Good intentions have little real impact

 

These able bodied pedestrians can make progress. But sadly, many others cannot.

These able bodied pedestrians can make progress. But sadly, many others cannot.

A few days ago I wrote about the challenges of being a wheelchair user, a parent with a pushchair, or a person with limited mobility on the streets of Bangalore (Reclaiming the Streets, November 26th). I recalled my feelings of horror when watching a lady pushing an elderly gentleman along the centre of the road amongst typical traffic chaos, having clearly decided that this was her only option. The pavements of Bangalore, where they exist, are a minefield of obstacles, holes, hanging wires and piles of refuse, thus rendering them inaccessible to any but the most determined explorer.

My brief article prompted an email from a friend in Chennai this morning, which gave me both hope for optimism and cause to question whether there is truly a will to address this situation. He reports that yesterday, members of the Disability Rights Alliance (DRA), who describe themselves as “a collective of independent, community based organisations, individuals and peer groups- all passionate about disability,” took to the streets and went from door to door to raise awareness about this very issue.

Apparently, the authorities in Chennai have taken some initiative in attempting to improve the access and mobility situation in the city, and have recently invested money to widen the pavements in certain areas of the city. There is a plan to extend this programme further in an effort to make the city more user friendly for everyone. The Disability Rights Alliance have conducted their own audit of these areas and confirm that this action has been taken, and a number of ramps to make life easier for wheelchair users  and others with mobility difficulties have been installed. However, far from improving the situation for those for whom this initiative was intended, the difficulties they face have taken a new twist.

The newly installed ramps have been seized upon by motorists as providing a far better means by which they can mount the pavements and park their cars or motorcycles. One of the campaigners provides an example from KB Dasan Road in the Teynampet district, where local restaurant owners and even a hospital have been encouraging drivers to use the newly accessible pavements for parking in order to visit their facilities. The members of the Disability Rights Alliance in calling from door to door   to increase awareness of the legitimate reasons why the pavements have been improved, have apparently been receiving a mixed reception. Whilst some sympathise and recognise the problems of their disabled neighbours, others appear quite indifferent to their plight.

Reporting this situation to me in his email this morning, my friend suggested that this is a battle that cannot be won. The difficulties, he suggests are largely centred on a reluctance of officials, including the police, to monitor the system and take action. When discussing the situation with a neighbour he was told that if motorists are prevented from parking on the pavements this will greatly inconvenience them, and by leaving their cars on the roadside they would significantly impede the flow of traffic.

It would appear that even when the authorities respond to the campaigns of groups such as the Disability Rights Alliance, this has minimal impact upon the accessibility of the streets. My friend in Chennai is a man in his late eighties who is not very stable on his feet, and one of the most telling paragraphs in his email reads as follows.

“Having heard about the initiative to widen pavements and improve their condition I had raised my hopes that I might once again be able to get out on my own. For what seems like many years now, though in reality it is only about eighteen months, I have been a prisoner in my own home. Unless the authorities here have the conviction to enforce the law and keep the pavements for pedestrians, myself and many others will continue to live within a restricted environment.”

Progress for discriminated people invariably comes in small increments. We should always applaud the work of officials and those in positions of influence who support policies aimed at making the lives of others easier. However, I suspect that there will be many more initiatives such as this in Chennai, and elsewhere in India, that will flounder until such time as those with the power to manage these situations demonstrate the courage to see them through.

Where these students lead, may others follow.

Students setting an example which from which others could certainly learn.

Students setting an example  from which others could certainly learn.

Shweta, who is one of my student colleagues in Bangalore yesterday sent me an interesting series of photographs from the school where she works. One of the teachers at this school had been teaching her class about environmental issues and how these relate to hygiene and health. As with all good teachers she thought about how she could take the ideas discussed in class and enable her students to apply them in a practical manner. Deciding to take a lead from the students, she asked them to decide how they might apply the principles of improving their environment and creating a more healthy area in which to live and work. Just as we might expect from a class of bright and enthusiastic  students, they were full of ideas and suggestions. These included planting trees, cleaning the school building, and eventually the idea upon which they settled; cleaning up the litter from around the school.

My friends in India know that I have a real passion for their country, its culture, history, literature and the people. However, many of them are also aware that I am less than enamoured with the vast quantities of litter that are a blight upon the streets and parks of every Indian city. I am sure that many visitors to the country rarely see beyond the piles of plastic, paper, textiles and other detritus that foul almost every street corner of an otherwise beautiful city. Soon after his election and appointment as Prime Minister of India, Mr Narendra Modi, broom in hand launched a campaign for a cleaner India. His own efforts in sweeping the streets were most certainly more symbolic than active, but at least he was making a point that there is an urgent need for Indian citizens to take some responsibility for cleaning up their environment.

The students and teachers at Shweta’s school had clearly recognised that Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Campaign Clean India), was something to which they could make a contribution and agreed that they should equip themselves with brooms, bags, gloves and face masks in order to venture into the street and begin their chosen task. We should, of course applaud the initiative taken by these students and hope that others make follow their example and assume responsibility for their own environment. This noble gesture did not, however, meet with universal approval. The organising teacher was somewhat disturbed when one of the students suggested that;-

“she was a pampered child at home who was not allowed to do any work, and that she felt it to be below her dignity to take a broom and sweep roads.”

The teacher was clearly shocked by this attitude and reported that:

“I had a personal talk with her and made her understand that there is nothing undignified about cleaning your surroundings; in fact you are setting a very good example to many people who fail to understand the importance of cleanliness”.

I can imagine that this was not the easiest of conversations, but after seeing the teacher’s perspective, and appreciating the response from the rest of the class, the reluctant student decided that she would join the rest of the class in this activity. As the photographs show, the students went about their task with enthusiasm and by the end of the day they were rightly proud of what they had achieved in a relatively short time.

This story reported to me by Shweta and her colleagues had a particular resonance  as I recalled a chapter from the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi, The Story of my Experiments with Truth, in which he described how during his time in South Africa he had argued with his wife Kasturba. Wishing to set an example and to demonstrate his opposition to the caste system, Gandhi insisted that everyone, including himself, should be responsible for undertaking all of the duties around the community that he had established. This involved as a priority maintaining a hygienic environment and included the cleaning of latrines. Having set an example by completing this task himself, he expected his wife to follow suit. At first she refused and this annoyed Gandhi who raised his voice in anger, an act that caused him to record the shame that he felt for having lost his temper. After some discussion and much forgiveness, Kasturba agreed that she too should participate in this most menial of tasks, and recognised that for the sake of a community everyone must accept the responsibility to play a full part in caring for the environment. The maintenance of a healthy and clean environment should not be seen as beneath the dignity of anyone, and neither should it be seen as the responsibility of others. This specific incident is depicted very well in Richard Attenborough’s film of the life of Gandhi.

It may seem like a large conceptual leap from the life of the Mahatma to a small school in Bangalore. But I think we should take heart from the fact that the students at this particular school are taking a lead in appreciating that they have a responsibility to the environment in which they live. Furthermore, they have shown a willingness to take action in order to improve the grounds in the immediate vicinity of their school. It would be easy to say that this action is but a drop in the ocean, and can have only a limited impact upon what must be the many thousands of tons of rubbish that pollute the Garden City of Bangalore. But if each individual resident took responsibility to manage their own litter and clean their own area of the city,  thereby following the example of these young people, it would not be too long before the Bangalore environment was significantly improved. The apprehensions expressed by one student within the class are not so far removed from those experienced by Kasturba Gandhi, and hopefully, like the mother of the nation she will have learned much by thinking through this situation, and may make a similar contribution to the welfare of India in the future.

So, today I wish to celebrate the actions of a small group of students and their teachers, who far from waiting for others to bring about change, have taken the initiative to do something positive for their neighbourhood. If these young people are representative of the students of Bangalore, there must be hopes for a healthier future in the city.

clean up 2 Brindavan clean 4 clean up 3

 

Moving forward through a shared understanding

 

When teachers, parents, policy makers and researchers come together for a respectful sharing of ideas, the mutual learning opportunities can have benefits for all parties.

When teachers, parents, policy makers and researchers come together for a respectful sharing of ideas, the mutual learning opportunities can have benefits for all parties.

Those of us who spend part of our lives working as educational researchers sometimes decry the fact that much of the education policy implemented by national governments, has little or no foundation in evidence. Policy is at times developed purely on a political whim, and simply reflects the dogma of the current administration. Indeed it can even appear as if policy in my own country is implemented despite being contrary to the evidence provided by a significant corpus of research. The low status afforded to educational research, as opposed to that in many of the pure science disciplines, is often a source of frustration to both teachers and researchers, and is indicative of a lack of respect shown by politicians towards those working in the education professions. However, in recent years I have been pleased to find that there is a notable exception to this situation.

In the Republic of Ireland a significant emphasis is given to the development of evidence based practice in schools. The area of special and inclusive education in particular, is one that has benefited significantly from efforts to conducted investigations into the efficacy of teaching approaches, and the deployment of resources and specific initiatives in schools. The National Council for Special Education, a department which is funded and supported by the Irish national government, has commissioned and overseen a number of substantial research projects that have influenced both policy and practice at a national level.

These projects have included investigations into pedagogical practices to support the education of deaf children, research into the management of challenging behaviours and a longitudinal study of the provision made and learning outcomes for children across the country. The National Council for Special Education having tendered for these investigations have employed research teams from both within Ireland and further afield, and have demonstrated a commitment to improving school practice on the basis of the evidence provided.

The results of research are disseminated through well produced reports, written in language accessible to service users and providers, and through national conferences for teachers, school principals and parents. Because of this collegiate approach, a mutual respect has developed between schools, researchers and this commissioning government agency. Practices in schools have been changed and the excellent work of teachers and other professional colleagues has been endorsed and supported as a result of this approach.

Recently I had an opportunity to attend a conference for around three hundred professionals and parents at which some of the latest research commissioned by the National Council for Special Education, including a project in which I have been fortunate to be involved, was discussed. The importance of this way of working was emphasised by a guest speaker, Professor Samuel Odom from the University of North Carolina in the USA, who during an interesting presentation showed how bogus approaches to working with children on the autism spectrum have emerged as a result of strange doctrines that have no foundation in research evidence. As he advised, if we simply develop practice on the basis of a philosophy or the notions of a few individuals or politicians, without recourse to a rigorous investigation of the ethics, efficacy and impact of the approach, we may well end up doing more harm than good. Professor Odom made a strong case for ensuring that before significant changes are implemented in schools, these should be subjected to a thorough investigation using objective means to verify their likely impact.

The teamwork established between policy makers, researchers, school managers and teachers in Ireland provides a sound example of how a shared focus upon providing effective teaching and learning can be achieved. If only every government were able to demonstrate the same commitment to this systematic approach to understanding what works in schools, we might find that teachers and children were more assured in the excellent work that they do together in classrooms.

Today’s letters may provide tomorrow’s insights

Whilst lacking the immediacy of e-mail, a written letter still feels far more personal.

Whilst lacking the immediacy of e-mail, a written letter still feels far more personal.

 “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

(Blaise Pascal The Provincial Letters 1657)


Responding to yesterday’s blog, in which I commented on the demise of the letter as a means of communication, Tim Loreman from Canada reminisced about the pre-internet era, when he and his then girlfriend (who has since become his wife), being apart from each other on different continents exchanged letters, written on a daily basis, knowing that they might take weeks to be delivered. I was particularly touched by his romantic recollection that “somehow that process of physically writing, waiting, and receiving letters had an appeal all of its own”.

There is still something special about receiving a letter from a friend, and whilst I recognise and value the immediacy of electronic communication, the physical entity of a letter appears to add more weight to correspondence and greater permanence to the words expressed on the paper. I have a file of letters here in my study from my good friend Satish in India, and occasionally return to this small archive in order to reflect on some of the ideas exchanged. There is a reassurance in having this physical permanent record, and whilst I appreciate that it is possible to create files and store e-mails on the computer, this seems like a far more ephemeral and impersonal process.

After reading Tim’s comments I spent a little time browsing the bookshelves around my study, and found myself immersed in the pages of various tomes containing examples of collected letters, that inform us about the lives and experiences of individuals, who are probably best known through their various achievements or published works. I turned first to the collected letters of the poet Dylan Thomas which I purchased in Bristol where I was a student of English literature in the 1970’s. I remember at the time thinking that there is some fine prose in many of these letters, which is largely overlooked by the majority of readers of Thomas, who know him mainly through his poetry and short stories. But if we take an example from a letter written to the novelist Lawrence Durrell in Greece, we can appreciate that his love of words resonated through much of what he wrote, even when it was not intended for publication.

“I think England is the very place for a fluent and fiery writer. The highest hymns of the sun are written in the dark. I like the grey country. A bucket of Greek sun would drown in one colour the crowds of colours I like trying to mix for myself out of a grey flat mud. If I went to the sun I’d just sit in the sun; that would be very pleasant but I’m not doing it, and the only necessary things that I do are the things I am doing.” Dylan Thomas 1938

The letters of others show both their humanity and their humility, as in the touching correspondence between Albert Einstein and a girl who expressed her frustration with difficulties learning mathematics in school in 1943:-

“…Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater.

Best regards

Professor Albert Einstein.”

Jawarhalal Nehru, writing to his ten year old daughter Indira, later herself to become Prime Minister of India, offered sage words of reassurance and advice against adopting stereotyped images of the world or the people who she would inevitably meet during her formative years.

“England is only a little island and India, though a big country, is only a small part of the earth’s surface. If we want to know something about the story of this world of ours we must think of all the countries and all the peoples that have inhabited it, and not merely of one little country where we may have been born.”

Whilst these letters demonstrate a reassuringly ordinary side to those who may often be seen as extraordinary people, other letters have a telling poignancy that can bring us up short and give us cause for deeper reflection. One such communication, of which I have thought on several occasions during this year of remembrance of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the  First World War, is that written by the poet Wilfred Owen to his mother in 1918.

“Dearest Mother,

So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 inches away. And so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges, and jolts. On my left, the company commander snores on a bench. It is a great life. I am more oblivious than the less, dear mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside and the hollow crashing of the shells.

I hope you are as warm as I am, soothed in your room as I am here. I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround us here. There is no danger down here – or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines…”

The sad reality surrounding this letter is that within a week or so of its despatch to his mother, Wilfred Owen was killed in action, exactly one week before the end of hostilities in November 1918.

Had copies of these letters, and so many more beside them not been retained, how much less would we know about their authors and those with whom they corresponded? These short despatches tell us much about the experiences and the emotions that helped to shape the works that they created. The writers of letters can certainly be described as the historian’s friend, and I am sure that there is much that we can learn from the documents they have left behind.

It would be foolish to suggest that we can reverse the tide of the “throw away” communication systems that have come to characterise the digital age, but I do hope that the insights to be gained from the correspondence between individuals may be recognised, and that from time to time we may still be encouraged to write a letter or two in the future.

Gremlins in the works!

Is this the Gremlin that caused some aggravation over the past couple of days?

Is this the Gremlin that caused some aggravation over the past couple of days?

If I was superstitious, which I’m not (touch wood), or if I believed in conspiracies , which I don’t (in case someone is out to get me), I would have been hiding away over the past couple of days. But I genuinely have not.

Having written about cyber bullying and the digital age, I went off to Dublin, with a couple of ideas in mind about other issues I might consider writing about, only to find that whilst others had easy access to this blog, mine was being denied. After repeatedly trying to access this platform and attempting to post an item, with no success whatsoever, I made various enquiries of colleagues with technical expertise at the university,  that led to the discovery that I was no longer recognised on the University of Northampton system!

A number of theories immediately sent my imagination into overdrive. Perhaps I had finally overstepped the mark and upset the Dean of Education or the Vice Chancellor to an extent that had given them grounds to dismiss me from my post! But no, surely if this were the case they would have informed me in as polite a manner as they saw fit. Maybe my suggestion that the digital age has potential pitfalls as well as advantages, had enraged someone in an anorak sitting at a keyboard to such an extent that they had, through the wonders of technology, cut off my access to this particular form of communication.  Not a likely scenario as I always try to be quite polite and well-mannered in my ramblings, and also because I suspect that such individuals have far more interesting things to do with their time. Or perhaps I had fallen victim to an invidious form of the very cyber bullying against which I had railed in my last posting. Could it be that some malicious individual had taken offence at my words and was seeking to take revenge? Certainly I was feeling somewhat victimised as others seemed to have no difficulties accessing the very materials over which I had previously felt some ownership, whilst I was being excluded. Of all my theories, this is the one that presents the most worrying traits of paranoia! But then as Joseph Heller in Catch 22 stated:-

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you”

As I don’t speak the language that appears to dominate today’s high tech world, I am still unsure about what actually happened over the last couple of days. Suffice it to say that I now appear once again to be able to access these pages, and the status quo seems to have been restored. Thank you to those colleagues in Northampton, and particularly Belinda who have laboured on my behalf to restore this situation, and many apologies to anyone who may have been inconvenienced by an inability to post replies on these pages.

There is perhaps a lesson for all of us here about our over dependency on the technology of the day. I recall many years ago the debates that were had over whether a letter should be posted first class, because its urgency was such that the contents should be with the intended recipient the next day, or whether a second class delivery taking perhaps two or three days would be sufficient. Even now, I find that a letter posted from the UK to a friend in India might take a week in its journey before it arrives, a concept viewed as quaint by many of my younger friends,  yet in this digital age we anticipate that everything should be instantaneous. Emails arrive across the world and often receive a reply within minutes. Furthermore some people become irritable if a reply is not received with such indecent haste! This appears to be the speed at which we expect communication to take place in this modern age. When everything slows down, we become frustrated and seek reasons why the efficiencies of our systems are no longer in evidence.

It may  be that when there are breakdowns in the communication systems, upon which we have become dependent, we should see this as an opportunity to reflect upon the value of time. Perhaps occasionally moving at a slower pace might have benefits in encouraging us to be more thoughtful about the actions that we take and the words that we use.  However, having said this, I do hope not to have the frustration of being excluded from these pages again!

The digital age. A potential source for constructive debate, but only if we behave with respect.

The digital age provides an immediate means of expressing ideas and promoting debate. But it needs to be managed in a manner that is respectful of others.

The digital age provides an immediate means of expressing ideas and promoting debate. But it needs to be managed in a manner that is respectful of others.

 

My good friend Satish in India recently entered the digital age. When I first met Satish in 1996 he was very much an advocate of the simple life, eschewing much of modern technology, and urging us all to turn our attention back to living in harmony with the natural World that we are so sadly neglecting and abusing. These are still the principles that guide his life, but on recent occasions when we have met I notice that he is seldom separated from his electronic tablet.

I am not, of course suggesting in any way that the maintenance of sound ecological principles or advocacy of a more resilient and sustainable lifestyle is incompatible with modern technology. Many of us have embraced the use of computers for much of our work, leisure and communication, but I suspect that we often do so whilst giving limited thought to the potential influence and impact of the systems that we are using. Fortunately, there are some users of digital media who are constantly questioning its place in our wider lives and certainly in respect of the education of children. Satish is one such individual.

On a couple of occasions recently Satish has drawn my attention to interesting, and at times disturbing news items related to the use and abuse of technology. This morning I received an email from him (I used to only receive hand written letters until a year or so ago) pointing me in the direction of a BBC news item about the prevalence of cyber bullying (http://www.bbc.com/news/education-30043084). This has been an area of debate amongst teachers and the general public for some time and appears to be an unpleasant phenomenon that is on the increase.

Bullying has been a particularly vicious factor in schools, probably for as long as they have been in existence.  Over the years the lives of many children have been blighted by those who find the means to exert control or wield a malicious power over them. Through identifying and exaggerating difference or exploiting perceived weaknesses the bullies have often made the lives of their victims miserable, and have exploited their position of power, often as a means of masking their own inadequacies. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that most bullies have low self-esteem and seek a false position of authority through the control of their victims. I recall occasions as a teacher and certainly as a head teacher, when I was required to address the bullying behaviour of certain individuals, and to find the means of supporting those who had suffered at their hands. However, cyber bullying is a relatively new phenomenon and not one that I experienced either as a child or in my role as a teacher.

The news item singled out by Satish reports the work of a committee overseen by a Member of the UK Parliament, Graham Stuart, who suggests that teachers are failing to address this issue and that cyber bullying has become a critical matter in schools. He is reported as saying that:-

“Schools have a part to play in ensuring young people are safe and are kept away from the misery and depression which online abuse can bring about.”

However, he also acknowledges that many children are far ahead of their teachers in understanding the use of social media, a concept with which they have grown up, and that there is a need for teachers to receive additional training in this area.

I am sure that Mr Stuart is quite right in this assertion, and I am aware that for many of us who completed our formal education in the pre-digital age, we often feel that we are left behind by the younger generation. However, I do feel that it is important that there is some recognition that the issue of cyber bullying is not one faced solely by children and schools.

There have been many instances reported in the media of the abuse of social media aimed at adults whose opinions happen to differ from those of others. On July 16th, I wrote on this blog about Rachel Tomlinson a head teacher in Nelson, Lancashire, who sent a letter to her pupils praising them for their positive attitudes and friendly disposition, which she valued as much as their academic attainments (Thank you for a letter of appreciation). She had gained some attention in the national press, but was also subjected to abuse through social media by some rather sad people who felt that head teachers should not concern themselves with pupils becoming good people, but should rather be cramming them with knowledge.

Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but the means through which this is expressed, and the language that is used, can either add to a constructive debate or become a form of abuse. The actions of Rachel Tomlinson having gained some national attention were always likely to promote comment. Sadly, the availability of digital platforms, such as Facebook and twitter enabled some less than respectful outpourings to be made by individuals who chose to hide behind pseudonyms, presumably because they lacked the courage to write under their own names.

Those of us who as adults choose to use digital outlets as a means of sharing ideas and promoting debate, such as I am doing right now, have a responsibility to ensure that we do so in a manner that is respectful and considered. Whilst the report issued by Mr Stuart and his committee has identified a genuine problem to be addressed in schools, it is essential that we recognise that many children who are involved in the misuse of social media are simply imitating the behaviours of adults that are often reported and excused in the media. Teachers and parents are facing a new challenge in this digital age, but the responsibility to face these difficulties must be shared by a much wider community if it is to be seriously addressed.

 

 

Politicians may be better when they are not behaving like politicians

Not all of the behaviour behind these walls is bad!

Not all of the behaviour behind these walls is bad!

 

 

I was at the Houses of Parliament today, the seat of UK government where our elected politicians debate the issues of the day, pass Parliamentary Acts that become laws of the land, and oversee the economic, social and cultural development of the country. At least, this is the theory; of which more in a moment.

Whilst I was waiting around in the immense and impressive Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the Houses of Parliament that has witnessed significant moments of our national history, including the trials of King Charles the first, Sir Thomas More, and Guy Fawkes prior to their executions, I observed two of our current Members of Parliament acting as guides to visitors and pointing out some of the significant features of the building. The first of these two politicians, Dominic Grieve, a Conservative MP was outlining some of the traditions of Parliament to a small group of adults, speaking in excellent French. Eavesdropping on his exposition I could not help but be impressed by his lucid presentation of facts and figures in a second language and the enthusiasm for his knowledge demonstrated by his audience.

However, it was the second MP who held my attention with his ability to maintain the attention of a group of around twenty children, aged I would estimate somewhere around nine or ten years old, as he explained the workings of Parliament and its importance to their young lives. This particular Labour Party politician, Dennis Skinner, is one of the senior figures in Parliament, and an outspoken and radical politician. Maybe it is his humble background; Skinner worked as a coal miner for more than twenty years prior to being elected to Parliament, which enabled him to relate so well to the children, who I suspect came from his Derbyshire Constituency. As I listened, he was encouraging the children to ask questions and demonstrating an intense interest in their ideas. After a couple of minutes he moved on with his attentive group, a Parliamentary Pied Piper with his willing and enthusiastic followers eager to hear more of his stories.

It was reassuring to see these two political heavyweights giving the time to educate and enthuse their visitors. This is a different image from that which we generally have in mind when we consider our elected representatives, who generally have difficulty in commanding the respect of the majority of the electorate.

The turnout of voters in general elections in this country, and in several others in Europe has declined quite dramatically in recent years. It is generally believed that the electorate have lost confidence in politicians and have little faith in either their integrity of their ability to address the important issues facing society. On the train this evening I found myself wondering how and why this situation, in which the public are turning away from politics has happened. There is probably no single answer to this conundrum, but I do begin to wonder if part of the difficulty is that we only see one side of our elected representatives.

The image of politicians in the UK, as in many parts of the world, is tarnished by their belligerent, partisan and intransigent behaviour. It may be that to some extent the media have manipulated a situation in which we expect to see our politicians behaving badly, belittling their opponents and presenting narrow minded arguments, often with a lack of intellectual rigour. But sadly too many of our Members of Parliament appear content to live up to this image.

Perhaps if more opportunities were created for our political masters to be seen interacting in non-political situations with members of the public, and without the need to retain a party dictated façade, they might command greater respect. Both Dominic Grieve and Dennis Skinner have their supporters and detractors and have regularly been reviled in the press. Today I witnessed both of them interacting in a much more relaxed and natural manner, demonstrating respect for their audience and responding to their interests in a thoughtful and supportive manner.

It is not unreasonable that we should expect much of our politicians, though it seems to me that we cannot expect them to have a positive impact upon the social, economic and cultural development of the country unless they can command the support of the majority of the electorate.  I would imagine that the children who were clearly enjoying their interaction with Dennis Skinner today, will have left London with a much more positive impression of their Member of Parliament than most people in this country. These young people will, in the future, be expected to address the problems that are currently being created by today’s adults. Let’s hope that today they have taken away a positive impression of politicians and that they may find a way of building upon this in the future.

The creative teacher – able to inspire at many levels

Sorrel Kinley. Inspirational teacher and artist

Sorrell Kinley. Inspirational teacher and artist

One of the great advantages of working with teachers is that so many of them have tremendous talents. Today, Sara and I went to the opening of an exhibition at the Alfred East Art Gallery in Kettering, of superb prints and etchings produced by local artist Sorrell Kinley.

Sorrell was for many years a teacher in primary schools, and now does some work at the University of Northampton, inspiring students to develop their own skills as artists and to utilise this learning for the benefit of children in schools. As a well-respected artist, Sorrell has a particular interest in printmaking, and his work has been exhibited in galleries both in the UK and in other countries. He has had work selected for exhibition at the prestigious Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London on two occasions.

We have been fortunate enough to visit Sorrell’s studio in Northamptonshire and to see examples of his work, which includes aquatints, etchings and gum Arabic transfer prints. Much of his work is inspired by his travels, with beautiful and often atmospheric creations based upon landscape and architecture. His subtle use of colour and texture provides a unique interpretation of scenes that often draw the viewer’s attention to fine details that might otherwise be overlooked. His depictions of an old grain store at Aylsham in Norfolk and a tumbledown barn door are such that the viewer can almost feel the grain of the gnarled wooden planks that bind the structures together. The cold landscapes of the Nene Valley in flood contrasted with the light and heat that possess the prints of buildings in Poitou Charente are captured with a simplicity that can only be achieved by an artist with exceptional skills.

Sorrell is a fine example of a gifted artist who has a passion for teaching and a desire to share his skills with others. He is an unassuming man who wears his abilities lightly, and is always pleased to recognise the enthusiasms of other less gifted individuals.  Those of us who have no real talent often find ourselves in awe of others who are creative and can use their imagination to produce such inspiring works. But typically of many such teachers, Sorrell is modest about his own achievements and eager to encourage his students to achieve to the best of their abilities.

For many children and adults who may struggle to communicate, or express their ideas through the written word as is demanded and prioritised by our education systems today, finding an alternative means of sharing their feelings can be a critical factor in ensuring their self-esteem. Discovering an ability to express their thoughts through art, music or dance has been a source of joy and a liberating factor in the lives of many individuals.  In some instances these are learners who have been written off as failures or given labels that suggest that they are of lesser ability than others. Teachers and artists such as Sorrell often hold the key to enabling such learners to find their voice and have the confidence to express themselves to others. We should never undervalue the arts within our education systems, or under estimate the ways in which they may transform the lives of individuals.

The images presented on today’s blog hardly do justice to the full range of Sorrell’s work, but may give you a brief flavour of his artistic talent. Visiting the exhibition today served to reinforce the feeling that the importance of securing a place for art within the curriculum of our schools should never be over looked.

 

Thank you, to a most inclusive community of teachers and learners

Sharing ideas around the world is now so much easier. Can this serve to create greater respect and understanding?

Sharing ideas around the world is now so much easier. Can this serve to create greater respect and understanding?

When I started writing this blog my motivation was largely centred on providing a platform of discussion for the students with whom I work in Bangalore. I must confess that I was a reluctant blogger in the early stages of this process. I had been encouraged by colleagues at the university who are far more in tune with the digital age than I am, or ever will be. Over the course of a relatively short time it became apparent that a much broader circle of people were either regular or occasional readers of my ramblings, and it is always interesting to see the comments that people post in response to what I say, or read the email messages from those who appear not to have the confidence to post their ideas on line.

Yesterday was a particularly heartening day in respect of the responses received to my brief piece Dancing Together to the Same Inclusive Tune. I had been musing on an exchange of emails with one of my Bangalore based students who is working towards her dissertation and the challenges that she has faced in gaining access to a good range of research based literature. The reason I was so pleased with responses to this simple blog was that by yesterday evening a number of people had empathised with this student’s situation and had made the effort to contact me either through the blog, or directly via email to send their ideas, copies of papers, details of video recordings or offering helpful contacts. John’s posted comments reminded me of the excellent work of the Laban centre and Tina sent a very interesting video and a link to the Birmingham Royal Ballet and their work with disabled children. Swathi, herself a dancer in India is now in direct contact with my student and has a number of interesting contacts. Carmel and Anita both posted messages related to their personal encounters with dance for children with special educational needs,  and Jayashree drew attention to the work of Tripura Kashyap and dance  with disabled children in India. Miriam in Ireland made some profound observations about how dance is being used in a therapeutic manner in that country. An email from the USA included a paper that has been passed on and other papers were forwarded to me from Ireland and Australia. With all of this support and helpful information coming in I received a grateful mail from my student in Bangalore who says thank you to everyone and that whereas she was previously struggling to find enough literature, “I have plenty to read now!”

The successful outcomes of this electronic exchange made me reflect upon the generosity of spirit that characterises teachers working to create more inclusive approaches to teaching. Not so many years ago it would have been almost impossible to elicit a response to a call for help or advice from people all around the world. Yesterday’s series of responses demonstrates how there is now a shared commitment to address issues, about which we are all concerned and to enable teachers and children to make progress towards a more inclusive education system.

Every day I receive an electronic report indicating from which parts of the globe individuals have logged in and accessed this blog. To date people from 94 countries have accessed the blog (though I suspect that many stumble upon it by accident and never return!) In England in recent years we have discussed the notion of creating communities of learners, where individuals with common interests come together to share their experiences and ideas for the benefit of a wider community. Yesterday’s reactions indicate to me that there are many people around the world who share a desire to create an inclusive community of learners for support of those who work with marginalised children.

My simple focus for today is therefore to say thank you to all of those teachers, parents and students who have indicated a willingness to share their knowledge, learning and experiences, and to help others who have a similar commitment and focus. It is through such generosity that we can have hopes to create schools and education systems that benefit all learners. Do please keep sending your replies and sharing your knowledge, experiences and expertise with others.

Dancing together to the same inclusive tune.

Inclusion through dance. A shared vision achieved with grace and skill.

Inclusion through dance. A shared vision achieved with grace and skill by Axis Dance Company.

One of the pleasures, though also sometimes one of the challenges, of supporting MA students as they work on research towards their final dissertations, is that they sometimes tackle subjects that introduce me to a whole new range of literature. Being encouraged to read papers and chapters that I would not necessarily have encountered were it not for a student’s interests, is most certainly a benefit that comes with this job.

An example of this has been exercising my mind over recent weeks since my return home from Bangalore. Whilst many of our students there have opted to address areas of inclusive schooling or support for children with special educational needs with which I am familiar, and fairly confident in terms of my knowledge of the literature; one of our students has decided to conduct her research into the use of dance as a means of increasing the sociability and confidence of the children in the special school where she works. This is most certainly an area outside of my usual comfort zone, though one where I already feel I am beginning to learn and ask questions.

The student concerned is a confident and very well organised teacher. Her work on the course, both in respect of her writing and her participation in class has been excellent. Furthermore, she keeps in touch, regularly reporting on her progress and asking questions at every stage of the process. She is already devising innovative approaches to recording dance lessons through the use of video recording that involves her pupils, and considering how to  manage the data she is collecting. Her approach to working is well considered and professional and this makes my job as her tutor relatively easy.

Having chosen to research an under investigated area, especially within an Indian context, one particular issue has presented a number of challenges. A systematic search of data bases has revealed a limited corpus of literature dealing with this area. Very few researchers appear to have done work on the application  of dance for children with complex learning needs, and much of what has been published has little by the way of an empirical or theoretical foundation. The limited number of papers that have been found have been analysed and discussed by my student with her usual attention to detail, but still there remains an ambition to find anything else that might be out there. (If you know of anything do please post the details in reply to this blog).

As is usual in such circumstances I have drawn on the resources of my colleagues, asking their advice and seeking any knowledge that they might have of dance for children with special educational needs. Several have made suggestions, but little has been retrieved that adds to the work already found by my student. However, as is often the case in situations such as this, further opportunities for learning have arisen during this process. Hearing of this dilemma, a former student emailed me today, not with advice regarding literature, but telling me of an experience she had a few years ago when a dance company visited Dartington Hall in Devon. She drew my attention to a YouTube video which shows some of the work of Axis Dance Company, a group of whom I previously knew nothing.

Founded in 1987 Axis Dance Company describe themselves as a physically integrated contemporary dance and education organization. They are based  in California and specialise in choreographing dance that brings together able bodied and disabled dancers. Their work has won many national and international awards and they have an enviable reputation for their education programme.

Judith Smith, who has been the artistic director of Axis since 1997 says that:-

“We realized early on that rather than being a limitation, disability can radically expand what’s possible with choreography. People that move differently, whether it’s in motorized wheelchairs, on crutches or with prosthetics, create all these partnering and ensemble possibilities that wouldn’t exist with dancers who can all move the same way.”

Having read about this interesting company of performers and spent an hour watching recordings of their work, I am struck by the respect for individuality and commitment to inclusion that they have achieved. The available recordings of their performances demonstrate the sublime beauty of movement accomplished by individuals working in harmony with creative imagination and skill. The power of dance and the demonstration of physical excellence is achieved through high levels of collaboration and the development of total trust between the individuals involved.

I suspect that having had my attention drawn to the work of Axis will have done little to assist my student in search of further literature for her study. However, this is indicative of the incidental learning and opportunities for widening of our horizons that often accompanies our work in education.

You can see an example of the work of Axis Dance Company by clicking on the link here

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4OU-T6oAiBM

Several other performances by Axis are also available on YouTube

Whilst you are enjoying these breath-taking performances, I must return to assisting my student in attempting to find further literature to help her with her studies.