Why do some men fear educated women?

Not every girl will wish to become an astronaut, but they should not be denied the opportunity to try, if that is what they do want.

Not every girl will wish to become an astronaut, but they should not be denied the opportunity to try, if that is what they do want.

Several years ago, Britain’s first astronaut came to a school near here, to talk to students about the experiences of going into space and orbiting the earth. After being introduced by the head teacher to the audience of enthusiastic  students, Helen Sharman turned to him and asked why he felt it necessary to  describe her as “Britain’s female astronaut”? Why, she wondered, was her sex a matter of importance? The students in the audience could clearly see that she was a woman – would the headteacher have introduced a man as a “male astronaut”? The point that Helen Sharman was making, was that in having made history when she was a member of the crew on a Soviet Soyuz TM-12 space craft in 1991, she had been selected for her abilities, not because she was a woman.

I find it interesting that in the twenty first century there are still occasions when the press and media feel it necessary to express surprise, when a woman comes to the forefront of a domain traditionally seen as being that occupied by men. I am even more taken aback when I hear individuals (usually men) questioning the ability of women to fulfil various roles.

Education has, of course, played a significant part in enabling greater equality to be achieved in society. A few years ago, when working as a local authority inspector I recall looking at a primary school log book from 1908, in which it was recorded that an inspector had visited the school and examined the boys’ reading and writing and the girls’ sewing. This was most definitely an indication of the expectation that girls should know their place, and should be prepared for a life of domestic service. Should such an approach be adopted today, there would quite rightly be an outcry against such a sexist interpretation of the world. This is of course, a matter of history, and I have no doubt that in 1908 very few people would have questioned the approach to stereotyping the roles of boys and girls. Today this would most certainly not be acceptable; or would it?

A 2013 report from Unesco indicates that there are still thirty one million girls of primary school age who are not attending school. Seventeen million of these girls are expected never to enter school. There are four million fewer boys than girls out of school. Three countries have over a million girls who do not attend school. In Nigeria there are almost five and a half million, in Pakistan, over three million, and in Ethiopia, over one million girls missing out on an education. This in itself is quite shocking, however, there are stories behind some of these figures that are even more alarming.

Bina Shah is an award-winning Pakistani journalist from Karachi, who is a regular contributor  to the International New York Times, and writes a monthly column for Dawn, Pakistan’s biggest circulation English-language newspaper. She has stated that – the right of girls to go to school is under global assault. Progress is being impeded not only because of poverty and lack of infrastructure, but also because of political and religious dogma that values girls less than boys, and believes that denial of educational opportunities will ensure that male dominance continues into the future. In Nigeria, a country that has recently seen more than its share of atrocities against school children, and particularly girls, journalist Yousaf Ajab Baloch reports: “This terrorist outfit [Boko Haram] has issued pamphlets warnings all private schools in the district to shut down girls’ education or to face the consequences”.  They do this with a claim that the education of girls is against Islamic principles, a suggestion that is most certainly disputed by most of the world’s leading Islamic scholars.

Before anyone suggests that this is a narrow perspective of the world, and the role of women within it, held only by Islamic fundamentalists, one should consider other examples of this perverse situation. In the United States of America, a  conservative Louisiana Catholic named  Raylan Alleman who fronts an organisation called ‘Fix the Family’ has issued a document outlining eight reasons why girls should not be encouraged to attend college. His arguments include the notion that educated women attract the wrong kind of men, women receiving a formal education won’t learn how to be wives and mothers, and rather bizarrely, It would be a “near-occasion of sin” for the parents to allow their daughters to be in a situation where they might become “impure”. Mr Alleman attributes much of the cause of family breakdown to the fact that we have encouraged the education of girls.

I suppose for many of us who have been brought up in societies where we value and respect equality, what we would see as the strange and extreme views expressed by these individuals and groups seem outdated and unacceptable. But perhaps we need to ask why it is that these people exhibit such a fear of educated women?  Why is it that they are in such trepidation of girls who demonstrate that they are at least as capable and intellectually able as their male peers? Is it perhaps an indication of their own inadequacy? Or possibly a fear that women may prove themselves to be more able to manage a society in which they have demonstrated their own limitations?

Wherever girls have been afforded opportunities to demonstrate their abilities in schools they have made an increasing contribution to the societies in which they live. Sadly in too many situations these opportunities continue to be denied. The levels of fear appear to be increasing in many parts of the world and it is important that teachers everywhere continue to emphasise the benefits to be gained by ensuring that every child, regardless of their sex, receives a good education.

One man leading the way – will others follow?

Alberto Cairo, a brave Italian with a big heart, serving the people of Afghanistan.

Alberto Cairo, a brave Italian with a big heart, serving the people of Afghanistan.

If Afghanistan is ever mentioned during conversation here in England, it is almost invariably discussed in relation to the series of tragic wars that have blighted the country now for many years. Generally regarded as a failed state, one of those countries to which travel is most definitely not advised by the British Foreign Office (and the equivalent in many other countries), and a place where equality of opportunities appears very low on the national agenda.

Never having visited  Afghanistan I am not qualified to comment in any informed manner on the country, other than to make observations on what I have read or gained second hand from those who have been there. One of my brothers in law spent some time there with the British army and spoke with great affection for the people he met and the hospitality that he received from many of the local inhabitants. Similarly, a colleague recalls passing through Afghanistan on his way to a region of the Himalayas in the late 1960’s and was also treated with kindness and courtesy wherever he went. How sad then that it is now a country regarded in such negative terms.

An article in the Guardian newspaper colour supplement this weekend, written by Emma Graham-Harrison, reported how a number of foreign nationals have settled in Afghanistan and have come to regard it as their home. Despite the ravages of war and the inequalities that clearly create difficult living conditions in much of the country, these stoical individuals feel a commitment to Afghanistan, and more particularly to its people.

One of these interesting and determined individuals is an Italian physiotherapist named Alberto Cairo, who first arrived in Kabul in 1990 to work on the rehabilitation of war casualties. He says that:-

“To see all these patients coming with terrible wounds, it was quite tough, but strangely, I have felt since the beginning that I am in the right place. I realised that I was really useful.”

Having initially worked exclusively with the casualties of war, Alberto Cairo now provides support to anyone who comes to his clinic. His current clients still number amongst them the victims of conflict, but are equally likely to be those who  have been injured in car or industrial accidents or as a result of genetic disorders or difficult home births. He works incredibly long hours and often with minimal resources, yet he is totally committed and positive about his work.

Within the Guardian article one particular paragraph stood out for me. Alberto Cairo states that within Afghanistan life for disabled people is made harder because, whilst they are not rejected, they are subject to pity, rather than seen as having rights. This assertion, more than any other in the article made me think about the situation for disabled individuals in countries that have been so brutally used by warring factions for so long. Pity is usually reserved for the helpless, those whose situations are beyond hope. Fortunately Alberto does not see the condition of these individuals in this way.

With much of the country’s infrastructure destroyed, the national economy in melt-down and many of the population still living in terror, how does the government of Afghanistan determine its priorities? In Alberto Cairo the country has an individual who has established wheelchair basketball, introduced therapeutic programmes and dedicated his life to the improvement of others. Increasingly in poorer communities around the globe these kinds of initiatives are dependent upon the work and determination of individuals such as these. Whilst governments are so focused upon increasing the economic stability of their countries, there is always a danger that the most vulnerable members get left behind.

It is to be hoped that the people of Afghanistan experience a time of peace that has eluded them for so long, and that they will be able to make progress towards achieving a more stable and secure society. History appears to be against them, but there are many talented people in the country who given the chance can certainly make a difference. Sadly, the people with whom Alberto Cairo works are likely to remain very low on the list of national priorities until other issues are confronted and resolved. Thank goodness I say, for the professional dedication and compassionate example of people like Alberto Cairo and the countless others who are prepared to live in such difficult circumstances and put the needs of others before their own.

Real Gandhian action, not token gestures, will eventually bring change


Making a fair demand for quality education.

Making a fair demand for quality education.

I am grateful to my good friend Sunil who has drawn my attention to a news item from India, which whilst in many respects disturbing, is also reassuring in illustrating how much children appreciate the opportunities to be gained from education. A report from the Hindu newspaper of 2nd November (you can read the article at http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sundaymagazine/when-the-girls-came-marching-in/article6556251.ece#.VFzfJTMp9-A.gmail) describes the actions taken by students from aajakiya Balika Ucha Madhyamik Vidhyalay (Government Girls’ Higher Secondary School), in Bhim, Rajasthan in protest against the failure to appoint teachers to their school. The student population of this school numbers 700 but only three teachers make up the staff.

The authorities responsible for staffing the school having failed abysmally to provide sufficient teachers to deliver the curriculum, have now been confronted by a well organised group of girls determined to take matters into their own hands. Very appropriately choosing Gandhi’s birthday (Gandhi Jayanti) to begin their action, the girls marched through the town chanting slogans such as ‘Shiksha ka adhikar diya padhane wale koi nahin ’ (You gave us the right to education but no one to teach us), and Raghupathi raghav raja ram, sarkar ko buddhi de bhagwan! (Raghupathi raghav raja ram, dear god, please give the government brains!)”. The girls quickly gained the sympathy of local people who have declared their support for their cause. Their determination is such that they have attracted the attention of both local educational administrators and the national media. Gandhiji, who himself campaigned hard for universal education in India, would certainly have been proud of the actions taken by these girls who by all accounts conducted themselves in an orderly manner and with great dignity.

One student, Hemlata Kumari stated:-

“I am the eldest of three girls. My mother is a widow and a daily wage labourer. Coming to school my sister and I spend 40 rupees every day on travel, which is almost half my mother’s daily wage. She sends us to study and hopes that we will get educated and achieve a life that is different from hers. A life without hunger and struggle. Not having teachers is shattering our dreams and hopes.”

Another student voiced her opinion that:-

“We do not get clean drinking water or have toilets within our school campus. The boys’ school has toilets, clean drinking water and a steady supply of books and teachers. Why such inequality? How are they superior to us? With enough teachers, we will get better marks than the boys do.”

The actions of the girls, and the support they have received from the local community has certainly had an impact and stirred local administrators into action. So much so that they agreed to meet with the protesting students. However, when the officer in charge of education gave the excuse that there was an acute shortage of qualified teaching staff in the state, his comments were met with derision   by the students who responded that “there are enough teaching staff at every boys’ school, but the government is ignoring our voice since we are girls.” The students made it clear that if teachers were not appointed by October 7, they would lock the school gate and take further action. On October 8th, no new teachers having been appointed, this was exactly what they did.

The education authorities at this point accused the girls of disrupting classes. In response the students set up a tent to hold classes outside the school and did so very pointedly in a position where they could be clearly observed by the very people who were accusing them of disruption. The local community have rallied around the girls with shopkeepers and other providing them with food and voicing their support for the actions taken.

The students are demanding that the authorities appoint at least one teacher for each main subject of the curriculum and have demonstrated their determination to see their action through to a conclusion. Recent reports suggest that the school staffing has now increased from three to seven with the authorities recognising that the whole community is supporting the campaign. This is the first of what I am sure will be many successes achieved by these brave girls.

I was in Bangalore on Gandhi Jayanti this year and recall the publicity gained by Prime Minister Narendra Modhi when he and some of his cabinet took to the streets with brooms,  and claimed that in Gandhi’s name they were taking actions to clean the streets. I do hope that the Prime Minister has been watching the actions of these students who are demonstrating that peaceful and determined actions, rather than tokenistic gestures can bring about the changes that we surely all would wish to see.

Start with respect – the technology can come later


This may not be a conventional classroom, but the quality of learning has been proven.

This may not be a conventional classroom, but the quality of learning has been proven.

At a time when we are being informed of the importance of incorporating greater levels of digital technology into our teaching, it is heartening to hear that there are still projects taking place that make a real difference to the lives of people without recourse to expensive resources. A recent article in India Together reports a successful initiative to raise levels of literacy amongst women and girls in poor communities in Rayagada, Kalahandi, Koraput and Nabarangpur districts of Odisha, and demonstrates that the critical factors in initiating successful learning and teaching are enthusiasm and innovation.

In villages in this area volunteer teachers, who come from similar circumstances and speak the local dialect, have been organising forty five day literacy camps in which they spend the mornings of each day teaching classes and encouraging  individuals to gain the confidence to acquire and use new skills and knowledge. Whilst the focus of the teaching is upon raising levels of literacy amongst a population that has had little engagement with formal teaching, the intention is much broader and the interpretation of the term literacy is highly functional. Through the provision of skills associated with reading and writing, the female students are learning about critical issues associated with health, well-being and social skills.

Women in these areas have no history of schooling and live challenging subsistence lives in which they must work hard in order to ensure the welfare of their families. When the scheme was first mooted they were reluctant to participate, suggesting that this would be a distraction from their working lives and that they were able to live without the learning that was on offer. However, after a period of encouragement by the volunteers and with the added incentive of a meal provided at the end of each day’s lessons, some of the women gradually began to join the classes.

No formal resources are used for teaching in these workshops. The volunteer teachers draw upon the women’s own experiences and needs and have generated a social atmosphere in which the women gain pleasure from their interactions and are able to celebrate their achievements together. The teachers have called upon the traditional knowledge of the villagers in order to define the focus of the literacy teaching and have thereby demonstrated their respect for the members of these communities. The teaching of literacy has served as a vehicle for the women to learn more about health and social issues and has been seen as having a wholly practical function

After early reluctance to participate and a slow start to establishing this scheme, the workshops have gained momentum and there are new demands for similar approaches to be established elsewhere in the region. Awareness of the scheme and its benefits has been partly achieved through the work of Kalajatha, a traditional form of folk theatre which has travelled the region enacting stories that increase awareness of the advantages of literacy as well as giving important messages about health, welfare and hygiene.

Modern teaching approaches are, of course, helpful in today’s classrooms, and the use of technology can be a great motivator for children and teachers alike. But the first principles of teaching remain those associated with establishing respectful relationships and building upon existing knowledge. This has enabled the volunteers in Odisha to develop such a successful programme and to bring increased levels of literacy to local communities.

Most of the debate surrounding the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) in India has understandably focused upon the needs of children. But it is well known that the learning habits of parents, and the value that they place upon education has a significant impact upon the attitudes of children towards their own schooling. By providing these opportunities to mothers, many of whom take their children with them when they attend the workshops, the instigators of these sessions are establishing positive attitudes to learning. This is certainly an important initiative which should have long term benefits.

The literacy workshops are simple in their conception and basic in their delivery of teaching and learning. I suggest that in the environment in which the volunteer teachers are working this is the most appropriate approach that could have been developed. It is to be hoped that others may follow their example and that many more communities will gain similar advantages in the future.



Great cause for celebration


A few weeks ago I mentioned the sense of excitement when our first cohort of MA students in Bangalore submitted their dissertations. Yesterday the examination board met at the university to consider the reports of the external examiners regarding this work and its quality. It was gratifying to hear these reports and to receive confirmation that the standard of the research studies submitted was high. The examination board was more than satisfied to approve the award of the MA in Special and Inclusive Education to our excellent students.

Having announced these results to the students we have been receiving excited messages from our latest master’s successes all day as they have been taking in the news, and hopefully basking in their glory. For all of them this has been a long hard road and their achievements have been well earned.

For the course tutors this is a most satisfactory time and an opportunity to think about everything we have learned together. It is also a time to reflect on what might happen next. I have no doubt that the students with whom we have had the privilege to work will make a significant impact upon the lives of their colleagues and the children with whom they work. Their commitment throughout the course has been immense and their determination to apply their learning is a tribute to their professionalism. Already they are telling us of the work they are doing in their schools based on ideas shared during the taught sessions. I look forward to maintaining contact with these colleagues in the future and to seeing the ways in which they take the inclusion agenda forward in Bangalore. They are already establishing themselves as leaders for inclusive education in the area.

Words can hardly do justice to these excellent individuals who are already inspiring the students in our other Bangalore cohorts, so I think it best simply to give a collage of pictures that represent some of their activities throughout their time of study for the MA in Special and Inclusive Education.

You can enlarge any of these images by clicking on them

What if our situations were reversed?

Children on the move to where?

Children on the move to where?

“Before you do anything, stop and recall the face of the poorest most helpless destitute person you have seen and ask yourself, Is what I am about to do going to help him?”

Mahatma Gandhi


Having written about the UK government decision to withdrawal from the support of rescue missions for those refugees trying to flee oppression and who find themselves in difficulties at sea (Will anyone come to the rescue of these heartless politicians November 1st 2014), the callous nature of this policy received a renewed emphasis in a report from Reuters news agency today. It was announced a few hours ago that Turkish fisherman and coastguards have pulled 24 dead bodies from the sea at Rumeli Feneri near the mouth of Istanbul’s Bosphorus strait, after a boat carrying dozens of asylum seekers sank. One of the fishermen stated that “there were bodies everywhere, including babies and children.” Those aboard the boat were believed to be seeking possible asylum in Bulgaria or Romania. Once again the desperate plight of individuals is highlighted by this sad report.

A regular respondent to this blog Anita, posted a reply to my earlier blog, suggesting that when there are desperate situations that do not immediately impact upon our own country, we care far less than we would if we were more directly involved. I am sure she is right, but should compassion become a localised emotion?

In my role as a teacher I have been privileged to visit countries in many parts of the world, and my experience has invariably been that I am treated with generosity, kindness and respect by the people with whom I have worked and engaged. My travels have at times taken me into poor communities, where I have found that people who have very little are more than willing to share everything they have in order to ensure my comfort and welfare. I have always felt secure in such situations, where I am sure that the people with whom I am working or living amongst would do their utmost to make me feel welcome and safe.

Often the experiences of the people with whom I work are vastly different from my own. Their cultural, religious and socio-economic foundations are quite alien to my own upbringing and experiences, yet we usually manage to find much to share in our common humanity and a respect for each other. Fortunately I have rarely found myself needing to make demands of my international colleagues, and have never found myself in a traumatic situation where I might be totally dependent upon their good will and sense of responsibility towards a visitor in distress. However, should such a situation arise, I am confident that I would be in safe hands and looked after with the utmost care. I hope that I can honestly say that if this situation was reversed, I would do everything within my power to ensure the safety and care of any visitor to my own country.

Anita makes an important point. There is a danger that in putting self-interest at the top of our agenda, we begin to see others almost as characters in a fiction, as mattering less than ourselves. When this happens it is easy to deny that we have any responsibility to those who appear to be different from us, and to ignore their situation, even when this is one that is characterised by suffering.

If we persist with an attitude that suggests that we do not have the time or inclination to care for those in need, when our situations are reversed will we expect them to come to our aid? Are we content to assume that this can never happen to us? It is to be hoped that even at this late hour human decency will prevail and our political masters will recognise that their responsibilities should  extend well beyond the parochial.

Will anyone come to the rescue of these heartless politicians?

Will these people reach safety? If they capsize will anyone help, or will we turn our faces away?

Will these people reach safety? If they capsize will anyone help, or will we turn our faces away?

Can you imagine the fear experienced by a child forced by violence to flee home with his or her parents who are equally terrified? Having existed (we can hardly call it lived) in a makeshift tarpaulin home for several weeks or even months, your parents announce that one last hope for a better future has emerged. It arrives in the form of a rusty, leaking boat, into which you scramble along with several hundreds of other similarly fearful and desperate individuals, all hopeful to escape the hell which has been their reality since being forced to leave their homes and possessions behind.

Setting out from the shore you head towards an unknown destination, suspecting that if you arrive safely you may well be given a less than friendly reception; seen as an unwelcome intrusion and a “problem” to be confronted by the host country. This is a potential challenge to be addressed if and when you reach the safety of dry land.

This scenario is the bleak reality for thousands of children and their families, distraught and helpless as they reluctantly depart the coast of North Africa in the hope of securing a better future. They flee the wars of Syria, Libya and Iraq, the terrors of Eritrea, Somalia and Northern Nigeria, without any concept of what might be ahead of them, but in a belief that it cannot be any worse than the situation from which they have fled. For a child, the decision has been made, their future shaped by the desperation of their parents. These decisions are not taken lightly and many sleepless nights must precede such dangerous departures.

For some, a successful passage to the shores of Europe enables them to begin a new life and gain a semblance of the security of which they could only previously have dreamt. This may be a first step towards a better life free from violence and fear. But for others the voyage will end in tragedy, with many drowned at sea as their overladen vessels fail to negotiate the hazards of the Mediterranean.

In recent years a fortunate few of those whose flimsy crafts have floundered, have been rescued from the sea through the combined humanitarian efforts of European nations working to provide an emergency service. Harrowing images of these petrified survivors arriving ashore have been seen on television screens around the world. A brief glimpse into the eyes of the children plucked from the sea makes one sure that they will never forget their ordeal. Sadly, for many others the journey ends in tragedy, and I suspect that nobody knows the numbers of those who have perished.

Imagine then how it might feel to be a child who has learned that the UK Government has now announced that it is withdrawing support for these rescue operations. This decision has apparently been made on the grounds that a belief that rescue might be possible will encourage others to make the perilous journey. Can this really be true? Will those parents who are so desperate to escape their violent and helpless existence in order to give their children a better life, really be deterred from what they see as their only possible route to safety by this draconian measure?

In the past the UK has prided itself on its humanitarian and caring attitude towards the oppressed and dispossessed peoples of the world. This week UK government ministers have made a significant departure from this proud tradition. In so doing they have chosen to turn their backs on those who are in greatest need. I cannot believe that this decision carries the support of the British public. If this was the case then I would certainly be feeling ashamed to be British. As it is I say shame on those politicians who feel that they are justified in ignoring the pleas for mercy of so many suffering individuals.