nobel Peace Prize were announced, both of whom came from the Indian sub-continent. I would imagine that many on hearing the announcement of the winners would have been familiar with the name Malala Yousufzai, the brave young Pakistani woman, who having been targeted and shot in the head by a narrow minded group of goondas who fear educated women, has since campaigned vigorously for the rights of girls to receive an education equal to that of their male peers. The publicity that she has gained in respect of educational rights, has fostered debate and encouraged other campaigners in many parts of the world to join her cause. Whilst Malala’s name has rightly gained recognition across the world, that of Kailash Sathyarthi with whom she shared the Nobel prize is I suspect, less known, and I must confess to my shame that until the announcement I knew nothing of this man.

Kailash Sathyarthi  founded an organisation with headquarters in Delhi called Bachpan Bachao Andolan. This grassroots-level people’s movement has worked hard to draw attention to and campaign for an end of the exploitation of children, placing a focus particularly upon the issue of child labour. Reading about this determined gentleman and his activities prompted me to consider the lives of many children in India and beyond, and to contrast their situations with that which I experienced at the same age. Whilst reading around the issue of child labour and looking in particular at the work of Kailash Sathyarthi  the extent of the challenges that he continues to face became much more apparent.

As a youth, I chose to work and did so in a way from which I benefited both financially and in terms of life experience. The children for whom Kailash Sathyarthi fights are in a totally different position. They work in order to help feed, house and clothe their families. The income that they make does not afford them additional luxuries or access to leisure activity, but is immediately consumed in the effort to survive. Their labours are not managed by benevolent employers who ensure either their safety, a decent wage, or their ability to continue their education, and they are often exploited in order to ensure maximum profits for unscrupulous organisations. All of this is far removed from the experiences of youth employment that myself and my contemporaries had growing up in an English city.

An article compiled by Ramya Kannan in the Hindu newspaper (19th October 2014) provides examples from several parts of India to demonstrate how, despite laws for the protection of children, many are continuing to be exploited through dangerous labour practices and denied an opportunity to education. Typical of the children highlighted in this article are Raja, aged 13, Sonu, 11, and Shiv, 6, who work for nine hours a day at a brick kiln near Patna. Raja simply sees this as the norm stating that:-

 “I was born at a brick kiln in Gopalgunj district. Since then, I’ve been seeing my parents working at brick kilns. So it has come naturally for me to pick up the work.”

One of the thousands of brick kiln owners in the district admits that this is common practice, and appears unperturbed by the impact that this has upon the lives of these children.

From a different part of the country, another child, Akask reports that:-

“My father never allowed me to study. He never sent me to school. I wanted to learn, but he wanted me to go to the fields and earn,”

This same boy suggests that his father beat him when he didn’t work so he then decided to run away from home.

Some of the children interviewed for the Hindu article asked about their  relationship to their employers claim hum bichwa gaye hain (we have been sold to them), indicating that such exploitation is at times simply regarded as another business transaction.

From the comfort of my desk in my study in England it is, of course, very easy to point a finger of blame and to express disgust that children can be so exploited. It is completely unfair to compare my own experiences to those of children living in such totally different circumstances from my own. The balance that I was so fortunate to experience in my life remains no more than a dream to many children around the world. There is also some danger in suggesting that the parents of these children are wholly to blame for the blighted youth of their offspring, when in fact the problem lies much deeper than this. The truth of the matter is that without the labours of their children, many of these families would not survive. Given better opportunities and more favourable living conditions, they too would seek a better education for their children. Until such time as the abject poverty in which such families are forced to live is addressed through more holistic approaches, we are destined to see children continuing to be abused and denied a right to education. Sadly the work of Kailash Sathyarthi and his colleagues will be required well into the future.



When is a college not a college?

What will this young man learn from his education?

What will this young man learn from his education?

I sometimes find myself confused by the use of words. Or maybe it’s the misuse of words that alarms me so. In today’s Guardian newspaper, a report by the Home Affairs Editor Alan Travis appears under the headline “Graying to let staff use force at ‘super-jail’ for children.” The article reports that Chris Graying, Secretary of State for Justice in the UK coalition government, has decided that he will endorse the use of force to restrain the inmates at a proposed privately run “secure college” for teenagers. This despite a court ruling that suggests that such an approach would be counter-productive and potentially damaging to the purpose of the establishment.

Perhaps I am being too sensitive, but it is the use of the term “secure college” that causes me a certain amount of angst when reading this report. College is a word that I normally associate with an educational institution, charged with a responsibility to care for students and provide them with opportunities to develop skills, knowledge and understanding through study and practical application. I have visited many such establishments during my forty years as a teacher, but never have I heard any of the staff or students at such an institution discussing the need for physical restraint as a means of promoting learning.

Both Graying and his colleague, the Justice Minister Andrew Selous have emphasised that whilst the establishment which they propose will be developed to house young offenders, its emphasis will be upon providing inmates with an education to prepare them to enter society and contribute to their communities. These are of course, noble sentiments and it is to be hoped that they succeed in this mission. However, as Alan Travis rightly states, the intended £85 million project far from serving the function normally associated with a college is in fact a new form of “super-jail.” The use of euphemisms will have little impact in what is clearly an effort to disguise the true nature of this proposal.

The use of force as a means of promoting education has long been discredited. Whilst in the past some teachers have apparently held the view that knowledge could be beaten into children, it is generally accepted that students  learn best from those teachers for whom they have the greatest respect. Those who attempt to gain such respect through a show of force are almost certain to fail, which is precisely why there should be no place for violence in educational establishments.  As Andrew Neilson from the Howard League for Penal Reform has stated, “The Ministry of Justice has  described the secure college as putting education at the heart of detention, yet this consultation places punishment firmly at the heart of the proposal.” The institution proposed by Mr Grayling and his colleagues does not in any way, resemble a college by any definition that would be acceptable to teachers with a proud history of providing education in this country. I’m sure that if you ask the majority of teachers to define a place that incarcerates young people away from their communities, and enforces discipline through the use of force, they would tell you that this was a jail, a prison or a young offender’s institution. I suspect that the term school or college would be unlikely to cross their minds.

Before I am accused of being a “bleeding heart liberal” (which I quite probably am), I must say that I accept that there are young people who for whatever reason become serial offenders, and require specialist provision and management away from the majority of their peers. This has been the case throughout history and seems likely to be so well into the future. What I am asking however, is that we consider two issues raised in today’s Guardian article. Firstly, that we should be more honest in our choice of terms, and when a new jail is to be created we do not dress this up in the guise of a college. Secondly, that when claiming to address the needs of children and young people, even those who may have committed crimes and been thoroughly obnoxious in their behaviour, we acknowledge that if we choose to manage them through the use of violence, they will believe that this is an acceptable approach to dealing with others and will therefore use this method themselves in the future.


Strengthening the nation’s economy, but at what expense?


Campaigners for the eradication of poverty are beginning to despair. Will poverty in the UK ever become a historical concept.

Campaigners for the eradication of poverty are beginning to despair. Will poverty in the UK ever become a historical concept?

A head teacher describes how children in her school have pleaded with her that they are hungry, and how she recognises that they are getting so little to eat that it impacts on their ability to learn. Their parents cannot afford to purchase sufficient food to feed the family, so funds from the school are used to ensure that these children can have a decent meal. Another head teacher, expressing anxiety for the conditions that some children have to endure states that, “a hungry, worried, unsupported child doesn’t learn, behave or play well.” Schools increasingly have to provide basic support in order to protect the well-being of children. Three and a half million children are living in poverty, with a projection that they will be joined by a further 600,000 by 2016 with the total reaching 4.7 million by 2020.

Which country is being described here? You could be forgiven for believing that I have highlighted the conditions to be found in one of the poorer of the world’s states, possibly in Eastern Europe or one of the less affluent Asian nations. But no, these figures, taken from a report issued by a well respected organisation called the Child Poverty Action Group, refer to life in the tenth richest country in the world (according to International Monetary Fund Statistics) – that is, my country, the United Kingdom. It is not a situation of which we should be proud.

I am not totally naïve in my efforts to understand poverty. I have seen the conditions in which families live in some of the slum areas of India, and have spent time amongst people who spend their entire existence clinging to life and trying to survive whilst dwelling on the streets. Often these people live in situations surrounded by poor infrastructure and in countries where there are limited welfare systems and a long history of poverty and deprivation.  This is far from the case in the UK, where the strength of the welfare state has always been a source of national pride.

At a time when educational policy makers have emphasised the need to focus upon the raising of academic standards, we have increasing numbers of children who are in no condition to benefit fully from the schooling on offer. There is no doubt that those who live in poverty are less likely to succeed in school, are more likely to drop out of education and leave school with few qualifications. It is also the case that poverty impacts seriously upon the health of those who live in this condition, making them more vulnerable to disease, malnutrition and disabling conditions.

So, how can it be that the world’s tenth wealthiest nation allows situations such as those described above to occur? Have we become less compassionate than we were in previous generations? I suspect that this may not be the case, and indeed the British public have a record of being particularly supportive of charitable causes that work in support of vulnerable individuals. The cause of this currently worsening situation may well be that the priorities identified by national politicians in respect of growing the nation’s economy, are at odds with providing support for the most vulnerable in our society. Whilst taking a broad view of the country’s economic situation they have lost sight of the need to provide support for those individuals and families who are at risk of becoming increasingly disaffected as a result of poverty.

Schools are increasingly required to provide the kind of support that was previously available through social systems that ensured the welfare of those at risk. Of course, it is essential that teachers take a holistic view of the needs of children and families and provide for social as well as educational needs,  but for many families the message currently being received is that they are low on the list of priorities established by the current administration.

We should applaud those teachers and head teachers who see their responsibilities as going well beyond the school gates. But surely we must also question those who govern a wealthy country and appear content to see poverty increase and children struggling to thrive.



Inclusive teaching – not just for the willing, because that would hardly be inclusive would it?


The psychologist Vygotsky emphasised the need for us to be social as both teachers and learners.

The psychologist Vygotsky emphasised the need for us to be social as both teachers and learners.

“What a child can do in co-operation today he can do alone tomorrow.”

Vygotsky (1896 – 1934)

The great Belarussian psychologist Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky developed a social theory of learning through which he suggested that the most effective way of gaining understanding was through the development of a collaborative community of learners. These communities he stated should be founded on “student-student and expert-student collaboration on real world problems or tasks that build on each person’s language, skills, and experience shaped by each individual’s culture.” In making this statement Vygotsky recognised that everyone in such a community brings their own experiences, expertise and interpretations of the world with them, and so long as they are prepared to share, they can foster knowledge, and understanding. Such an approach does, of course, require trust and a preparedness to accept joint ownership and responsibility for learning if it is to succeed. It also requires an environment conducive to learning and supportive of all participants.

Over the past few weeks I have been privileged to be a part of such community; one that has been truly inclusive, where opinions, ideas and experiences have been treated with mutual respect, and where every participant has been eager to learn and share their knowledge. The absence of ego and commitment to collaboration has been such, that it was possible to participate in a relaxed but focused atmosphere, from which I believe all students and tutors benefited. A particular pleasure for myself has been to observe the ways in which the confidence of students who initially joined the course with a certain reticence, and indeed perhaps too much deference to their tutors, has grown to a point where they recognise the important contribution they can make to all of our learning.

Within Bangalore there exists a group of dedicated teaching professionals who are now working more closely together to develop a much more inclusive teaching environment. They are sharing their knowledge, developing teaching approaches and strategies in schools and most importantly, applying learning that they have gained from each other. It is particularly rewarding for those of us who work as tutors on the MA programme, to see the leadership role that each of these individuals has adopted.

It is important that we recognise that there continues to be many teachers, and not only in Bangalore or India, who are fearful of the notion of a more inclusive education system. In India many teachers and indeed school principals perceive the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act as a challenge to their more previously comfortable educational existence. It would be easy for those of us who have worked together in Bangalore over a number of years to be critical, or to condemn these teachers as dinosaurs within the education system. However, if we adopt this attitude we will achieve little and are far more likely to alienate colleagues and further slow the progress that can be made. On Saturday at the annual Brindavan Education Seminar I was particularly moved when listening to eminent colleagues, including Dr Jayanthi Narayan and Mrs Krishnaswami, as they recalled a life time of commitment to the inclusion agenda in the country. They reminded me of colleagues here in the UK who maintained a similar focus throughout their professional lifetimes, in order to ensure a greater understanding by teachers of what can be achieved with children previously thought of as ineducable. The great achievements of these pioneers in the field came through example, by the adoption of supportive and inclusive teaching that recognised that we do not all start from the same baseline or begin with the same vision for children.

Whilst one of the greatest pleasures of working with colleagues in Bangalore is the recognition of the dedication they have towards improving the lives of children, regardless of their needs or abilities, their social and economic background, caste, culture or religion, I recognise that the real challenge lies in working with those who have not yet made this level of commitment. Over yet another excellent lunch at the Saturday seminar, a teacher from one of the local government schools commented to me that, “the teachers who really need to be here today never come.” She is probably right, but perhaps the questions we should be asking are not so much about their lack of commitment, but more about how we can make the first move to support them to become more willing to engage. There is always a danger that we believe that our way of looking at the world is the only way and that others should come and join us. Perhaps we need to find ways to meet them half way along the road and to collaborate more closely with them, – then perhaps we can prove Vygotsky’s theory, that what we learn in collaboration today will lead ultimately to greater confidence and independence. If we ignore this significant number of teachers who are yet to be convinced by the inclusion agenda, are we not in danger of ourselves becoming exclusive?

I was delighted to be taught something about inclusive learning from this group of children in  a Bangalore Government School

I was delighted to be taught something about inclusive learning by this group of children in a Bangalore Government School


Passing on the torch


Dr Jayanthi Narayan, a source of great inspiration to teachers across India and beyond

Dr Jayanthi Narayan, a source of great inspiration to teachers across India and beyond

When I was first invited to come to India to work with colleagues on the development of training for teachers working with children with special educational needs, I found this quite a daunting prospect. Although I had some knowledge of Indian history, literature and culture, my understanding of the Indian education system was at best limited. My experience of Indian schools was non-existent at that time and I was keen to visit a few of these before engaging directly in the professional development of experienced teachers.

Anxious to understand more about the ways in which provision is made for children with special educational needs in the country, I did what any other teacher or researcher working in this field would have done. I searched the university library catalogue and other sources for literature related to the development of special and inclusive education in India. For such a populous country there continues to be a limited corpus of literature in this area, and in 1999 when I was conducting my investigations there was considerably less. However, of the papers and articles that I found, there were a number written by a particular author whose ideas and insights quickly began to shape both my understanding and further interest in educational provision here.

Dr Jayanthi Narayan has written and researched in the area of inclusive education over many years. I first encountered her work in a book with the title, Beyond Basic Care: Special Education and Community Rehabilitation in Low Income Countries, in which she had written a chapter on special education provision in India. Having been the founder head of the Department of Special Education at the National Institute of the Mentally Handicapped (NIMH), Dr. Narayan played a major role in in setting up a laboratory school for the training of teachers, and developing curricula for diploma, degree and post-graduate courses. She has also been influential in campaigns for the support of parents and has certainly influenced national policy. Just as in my early days of working with teachers in India, her work continues to inform my thinking about how schools are developing here in Bangalore and beyond.

Last year I had the pleasure of meeting Jayanthi and listening to her present a key note lecture at a conference in Delhi, and today had the honour of sharing a platform with her at a seminar organised by the Brindavan Education Trust in Bangalore. Just as in Delhi, it was a pleasure to hear her speak with such passion and enthusiasm and a somewhat daunting prospect following her onto the stage to speak to the gathered assembly. Her words of encouragement and endorsement of the ideas which I presented today were reassuring and affirmative in respect of the work which I do with such good colleagues here. Though I have no doubt that her presentation was the highlight of the day.

Whilst it was Jayanthi Narayan’s work that informed much of my work when I first came to India, it was the encouragement given by Mrs Krishnaswami, the great matriarch of special education in Bangalore that initially made me feel welcome amongst special educators in the city. This formidable lady has been a driving force behind developments and training in Bangalore for longer than anyone can remember, and it was a pleasure to see her in the audience at today’s event.

Looking down from the stage today I recognised the faces of so many students with whom we work on the MA programme here. Their bright enthusiastic gaze was a source of tremendous reinforcement during my morning presentation. As I looked into the audience I reflected on the fact that Dr Narayan and Mrs K (as she is affectionately known) have been pioneers in the field of special and inclusive education in India, and that their presence today would have been a great inspiration to many of these young teachers. In the future I am sure that some of the students with whom we are fortunate to work here in the city, will be assuming their positions on the podium in order to share their experiences and commitment to children who are described as having special educational needs. This passing of the torch from a generation of Indian educational pioneers to today’s neophytes who will in turn become the leaders in this field is surely something that we should celebrate.

Once again I am grateful to all of my colleagues and our students here in Bangalore for the warmth of the hospitality received. On the plane home tomorrow and looking forward to returning in January.