Whose curriculum is this?

 

Is this really the kind of "resource" we want to see children handling in schools?

Is this really the kind of “resource” we want to see children handling in schools?

Shortly after the introduction of the English National Curriculum in 1989, I was fortunate to be selected as part of a group  charged with the responsibility of providing guidance and materials, to ensure that the content of this new framework was accessible for pupils with special educational needs. I often reflect upon this formative time in my career, when I worked alongside a dynamic team of colleagues from whom I learned much, sharing our experiences and given the privileged position of time to debate curriculum issues, and explore a range of pedagogical initiatives. From our base in Cambridge we had opportunities to work in schools in many parts of the country as we developed and trialled resources and approaches to differentiated learning and providing access for pupils with diverse needs.

In a highly charged atmosphere, where at times professional differences and tensions came to the surface (though enduring friendships were made), we often disputed ideas and argued about curriculum priorities and children’s needs. As a team committed to improving education for children who were often marginalised, I believe that all of us anticipated that the curriculum would continue to change and recognised that priorities would shift according to national requirements and political whims. We also felt that such debate was a healthy process within any education system that exists within a democratic country.

I still uphold a strong belief, that in order to ensure that we are meeting the needs of all learners, it is critical to keep the content of the curriculum and the ways in which it is delivered to the forefront of our thinking in schools. There will always be differences of opinion with regards to whether greater emphasis should be given to one subject over another, or about the place of the arts or sciences in the education of children, but yesterday I read a news item which felt more like an excerpt from science fiction rather than the product of a serious educational discussion. Sadly, having probed the report further I find that what I had hoped was some strange form of fantasy, is in fact a chilling account of a discussion currently taking place in South Carolina in the USA.

A proposal currently being considered within South Carolina would see December 15th each year celebrated as Second Amendment Awareness day. For any reader who is unaware, the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the right of the people to keep and bear arms. This, unsurprisingly has been a source of considerable debate within the United States for many years, with both pro-gun lobbies and those who would like to see the abolition of this right, locked in fierce arguments. Yet it is not simply this altercation between factions holding polarised views that caught my attention yesterday, but rather a suggestion that amendments should be made to the State school curriculum to ensure that all children are taught about their rights to bear arms and the handling of guns.

Chuck Scott from the Gun Rack Range, in Aiken, South Carolina states that:

“The earlier kids learn to be safe and have proper instruction the safer they’re going to be and the less accidents they’re going to have.”

He further stated that:-

“Kids need to know what it’s about and why it’s so important and that’s what sets us apart from other countries.”

The article reporting this latest potential curriculum initiative on WRDW News (Sunday, December 28th, 2014), tells us that “In 2010, 15,576 children and teenagers were injured by firearms across the country, (USA), guns kill twice as many children and young people than cancer.”

Mr Scott is of course right, if people are to be encouraged to carry lethal weapons, then it is to be hoped that they are taught how to handle these safely. I am sure that members of the armed forces and police officers undertaken stringent training in this regard as part of their professional development. However, this proposed addition to the curriculum is not advocated for those for whom it could legitimately be argued must be appropriately trained for when they may be called upon to use firearms, but for children, the majority of whom will hopefully never have such a need.

Clearly, as I am not an American citizen I can express an opinion of this situation only as an outsider with limited experience of the context. There are nonetheless, several issues here that give me cause to question the appropriateness of this proposal. Firstly, according to Mr Scott the National Rifle Association (who describe themselves on their website as  “America’s longest-standing civil rights organization”), will develop the curriculum to be applied in schools. I find it strange that such an important and presumably controversial educational initiative should be placed in the hands of an organisation that sits outside of the usual educational legislative process. Are democratically appointed education policy makers in South Carolina prepared to abdicate their legislative responsibilities to an unelected interest group? If so, it seems to me that this could be a dangerous precedent and may open the floodgates for other interest groups to exert pressure for change.

A second factor within this report that I found particularly interesting was Mr Scott’s notion that the right to bear arms is “what sets us apart from other countries.” I am sure that for many of us who live in these “other countries”, when we think about what is good about that nation, the carrying of guns comes a long way down the list (if indeed it appears at all!). Is this really what Mr Scott and his friends would wish to single out as a distinguishing feature of his proud nation? I suspect that there are many other citizens of his country who may feel less than comfortable with this suggestion.

I am aware that within the United States of America, there are many who in challenging the proliferation and greater sophistication of publically held weapons are held up to ridicule and abuse. Should you doubt this to be the case, you might be interested to follow the stream of vitriol aimed at Cliff Schecter, an American journalist who wrote an article titled “Learning Nothing? The Gun Battle Since Newtown 14.12.14) http://linkis.com/XmsjA . In this article he provides a chilling list of eighty eight education establishments where students and teachers have been killed or maimed in gun incidents in recent years. As of yesterday, 365 responses to his article (many of which are abusive in nature to say the least) had been posted, the majority suggesting that his attitude is unpatriotic and misguided.

There is no doubt that all children in schools need to be taught about the dangers surrounding firearms. But perhaps if these potentially lethal devices were not so prevalent in society there might be opportunities to address other means of creating a safe, just and more equitable world within the school curriculum. It does seem to me that the Second Amendment that is so treasured by some individuals has done little to inspire confidence that children in schools may remain safe from harm. Personally, I believe that those who carry guns pose a greater threat to the safety of children than those who choose not to do so.

 

 

Tis the season to be jolly!

We haven't had enough snow yet this winter to build a snowman. But I made this one a couple of years ago and he raised a smile amongst friends and neighbours.

We haven’t had enough snow yet this winter to build a snowman. But I made this one a couple of years ago and he raised a smile amongst friends and neighbours.

The temperature here fell to around minus seven last night and when I went into the garden early this morning it was still well beneath freezing. The air was fresh and cold and the lawn glistened white in the early morning sunshine. I enjoy these bright crisp mornings, so long as I don’t have to travel far on icy roads, and looking around the winter landscape of our garden the words of Christina Rosetti came to mind:

“Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.”

This was exactly as the still morning was here, with the grass crunching beneath my tread and our pond solidified.

The sheep in the field at the end of our garden, fleece enwrapped, cut a dour if bucolic image as they tore at the frozen herbage awaiting the arrival of the farmer with a fresh supply of hay and other foodstuffs to ward off the cold. Garden birds were clearly grateful for the nuts and other morsels that we put out for them as they flitted from rime coated trees to bird table.

On Boxing Day evening (26th December or St Stephen’s Day), we had a brief flurry of snow, temporarily coating the countryside in a thin sheet of white powder and adding to the traditional yuletide atmosphere. However, this remained only a short time here, unlike further north in England where significant disruption was experienced by travellers trying to negotiated icy snow blocked roads.

When I was a child I used to hope each year for a major fall of snow. Sufficient at least to build a snowman and to justify a dusting off of the sledge for a few thrills on the local hills near my home. Living at the time in Gloucester, the slopes of Robinswood Hill usually beckoned, where along with several dozen others I could participate for a few days in our own local winter Olympiad. Snowball fights and igloo building were the order of the day, but racing our sledges was the prime occupation. After a few hours of gliding the slippery course of the toboggan run and rolling around after countless crashes in the snow, I would return home wet and cold, but glowing with the pleasures of the sport. I recall to this day those hot aches experienced when first submerging in a steaming bath after leaving the frozen outdoor world behind.

Today as an adult I am far more sanguine about this icy weather. Personally I would be pleased to see the winter pass without a significant fall of snow. Having left a care fee period of childhood behind, I now see the winter weather as a potential hazard to travel and a disruption to my usual pattern of life. However, I am not so curmudgeonly that I would wish in any way to deprive successive generations of children of the experiences of exploring and learning in the snow. It is not too long since, that I enjoyed pulling my own children aboard a sledge through snowy lanes, and I hope to have similar opportunities in the coming years with my grandchildren.

Neither should we see the potential for such apparent winter frivolity as the sole preserve of children. Whenever we have a heavy fall of snow I still cannot resist the opportunity to don my boots and gloves and take my spade to build a snowman in our garden. This temporary addition to the Rose household invariably raises a smile from visitors and neighbours (who I suspect may see my behaviour as a worrying step towards ever greater eccentricity!). But for a brief while I am transported back to childhood and take my pleasure from my childish ways.

Convinced that the joy to be gained from an experience such as this should not be missed, a few years ago I revelled in the opportunity to teach a group of South Indian students at the university, who had never experienced snow before, how to build a snowman of their own. Within minutes they had reverted to a childlike state and were laughing and carousing in the snow, their earlier complaints about the cold almost forgotten. I took great pleasure the following day in inspecting more than a dozen such specimens on my walk from the university car park, wonderful examples of winter art that had appeared overnight.

So, to those of you who may be reading this blog in the warmth of your home, but with a snowy landscape visible from your window, I hope that you will shrug off the inconvenience, wrap up warm and maybe take the chance to make the most of the conditions. For others who live in areas where snow is an unknown commodity, I hope someday that you too will enjoy the many creative opportunities that these freezing conditions can bring.

          I hope that you all had a very happy Christmas.

Christmas Greetings!

We are approaching the end of what seems like a long year. Christmas is almost upon us and I am delighted to say that my family will be the centre of my attention for a few days.

Thank you to everyone who has read this blog during this year, and especially those of you who have posted replies and contributed to our learning. I look forward to continuing the conversation after a few days break, so until then

HAPPY CHRISTMAS AND A PEACEFUL NEW YEAR

 merry-christmas-04

ಹ್ಯಾಪಿ ಕ್ರಿಸ್ಮಸ್   Krismasi Njema   Joyeux Noël   کرسمس مبارک Hyvää Joulua

عيد ميلاد مجيد   Frohe Weihnachten   圣诞快乐   Καλά Χριστούγεννα   शुभ क्रिसमस

کرسمس   கிறிஸ்துமஸ் வாழ்த்துக்கள்   Glædelig Jul  नवीन वर्षच्या हार्दिक शुभेच्छा

Christmas inte mangalaashamsakal   Nollaig Shona Dhuit   Buon Natale

Boas Festas     Feliz Navidad     Chuć Mưǹg Giańg Sinh

With apologies to those of you whose language is not represented here!

Good news shows how progress can been made.

These smiling faces indicate the educational progress being made in Bangladesh

These smiling faces indicate the educational progress being made in Bangladesh

 

Let’s report a positive story about children and education today.

In Bangladesh, the world’s most densely populated state, which spreads wide around the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta, an initiative from the World Bank, working with NGOs, including Save the Children has had a significant impact upon the educational opportunities of children. This project, known as the Third Primary Education Development Program (PEDPIII) was established with a specific aim of increasing participation and the number of children completing primary education, and improving the learning environment and resources available in schools across the country.

The World Bank has been supporting development and investing in education in Bangladesh since 1972, and their commitment has enabled a significant reduction in poverty levels, providing educational opportunities for many children. In particular a focus on the education of girls, has had a dramatic impact upon female literacy in the country. This initiative has similarly ensured that many children from the poorest sections of society have entered school, a significant number of them as first generation learners.

A recognition that the pre-school years are a critical time for learning has been an important factor in improving educational opportunities for children in Bangladesh. A year of publicly-funded pre-primary education has been provided for children who attend the country’s state funded schools, and has been seen to instil enthusiasm for learning that is being maintained into the primary school years.

The Work to improve education has not ceased with provision for the younger children. A project managed through the Bangladesh Female Secondary School Assistance Programme, has increased girl’s enrolment in secondary schools to 4 million in 2006 from 1.1 million in 1991.

The improvements in educational opportunities provided in Bangladesh have been achieved because of a number of factors. Firstly, a commitment from National and regional government and a recognition that education is critical to achieving a well trained workforce for a competitive future. Secondly, the financial support and investment provided by the World Bank. However, of equal importance has been the expertise of professionals, including teachers both from local communities and working through NGOs. Such collaborations, when clearly focused can have a dramatic impact on the improvement of children’s lives.

Bangladesh is in many respects an educational success story, though there remains much to be achieved and little room for complacency. UNICEF have identified particular challenges in respect of meeting the needs of children with disabilities or learning difficulties. Inclusive schooling remains elusive, though there are examples of good practice emerging. Teacher training is a critical factor in improving this situation and a number of recent initiatives are providing hope that the concept of education for all could become a reality.

The negative influence of poverty on educational opportunity is well known. Bangladesh remains a poor country with many socio-economic challenges. However, it does appear that models of working within this country might provide useful indicators of how others in similar situations can work towards the provision of a more equitable education system.

We should applaud teachers who oppose those who fear education.

We must believe that these children in Pakistan will bring a better future to their country.

We must believe that these children in Pakistan will bring a better future to their country.

 

The students with whom I work, and who come from all around the world, often shape the way I think about the contents of this blog. Last week, in a casual conversation with one student it was suggested that in the lead up to Christmas, I might ensure that the subject matter was suitably focused upon some of the less serious aspects of education (hence featuring Paddington Bear yesterday). However, all this changed this morning when the mood amongst students and colleagues alike was, to say the least, sombre.

The brutal and cowardly massacre of innocent children yesterday in Peshawar, Pakistan has quite rightly stunned the world. As the news of this atrocity emerged  it quickly became the focus of shocked discussion and disgust amongst everyone I encountered. Several students expressed their anger and distress at the killings, many finding these difficult to talk about. The reaction was, unequivocally one of horror, but noticeably, not disbelief. Sadly in recent years attacks upon schools and the killing of children and teachers has been reported all too often in the news.

An organisation called the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack published a report earlier this year, which outlined how violence had been aimed at schools in thirty countries around the world. Whilst the worst of these atrocities make headlines, the majority escape attention outside of the countries where they are perpetrated. Amongst the shocking facts in this report is the stunning revelation that between 2009 and 2013 more than 1,000 attacks were made on schools in each of six countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Colombia, Sudan, Syria and Somalia. The report suggests that for teachers Colombia is one of the most dangerous places to work with 140 teachers killed between 2009 and 2012. The bombing, shelling and looting of schools and universities and the kidnap of children and teachers has blighted the lives of families in many parts of Africa, South America and Asia, where increases in armed conflict have seen schools commandeered for military use.

Over a number of years I have been fortunate to work with students from many parts of the world that are now cited as being dangerous places to be involved in education. Every one of these colleagues has been a dedicated professional and has demonstrated a commitment to gain additional skills and knowledge in order to serve children in their communities. I find myself increasingly wondering about the safety of these teachers and the children in their care.

This morning I had a conversation with a colleague in which we tried to imagine how parents and children must be facing the day in Pakistan. If I was a child in Peshawar how would I feel about attending school today? Would I wish to go, or would I simply want to hide away in the shelter of my home? If I was a parent, would I want to send my child to a place that should be welcoming and safe, in the fear that I may be putting them in the way of danger? Having never been in a position where I have had to consider such questions, I find it hard to imagine what must be going through their minds.

Such thinking is, of course, exactly what the criminal thugs who were behind yesterday’s mass murder wish to generate. It is evident that they fear the whole process of education. Educated people think, reason and challenge the futility of violence. They have the ability to shape the communities in which they live and to bring about positive change. These are the very skills that those responsible for attacks on schools, teachers and children oppose, and dread.

I am sure that every teacher and parent across the globe shared the sorrow and distress of those in Pakistan this morning. Sadly, emotion alone will not bring a halt to the determination of those whose hatred is aimed at children and teachers. It is easy to feel helpless in the face of such a situation, but nonetheless important that we should all lend a voice to the condemnation of these dreadful acts. Teachers in Peshawar and other troubled areas of the world will continue to demonstrate their commitment to children. For those of us who are teachers working in situations of comfort, we must accept the  responsibility to engage positively with our colleagues who work in these areas, even if our actions appear insignificant.

The Report from Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack can be read at:-

http://www.protectingeducation.org/sites/default/files/documents/eua_2014_full_0.pdf

 

A short film highlighting the extent of this issue can be seen at:-

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

Marmalade sandwiches, mayhem and revolution – all in one bear!

Mischievous, amusing and often prepared to challenge conventional thinking. Paddington Bear is a hero to many children.

Mischievous, amusing and often prepared to challenge conventional thinking. Paddington Bear is a hero to many children.

The period leading up to Christmas in the UK has a built-in, comfortable predictability, which I’m sure ultimately contributes greatly to the cosiness of the festive season. Houses and streets are illuminated by flashing lights of variable quality and taste, Christmas markets become a feature of almost every town, carol services provide one of the few occasions when church pews can expect to be full, and the tinny music that characterises shops throughout the year gives way to equally discordant renditions of kitsch Yuletide pop songs.

Similarly predicable, and anticipated with equal amounts of enthusiasm or indifference, is the inevitable Christmas blockbuster film, released just in time to attract an audience of children and families as they get into the mood for the coming celebrations. Sometimes these films prove to be a great success and well beloved of the public, in which case they will become an annual feature on our Christmas television screens. Others appear as a damp squib and disappear, forgotten to all but a few cinematic diehards, never to be seen again.

This year there is considerable ground for optimism that the major end of year release, a film based upon the adventures of Paddington Bear, a long established hero for many children and not a few adults, will be a great hit with audiences. Reviews of the film have been wholly favourable, and the few people I know who have seen, it state categorically that it is a joy for children from the ages of five to ninety, (why it is unsuitable for ninety five year olds I don’t quite understand). The film Paddington appears to have achieved that elusive quality, shared with others such as Mary Poppins, of being able to attract both adults and children alike to enjoy a shared cinema experience.

Michael Bond, the eighty eight year old creator of Paddington Bear recalls how

 “I bought a small toy bear on Christmas Eve 1956. I saw it left on a shelf in a London store and felt sorry for it. I took it home as a present for my wife Brenda and named it Paddington as we were living near Paddington Station at the time. I wrote some stories about the bear, more for fun than with the idea of having them published. After ten days I found that I had a book on my hands. It wasn’t written specifically for children, but I think I put into it the kind things I liked reading about when I was young.”

“A Bear Called Paddington” the first book was published in 1958 and has been followed by many others. The bear, attired in duffle coat and hat became an immediate favourite with children and continues to educate and entertain through his extraordinary mishaps in everyday situations. I have always found the character appealing, as he often rails against bureaucracy and petty regulations, challenges convention and cant, and has a strong sense of justice. When reading the books to children I have at times felt that I could hear the author’s somewhat non-conformist voice coming through the text.

This morning on BBC Radio 4 Michael Bond was interviewed about his books and the film, and made a number of interesting observations about how childhood has changed since he first started writing the Paddington books more than fifty years ago. In particular he reflected on the fact that children are expected to grow up much more quickly than they used to, and that they lose their innocence at an early age.

Clearly we cannot turn back the clock. Notions that there was ever a “golden age” of childhood are probably unfounded and change is inevitable. But there was something particularly sad in the tone of voice with which this respected writer suggested that the pressures on today’s children are greater than in the past.

It is indeed sad that the time to play and explore, that was a formative feature of many of our earlier years, is now undervalued by many who make and implement educational and social policy. Although the pressures are not as great here in the UK as in some other countries, the rush to formalise learning and leave the adventures of play behind is increasingly apparent.

Thank goodness for the joyous spirit that can still be instilled in children by writers such as Michael Bond. I do hope that for many years to come, Paddington Bear will be thriving on his favoured diet of marmalade sandwiches and debunking the pomposity at which he has laughed for the past fifty and more years.

Michael Bond wrote a new short story of Paddington Bear to celebrate his new venture into film. To hear the actor Jim Broadbent, who plays a major role in the film, read the story, click on the link below.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-30494643

 

Tell me, have you reached your full potential yet?

 

I wonder if this wayward school boy ever reached his "full potential?"

I wonder if this wayward school boy ever reached his “full potential?”

I have just been struck a dreadful blow – it is just possible that I may have reached my full potential! On the other hand, there is a vague possibility that I may yet have untapped resources, that will enable me to achieve greater things in life.

Of course, I don’t actually regard either of the statements made above as having any currency. Both are completely meaningless and speculative, but they are used here to illustrate the vacuous nature of an expression that I have heard throughout my career in education, the use of which can serve either to limit or create putative expectations of children.

I recall when I was appointed as headteacher of a school in the 1980s being informed that my principle task was to ensure that every child reached his or her full potential. A few weeks ago I heard the chief inspector of schools for England commenting that too many secondary schools are failing to enable children to attain their potential, and this weekend, a report in the Independent newspaper informs me that mainstream schools are failing to enable children with special educational needs to reach their full potential. This last observation is based upon a report recently published by Mencap, a national charity supporting children with learning disabilities and their families. I will return to this in a while, but firstly let me ask you a few questions.

Do you personally feel that you have achieved everything that may have been possible in your life? Have you reached your full potential or fallen short of this? Might it be that you are still striving to reach this ultimate goal? More importantly, no matter what answer you may have given to these questions, I wonder how you came to this conclusion? Who decided what your potential might be? Has that which was regarded as your potential been exceeded, or inhibited through the expectations of others? Perhaps the most contentious question of all (if you work as a teacher) might be, how well equipped are you to judge the potential of others?

The history of education has not always reached the highest of standards in the art of prediction, as excerpts from a number of school reports reveal:-

“She writes indifferently and knows nothing of grammar”, wrote one of Charlotte Bronte’s teachers who clearly could not have anticipated the success of the novel Jane Eyre a few years later.

Equally wide of the mark was the observation made in 1895 that “He will never amount to anything.” A comment that must surely have been a later source of some embarrassment, to the teacher who uttered these words in respect of a young Albert Einstein.

It is, of course, easy to mock those who have made such wayward comments or made predictions that have proven false with time, but there may equally be an important message here to which we should take heed. I am sure that not all students possess the determination and tenacity of Charlotte Bronte or Albert Einstein, and that for some, the setting of a low benchmark may have an inhibiting effect upon the progress that they could make.

Returning to the Mencap report based upon a survey of 1,000 parents of children with learning disabilities who attend mainstream schools, I find that it contains much useful information which deserves careful consideration. In particular, it is apparent that many parents feel that teachers within mainstream schools are inadequately trained to address the needs of pupils with complex needs. Some of these parents express their frustrations with a system that has low expectations of their children and provide limited opportunities for them to interact with their peers. Examples of children who spend most of their time with a teaching assistant, working on separate tasks to those set for the rest of the class are provided. Is this inclusion would seem to be a legitimate question to ask.

I feel fairly confident in stating that low expectations have hindered learning for children with disabilities and special educational needs for as long as there have been schools. However, I still have some reservations with regards to the language that is used in debating this situation. The article in the Independent newspapers reports that Jan Tregelles, Mencap’s chief executive stated:-

“Parents feel the education service is woefully ill prepared to properly support children and young people with a learning disability to reach their full potential,”

It is that term “full potential” which, having read this far into these ramblings you will have appreciated is giving me cause for concern. I am wholly in accord with the suggestion that we need to raise expectations and to provide the kinds of resources and training that may enable all pupils to succeed in schools. I am however concerned that in using this term “full potential” we are instilling in teachers a belief that we can set targets for children, which if achieved will enable us to feel content in both their and our accomplishments. Is there, I wonder complacency here, based upon a spurious notion that we can determine what an individual should achieve, according to their age or ability? How does this differ from the now discredited belief that we can set our expectations of the potential achievements of pupils on the basis of their gender, ethnicity or social class?

Like Jan Tregelles, who has given an immense commitment to improving the educational opportunities for children with learning disabilities, I have concerns that many schools are not addressing the needs of all their pupils. Unlike the authors of the Mencap report, I feel that there are significant dangers from teachers or policy makers who believe that they have the ability or right to determine the potential of others.

I have no doubts that some who read this article will say that this is simply a matter of semantics. However, I would contend that the language we use about children can be powerful. We are well aware of the negative influence that placing a label on a child, such as “learning disability”, “dyslexia” or “autism” may have on the achievements of the individual. Might it not be equally dangerous to believe that we have the right or the ability to sit in Judgement on the potential of a child?

 

Thank goodness for the honest language of children!

Spemser Turner, and eloquent and thoughtful young man, whose honest use of language has much to teach adults.

Spenser Turner, an eloquent and thoughtful young man, whose honest use of language has much to teach adults.

Driving into the university this morning I was listening to the radio, a regular routine that keeps me abreast of the news, when a report came on featuring a ten year old schoolboy from Newcastle in the north east of England. Spencer Turner who attends Farne Primary School was being interviewed at the National Arboretum located in Staffordshire in the centre of the country.

The National Arboretum is a focus of memorial for people who have given their lives in service of the country. Fifty thousand trees and a number of commissioned memorials represent not only military personnel, but also those working for the police and emergency services or involved in rescue or support services overseas, who have lost their lives doing their duty. This memorial landscape attracts visitors from around the world, and provides a centre for contemplation and an opportunity for people who wish to pay their respects to those who have died, both known and unknown.

Across Europe this year there have been many events organised to commemorate 1914 and the outbreak of the First World War. Today at the National Arboretum, Prince William will unveil the latest memorial which will recall a significant event during that terrible time. At Christmas 1914, English and German soldiers who had been facing each other from their trenches across a battlefield, put down their arms, declared a truce and crossed into “no-man’s land” to exchange gifts. In the midst of this temporary cessation of hostilities, a number of the soldiers from opposing armies produced a football and proceeded to enjoy a spontaneous game. This event has been variously reported in newspapers and history books and through theatrical and media productions over the intervening years, but particularly this year at the centenary of the event.

As a permanent means to commemorate this makeshift football match, the Football Association and the British Council organised a competition for school children to design an appropriate memorial to be located at the National Arboretum. Children up to the age of sixteen were invited to submit their designs and there was a huge response. Ten year old Spencer Turner, who featured on the radio this morning, won this competition and along with others from his school will be present at its unveiling today.

This in itself is a touching story of enabling children to participate in a practical way in commemorating the tragedy of a dreadful war. But rather than the event, it was the interview with young Spencer that I found most moving this morning. To their great credit, the Today Programme, a daily news magazine on BBC Radio 4 gave Spenser time to explain his inspiration for the design and to express his feelings about the finished bronze sculpture and his involvement in the day.

Spenser through his articulate and straightforward account of his experiences and emotions painted a vivid picture of what this day means to him. He described how he started with a design featuring a footballer with a ball, but then realised that most of the children entering this competition would be making similar images. Eventually he opted to produce a drawing that shows English and German hands, clasped in friendship within the cage of a ball. This he stated represented these two groups of men coming together through an image of peace that shows that you “can actually stop war.” Having won the competition he says he was shocked and proud, but it was evident from his interview on this morning’s programme that he was also moved by what the memorial that he has designed represents. He talked about knowing little about the First World War until a pack of information arrived in school. From this he had clearly learned much and this shaped his work for the competition.

There are always dangers that commemorations of war can become jingoistic or simply a token gesture which has impact for a short time, and is then forgotten. I am quite sure that in this instance Spencer Turner and many other school children who entered this competition will have learned much about the horror and futility of war. I also hope that the many thousands of people who listened to Spenser on the radio this morning will have noted the eloquence with which he expressed his ideas and the reasoning behind his process of design.

Coming at the end of a week in which the news has been dominated by the extent of the brutality that has become a feature of modern warfare, and in particular the inhumane means of interrogation used to extract information from prisoners, it is opportune to reflect upon different perspectives of war that were reported on this morning’s news. In particular I feel we should stop for a while to consider the contrasting straightforward and honest expressions used by a ten year old school boy who was obviously moved and thoughtful about what he had learned, with those mischievous terms such as “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “coercive methods,” used by adults in positions of power as a denial of torture, which were heard in an earlier news item.

It is only fitting that we should remember the suffering endured by servicemen and civilians during times of war. But it is to be hoped that we can learn lessons from children like Spenser that may govern the ways in which we behave in the future.

 

 

Time to come clean about my truancy!

 

Was this an educational experience?

Was this an educational experience?

Writing today feels a little like a visit to a confessional; or at least how I imagine it might feel, never having actually been to confession.

Truancy was  the topic of the morning. When I arrived at the university this morning I was greeted by a colleague who, having read my piece on this blog yesterday (On the school roll, but more likely on the beach) was eager to tell me about an occasion when he had skipped school in order to join a friend on a fishing trip. It was the only time he behaved in this way, and he could recall how he had felt anxious all day, lest he should be caught. When his father discovered this heinous crime (he tells me he was “grassed on” by his sister), he was made to write a letter of apology to the head teacher of his school, and accompanied his father to deliver it in person the next day. He recalled this event in his school days as one of the most embarrassing of his life.

“So, did you ever play truant?”  he asked me.

“Of course not”, I replied, “I was far too fearful of the consequences to ever contemplate such a misdemeanour.”

Later this morning, thinking about this conversation I suddenly realised that my assertion of innocence had not been wholly true. However, reflecting on this, and the occasion when I did deliberately miss school, I found myself wondering about how I might have regarded this situation had I been the head teacher of my school at the time.

The date was 28th January 1970. The South African national rugby team, the Springbocks, were scheduled to play a match against the Southern Counties at Kingsholm, the home of Gloucester Rugby Club, during their tour of the British Isles. I was a keen rugby player, representing my school and playing for a local club, and a supporter of Gloucester Rugby Club at this time. Under other circumstances, and had it been another touring team such as the New Zealand All Blacks, I would have been eager to attend the game. However, this was a tour taking place during the terrible apartheid era in South African history. Nelson Mandela and many of his colleagues were in prison, and the Springbok rugby team comprised only white players.

During the week prior to this sporting event I had been involved in organising a meeting of my school’s debating society, where the motion of the day was “It is more responsible to devote an afternoon in opposition to a racist rugby tour than to attend school on that afternoon.” Along with several friends at school at this time I was committed to the activities of the anti-apartheid movement, and was totally opposed to the rugby tour.

The head teacher of the school, having noted the debate, attended by no more than forty pupils, and in particular observing that the motion was carried by a significant majority, had advised us that he would not tolerate any student playing truant in order to join a political demonstration. I cannot say that I did not hesitate before going against his advice, and with a few friends joining several thousand demonstrators on a march through the city to the venue of the match. I like to think that we were in good company as we marched alongside such eminent figures as the the Bishop of Gloucester, Basil Guy, and a young future cabinet minister Peter Hain.

It was with a degree of apprehension that we returned to school the next morning, and sure enough we were soon stood before the head teacher. He lectured us on our responsibilities to our studies, though I recall he also listened as we, with what I suspect was a somewhat superior air, responded that we felt that whilst there were students in South Africa being deprived of their right to educational resources because of the colour of their skin, we had a greater responsibility to protest. Having courteously heard our arguments he duly passed sentence and we spent the following evening in detention for an hour after school. The punishment for our actions could have been far more severe. Had he wished I suspect he could have suspended us from school for an extended period.  We later discovered that a number of teachers had intervened on our behalf, using much the same argument that we as offending students had offered, though clearly with more authority. I recognise now, of course, that our actions could not have gone unpunished, and that justice had to be seen to be done.

Recalling this event this morning, I found myself asking a number of questions that probably never really crossed my mind at the time. Was the action we took at this time justified? It would be pretentious to suggest that our participation in this protest on the day made a significant contribution to the ending of apartheid, though I do believe that the sustained efforts of leaders of the anti-apartheid movement such as  Fenner Brockway, Trevor Huddleston and Gordon Brown in the UK did have a major impact.

Had I been the head teacher of my school at the time, how might I have reacted? With a responsibility for managing a school and overseeing the discipline of my students, would I have tolerated the disobedience of the students in my charge? Could I have condoned truancy, no matter what the cause? Did I appreciate at the time the difficulties that  I, along with my friends, might have presented to those teachers who spoke up on our behalf?

The wisdom of hindsight is a wonderful thing. I like to think that the experiences of the days surrounding this event contributed something to my education and compensated for the lessons that I missed for one afternoon in January 1970. You may have your own views on this and may indeed be able to see important factors that I have overlooked.

On the school roll, but more likely on the beach

 

I'm sure that there is much to be learned whilst playing cricket on the beach. But perhaps even more in school?

I’m sure that there is much to be learned whilst playing cricket on the beach. But perhaps even more in school?

A couple of years ago I visited a school in one of the many fishing communities that form the hinterland to the beaches of the Trivandrum region of Kerala. Whilst some of the classes in the school were crowded with children cheek by jowl in orderly ranks of desks crammed across the width of the room, others appeared to have much smaller numbers present. Curious to find the reason for this disparity in class sizes, I was informed that every class should be full, but that a significant number of children who were enrolled were only occasionally in attendance. When I asked what actions were taken to remedy this situation, it became clear that this was not perceived to be a matter of great importance.

An hour or so later, walking through the village to the beach, I was aware of the large numbers of school aged children who were playing cricket, or sitting around in groups talking together seated on the sand or on the fishing boats pulled up after a night’s labours. My Malayalam speaking colleague with whom I was visiting the village asked the children why they were not in school. They were not reticent in their replies, declaring that a day on the beach was far preferable to one in the classroom, a sentiment that I feel sure would be shared by children around the world.

As a teacher I could obviously not condone the truancy of these children; though I confess to enjoying a brief game of cricket with a group who were keen to demonstrate their prowess as bowlers intent on dismissing an English batsman (which they did without too much difficulty!) However, I could not help feeling that the attitude of some of the teachers in the school, who appeared to be lacking in concern for the absence of their pupils, was somewhat lax.

Yesterday’s Times of India confirmed my suspicions that my experience of reluctant school attendees in Kerala is replicated elsewhere in India. The newspaper carried a story highlighting the gap between school enrolments and school attendance in the Bhopal district of  Madhya Pradesh. An example was presented of a boy named Mohit, described by the principal as one of around twenty children in his school who attend only once or twice a month. Of the one hundred and eighty on roll, around one hundred and twenty are generally in attendance.

The 2013 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) survey, suggests that the average attendance rate in rural areas of India on any given day is just under 72%, which is a drop from the 73.4% recorded in 2010. The worldwide average attendance rate in schools according to UNICEF is around 91%. In India there are estimates that suggest that there are probably more than 500,000 children engaged as labourers, but this certainly doesn’t account for the whole scale of school absentees.

In many instances, when a child is enrolled in school, they remain on the register until they reach the age of fourteen. It is possible for some children to be technically on the school roll, but virtually unknown to their teachers, a situation which most of us, understandably find appalling. However, the complexities surrounding this issue need to be more carefully considered.

In some instances, without the income brought in by their children, families would suffer such levels of poverty that they would be unable to survive. The pressure to send children into employment is significant, and even though this situation is both unacceptable and illegal, apportioning blame requires a certain degree of caution. We might reasonably expect that teachers would show greater concern and pursue regular truants in order to get them into classes. But perhaps if I was expected to teach a class of sixty or more pupils, I might also be pleased to have a few absentees. In many instances when the children do attend, there are insufficient teaching resources to ensure effective learning, it is therefore hardly surprising that some children lose interest in school.

I am sure that there is no easy solution to this situation. The relationship between poverty, poor quality resourcing, inadequate teacher training and school attendance is obvious to anyone who spends even a small amount of time in the poorer communities of India. Whilst education is often seen by politicians and policy makers as a means of tacking poverty, it is clear that there is a broader ecology that needs to be addressed if this situation is to change. Being swift to condemn those who work in the schools in poor communities will not assist in overcoming these challenges. There needs to be a greater commitment to a co-ordinated response built upon a respectful partnership between those who are charged with responsibility for developing and delivering education, and the communities to whom they are providing a service. The children I met on the beach were bright, enthusiastic and eager to learn about who I was and where I was from. This enthusiasm needs to be harnessed in order to ensure that future generations of learners are not lost.