Appreciating context; a first step towards respectful teaching?

Come and visit my school. You'll have seen nothing quite like it in England.

Come and visit my school. You’ll have seen nothing quite like it in England.

I have always believed that in teaching an understanding of context is important. I think that to some extent this belief was instilled in me during my first year of teaching when I worked in a school located in a coal mining area of England. It was soon apparent that the life experiences of people in this community, and therefore the children in the school were very different from my own. If I was to work in this school, I needed to gain some understanding.

I still find it difficult to imagine the dangers faced by the men who went every day, miles underground to toil in the heat, noise and dust of the coal seams. Mine was a very comfortable life and profession by comparison to theirs. I soon came to appreciate that with mining came a distinct culture and pride, built upon a close knit community that experienced similar dangers, and had bonded through times of hardship, pit accidents, respiratory disease and a common identity. To be a miner was to wear a badge of honour, and those outside of the immediate pit community could not easily gain access. But alongside a shared adversity, the local miners amongst whom we briefly lived had forged a positive life through the miner’s welfare clubs, a significant commitment to charitable work, and the rightly acclaimed music of the brass bands, a well-respected feature of many British mining communities. I still find it difficult to watch Mark Herman’s film Brassed Off without the occasional tear coming to my eye.

If context is important in shaping  lives and attitudes within communities, then it is surely necessary that we as teachers try to gain an understanding of the experiences of those we teach. This is a major challenge for those of us who come from the UK to teach on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme in Bangalore. Whilst it is fair to say that having worked here over the past fifteen years I find that there is much that teachers in England and India have in common, and that I see similar aspirations for children in the families I meet, I am always conscious that there are phenomena here that I don’t fully understand. I am sure that a lifetime here as an outsider would not be enough to enable a full understanding of the complexities of this context.

The modules that we deliver here have been developed in close partnership with our Indian colleagues who work with us on this course. We have worked hard to ensure that each session is relevant to teachers working in Indian schools and have gathered resources and teaching materials developed by Indian teachers working in a range of schools in Bangalore and beyond. None the less there are still issues arise during teaching or the assessment of student’s work that require careful consideration, analysis and discussion with our Indian colleagues in order to ensure that we are able to fully interpret a range of situations.

I have become increasingly concerned that there are professional educators, many from well-respected universities who are working outside of their own countries with very little regard for local traditions, beliefs and culture. This came to mind yesterday as I read about the introduction of an assessment procedure, commonly used in western countries for the assessment classroom management procedures, to schools in a northern Indian state. No effort had been made to modify the instrument being used, or even to discuss its relevance with local teachers or education administrators. It would appear that an assumption was made that because this procedure had been developed by “experts” in school management in a distinguished institution, that it should be suitable for use anywhere in the world. I am reliably informed that the two academics who delivered training in the use of this assessment tool had not previously visited India, and had certainly not spent time in schools. I assume that someone in this north Indian state had paid for the services provided, and maybe too they are in part culpable for not investigating the appropriateness of the materials on offer.

The creation of cultural dissonance increases with globalisation, and the imposition of a set of values previously alien to those particularly in countries of socio-economic disadvantage, who are working hard to improve the lives of children may well be a future source of tension. Internationalisation in education brings with it great opportunities for shared learning and understanding, but the right conditions must be created in order to ensure that the advantages gained are of benefit to all parties. Establishing a partnership of equals and challenging imperialistic models of benefice is essential. Taking the time and effort to get to know something of a country, its culture, influences and the aspirations of its people should be a requirement of anyone embarking upon such work.

Celebration follows all the hard work

Activity and debate. Active learning is alive and well in Bangalore.

Activity and debate. Active learning is alive and well in Bangalore.

Some of our students here in Bangalore are still high on the celebrations of their graduation last week. I have met several of them since and it is obvious that the occasion meant a great deal to them, as it did to their tutors, and they continue to savour the moment when they were awarded their degrees. This is just as it should be and I hope they continue to wear the aura of success for some time.

In conversation with one of our recent graduates this week, she told me:-

“When we first started on the course, for a few days I thought, why do we keep debating and analysing everything? Why don’t the tutors simply tell us what to do? It took us a while to adjust to a new way of learning, but now we realise how much more effective this approach has been. I now find myself questioning everything I do as a teacher in order to improve my practice. I also find myself reading more and wanting to know more about children and teaching.”

Such conversations are always reassuring, because whenever we embark upon teaching a new group of students we have our own apprehensions about how they might react to our approach. We spend the first few sessions closely observing our students for any positive signs in the hope that they are coming together as a group, and that they are prepared to challenge their own practices as teachers. So far, whilst teaching in Bangalore it has taken no more than a couple of days for our groups to become cohesive and to feel comfortable in debate and willing to engage in critical discussion about classrooms.

Watching from the side-lines yesterday as John and Johnson worked on a practical task with our third cohort of students, I was particularly interested to see how they moved around the room, sharing ideas with others and discussing aspects of behaviour management with children. Something that we have observed in all three of our cohorts to date, is that they do not form cliques or have a tendency to sit in the same place during sessions. Their movement is much more fluid than this and they seem content to work with any colleague during the activities that we present. This contrasts greatly with our experience of teaching in England, where students appear to seek the security of familiar working partners and are sometime loathe to explore ideas with someone less well known.

Today we will welcome visitors to the course. Individuals who think they may wish to join our new intake of students but wish to see just what we are like. I know that they will receive a warm welcome from our students and will soon detect the friendly atmosphere that they have created. We do not let these visitors sit on the periphery of the group, but rather engage them fully in the day’s debates and activities. Hopefully by doing this alongside friendly well established colleagues they will soon feel at ease and get a flavour of the ways in which we work.

We have been fortunate that those students who have chosen to join this course since it began in 2012 have without exception been full of enthusiasm, eager to learn and willing to become a part of a group committed to debate and practical learning. I am sure that amongst our visitors today there will be others who can also make a significant contribution to the promotion of more inclusive teaching and learning here in South India. I look forward to sharing in their celebrations as they graduate in the not too distant future.

Why is it that sometimes I behave badly?

John challenges students about their behaviour

John challenges students about their behaviour

Whenever we hear of behaviour being discussed in schools, it is almost always in the context of “difficult children”. Asking teachers about those pupils who they have most difficulty managing and they will inevitably name someone, usually a boy, who they describe as a behaviour problem. There is therefore always the potential when delivering a course with the words “social emotional and behavioural difficulties in the title, that some colleagues will attend in expectation of solutions and a quick fix for their behaviour management issues.

This week, students attending the MA is Special and Inclusive Education here in Bangalore, are considering aspects of the social and emotional needs of children, which inevitably means that there will be some debate around behaviour. But being a masters level course, this week is not about “tips for teachers,” though we hope that along the journey they will reflect on what they discuss and have ideas and strategies to apply in their classrooms.

My colleague John Visser began yesterday’s session by challenging our students to reflect upon their own behaviours. When and why do they behave badly? What are the consequences of this poor behaviour? And who is affected by the outcomes? More importantly, how de we feel and react when children behave like this in our classrooms?

Throughout the week we hope that students will consider not only the nature of what is seen as unacceptable behaviour, but will also look at causal effects, helping children to understand their own emotions and social interactions. This will be managed through a series of activities through which our students will examine theoretical perspectives in practical terms.

Whist yesterday’s session started quietly, as participants came to terms that their own behaviours were being placed under the microscope, they soon warmed up an began to express their own feelings and experiences. Every bit as important as as the input from tutors is the jousting between students and the built in time for reflection.

It is already obvious that this is going to be a lively and enjoyable week. I have no doubt that there will be conflicting views expressed and strong opinions upheld. But this is all part of the cut and thrust of studying on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) we have an open day for visitors interested in the course. Why not come along and meet us?

New beginnings

Writing biographical information of a new found friend. A different and interesting challenge

The quality of our students in Bangalore is such that we look forward to their continued study with us.

I am sure that tutors the world over who teach on post graduate degree courses would agree, that from fairly early on in the teaching process, some students stand out as potential candidates to study at doctoral level. Having taught on master’s level degree courses over a number of years, I can recall many occasions when I have had conversations with individuals regarding the possibility that they might further their studies, and continue whilst they had “study momentum”, to the next level. Whilst some respond positively, there are others who just wish to obtain their degrees and finish their studies after a prolonged period of self-sacrifice, and absence from their families, hobbies or other domestic arrangements. I fully appreciate this and would never coerce anyone into several more years of study unless they genuinely wanted to take this leap.

When working in England I have generally been delighted when a good and enthusiastic student expresses a desire to register for PhD. It is particularly heartening when they wish to do so because of the experiences they have had working on a course in which I have played a small part. There is no denying that I always feel an immense sense of pride when a few years later they walk onto a stage to receive their doctorates. However, when we started the MA in special and inclusive education programme in Bangalore, I had not really anticipated the level of interest that we might have here for doctoral level study.

I can honestly report that the quality of work we have received from students in our Bangalore cohorts has been very high. Their independence as researchers and their commitment to study has been exemplary. They respond positively to criticism and advice, and they have been a joy to teach. As our first cohort commenced work on research for their final dissertations some of them began to discuss amongst themselves the possibility of furthering their studies. This initial murmur eventually got louder until a few actually made the plunge to ask about continuing their development as researchers.

What motivates them to take this bold step to an even higher level of study I wonder? We are always honest with students about the significant endeavour that will be involved. In conversation with those who have now made a commitment and made applications for doctoral level study, it is evident that it is not the prospect of an academic career that has focused the minds of most, but rather a genuine desire to investigate aspects of their work, and the children and families they support. In so doing they hope to gain greater understanding of how the lives of others might be improved, and the ways in which the education services provided here in India can become more inclusive.

Having seen the level of motivation that characterises our Indian students, I find the prospect of working with some of them, as they hone their research skills and conduct empirical studies into aspects of inclusion, both exciting and daunting. Exciting because I know of their commitment and enthusiasm, and believe that they will produce studies of outstanding quality. Daunting because I know that I will need to be on my mettle to keep up with these consummate professionals, as they gain further in their confidence as researchers and thinkers.

Much that is good has emerged from the MA course here in Bangalore. The levels of learning have been high for students and tutors alike. We have evidence of new learning being applied in classrooms and changing the lives of children, families and teachers. We have developed networks, forged friendships and established collegial relationships that will endure and continue to impact upon professional lives. Building a community of researchers and practitioners here in South India, all of whom have the intention of moving the inclusive education agenda forward, should be reason enough to continue working with friends and colleagues in this part of the world. As one of our students stated at the recent graduation ceremony; “I see today not so much as the end of a period of study, but more of a new beginning for teachers and children.”

Amen to that!

More things in common than might be expected


Teachers from a mainstream and special school working together find that they can plan for their children to learn together

Teachers from a mainstream and special school working together find that they can plan for their children to learn together

Working with teachers in their own environment has a very different feel from that experienced when running courses at the university or on neutral territory. Being familiar with the surroundings and comfortable with each other, often means that those tentative minutes of beginning a training session are dispensed with, and teachers quickly become relaxed. Thus was the situation at Vydehi school today in the Whitefields district of Bangalore where I had been invited to conduct a session by Anita, one of our MA students here in the city. However, an interesting dimension of today’s training was that it brought together teachers from a special school alongside those from mainstream with a specific focus on creating an inclusive learning environment. This situation raised a number of questions in my mind about the expectations that teachers from these two respective establishments might have, and the ways in which they might interpret inclusive schooling. Would the special school teachers feel that they had a monopoly of expertise in respect of children with special educational needs? Would the mainstream teachers see these children as a problem? The session was approached by examining a model of assessment and planning to create opportunities for children to learn together in one classroom. Examples were presented from schools where these approaches had succeeded, and discussions of pupil “deficits” avoided. My idea was to provide examples that could encourage and enable children of all needs and abilities to learn within the same lessons. An emphasis was placed upon the proposition that within the same lesson children could be given many learning opportunities, and they do not in fact all need to learn the same thing, or work at the same pace.

It is always interesting trying to gauge the reaction of a group when addressing what I know to be, for many teachers, a series of challenging concepts. Nodding heads and smiles are always a good sign, furrowed brows and folded arms can be slightly worrying, a firm shaking of heads and reddening faces are disturbing to say the least. I recall one occasion when an audience member sitting immediately in front of me, at the outset of a session opened to its full width a broadsheet newspaper, thus concealing himself from me, and vice versa. This all before I had uttered a word.  I must confess that this rather pointed protest made me smile at the time, and I believe I saw the man behind the newsprint as ripe for conversion. Many of his surrounding colleagues objected to his behaviour, forcing him to lower his newspaper. In a way I was disappointed, having calculated that he would be unable to maintain his pose for more than a few minutes before his arms tired and he was forced to retreat. Fortunately today, there were far more smiles and nodding heads than otherwise, and nobody undertook any form of protest. Most reassuring was that teachers from both the mainstream and special schools appeared to be in accord with the principles that I was merrily espousing.

Towards the end of the session I became slightly concerned that they had all reached saturation point in respect of the information received and the ideas discussed. However, Anita suggested one final activity to end the event, and I was happy to comply. Teachers from both schools worked together in groups to plan a lesson in one of the formats presented during the session. They were asked to demonstrate how they might ensure that the needs of children from both of their schools could be incorporated into the lesson and their needs met. I was not surprised to find that these professionals rose to this challenge admirably and that they soon settled into devising differentiated approaches, and the implementation of resources that would support inclusive learning. When they presented back their ideas it was clear that they had identified a means of planning whereby all children could work together in an environment of mutual respect and understanding.

Whilst the teachers in today’s session are used to working in very different situations, it was evident that they have far more in common than they do differences. It became clear during the morning that these enthusiastic teachers also recognised that this was equally true of the children with whom they work.

Releasing the inner writer.

Enthusiastic writers sharing their ideas and getting them down on paper

Enthusiastic writers sharing their ideas and getting them down on paper

Why do we find writing so difficult? Even some of the great writers, such as George Orwell and Thomas Hardy have described the fear invoked by the blank sheet of paper; more likely replaced today by the flickering computer screen. No matter how experienced we continue to struggle with words and prefer to find ways of avoiding the difficult task of composing our thoughts. Prevarication is one of the writer’s closest familiars, and often his greatest curse. If this is true of those who have become successful authors, how much more difficult might it be for those of us who merely dabble in the shallow waters of writing? There are more good reasons not to write than to commence this arduous process, yet in some of us there is a compulsion to proceed. How dangerous might this addiction be? Few who have achieved a modicum of success would honestly seek a cure.

More than thirty friends and colleagues, each with a commitment to write, came together today in Bangalore for a workshop. At the beginning of the day it was possible to discern a range of tensions and confidences. How will I cope if I am asked to write and can think of nothing to say? Will today’s tasks be difficult and make too many demands upon me as a neophyte writer? Hopefully these apprehensions were soon allayed, as participants began to share in writing activities and found their peers supportive.

As university tutors we are cruel and unthinking  in our approach to student’s writing. Mature students enter courses, quite possibly having written nothing more complex than a shopping list for twenty years. Within weeks they are being asked to produce essays of 5,000 words and in a style with which they are largely unaccustomed. For some this is akin to being asked to work in a different language, yet this procedure has become standard in many academic institutions. Ask the tutors who run these courses, how much writing do they do, and how easily does their pen flow? I wonder how honestly they might answer?

If you decided today that you wanted to run a marathon it would be foolish to believe that you could do this tomorrow without having undertaken any training. Yet with writing we fail to recognise that this is not only an intellectual activity, but also one that makes physical demands. It takes time to become accustomed to sitting before a screen and trying to write for prolonged periods of time. For most of us it may be far better to begin with shorter and easier exercises rather than to decide to launch straight into a novel.

In too many schools writing has become a chore. Unfortunately there are teachers who are more concerned with the technical aspects of grammar and punctuation than they are with creativity. Grammar and punctuation are, of course important, they provide the structure around which fine writing is constructed. But let’s encourage children to enjoy the writing process first and once they recognise that writing can be fun, we can then shape and perfect the techniques that will help them to become proficient in using the written word for a range of purposes.

Participants in today’s workshop worked hard. They explored writing in different styles and for different purposes. They shared in their writing triumphs and admitted to a few difficulties. The learning that was in evidence assured everyone that they can write and that with practice they can write well. The concentration on a range of activities was sustained over several hours, tasks were taken seriously but there was much laughter. Interesting, often amusing and in some instances profound work was produced, but above all everyone agreed that writing had been an enjoyable experience.

Who knows, maybe the next J.K. Rowling, Agatha Christie, Vikram Seth, or Anita Desai could have been our midst. Even if this is not to be, I hope that at least some of today’s workshop participants will have been inspired to continue writing and shaping their ideas in words.



Happy endings.


A proud group of new MA graduateswith tutors and representatives of the University of Northampton

A proud group of new MA graduates with tutors and representatives of the University of Northampton

All of the stresses of recent days are past. Today was a great day of celebrations with a proud and well deserving group of students receiving their MA degrees in special and inclusive education after two years of dedicated endeavour. I must confess to feeling quite emotional as each student in turn was called to be awarded their degree certificate. Each one has a personal story to tell. Along the way several have encountered challenges which would have thwarted lesser individuals, but this group supported each other throughout the course and demonstrated commitment to achieve that was truly inspirational.

Working with these colleagues over the past two years has been a remarkably rewarding experience. They have produced work of outstanding quality, have debated and discussed issues with intelligence and enthusiasm, and have shown a willingness to deploy their learning in classrooms and to report on their many successes and the obstacles they have faced, in a reflective and professional matter.

The contribution that these teachers are making in their schools is significant. They are supporting children and their colleagues by developing more inclusive approaches to assessment, planning and teaching, and have become real advocates for inclusion, and leaders in the field of education. It will be interesting to watch their careers develop over the coming years as they become increasingly influential and establish themselves as leading professionals.

In offering a vote of thanks at the end of the graduation ceremony, one of our students, Samina, emphasised that whilst graduation signalled the end of a course of study, it was in many ways the beginning of a new phase in the lives of all who were graduating. The challenge ahead lies in applying their learning and taking others along with them on a journey towards more equitable teaching and learning.

Watching these new MA graduates today I felt immensely proud of what they have achieved, and I was pleased that their successes were witnessed not only by their families, but also by many people who have been influential in ensuring the success of the course, and who have taught me so much along the way. I was also filled with a sense of how fortunate I am in working with tutors of the quality of Mary, Jayashree, Johnson and John. It is undoubtedly true to say that working in Bangalore has not been without its challenges and occasional frustrations. But these are far outweighed by the rewards that have come through engagement with a group of committed students and tutors who have been willing to take on new ideas and consider their application in a diverse range of teaching situations.

Today was indeed a day for celebration. I do hope that the excitement of the day carries on for many weeks to come, and that each individual has an opportunity to reflect upon their great accomplishments and the value of the efforts that they have made during the past two years. They take away with them not only those skills that will enable them to develop inclusive classrooms, but also a set of principles for the promotion of a more equitable education system and society. I have every confidence that the children and staff with whom they work will reap many benefits from the work that they have put into their studies. I am both proud and humbled to have had an opportunity to share in a great learning experience and to be associated with such a fine group of individuals.

Many thanks to all involved
Photographs courtesy of Varsha Rajanahally and Time Loop Photography

The rescue mission completed

Fortunately life is seldom as dramatic as that portrayed here by Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen in the Great Escape. Sometimes it just feels that way!

Fortunately life is seldom as dramatic as that portrayed here by Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen in the Great Escape. Sometimes it just feels that way!

I am indebted to friends and colleagues who offered messages of support, or in some instances advice on the rescue of those incarcerated gowns held captive by customs and excise at Bangalore airport. Many of the potential solutions tendered came as a result of similar experiences with local bureaucracy, and it was reassuring to be reminded that I should not look at the situation too personally. Other ideas, all kindly meant, ranged from the practical to the wholly bizarre. In particular Sorrell’s suggestion of a commando type raid upon Bangalore airport gaol, largely calling upon the services of Tom Cruise, takes the prize for imagination. This was much as I would have expected from a friend who is an artist and dependent upon creativity to make a living. His ideas did however, have the important effect of diffusing some of the tensions of the past forty eight hours with humour.

I can now inform readers that after much anxiety, and through a great team effort, the academic accoutrements were finally released. On the basis of experience gained I can advise colleagues who may find themselves in a similar situation (hopefully this will not apply to you), that there is a formula, albeit a complex one to secure the release of custom held captives. So here briefly is the approach that ultimately – late last evening in fact – secured the freedom of the gowns. Firstly ensure that you have a strong team working with you to address the challenge – Jayashree and Sunil proved themselves worthy warriors in the cause. Remain persistent, be constantly in the thoughts of the jailers and their superiors. This is best done using local intelligence who are able to call upon influential friends to make frequent phone calls declaring the innocence of the prisoners. At the same time, anticipate frequent journeys to the prison officers’ headquarters armed with pens and as many official papers as you can muster. Expect to have passport and other means of identification photocopied on numerous occasions, be prepared to fill in what will seem like hundreds of forms, often to be informed by other jailers that these are in fact the wrong forms, and repeat the same information to dozens of different officials over the course of several days. As the end game approaches ensure that a small proportion of the original ransom demand is handed over, but only at the point where you have seen the hostages and assured yourself that they remain alive. Finally, have a fast getaway car with engine running at the door of the prison.

The drama concluded today’s graduation can now go ahead. A great cheer could be heard from all concerned. However, a happy ending having been secured, the saga doesn’t quite end here. A bandh has been announced for today in Bangalore. For those of you unfamiliar with the term bandh, I must explain that this is a form of strike which will bring the whole city to a halt for most of the day. In extremis this can become an ugly situation involving a certain amount of violence. Having experienced a couple of these in the past I know that they can normally be avoided, and that the disruption caused can be minimised. However, as ill-luck would have things, one of the focal points of today’s event is immediately adjacent to the hall where the graduation was to be held. This has necessitated finding a change of venue and a complete reordering of events. It seems that life in Bangalore, normally a fairly sedate business, is occasionally hit by a monsoon, and that this latest deluge is falling upon our celebrations.

Undaunted we will continue. Our original plans may have been thwarted, the fates have had their fun, but we will have the last laugh. The gowns are released, a compromise venue found and I have had sufficient sleep to gird my loins to do battle with any further obstacles that may emerge. So be warned, students will be graduating with their University of Northampton MA in Special and Inclusive Education today in Bangalore, come what may. That’s a promise!


P.S to my good friend Sorrell I ask – who needs Tom Cruise? Mission impossible? – never!

I hadn’t anticipated the taking of hostages!

Somewhere within lies a symbol of academia!

Somewhere within lies a symbol of academia!

I am not sure why it is that sometimes those things that one had assumed to be straightforward become complicated in India. Whatever the reason, it is certainly true to say that there are occasions when this beautiful and welcoming country develops a carapace of such complexity that one is driven to the brink of insanity. Fortunately I have experienced far more good days here than bad, but yesterday was certainly one that I am pleased to put behind me.

My journey from England to Bangalore, though long and at times tedious passed by without incident. Both flights were on time, the cabin crew worked hard to ensure our comfort within the confines of economy class travel, my luggage appeared on the carousel and having completed the several forms necessary to escape the boundaries of the airport, an awaiting friendly taxi driver commenced the customary negotiation of the chaos that constitutes the Bangalore streets without difficulty. On arrival at my destination I was greeted by the familiar welcoming smiles and embraces of friends, and all was well. Things remained thus for the next hour, and I was soon settling well into customary routines; but this situation of calm was not destined to last. The several hours that followed can best be summed us as Kafkaesque in nature, (though even Kafka had limits to his imagination),and will be lodged firmly within my memory for the rest of my days. I am sure that in years to come I will awaken in the night, drenched in cold sweat as I recall the events of the last several hours.

One might be excused for believing that things should have been simple. But please, have some patience as I try to explain. I write this with an addled brain and a body that is uncomfortably fatigued, so the story may deteriorate as it progresses. The situation is thus. In two days time a group of deservedly proud and highly accomplished students are due to graduate with their masters degrees in special and inclusive education following two years of concentrated labours and focused study. This is a keenly anticipated event for all concerned; students and tutors alike. Graduations are immersed in an element of pomp and ceremony heightened by the colour and grandeur of the academic gowns, hoods and formal head gear that has characterised such events for many centuries. Representatives of the university’s chancellor and the Dean of Education, arriving today will officiate at the ceremony. On arrival at a hotel here in the city yesterday, I had anticipated that two large parcels containing academic gowns couriered from the UK would be awaiting me in readiness for this important event. Here began a chain of events that eventually left me frustrated and sleepless for more than thirty hours.

The good news was that the academic costumes had indeed arrived at Bangalore airport. Less than assuring was the message awaiting me that they had then been duly impounded by customs and excise and were not being allowed to progress beyond the confines of airport storage. In effect two parcels were being held hostage by officialdom and a large ransom demanded before they could be released.

One of the worst impositions of the long defunct British empire in India was the creation of dense layers of bureaucracy, undoubtedly intended to increase the efficiency of administration. However, it could never have been anticipated that Indian officials could take this burgeoning bureaucracy and turn it into a surreal art form. This kind of officialdom has been likened to an onion, which has layer upon layer of paperwork and obfuscation. The illusion is a false one, because at least with an onion it is possible to penetrate the final layer.

The release from incarceration of a collection of academic gowns it would appear, could not be negotiated over the telephone, but would necessitate a series of face to face meetings with men (they were noticeably all men), armed with sheaves of paperwork, official memos and rubber stamps. There was no choice but to make a return journey of an hour to Bangalore airport to begin a new and frustrating role as hostage negotiator.

I really do not wish to bore you with the complexities of the next five hours of this story. Or perhaps it is rather the case that the painful memories of unfolding events leaves me anxious and considerably aged! Suffice to say that having sat in several offices in different locations around the airport periphery; having completed endless forms, written official letters, made a dozen or so telephone calls to the UK and worn out my fingers with texts and emails, by late evening only minimal progress had been made. The gowns remain beyond bars, not even permitted a visitor and for all I know mocked and intimidated by jailers.

After four hours of seemingly fruitless negotiations and ransom demands, along with my colleagues I descended into hysteria. Much of the time the conversations and urgent phone calls made by my fellow negotiators veered from English to Kannada, leaving me totally in darkness and with a growing sense of dystopia. In desperation I found myself hatching a cunning, and completely bizarre Gandhian plan. This involved calling upon all of my many dear friends here in India to dust off their spinning wheels and work through the night to produce thread. Tomorrow, I thought, I will find others who can weave a set of perfectly formed khadi gowns. Thus attired our deserving students will make a fine statement of their independence. It will be a triumph for the emancipation of Indian academia and will announce the launching of a national “quit the customs” campaign. Such was the state of desperation experienced that we resorted to this kind of humour to address our frustrations.

Leaving the airport, minus gowns, but having acquired a new range of Indian friends and accomplices, was far from easy. Certain assurances had been given, but the outcome remains far from certain. I had not previously understood that the role of hostage negotiator would demand such sleepless nights, but now, as the first tentacles of light creep into the dawn, I sit and anticipate a further chapter in this desperate saga.

Somehow, amidst a full schedule of previously planned events for today the bargaining must continue. My pen is well charged for a further day of form filling, the bank alerted that a heavy ransom may soon be required. Expecting yet more complications, a team of friendly commandos have commenced digging a tunnel under the wires of Indian customs and excise in anticipation of the possible need for a more dramatic (non-violent) intervention. A colleague has baked a cake containing a file to be smuggled through prison bars, and my own personal nightmares continue.

I remain hopeful of a happy ending, but realistic about the paper driven monster that governs Indian procedure. Armed only with a pen and an unnatural level of optimism, I will sally forth into this brave new world. Now then, where was that phone number for amnesty international?


Bangalore beckons


Joining again with friends

Joining again with friends

I am sure that there are many people who when about to embark on a journey feel fully prepared and organised. As I pack my bags for India I am confident that I have everything needed for working when I get there, having spent many hours going back through presentations and materials that I will be using for teaching over the coming weeks. I am less confident that I will arrive with all the necessary items of clothing and other domestic requirements, which always appear to be packed in a hurry.

I prefer to travel with as little luggage as possible, and having made similar journeys to Bangalore over many years, I have learned to recognise those accoutrements that are surplus to requirements, and which on previous trips have stood idly by in a room until ready to be taken home. Even so, I usually find myself sitting on a plane wondering if I have all essential items packed.

I once flew to Mumbai seated next to a passenger who was visiting India as a tourist for a month and had everything he needed, or so he hoped, in a small holdall taken onto the flight as hand luggage. I remember being full of admiration for someone who could travel so light and with a sparse number of items. Though I also reflected that he could find himself most unpopular on a return flight had he been unable to change or wash his clothing after a month of wearing the same shirt in India’s dust and heat! – That is a somewhat disrespectful comment and I hope that the gentleman in question had a great time and returned to England with a suitcase full of good memories.

Over the past few days colleagues here at the university have asked me about what I am going to teach in India and about the challenges of preparing to deliver ideas about inclusive education, largely a western concept, within an Asian culture. They are quite right in seeing this as an important issue and one which needs to be approached with respect and an appreciation of local and national procedures and traditions. Fortunately, when working in Bangalore, I do so alongside long established Indian friends and colleagues whose experiences and perceptions have greatly influenced the ways in which I work.

I like to think  when working with colleagues in India that I have taken full consideration of the circumstances in which they teach, and have informed myself by spending time in local schools and working alongside colleagues in classrooms. However, I am always aware that when working alongside teachers I learn as much, or possibly more than I can convey through my teaching practices.

Keeping up to date with Indian research, legislation and literature is demanding, but affords many enjoyable learning experiences. Applying this learning with colleagues is something I look forward to as I prepare for this next expedition.

The coming days are sure to provide plenty of new learning opportunities and a chance to renew old acquaintances and make new friends. Above all, there will be times spent in debating the approaches we can develop and adopt to challenge exclusion and ensure that children who have been marginalised have new opportunities for learning and succeeding. The commitment of teachers in India is such that the education scene is changing quickly and dramatically. There is every reason to be confident that in the future schools will become far more inclusive than they have been in the recent past.

If I board the plane tomorrow minus an item or two of clothing, or without my toothpaste or a bar of soap I am sure I will overcome these omissions without too many difficulties. So long as I arrive with open eyes and a willingness to share in learning, I am convinced that all will be well. I look forward to reporting further after I settle once again into India’s Garden City. As Mark Twain informed us

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

But only if we travel with an intention to learn and respect those who we meet along the way.