Art should encourage us to make our own interpretations of the world.

Bacon's Screaming Pope was inspired by Velázquez but is not an imitation of a great work, but rather a personal interpretation and an invitation for us to create our own ideas.

Bacon’s Screaming Pope was inspired by Velázquez but is not an imitation of a great work, but rather a personal interpretation and an invitation for us to create our own ideas.

Sara and I have just returned from a visit to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, a magnificent gallery designed by the architect Sir Norman Foster and located in the grounds of the University of East Anglia on the edge of Norwich. The fine city of Norwich, in the county of Norfolk is a little over a hundred miles from home, and although for five years we lived in the area we have rarely returned to what is a beautiful part of England. However, we were keen to make this trip, specifically to see a unique exhibition called “Francis Bacon and the Masters,” and having looked forward to the visit for the past couple of months we were not disappointed.

Francis Bacon was a Dublin born figurative painter who died in 1992. We were already familiar with many of his works, particularly those usually on show at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin and at the Tate in London, but this particular presentation of his work not only exhibited paintings that we had previously not seen, but managed to present his pictures in a highly informative and thought provoking manner.

The Bacon works were hung alongside those of other great painters who had influenced the artist, not only in his development of themes, but also in the way in which he interpreted the world. Pictures by Velázquez, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh and Titian were juxtaposed to provide the viewer with an understanding of their influence upon Bacon and the tremendous respect in which he clearly held these great masters. Several of the works of these fine artists had been brought to the Sainsbury Centre from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and were being exhibited in the UK for the first time. It was a privilege to be able to see these works and to gain some understanding of how they shaped the ideas of one of the more controversial painters of the twentieth century.

Prior to visiting the exhibition I had read a number of reviews, not all of which heaped praise upon Bacon’s contribution to this event. Several reviewers, including  Jonathan Jones in the Guardian had suggested that seeing Bacon’s works alongside  those of such great artists as Rodin and Velázquez somewhat diminished his art, and made the viewer question just how good he really was. One sentence from Jones’ review particularly stood out from the page:-

“Bacon’s paintings are mocked, his talents dwarfed. The jaw-dropping masterpieces by the likes of Picasso, Titian and Rodin that so nearly make this show five-star unmissable also, to my dismay, to my shock, make Bacon seem a small, timebound, fading figure.”

Critics serve a very useful purpose, but personally I like to make up my own mind when I view an exhibition, visit the theatre or cinema, or read a book. Whilst I can appreciate Jonathan Jones’ point of view, and acknowledge that of the paintings on display Velázquez’s portrait of Innocent X is the one that I will probably remember most, I do feel that as a reviewer he has rather missed the point. One of the greatest qualities of art, is the ability to interpret the world in diverse ways. Whilst many of us can look at the same object or scene, we each relate to this in a different way and if we have the skills to reproduce the image, will do so through our own interpretation and appreciation of what we have seen. Surely one of the great virtues of art, is the ability of the artist to give us his unique perspective and then allow us to further interpret this according to our own understanding.

Within the “Francis Bacon and the Masters” exhibition, possibly the most extreme example of this is Bacon’s interpretation of the crucifixion, a scene depicted by many great artists through the centuries. Many art lovers will be familiar with the crucifixion as portrayed by Giotto, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Stanley Spencer, or any of a dozen other well known painters,  each of whom gives an individual perspective of a scene, which of course none of them actually witnessed. I have no doubt that in their individuality each one of these depictions gives rise to a range of emotions and critical commentary from those who view them, as they pass through some of the world’s finest art galleries. What is certain is that these are pictures that hold our attention and if we choose, can encourage us to think and reflect on what it is that we see.

In the “Francis Bacon and the Masters” exhibition, the curator had chosen to hang Bacon’s slightly abstract crucifixion, one of his earlier works from 1933, alongside a very conventional seventeenth century picture by Alonso Cano. If each artist had simply been asked to create a realistic reproduction of how the crucifixion scene had presented itself, there can be little doubt that Cano’s dark and brooding image scores highly on this criteria. However, this was certainly not the task which Bacon set himself, and the resulting, superficially much simpler work that he created, presents a ghostly and very personal interpretation which whilst lacking realism, evokes a sombre and in many ways macabre atmosphere.

Is Bacon’s crucifixion scene as great as that of Cano’s? Does his study for a portrait of Van Gogh do justice to the memory of the Dutch master? Can his screaming popes be compared to the luscious image of Pope Innocent X? It certainly can, but is this really the purpose of art? If art has an educational function, it must surely be to encourage us to look more closely at the world and to understand that there can be many interpretations of an event. More importantly, if art has a value, which I most certainly believe it does, it is that of enabling us to think more critically about what we see and to develop our own skills of analysis. We may have our own favourites, our likes and dislikes, but hopefully we look at images with a discerning and searching eye.

This was an exhibition that challenged my own ideas and thinking, not about where Bacon stands in the great canon of artists, but much more about the ways in which I see the world.

Hoping for more than a declaration of intent.

Expressions of good intent. Let's hope they come to fruition

Expressions of good intent. Let’s hope they come to fruition

Last week in Incheon, in the Republic of Korea, government ministers from more than 100 countries, along with representatives of non-governmental organizations and youth groups met at the World Education Forum. The focus of discussions at this meeting was for the most part upon how the right to free and quality education can be provided for all the world’s children, including the 58 million who currently have no access to school.

Speakers representing august organisations such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Bank Group took to the stage to assert their commitment to improving the lives of children and keeping education high on the world development agenda, until such time as all children have gained the right to go to school. The sentiments expressed were sincere and I have no doubt that the conference delegates will have returned home fired with a new determination to bring about change. Ringing in their ears will be the latest declaration asserting the intention to ensure “equitable and inclusive quality education and lifelong learning for all by 2030”.

I describe this Incheon Declaration as the “latest” as it follows hot on the heels of previous such statements including Jomtien, Thailand (1990), Salamanca, Spain (1994) and Dakar, Senegal (2000), all of which have been signed with due solemnity and good intentions by world leaders with the intention of improving the plight of the world’s children. The Education for All goals, with clearly defined targets towards achieving universal primary education have provided an important focus for education policy makers, children’s rights activists and politicians around the world. But I can well understand those who on reading the Incheon Declaration will ask whether by simply writing yet another aspirational document progress will be assured.

One delegate at the Incheon forum who has greeted the new declaration with words of both encouragement and caution is the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and children’s rights campaigner Kailash Satyarthi from India. Speaking to the gathered audience he reminded them that when they met in Dakar fifteen years ago they established goals that were then seen as attainable, but he reflects upon the intervening period with mixed feelings. Satyarthi described how new opportunities for education has transformed the lives of some individuals in his own country, but he also reflected on the fact that it is already too late to transform the lives of many children who are  trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and gruelling child labour. One of the most powerful statements that Satyarthi made to the forum was that he refuses to accept any of the excuses that continue to be made in defence of denying children access to school and that others should do the same.

Whilst Kailash Satyarthi demonstrated a great deal of frustration at the failure to deliver on previously expressed goals, which should by now have benefited millions of excluded  children, he still believes that a concerted effort on the part of those who are concerned could result in educational opportunities for all. Whilst praising the intentions of those world leaders who have supported this latest international declaration, Satyarthi leads by example through his recognition that if progress is to be made it will be on the basis of actions taken by individuals as much as through legislation. We could all do worse than follow in his footsteps.

When reading about events such as that held in Incheon it is easy to become cynical and to believe that this is yet one more talking shop from which little of substance will emerge. However, if just a few individuals are inspired by the words expressed with such passion by Kailash Satyarthi, and decide to take affirmative action on behalf of children, the World Education Forum will have been worthwhile.

You can hear the presentation given to the World Education Forum by Kailash Satyarthi here

 

Professionals and sea breezes

Sea breeze and Sencos, a heady cocktail

Sea breeze and Sencos, a heady cocktail

I don’t recall ever having visited Bognor Regis before, and  a couple of evenings ago I enjoyed an evening stroll along the seaside promenade at Felpham beach, taking in the salty air and listening to the gentle rush of the sea against the shingle strand. This was an opportunity for relaxation before what I knew would be a busy day of teaching, and listening to presentations by a range of colleagues at the annual University of Chichester conference for special educational needs co-ordinators.

I must confess to having mixed feelings about the role so ably fulfilled by special educational needs co-ordinators, usually referred to as Sencos. They undoubtedly provide a most professionals service, developing expertise, offering advice and assisting teachers to understand the needs of children who are experiencing difficulties with learning. Their enthusiasm and dedication is seldom in question as was evidenced in the university conference centre at this well organised and attended event. The attentive audience upon which I gazed whilst giving my morning presentation provided ample evidence of their interest and eager anticipation of picking up information that might assist them in their challenging role. This level of attention was in evidence throughout all the day’s sessions, with participants taking copious notes and asking the kinds of questions that demonstrate a commitment to harvest information for use in their schools. These are indeed consummate professionals with a hunger for knowledge and a determination to improve the lot of the children with special educational needs.

My questioning of the role of the Senco, comes not from their obvious levels of commitment and devotion to their pupils, but rather in the worries I have that this may detract from the enthusiasm of their teacher colleagues. Is there a danger that teachers working in schools with highly skilled Sencos may abdicate some of their responsibility for children with special educational needs, and assume that these will be addressed by a named professional? Is it possible that the role in some way diminishes the need for others to develop the skills that these designated colleages so ably demonstrate?

Talking to Sencos throughout the day in Bognor I gained the impression that the situation in schools is variable. One lady told me about how she is given opportunities to regularly update her colleagues through professional development events. She explained how she already has two training sessions timetabled at school to disseminate some of the ideas and developments picked up during this conference. She declared that the majority of the staff in her school saw her as a supportive source of information who enabled them to develop new professional skills, knowledge and understanding and help them to apply these in the classroom. However, another young and effervescent Senco told me a different tale. In her school it would appear that as soon as there is a problem with a child who is struggling with learning, it is seen as an issue to be dealt with by her alone. She is expected to come up with a solution and apply this so that teaching may resume as usual. Would she, I wondered, have a chance to share today’s sessions in school? Sadly, she declared that if this were to happen it would be the first time ever.

I am sure that these contrasting approaches can be found in schools throughout the country. I am certainly not advocating that we dispense with the role of the Senco in order that all teachers take responsibility for every child in their class.  I suspect that in many instances this simply wouldn’t happen. I am convinced that having someone I school who has both the professional knowledge and positive attitudes that I witnessed amongst the SENCOs in Bognor is a force for good. However, I do wish that more thought was given to how these excellent teachers are supported and enabled to develop the skills of their colleagues. In some situations they appear to plough a lonely furrow, bearing a weight of responsibility with limited recognition of the important skills that they have acquired or the most effective ways in which these can be deployed.

My visit to Bognor and the chance I was given to speak to, and listen and learn from these excellent teachers, was a most rewarding experience. As is always the case when teachers are gathered together, there were high levels of creativity and originality in evidence throughout the day. On the long journey home, involving four trains, I had plenty of time to reflect on the commitment I had recorded amongst these colleagues. Surely the next step towards the development of inclusive schools must be to fire all teachers with this level of professional enthusiasm for teaching learners who are currently struggling in our schools.

 

Punk musicians becoming part of the establishment!

 

Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät, making a musical staement and finding popular support

Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät, making a musical staement and finding popular support

For reasons that elude me, the punk rock era seemed to pass me by. My sons who are far more in tune with the music scene that I have ever been would probably suggest that most music post around 1975 has escaped my attention. Whilst I wouldn’t totally agree with this assertion, I suspect that it has more than an element of truth.

Last night on the television news, punk rock, which I had thought confined to the annuls of history, once again gained a small position of prominence, and this time I must say I did take some notice. Listening to the music I can’t say that I was tempted to rush out and order a copy of what I was hearing, but I was interested in the band giving the performance.

Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät are a four piece band from Finland. Their members Kari Aalto (vocals), Sami Helle (bass), Pertti Kurikka (guitar) and Toni Välitalo (drums) met through an organisation called Lyhty based in Helsinki and first gained attention when their song Kallioon! was featured in the Finnish film Vahan Kunnioitusta (Gimme Some Respect), about a girl with learning disabilities and her efforts to lead an independent life.This year the band was selected to represent Finland in the Eurovision Song Contest with the song Aina Mun Pitää, (I Always Have To).

What makes this band unique in the history of this competition is that all four of the musicians have learning disabilities and came together through a club that makes provision for young people with special educational needs. The band has been together for a number of years and have played venues all over Finland and also in the USA, Canada, Germany and the UK. They have achieved a popularity in their home country and have now had considerable publicity around the globe.

I had never hear of Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät (usually just referred to as PKN) before watching the television news yesterday evening, and as I say, having heard them perform I cannot pretend to understand their music, but there was one aspect of the news item that I found very interesting. A number of people “on the street” in Helsinki were interviewed and asked about the band. In particular they were questioned about whether the band’s rise to prominence was justified by their performance, or if they were simply a curiosity because of the musician’s learning disabilities. Without exception, those interviewed were affronted at this suggestion, stating that the band was original, talented and entertaining to watch. Aficionados of punk music declare that this band have something to say and should be heard. Let’s hope that they have an opportunity to reach a wider audience.

In order to represent Finland in this annual musical extravaganza Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät had to gain the majority of votes from the Finnish public In doing so they defeated a number of well established and popular musicians. It would appear that the Finnish nation has got behind this group and have high hopes for their future. This punk band have defied the odds and become part of the establishment.

Whether or not the band succeeds at the Eurovision song contest, it would appear that they have gained the respect of a wider public for their performance and talent. What they have done is simply seen as “mainstream” (can that term be used in relation to punk rock?) Personally, If I want to relax to some Finnish music I am still likely to reach for Sibelius or Leif Segerstam, but perhaps these musicians are forging a path for others by having the confidence, the ability and the support to be able to demonstrate their talents to a wider audience.

 

You can watch Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät below (still not my kind of music – I must be getting old!)

It’s not about agreement, but the quality of the argument.

 

Socrates taught us to learn through logical disputation. I suspect that this may be put to the test over the next few days.

Socrates taught us to learn through logical disputation. I suspect that this may be put to the test over the next few days.

I suppose that most teachers have mixed feelings about marking student’s work. This is a situation that probably pertains no matter whether working in a primary school or a university. These days, the majority of my marking activity is undertaken in relation to post graduate courses, which means that I often read work that is interesting and thoughtful, and sometimes provocative and challenging.

Recently I have marked assignments that have taught me about various aspects of education in India, and a dissertation that challenged my views about setting children for English lessons in a primary school. Occasionally students express ideas and opinions with which I am fundamentally in disagreement. This can in itself be interesting as the marking process is not about having to be in accord with the ideas advanced, and if the student presents a good argument supported by appropriate referencing and sound evidence, it is good to be challenged.

There have been times when I have read statements that have made me raise my eyebrows in surprise. I recall once marking an essay written by an undergraduate student that opened with the never to be forgotten words “A little known Swiss psychologist called Piaget…” At the time I was tempted to write “little known to you maybe, but not to most students of education!” I resisted the urge to be slightly sardonic, and simply directed the student to some reading that I hoped might expand their knowledge of one of the most influential developmental psychologists of the twentieth century.

Early this morning I opened my emails and found some work forwarded to me by an undergraduate student who was asking for some initial comments. My first impressions were favourable. The introduction to an assignment addressing teacher understanding of behaviour difficulties was well written, with reference to some interesting literature and a well-constructed description of the framework upon which the work was to be developed. So far, so good, but then I came across a phrase that made me take a sharp intake of breath. “Children who cannot abide by classroom rules,” argued the writer, “should be excluded from the school and educated in a separate unit where they cannot be disruptive of lessons.” Reading on I anticipated, or at least hoped for, a qualification of this bold assertion. However, two pages further on and my desires had not been realised. Teaching is a difficult enough task, argued this student, and if children make it even more so by disrupting lessons they should simply be removed.

Reading to the end of this work, which presented a lot of emotion, but little evidence upon which to base a logical argument, I found myself wondering how to respond. I most certainly find myself at odds with the sentiments expressed in the assignment, but did not simply want to express my disagreement or disapproval. I was far more inclined to write a response debating the points made. But having reflected on the contents of the essay, I eventually decided that rather than putting my thoughts on paper, I would invite the student to meet and debate the issues.

Having decided on this course of action I emailed the author of the work asking her if she would like to discuss her assignment, and suggesting that the work was well written, but that she needed to strengthen her arguments if she really believed that excluding children from lessons, or even from school was a good idea. I made it clear that I didn’t agree with her perspectives, but hoped that she might be able to justify her suggestions. A reply came within an hour welcoming my invitation and suggesting that all alternatives to exclusion have been shown to fail. “Why don’t you put my arguments on your blog?” She asked. “I think you will find that most teachers agree with me and would like to see trouble makers removed from schools.” Now there was a challenge I couldn’t resist.

I look forward to meeting with this interesting student and to seeing how she builds a case for her assertions.

A goat is an asset, but a girl is a liability!

A much needed organisation promoting inclusion in India

A much needed organisation promoting inclusion in India

 

Home Page of Educate Girls  (click on this link for further information)

One of the most interesting aspects of working in the area of inclusive education is that the opportunities for learning and understanding a range of complex situations are immense. Whilst most of the students I work with on the MA programme in Bangalore are concerned for the education of children with special educational needs, many exhibit a much broader understanding of those conditions that either support inclusion or lead to isolation and exclusion from education.

Teaching and researching in the field of education in the UK inevitably means that I spend a great deal of my time working with well-educated and highly intelligent, articulate women. Schools in my country are dependent upon a professional and dedicated work force made up largely of women, and in many subjects in schools the performance of girls exceeds that of their male peers. This has not always been the case, and it took many years of campaigning and determination on the part of liberal minded educators to ensure that girls in schools receive opportunities commensurate to those of their male classmates.

In India, when visiting schools, particularly those addressing the needs of primary aged children, I am always aware of the predominantly female teaching profession that is characteristic of these establishments. Here, teachers are seen very much to be part of a caring profession and as women have generally been the care providers in homes, this responsibility has been passed on to the classroom. Female teachers carry the bulk of responsibility in most of the schools I have visited in India, and accept and perform their duties with enthusiasm and a commendable commitment to their students. Yet many of these women are exceptional in respect of their personal and professional experiences and the opportunities that they have had, to become learners.

In stating at the outset of this posting that many of the teachers who attend the MA in Special and Inclusive Education course in Bangalore have a broad understanding of factors that impact on inclusion, I had in mind a number of conversations that I have had with an excellent student who recently graduated from the course. The research conducted by Pooja for her final dissertation was focused upon the challenges that exist for many girls in India who wish to obtain an education but face many obstacles in achieving their ambition. I am delighted to say that Pooja is intending to continue her studies in this area as she commences on a journey that should enable her to graduate in a few years with a PhD.

Whilst there are many obstacles to inclusion in India, those which are inhibiting the education of girls, particularly in rural areas and in poorer communities, appear particularly difficult to address. There are still dominant beliefs about the place of women as child carers and home makers in some parts of Indian society that frustrate girls who wish to pursue their studies. The conversations I have had with Pooja and with other friends and colleagues in India, has encouraged me to explore this issue further, and in the course of my investigations I have stumbled upon a number of remarkable organisations and individuals who are attempting to address this matter.

Educate Girls was founded in 2007 as an organisation specifically aiming to increase the enrolment of girls into schools. They have recruited and trained teams of young women who work in communities to raise awareness of educational opportunities, to explain the benefits of schooling and to encourage families to send their girls to school. These teams, known as Team Balika (Community Volunteers) are comprised mainly of 18 – 25 year olds, who have undergone training and have a commitment to work with schools and village communities to promote their cause. Under the inspirational leadership of Safeena Husain, a formidable tour de force, they have made significant progress since their early days and have been responsible for the enrolment of more than 80,000 girls into schools.

The work of this organisation is much needed, with an estimated 3 million girls out of school in India. Even when girls do attend school it is believed that out of every 100 girls in rural India only one reaches class 12.

Recently Educate Girls was one of four recipients of the 2015 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship receiving a $1.25 million, three-year investment to enable them to continue and expand their work. The video clip below provides an introduction to the excellent work that this organisation is doing. It shows both the magnitude of the problem, and the enthusiasm of those who are working for a more inclusive approach to education. Early in the film it is suggested that in some parts of India it is still perceived that “A goat is an asset, but a girl is a liability!” Those who are working hard to challenge such a view, whether it be through activism or research, are making a significant contribution to the development of more inclusive schools.

THE VIDEO BELOW SHOWS SOME OF THE EXCELLENT WORK OF EDUCATE GIRLS

 

 

A matter of contrasting fortunes?

Picasso's Les Femmes d'Alger, when will we see this work again?

Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger, when will we see this work again?

There are occasions when the juxtaposition of articles in a newspaper gives me cause for thought. Such was the situation yesterday evening as I sat with a cup of tea and perused the pages of The Guardian. On page three, there covering almost half of the page was a colourful reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s painting Les Femmes d’Alger (Women of Algiers). Painted in 1955, this picture captures the essence of the 19th century artist Delacroix’s painting of the same title, bringing it into the twentieth century through modernist representation and the bold use of colour. It is a truly magnificent work, and as someone who is an admirer of the Spanish painter’s work, I was pleased to see it presented in my daily newspaper.

The reason for the presentation of Picasso’s image were not related to its quality as a work of art, though it is undoubtedly a masterpiece. Indeed the accompanying article told the reader little about the painting’s history, the techniques deployed by the artist or its place in relation to other works from this period. Instead, the piece written by journalist Mark Brown was wholly focused on the astounding fact that Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger sold at Christie’s auction rooms in New York for a staggering £114 million pounds ($179,365,000), a record for any work of art. Both the seller of this work and the purchaser remain anonymous, but I suspect that their pulse rates quickened at the announcement of the astounding monetary figures involved.

By contrast, on page 40 of the same Guardian edition, Patrick Butler, the newspaper’s social policy editor, always a thought provoking writer, presented a piece in which he discussed the situation of children and families living in poverty in the UK. Just to be clear, the definition of a family in poverty used in this country, is those living on less than 60% of median national family income. In a well considered article, Butler suggests that the UK government target of reducing child poverty to less than 10% of the overall population by 2020, is unlikely to be met. The  government policy of austerity, which is set to continue following the recent general election,  appears likely to make this target unrealistic and may well exacerbate the situation to previously unrecorded levels. Indeed, he reports that the well-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that child poverty, currently recorded at 17% is likely to rise to 21% by the end of the decade. A figure that should make anyone who has a concern for the welfare of children stop and think (or better still protest against this appalling situation).

In contrasting the two articles, I must make clear that I have no difficulties in accepting that an anonymous purchaser can afford to pay such an eye watering sum of money for a painting. (Though I do hope that we will all have the opportunity to see Les Femmes d’Alger hanging in a public gallery and that it will not simply linger in a secure bank vault from now on). The reporting that we have such wealthy individuals in society is simply a fact of life that we have recognised for many centuries. I do however, have major concerns that whilst the sale of a work of art for a huge amount of money is celebrated and features high on the world’s media agenda, we confine the report on child poverty to a few column inches at the foot of page forty in a single newspaper.

In considering the two articles in the same edition of the Guardian, there was one word that remained in my mind for some time after reading both. Anonymity appears to be a feature of both pieces. The vendor and buyer of the great Picasso picture both remain unknown. They have presumably chosen to remain anonymous, shunning personal publicity in part for their own protection from the media and possibly those who might target their wealth. In Patrick Butler’s article, those children who are currently living in poverty, and those likely to be in this situation in the very near future, are also unnamed. This is not a criticism of the journalist, who can do no more than report the facts as he has obtained them. I suspect that many such children and families would also wish to retain anonymity in order to maintain their personal dignity and in the hope that their circumstances might change.

It seems to me strange that what I would see as excessive wealth, and abject poverty are both seen as a legitimate cause for anonymity. I wonder what the underlying purpose of this secrecy may be? Could it be that there  are elements of guilt or shame associated with these situations? Might it be that anonymity ensures that we do not see these phenomena in personal terms and therefore feel more distanced from them? Certainly I find it difficult to relate to a situation in which I could spend £114 million on a painting (or anything else for that matter!), but I am sure that I probably also have only a vague understanding of what it must be like to live in poverty. By anonymising these situations I am protected from having to understand the personal experiences of others.

Perhaps it is one of the great virtues of newspapers that they can provoke this kind of thinking by publishing such contrasting articles on the same day. Both Mark Brown and Patrick Butler have presented us with facts, but it is for us to determine how we interpret these and to consider our emotional responses. I do hope that the new owner of Les Femmes d’Alger enjoys this Picasso masterpiece, and that he enables us to share in his pleasure. I also hope that Patrick Butler and the Institute for Fiscal Studies are proven wrong in their predictions and that life will improve for the many families suffering hardship and penury.

ECP Colour logo

Progress halted, but we must believe that this is only a temporary situation

It will take many years for Nepal to recover from this terrible situation.

It will take many years for Nepal to recover from this terrible situation.

In October 2013, along with my colleagues Jayashree and Johnson, I attended the Asian Federation on Intellectual Disabilities (AFID) conference held in Delhi, Northern India. This was the second time that I had attended an AFID conference, having previously presented a paper at this event when it was held in Singapore. Whilst many conferences follow a set pattern of researchers presenting papers to other researchers, the AFID conference is quite unique in that it provides a platform for people with learning disabilities and other special educational needs, who are encouraged and supported to present their own ideas and issues to the gathered audience. This blend of academic papers and personal life experience stories makes for a stimulating few days in which researchers, parents, administrators and people with learning disabilities share a platform, participate together in social activities and learn from each other.

These conferences are attended by delegates from many Asian countries. Individuals from Japan share their ideas with others from Sri Lanka and Korea, whilst those from India discuss current developments with others from Malaysia and Afghanistan. Issues of inclusion are debated and there is an atmosphere of shared respect and willingness to learn. The conference takes place every two years and unfortunately I am not able to attend this year’s gathering in Sri Lanka.

It was whilst looking through the published proceedings from the Delhi conference in an effort to find some information for one of my Indian students, that I came across a report given at this meeting by Sachidanand Shrivastava from the National Association on Intellectual Disabilities (NAID) in Nepal, an organisation founded in 1981 to support people with learning disabilities and their families. Mr Shrivastava spoke with great passion and pride about the achievements of this organisation across a country which faces many geographical, demographic and social challenges. He described the commitment of individuals who were attempting to develop facilities and provide resources and training in 23 districts of the country. Many of these are remote and require innovative approaches to the provision of support and great dedication on the part of those professionals and volunteers prepared to work there. There are certainly many children in Nepal who are being afforded an opportunity to receive an education as a result of the interventions of the National Association on Intellectual Disabilities.

I remember at the time of hearing Sachidanand Shrivastava being impressed by the enthusiasm with which he presented his report, and wondering at the often difficult circumstances in which he and his colleagues were working. Having stumbled again upon this report whilst looking for something quite different in the AFID conference proceedings, I found myself thinking about this dedicated professional and his colleagues, and wondering what their circumstances must be now.

The devastating earthquakes that have destroyed so many lives and so much of the infrastructure in Nepal over the past month, has brought the country sharply into focus. This remote region, a favoured destination for mountaineers and wealthy tourists has suffered the most horrendous trauma, leaving its population in fear and despair. As with any such natural disaster, those who have suffered the greatest losses are the most vulnerable within the country. Television images of destroyed towns and villages, with people living in tents and queuing for basic necessities such as food and water, provide a graphic reminder of the destructive power of nature and its impact upon the lives of the victims of this terrible event.

Inevitably I found myself wondering about the fate of Sachidanand Shrivastava and his colleagues. Whatever their situation it is probable that much of the effort that they have made over so many years, to provide facilities and improve the lives of people with disabilities, will have been destroyed. It will obviously take many years to restore Nepal to the situation that existed prior to the earthquakes that so cruelly struck this region. I suspect that it will be a long time before the good work of the National Association on Intellectual Disabilities is once again supporting vulnerable individuals and their families. However, having met Sachidanand Shrivastava I am convinced that even as I write this blog, he will be formulating a plan to continue the work to which he has been so committed over many years. At present it must seem that normality will never be restored, but we must have faith in the fortitude of individuals who will rebuild Nepalese society over the coming years.

I do hope that Sachidanand Shrivastava and his colleagues are safe, and that I will have an opportunity to hear more about the work of the National Association on Intellectual Disabilities in Nepal in the future.

Uniformity may look smart, but it covers up a series of flaws.

Sir Ken Robinson. will his words of wisdom be heard?

Sir Ken Robinson. will his words of wisdom be heard?

Debates about the virtues or disadvantages of school uniform have been a feature of education for years. Debates about the uniformity of education systems across the world are less common. That sounds like some form of conundrum, so let me explain.

Wherever one travels in the world, in visiting schools certain factors appear common. Whilst the organisation of individual classrooms may vary, basically they consist of a teacher, possibly with the assistance of one or more other adults, and children sitting either in rows, or grouped around tables. Information is generally delivered by an adult from the front of the classroom, and the dominant means of exchanging information is through the spoken or written word. This is a tried and tested process that has been shown to have achieved a degree of success over many centuries, so why would we expect to do anything differently?

There are other aspects of education that indicate an international uniformity, but which are beginning to be challenged in some quarters. Amongst one of the most intelligent and provocative sources of this challenge, comes from the educationalist and writer Sir Ken Robinson who currently lives and works in Los Angeles, USA. Robinson, who was born in Liverpool in the UK, has held a number of academic posts including that of Professor of Education at Warwick University. He is also author of several thought provoking books, including “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything” written with his colleague Lou Aronica; a text that I would like to see featured on the reading list of any course designed for the training of teachers.

Sir Ken Robinson has described what he sees as the misguided and outmoded hierarchy of subjects that is a uniform feature of education throughout the world. At the top of this hierarchy is mathematics, language and sciences, beneath which comes the humanities and lingering at the bottom of the pile, the creative arts. This curriculum diet, designed to meet the needs of a largely industrial society, he suggests is out of date, and out of touch with the likely future needs of our societies. Furthermore, the rigid imposition of this list of subjects by apparent importance is turning increasing numbers of students away from education. The suppression of individual creativity is, in Robinson’s view, a dangerous approach that may well lead to increased disaffection and the disenfranchisement of significant numbers of individuals.

An article published today (May 10th) in TES Connect under the heading “Sir Ken Robinson: The education system is a dangerous myth”, provides a platform for Robinson to once again express those concerns that many of us share, but which are generally swept aside by politicians and education administrators. Yet in expressing his ideas, Robinson is highlighting issues that I hear emphasised by teachers in schools on a regular basis, though they are often reluctant to speak their minds for fear of being seen as out of line with the current narrowly focused standards agenda. A powerful argument put forward by Robinson states that:-

“Learning is the process of acquiring new knowledge and skills. Human beings are highly curious; from the moment they’re born, children have a voracious appetite for learning. For many, that appetite is dulled as they go through school. Keeping it alive is the key to transforming education”.

Furthermore he believes that in schools today:-

“most efforts are focused on raising standards through more competition and accountability.”

There are he suggests great dangers in pursuing this approach, both in terms of the limited impact that the generation of increased competition and accountability has on improving the education system as a whole, but also because:-

“they often compound the very problems they claim to be solving, such as the alarming drop-out rates, the levels of stress and depression – even suicide – among students and their teachers, the falling value of a university degree, the rocketing cost of getting one and the rising levels of unemployment among graduates and non-graduates alike”.

Uniformity is not the answer when it comes to providing an effective approach to education. Even the most inexperienced teacher will tell you that all children are individuals, with different interests, aspirations, aptitudes and abilities. This should surely be a source of inspiration to any teacher, and should also tell us that a “0ne-size fits all” approach to teaching is nothing more than nonsense. If we continue in our attempts to mould all children in the same way, then it is inevitable that a significant number will lose interest,  fail, rebel, drop-out or simply ignore the systems put in place. Whilst all children most certainly need to become proficient in mathematics and language, we also must celebrate those who achieve in creative arts, physical education or any of those other subjects that are currently further down the food chain in our schools.

Nineteenth century thinking still persists in our education systems all around the world, despite the fact that we live in societies that are changing at a pace unprecedented in our history. It is clear that if we entrust the development of education to our current political leaders, we are likely to supress the creativity and enthusiasm for learning that is inherent in all children. Whilst I can express my own frustration with this situation, I cannot hope to do so with the eloquence of Sir Ken Robinson, and therefore conclude this piece with a further quotation from his article published today.

“If you design a system to do something specific, don’t be surprised if it does it. If you run an education system based on standardisation and conformity, which suppresses individuality, imagination and creativity, don’t be surprised if that’s what it does”.

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO HEAR AN INSPIRATIONAL PRESENTATION FROM SIR KEN ROBINSON, CLICK ON THE LINK BELOW

End of an era, but a bright future ahead

ollege of Education. Not the prettiest of buildings, but for many years the centre of many achievements in inclusive education in Ireland.

Church of Ireland College of Education. Not the prettiest of buildings, but for many years the centre of considerable achievements in inclusive education in Ireland.

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”
                                                                                                              Seneca

My Professional association with the Republic of Ireland goes back over a lengthy period and has embraced teaching, research, examining and consultancy work. In Michael Shevlin, a good friend and colleague at Trinity College Dublin I have one of my closest collaborators with whom I have researched and written for more than the past ten years. During that time we have succeeded in securing funding for both small scale studies and the largest educational research project awarded in the country, and we look forward to continuing this professional partnership well into the future.

I am in Dublin today, in part to work with Michael, but also to perform a duty which, I know I will find interesting, but also tinged with a little sadness. Since 2003 I have had a fruitful and highly enjoyable relationship with colleagues at the Church of Ireland College of Education in Rathmines. My association with this long established teacher training institute began when I was appointed as an examiner of special education courses, and then developed in interesting directions as opportunities to conduct research with my colleague Ãine emerged, and later when I supervised the PhD of another tutor David. These and other colleagues at Church of Ireland College have made a significant contribution to the field of special and inclusive education in Ireland. In addition they have provided support to teachers and children in Africa through regular working visits and supply of resources.

Today the college will close, and a proud chapter of Irish educational history will reach its finale. Tutors from the college will move to another institution across the city where they will continue their good work alongside new colleagues and in a significantly different environment. A change of location will certainly not lessen their commitment and may even bring new opportunities and enthusiasm for the challenges ahead.

This evening I will deliver the final lecture at the old college. I am sure that this will be an emotional occasion, particularly for those who have been associated with Church of Ireland College of Education for most of their lives. I have no intention of giving a presentation of any profound significance, but will rather ensure that what I provide will be a celebration of all that is good within special and inclusive education in Ireland, and the tremendous contribution that college tutors have made to this.

I will leave the college tonight with many happy memories of working with excellent colleagues and students. I will recall the many visits made to schools with tutors to visit students putting into practice those skills that had been invested in them during their training. I will similarly remember the meetings to discuss student portfolios of work and to debate curriculum content with Mary, Eamonn, Ruby and other members of the team over coffee and biscuits in the staff common room. The friendly debriefing meetings with Sydney Blain, a true gentleman whose hand carefully manoeuvred the tiller of the college for many years, were always an education and a pleasure. Memories of developing research instruments and shared writing and conference presentations with Ãine, along with sitting in difficult meetings to feed back findings to reluctant policy makers and administrators, will undoubtedly re-emerge. Lengthy supervision meetings with David to debate his research approaches and discuss the findings from his excellent PhD study of the management of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties in Irish schools, added greatly to my understanding of these issues within both an Irish and international context.

There will inevitably be a valedictory air surrounding this evening’s events, but I hope that this will be tempered by a true atmosphere of celebration, and an opportunity for colleagues and students of an establishment held in great affection well beyond Dublin, to reflect on the many achievements of the past. I will also urge colleagues to look to the future and to seek new ways to ensure that their many talents and enthusiasms can continue to benefit the wider educational community.

This may seem like the end of an era, but it also signals the start of new and exciting opportunities.