Not waving but drowning?

All at sea - becalmed or awiting a storm?

All at sea – becalmed or awaiting a storm?

 Definitions of coasting:

To slide down an incline through the effect of gravity.

To move without use of propelling power.

To act or move aimlessly or with little effort.
New terms appear within the education lexicon quite frequently. They soon enter into common parlance and are distributed liberally through the media, in meetings or at the school gate. Sometimes the new word or expression, after a period of short term fostering enters into the adoptive language of the education profession, but others are rejected or simply go out of fashion.

The latest term that has tripped indelicately from the lips of the UK Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, and has grabbed the attention of the media is “coasting.” This morning on the radio, I listened to Mrs Morgan being interviewed about this term and reached the conclusion that, articulate as she undoubtedly is, the process of adequately defining “coasting,” as used in an educational context, remains a work in progress. I do of course appreciate that obfuscation is an essential part of any politician’s armour, and understand that a person who holds such a post of responsibility as that in the possession of Nicky Morgan, needs to err on the side of caution. However, a discussion with two other colleagues who I met on arrival at the university this morning, confirmed that I was not the only one left wondering about the lack of clarity applied to this latest fashionable term. This morning’s radio interview was far from enlightening.

From what we could glean from an admittedly brief radio interview, it would appear that over the next couple of years, school inspectors will be asked to identify those schools that may be judged to be successful, but are seen to have taken their foot off the accelerator and have begun to ‘coast’ with little perceived purpose. Such schools will presumably be told to hoist sail, unfurl the spinnaker and seek more favourable winds. Though when asked about the consequences of being found ‘coasting’, the admiral of the educational fleet appeared less than certain. Asked what actions might be taken to encourage such schools to stop “coasting,” she appeared to flounder, and sounded almost surprised by the question.

The Oxford English dictionary certainly appears to indicate that “coasting” is a nautical term. Therefore, somewhat perplexed by this situation I sought the advice of a colleague who I know to be an enthusiastic and accomplished sailor. I must emphasise that he is not involved in education in schools, and indeed had not heard this morning’s interview. However, he was able to inform me that in his vocabulary, coasting is sometimes an essential part of the sailor’s strategy. From time to time he tells me, it is necessary to ease back a little and to take stock of the progress made. Such a period then enables the skipper of a vessel to make choices about the correct setting of sails and to check the direction of travel. For this seasoned adventurer, who has twice crossed the Atlantic in a ridiculously small boat (by my limited reckoning) unscathed, coasting is seen as an essential process and a positive action.

I can imagine that there are many head teachers, who having successfully steered their school through choppy educational waters, achieved good academic and social outcomes and gained the respect of their local community, must relish the idea that they can ‘coast’ for a brief time as they asses their current position and make plans for the immediate future. In the words of my sailor colleague, a failure to take this kind of action sometimes results in the ship running aground.

As ever, I will be interested to see the new advice given to inspectors of schools, and the ways in which this is interpreted over the coming months. It will be equally educative to see the consequences faced by any schools that are deemed to be “coasting”. Might we witness use of the cat o’ nine tails? Will school governors be keel hauled? Might head teachers be forced to walk the plank? Possibly not, though I suspect that someone is dreaming of an appropriate admonition for mutinous teachers even as we speak.

In the meantime, when next out on my bicycle rather than occasionally freewheeling down the hills, I will try to increase my cadence, just in case there is a Morganite lurking in the bushes!


Captain Morgan, notorious 17th-century Welsh pirate and privateer, scourge of the Caribbean


New researchers dipping their toes in the conference presentation waters

Decorating cakes has a place in educational research - thanks Jessica!

Decorating cakes has a place in educational research – thanks Jessica!

For many young researchers working towards a PhD, presenting their work to an audience can seem like a daunting experience. When English is not your first language, and may indeed be your third or fourth, I’m sure that this experience can appear even more challenging. It was therefore with a feeling of great respect and admiration that I listened today to a number of presentations given by students at the annual education research student conference at the university.

This important event in the research student calendar provides an opportunity for them to share their work in progress, gain comments from their peers and from more established researchers and to test their ideas in front of a sympathetic audience. In addition it provides PhD supervisors with a unique opportunity to gain a broader perspective of the educational research being conducted, often in areas that are outside of their usual field of vision.

This was exactly the situation yesterday as students from the UK, Vietnam, Nigeria, China and Ghana provided insights into their work on a varied range of subjects. These ranged from gender issues related to approaches to mathematical calculations in primary school children, through the development of national funding policies for higher education in Vietnam and the coping strategies of academics working under stress in universities.

It is not only the range of topics that make this conference so interesting, but also the approach to presentation. Whilst some opt for a traditional and quite formal presentation of a paper, others adopt a more innovative approach. Phil’s performance of his research findings put across some serious messages whilst entertaining his audience and raising laughter. Jessica, describing her work around peer mentoring for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties had everyone decorating cakes as a means of demonstrating part of her methodology.

A particular innovation for this year’s conference has been the live streaming of sessions to make them accessible to our students and others who were unable to attend. It was particularly heartening last night to discover that colleagues in India, China and Germany, as well as other parts of the UK had made use of this new opportunity.

Today the conference continues and we can look forward to more interesting papers from the UK, India, China and Nigeria, and witnessing a developing confidence in our research students. This conference, entirely organised by research students provides ample evidence that the future of educational enquiry I safe in their hands. Thank you to all who contributed so much to this excellent event.

You can switch in live today’s sessions by clicking on the link below from 9.45 am UK time.

Session 2 – 4

Afternoon sessions

Exercising a democratic right!

Protest to survive

Protest to survive

2015 appears to be a year of commemorations. In the UK we enjoy nothing more than a touch of pomp and circumstance, and if monarchs or military leaders are at the centre of these, well so much the better. This year marks the centenary of one of the most tragic episodes of the First World War, which saw many soldiers lose their lives in the ill-conceived Gallipoli Campaign. The year has also presented an opportunity to revisit the events of the Battle of Waterloo and the Duke of Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte two hundred years ago.

Important as these historic events undoubtedly were, it was another occasion being commemorated this year that was in my mind as I watched the late news on television yesterday. On 15 June 1215 , in a field in Runnymede alongside the River Thames in Surrey, King John under duress from English Barons and in the presence of several Bishops, signed Magna Carta (The Great Charter). This document is often seen as having played a significant part in the development of British democracy, removing many of the powers of the King, and granting rights to the ordinary Englishman. An oft quoted passage from this great document, which can be seen today in the British Library in London reads:

“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice”.

It is often suggested that the British Parliament and its procedures owe much to this single act of 800 years ago, and those who have campaigned on rights issues have often referenced this magnificent document (even though I suspect few have read it!)

It was not so much the historical events surrounding the signing of Magna Carta, or the recent celebrations surrounding its birthday, that were at the forefront of my mind yesterday, but rather the rights that are enshrined in this and other democratic legislation, that enable individuals or groups of people to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the state. Visitors to London may well have experienced protestors, who from time to time gather on the lawns of Parliament Square opposite the Houses of Parliament, to voice their concerns about any one of a range of issues. This is generally recognised as their democratic right, and so long as the protestors remain non-violent, their right to be heard is generally respected.

I must say that in the past, I too have joined such demonstrations, to show my disapproval of the South African policy of apartheid, and to voice my concerns over nuclear proliferation, and I would hope that this basic right of protest is recognised as fundamental to the democratic process. However, a relatively small group of protesters made the headlines yesterday, as they expressed their opposition to government policies which they believe will have a detrimental effect upon their lives. Furthermore, whilst most demonstrations remain firmly at arm’s length from the Houses of Parliament and those who make policy decisions, these determined protesters took their message right to the doors of the House of Commons, behind which members of Parliament were engaged in debate.

Having visited the Houses of Parliament on several occasions, I am aware of the length of time that it takes to get through security and to satisfy the gatekeepers of the legitimacy of my business. Clearly these protestors had a cunning plan and operated this almost to perfection.

Why you may ask, should this protest have particularly held my attention? The answer to this is to be found in both the cause of the demonstration and the people who were there to protest. Television pictures beamed across the globe last night showed a number of people with disabilities (with typical media imprecision this is variously reported as anywhere between 20 and 40), many of them wheelchair users, protesting in the lobby of Parliament within a very short distance of the sitting Members of Parliament. Video footage shows policemen frantically attempting to control this phalanx of citizens, many on their radios calling for back-up to help them manage the situation.

The cause of this protest is the Government’s announcement that they intend to abolish the Independent Living Fund (ILF), established in 1988 to help severely disabled people live independently. This fund has been a source of significant support for many people with disabilities, enabling them to ensure the assistance they need in order to remain in their homes, and to live as normal a life as possible. At present around 20,000 individual access this fund and it has made a major difference to their lives. As part of its current austerity approach to economic management, the government has seen this as an easy target for saving money. They cannot have imagined the tenacity of those whose lives will be most effected.

One of the protesters, Mrs Peters, accompanying one of the disabled people said that they:

“feel they have got no other choice but to take this kind of action” because “this government is refusing to listen to what disabled people have to say on this issue”. She continued : “The only option we have left before the fund closes is to take this form of action, this peaceful, non-violent direct action”.

If the purpose of protest is to bring attention to a perceived injustice, these demonstrators have certainly achieved their aim. It is a sign of desperation when people with disabilities feel the necessity to take such action, and is equally a sign of deterioration in a caring society when elected representative see an easy target and take aim.  It is to be hoped that those politicians and policy makers who can ensure the future security and independence of vulnerable people take note.

Today’s Student Research Conference

If you want to hear the keynote address at today’s PhD student conference through a live connection, please click on the link below at 9.45 am. UK time

Please click here:


Session 2:


Day 1 – Afternoon sessions 5-9:


I could never accept a gun as an educational resource.

Surely not a sensible part of teacher training!

Surely not a sensible part of teacher training!

At first I thought that a series of recent reports from Pakistan were unbelievable. There must be some kind of mistake, or perhaps this was a case of sensational tabloid journalism at its worst. But now I know that what I have been reading does in fact have credibility, and this is even more horrifying than my first feelings of disbelief.

It appears that teachers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in the north west of Pakistan are being given training in the handling of firearms and encouraged to carry guns with them in school. This initiative (though this hardly seems to be an appropriate term), follows the atrocious school massacre perpetrated by the Taliban in December 2014. Soon after this terrifying incident a large number of teachers met and approved the idea that they should be armed. However, this view was not shared by all of their colleagues and many rejected the government’s plans to arm teachers.

Police officers have been providing training to teachers from all phases of education, primary schools through to universities, in the belief that armed teachers will prove to be a deterrent to future would be attackers. Can this really be anything other than a misguided act of desperation? As several commentators have already stated, in a country where the use of suicide bombers has been a gruesome feature of many terrorist attacks, it hardly seems likely that a determined fanatic will be dissuaded from their actions by a teacher with a pistol.

It seems to me that the most distressing feature of this decision to arm teachers is the message that it gives to children in schools. Do we want children to learn that the only response to acts of violence is to confront it with an equal amount of force. Surely thereby lies a path to chaos, and the escalation towards an ever more terrifying situation? As teachers we have traditionally endeavoured to encourage children to settle their differences through peacable means, and have attempted to show them that violence is unacceptable. This new policy appears to renage upon this more ethical approach adopted by schools over many years.

Maria Amir, a blogger whose words are often featured in the national Pakistan newspaper Dawn, has recently reported an appalling incident that must have been feared by many teachers and parents. Under a headline reading “Guns for schoolteachers: An inevitable death in Swat,” Amir reportes that at a private school in Mingora a teacher accidentally shot and killed a 12-year old student while cleaning his gun in the school staffroom. Clearly distressed by this incident, Amir states that:-

“The idea that arming teachers is an effective security measure is ludicrous. It implies that the unlikely event of a terrorist attack trumps the daily security threat of teachers carrying guns to school and students being exposed to them”.

The reaction to this tragedy as reported by several journalists has been equally disturbing. Whilst some have condemned the arming of teachers, suggesting that this has inevitably heightened the risk of such accidents, others have implied that this is a sad but unlikely incident, and a small price to pay for preparing teachers to deter terrorist attacks. This is an issue which seems destined to continue as a source of debate amongst teachers and policy makers for some time. Amongst the many voices to have been heard thus far is that of Malik Khalid Khan, the president of the Private Schools Teachers Association. In opposing the arming of teachers he suggests that:-

“It’s not our job; our job is to teach them books. A teacher holding a gun in the class will have very negative affect on his students,”

The job of protecting schools, he believes, should be assigned to trained police officers or military personnel, and not to teachers.

Sadly, we have seen from incidents in several parts of the world, including the United States of America and in my own home country, that if a fanatic is determined to attack a school they are likely to find a way of doing so. I cannot believe that armed teachers are likely to contribute anything to the safety of children, and are far more likely to provoke those who have a fanatical belief or a grudge against schools to resort to ever more despicable forms of violence.

I have never believed that a gun could be regarded as an educational resource. I find it hard to believe that I could be disuaded from this belief even in a situation such as that faced at times in Pakistan.

Sharing with sisters – probably beyond the call of duty!

I can assure you sisters, that my intentions are entirely honourable!

I can assure you sisters, that my intentions are entirely honourable!

Whilst in a school yesterday I met a teacher who was also visiting to see how a child with special educational needs had settled into class. This teacher works at a local nursery school and had worked with the boy in question since he was just two years old. He had recently transferred into the school and the purpose of the nursery teacher’s visit was to meet with his class teacher to discuss how he was progressing, and to offer any necessary insights into his needs on the basis of her experience of teaching him.

It was good to hear her reporting how well the boy had adjusted to life in a “big class” and that he had made friends, and appeared to be very happy. His new teacher is delighted with his progress, both social and academic and he apparently gets up each morning keen to finish his breakfast and get to school. As we were talking, the teacher informed me that she was pleased to see that at various times during the week, her former pupil has lessons from a male teacher. Pursuing this theme she expressed the view that there are far too few men working in schools with primary aged pupils, and even fewer working with nursery classes. Male role models, she sugeested, are very important in the lives of little children.

Listening to her views I found myself largely in agreement with her comments, and reflected on my own personal professional experiences of working with nursery aged children. For a few years early in my career I taught a class of nursery children, all of whom had some difficulties with learning, in a school in Somerset in the South West of England. This was a particularly formative period of my career, as I worked for a quirky, though dynamic head teacher; his paperwork was a mess, his office resembled Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, but his leadership qualities and commitment to staff, children and parents unquestionable. It was to a large extent through the critical, but supportive demands made by this head teacher that I learned much about child development, the importance of observing children, and of the need to critcially evaluate  everything I did in the classroom.

Whilst comparing experiences of working with nursery aged children with the visiting teacher today, and finding that we have much in common in respect of our belief in the importance of these formative years, I recalled an incident that reinforces the view that perhaps we need more men working in nursery schools.

My afore mentioned head teacher approached me one day bearing details of a two day residential course for nursery teachers, to be organised by the then King Alfred’s College, which has since become the University of Winchester. The course was largely focused upon early language acquisition in nursery aged children, and knowing this to be an area in which I was particularly interested, he said that the school would pay for me to attend.

Eager to learn, I happily sent off the application form and fee and was pleased to be accepted on the course. On the appointed date I duly arrived in the ancient city of Winchester and located the course venue.

On arrival at the reception desk my initial enthusiasm was slightly impaired by a rather frosty lady, a realistic doppelganger for the late Hattie Jacques, who with very little evidence of what could have been described as  a welcoming smile, in a rather loud baritone voice, demanded to know  exactly who I was and what I was doing standing before her. With some trepidation I exclaimed, rather meekly, that I was there for the course. Raising her eyebrows and fixing me with a stare that could have melted steel, she declared that there must be some error.

“What”, she demanded, with the grace of a matador scenting a kill, “is your name?”

“Richard Rose”, I replied, making every effort to hide my knocking knees, and feeling somewhat like a naughty schoolboy (a feeling which had been a familiar feature of my school days!).

With a triumphant air, having scrutinised her list of expected delegates she pinned me to the wall with an iron gaze and declared,

“As I suspected, you are not on my list!”

Beginning to believe that I might indeed be an imposter, I fumbled in my pocket to recover the letter accepting me as a delegate on the course. Handing this over to her I pleaded my case, but with little hope of mitigation.

Scanning her list of attendees once more, her mood suddenly changed, her face now wreathed in a smile that was far more becoming for an individual charged with the responsibility for welcoming visitors.

“Now I see the cause of the confusion”, she declared. “You are indeed here on the list, but you have been recorded as Rose Richards! Clearly whoever compiled the register had not expected attendance from a man. It is, of course, a perfectly understandable mistake.”

I wanted to express the view that I could see the mistake, a simple name reversal,  but wasn’t quite sure that I agreed that it was understandable. However,firmly believing that discretion is almost always the better part of valour, and having raised a smile, I did not wish to reverse this much more comfortable situation. I therefore maintained a decidely subservient approach.

“Ah well”, I replied, “an easy mistake to make, at least the problem is solved.”

“Not quite”, came the reply that seemed to challenge my complacency. “You see young man, (I particularly remember the somewhat derogatory tone attached to that ‘young man,’ with it’s emphasis firmly on the “man.”, all delegates are sharing twin rooms at this conference, so we do indeed have a problem!”

Returning once more to her official documents, her smile once again broadened as she discovered that Rose Richards was booked to share a room with the head of a Roman Catholic nursery school who just happened to be a nun! I had to agree with her, we did now have a problem!

Now I am sure that many sisters from the Catholic church are very broad minded, but the final, and undoubtedly wise decision, made by the conference gatekeeper resulted in myself and this local head teacher being the only delegates given single room accommodation. A sensible solution, and when I eventually found my room I was delighted to find that as a mere man, I might be in solitary confinement, but the cell was comfortably appointed.

I am delighted to see that today there are far more men working in nursery and early years education, though still probably less than is desirable. I am sure that like me they will recognise the tremendous opportunities for learning about child development, which come with these teaching posts. I do hope that today’s men in early years teaching no longer face the kind of interrogation about their place in such schools that was common in the 1970s. However, if they do, I hope that in years to come they too will be able to laugh at the predicaments in which they find themselves.

Incidentally, I never did discover whether the sister heard about this confusion. I like to think that if she did, she too would have raised a smile.

Observe to learn

There is so much to be learned when watching a teacher at work

There is so much to be learned when watching a teacher at work

I believe it to be a great privilege to spend time in a classroom watching a good teacher at work. When in this situation I often find myself thinking about the approaches that the particular teacher being observed is using, sometimes commenting to myself that “I wouldn’t have done it like that,” or “I wish I had thought about doing things that way.” I suspect that as teachers we all tend to be critical of the performances of our peers, but hopefully our critical reflections are for the most part positive and as much focused upon ourselves as on those we observe.

So it was that today I spent time in two separate classes observing a couple of student teachers working with primary school aged students, all of whom had been assessed as having a range of special educational needs. In such situations I always feel that it is important to put the student at ease, a friendly smile and cheery hello can only go so far towards relieving the inevitable tensions felt, but not to give either would be churlish.

After watching each lesson it was a pleasure to discuss what had been observed and to listen to these excellent young colleagues as they talked with great enthusiasm about what they had learned during their brief placement in the school. Both articulated their experiences in a thoughtful manner, describing their many successes with the students, and asking questions about the few difficulties they have experienced along the way. Getting to grips with new forms of assessment, the use of augmentative systems of communication and school approaches to behaviour management had clearly presented a challenge. But these two tyros were clearly equal to the task and saw each new experience as an opportunity to learn.

Teachers in English schools have become accustomed to being observed as they work. Sometimes this is characterised by the creation of a supportive environment in which peers with a genuine commitment to their own professional development share ideas and reflect in a positive manner upon the performance of a colleague. At other times the experience lacks the supportive conditions that we as teachers claim to value so much in education; as for example when a school inspection is in place and teachers are scored rather like performing skaters on an icy rink.

I was once told by an inspector colleague, a good man and experienced educator, that teachers can learn much by being observed. I remember my repost was along the lines that it is equally important that we as observers, are prepared to learn from what we see. Furthermore, I suggested, the real value of the observation is only to be achieved when we engage in a professional dialogue with the observed teacher, and make the effort to understand the reasoning behind their actions, and the context in which we operate. Observations that are simplistically used to make judgements and do not form the basis of professional dialogue have little real value in education.

Each observation this morning lasted about forty minutes and was certainly an informative and enjoyable experience. The real learning, both from my perspective as the observer, and hopefully for the young student teachers, took place in the half hour discussions that we shared when the lessons were over.

As ever, my morning visit to school was an uplifting experience. Seeing children enjoying activities under the guidance of committed professionals in an atmosphere conducive to encouraging learning, ensured that my working day got off to a good start. So thank you to the two young teachers for the privilege of seeing you at work, and to the school which afforded hospitality to myself and continues to inspire both new teachers and students.


P.S. To my literary friends, I wish you a belated happy Bloomsday! If it seemed like a long day, reflect upon Joyce’s interpretation of the working week:-

“All Moanday, Tearsday, Wailsday, Thumpsday, Frightday and Shatterday” (Finnegan’s Wake)

If yours was really that bad, I suggest you go into your local school and (after gaining consent) watch a teacher at work – hopefully this will brighten your day!

Playing to learn!


For children, substitute Cambridge Dons!

For children, substitute Cambridge Dons!

I can’t remember the first time I encountered Lego. It certainly wasn’t during my childhood, but may have been at some point when I was training to be a teacher. Certainly by the time our sons were born the colourful dimpled bricks were very popular, and I spent many happy hours constructing a great range of imaginative buildings, vehicles and other artefacts with them. In fact I suspect that I was at least as keen as they were to play with the many boxes full of Lego that we acquired over a number of years. (These have been carefully stored, and I look forward to getting them out for my grand children before too long!)

I was somewhat surprised to discover that the first connecting bricks were produced by the Lego company in Denmark as early as 1949. Though I understand that they did not quite resemble the magnificent construction kit with which we have become familiar, and were called “Automatic Binding Bricks,” not exactly a name that trips off the tongue.

It is almost certain that any child (regardless of age) who has played with Lego over the years will agree that this relatively simple toy provides not only many hours of enjoyment, but also plenty of learning opportunities. Indeed, Lego provides a fine example of how play can stimulate the imagination, assist in the development of motor co-ordination and encourage problem solving and spatial skills. Such is its versatility that it is difficult to say whether Lego should be categorised as a toy, or a piece of educational equipment, or perhaps we should recognise that these are false descriptions.

When our sons were very young, we cycled as a family to the original Legoland in Billund, Denmark and had a wonderful day marvelling at the ingenious structures, entirely constructed from coloured bricks. These sculptural features were obviously far more ambitious than anything that we could ever have considered building at home, but I’m quite sure that early after our return home we would have done our best to imitate some of the wondrous structures we had seen.

All of this came to mind today as I discovered that the University of Cambridge, an undoubtedly prestigious seat of learning, is about to appoint a “Professorship of Play in Education, Development, and Learning,” sponsored by the Lego Foundation. The appointed academic will become director of a new Research Centre on Play in Education, Development, and Learning, which the LEGO Foundation is supporting with a £1.5 million, donation.

Before any of my colleagues ask the question, I can assure them that I have no intention of applying for this interesting post. I am neither qualified, or sufficiently experienced to lead research into play, and curious as I may be about a Lego Professorship, I expect that the amount of time available for playing with coloured bricks will be severely limited. (If this is not the case, then I certainly could be tempted!) It is, however, refreshing to see one of the UKs most respected educational institutions, recognising the importance of play as part of the learning process.

At a time when many politicians and policy makers talk of education only in terms of “academic outcomes”, it takes a certain chutzpah to make a bold statement about the importance of play. I do hope that the person appointed will have an opportunity to exert influence and express the importance of play in the learning of all children and adults. The positive impact of play has been well documented by researchers, though there are many who would prefer not to take account of their findings. So, let’s give a round of applause to both Cambridge University and Lego for forming this unique partnership.

Of course, it is fun to let the imagination run wild. I have an image in mind of a group of academics seated on a carpet, all clad in gowns and mortar boards, discussing colour patterns, the positioning of doors and windows and the interior layout of a new college building made entirely from Lego. How much might be learned I wonder? It’s a nice thought, and I suspect it will never happen – but wouldn’t it be fun if it did?


A cycle of inclusion

Dame Sarah Storey - an inspiration to anyone who rides a bike, and hopefully to those who have not yet made their first few wobbly metres on a cycle.

Dame Sarah Storey – an inspiration to anyone who rides a bike, and hopefully to those who have not yet made their first few wobbly metres on a cycle.

Like many people in this country, and around the world, I have always had some interest in sport. Whilst in the past I was a keen player of rugby and cricket, today I only participate as an enthusiastic spectator. However, there is one sporting activity in which I am still involved and from which I derive much pleasure. Whether touring with tent and luggage through the varied countryside of Europe, wheeling through the lanes with club mates, or occasionally testing myself against the clock, cycling continues to be a passion and a means of gaining both exercise and relaxation from my day to day work.

One of the great features of sport in recent years is that many of the people who manage events have been far more conscious of the need to improve access and make it more inclusive. The media coverage given to recent Paralympic Games, is just one example of this. Witness the huge crowds that attended the games in London and the fact that many disabled sportsmen and women have become “household names” in the UK at least. I have been pleased when visiting schools in the last few years to see pictures of Tanni Grey-Thompson, David Weir, Jonny Peacock, Ellie Simmonds and  David Stone amongst others, displayed alongside those of well-known able bodied athletes.

In many sports those sports people who have disabilities compete in separate events from others who are able bodied. However, we are increasingly seeing some paralympians and others, making an impact on the general sports scene. It is good to see that the general public now recognise that disabled athletes train as hard as any, and that they are pushing the barriers of human capability just as much as those sporting stars who have been a feature of our television screens for the past fifty years.

Two nights ago, along with Sara I was able to indulge my enthusiasm for cycling by attending an event in Peterborough, a city thirty miles from where we live. During the evening, we enjoyed watching two cycle races in which teams of professional riders hurtled at great speed around a city centre course, cheered on by a large and enthusiastic crowd. The two races, one for men and the other for women, provided an evening of excitement and entertainment during which a friendly and enthusiastic audience made plenty of noise to encourage the athletes and support their favourites.

The men’s race was won by two times Olympic gold medal winner and five times World Champion Ed Clancy, who is always popular with spectators. In a tight race he sprinted to his victory in the home straight, winning by barely a bike’s length much to the delight of an excited crowd.

The women’s race was equally spectacular, but less nail biting at the finish as the winner crossed the line some distance ahead of her rivals. Sarah Storey was again a popular winner and received a mighty cheer from all onlookers. Sarah Storey also has an impressive record (in cycling circles these tend to be referred to as palmares) and is the holder of six Olympic gold cycling medals. However, one of the differences here between Sarah and Ed, is that she won hers in the Paralympic games. Before taking up cycling, she was an outstanding swimmer and gained similar medal successes in the Olympic Games in Barcelona and Atlanta. As she crossed the line on Tuesday, Sarah Storey left a number of other Olympians and champions in her wake. The popularity of her win on Tuesday evening had little to do with the fact that she is a Paralympian participating, and winning in “mainstream sport;” indeed, those of us who follow cycling are fairly confident that she will ride in the main Olympic Games in  Rio de Janeiro. Cycle sport enthusiasts, and those who are good enough to compete against her have long recognised that Sarah Storey is simply a remarkable athlete and competitor.

Not all disabled athletes will be able to compete as equals against their able bodied peers, and there remains a need to support events such as the Paralymic Games that address their needs. But elite competitors such as Sarah Storey have done much to raise the awareness of the general public of what can be achieved by any athlete who is willing to make personal sacrifices, and to work has hard as she has (and of course, has natural talent). Sport has gradually become more inclusive and can possibly lead the way in encouraging other facets of society to follow.

I must be less lazy and get back out on my bike far more often!

Disability no obstacle to service in Pakistan


Councillor Sher Ali, hoping to make a difference in Pakistan

Councillor Sher Ali, hoping to make a difference in Pakistan

In recent years I have worked with a number of students from Pakistan. They have invariably been hard working and in many instances have expressed a strong commitment towards working in their home country to improve the lives of children and young people who have been excluded or marginalised. Whenever I have discussed the situation for children and young people with special needs or disabilities in Pakistan with these students, they have been able to tell me of some of the progress made for these individuals in schools, but have often expressed their frustrations that many remain excluded from even the most rudimentary educational opportunities.

Sadly, much of the news reported from Pakistan in the English language media, paints a negative picture of a country divided by extreme politics, religious conflict and poverty. Reports of education from the area are often focused upon the limited educational provision for young people and international surveys depict a country in which it has become difficult to be optimistic for the future of today’s Pakistani children. However, this is only one part of the picture and it is important to recognise and celebrate some of the positive stories that indicate progress towards improving lives in what is often described as a “failed state”.

One such story was reported in yesterday’s edition of Dawn, the English language daily national newspaper from Pakistan. Under the headline “Disabled youth councillor plans to serve people,” the journalist Fazal Khaliq reports on the election of a young man named Sher Ali as a councillor in the Malookabad area of Mingora located in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. Mr Ali, who is 22 years old is a wheelchair user who depends upon friends and family to get him from his home to the centre of his town, which requires negotiating 130 steps. However, he is full of determination to represent his constituents and to campaign for improved facilities for all who live in Mingora. In particular, he has issued statements that shows his awareness of the necessity to campaign for improved education facilities. Sher Ali points out that:-

“For over 20,000 population of Malookabad we have only one primary school which is far from here, due to which half of the children do not go to school.”

Referring to his disability, Sher Ali suggests that it is no obstacle to being a good representative of his people, and he has urged others with disabilities to put themselves forward for election. Education and the provision of an improved water supply to his community are just two of the issues that he has singled out as priorities for his campaigning activity. He suggests that his election success was largely built upon the aspirations of young people who have a great desire for change in the communities in which they live. His personal determination is clearly already inspiring others and will hopefully raise awareness not only of his disability, but also of the need for improved educational opportunities for all people in Pakistan.

I suspect that the election of Sher Ali and his enthusiasm for bringing about change in his community will not make the pages of newspapers outside of Pakistan. This is a great shame, because it has become far too easy to read only negative stories from this, and several other countries around the world. Whilst reading stories of conflict, poverty and extremism, whether these be from Pakistan, Syria, Iraq or elsewhere in the world, it is easy to forget the ordinary and extraordinary people who make up the majority population in these countries. Most people wish for nothing more than an opportunity to live a peaceful existence, to earn a living, gain an education and care for their families. Yet they are tarnished by the actions of those who wield power and create an impression that their countries are dysfunctional, dangerous and chaotic.

So long as there are people who are prepared to recognise the abilities of individuals such as Sher Ali, and have the courage to elect them to positions of authority, there must be hopes that there can be improvements in society, and greater opportunities provided for those who are currently excluded. Let’s hope that Sher Ali’s story inspires others to see the positive side of a country that is far too often reported in only negative terms.

A different kind of education cut!

Haircut sir? There is a charge, though opinion is free!

Haircut sir?
There is a charge, though opinion is free!

I wouldn’t want to be a hairdresser, it has always seemed to me to be a fairly monotonous trade, though I would never question the skills and dexterity exhibited in even the most rudimentary of barber’s shops.

I can easily invoke memories of when I was a child, and endured a monthly ritualistic visit to the barber who was well established at the corner of Granville Street where I lived in Gloucester. Ted Brint had cut hair and proffered advice in his small shop (he would have cringed at the term salon), indicated by its blood and bandages pole, for as long as anyone could remember. His loyal customers (again clientele would not have featured in his vocabulary) entirely male of course, would sit patently on the uncomfortable wooden chairs which formed an inner ring around the walls of his emporium awaiting their turn for the standard “short back and sides” which was the sole “style” on offer. For amusement, a large pile of magazines, I particularly recall Rugby World (rugby is the main religion in Gloucester), and Reveille, along with annual collections of Giles Cartoon books were strewn around the room, and were certainly useful for passing away the tedious time spent waiting. There was one elderly gentleman who always seemed to be in Ted Brint’s barbers; I never once saw him having what little hair he had cut, and I am convinced that he viewed the shop as his own personal reading room.

It is often said that smells are particularly potent in dragging up memories of our past. This I believe is true. There is a particular type of pipe tobacco; I have no idea which specific brand, which when wafted across my nostrils always brings to mind Ted Brint’s barber shop. As his scissors and comb were navigated across the heads of his customers, Ted would puff on his pipe, occasionally stopping to knock out spent dregs and recharge before recommencing his task. Occasionally a fall out of ash would land on the lap of his current victim, though I suspect he never noticed this occurrence, and I recall a number of  times when he commented upon my “nasty cough”, oblivious to the fact that it was caused by a sudden inhalation of bitter smoke. It always seemed to me as a child, that the acrid smell of tobacco would remain in my clothes for the remainder of the day.

The length of time it took to cut hair was totally unpredictable in Ted’s shop. This had nothing to do with the length of the customer’s hair, or whether they requested a shave; a service applied with a lethal looking cut throat razor, but was entirely determined by Ted’s judgement of the quality of the conversation. A knowledgeable rugby man could be in that chair for an hour, or at least until the master of ceremonies decided that he was gaining no further inside information about the happenings at Tredworth, Longlevens, Matson, Gordon League or some other local rugby club. I soon learned that unless I wanted the visit to turn into a day’s excursion I said as little as possible about my recent performances on the rugby field.

Why have these memories come to my mind today? This is quite easily explained. I have just returned from having my hair cut at the local barber’s shop – this is in fact called “The Barber’s Shop” with no sense of irony intended, though today’s barbers are young women;  a fact of which I suspect Ted would not have approved. These days I can be in and out of this establishment in less than half an hour, I am sure that now I pay more in a search fee than for the actual cutting, since my youthful locks are only a distant memory.

So it was that as I was returning from this latest visit to my local hairdresser, I was reflecting on the contrast of conversations between today’s establishment and those I recall from Ted Brint’s. This morning I was asked, “what do you do for a living?” “Teacher”, I replied (this is always simpler than trying to describe the role of a university professor). However, within seconds I was rueing the error of judgement that led me to make this response. For the following fifteen minutes I was subjected to a perpetual reverberation, the hairdresser hardly drawing breath as she explained to me the multiple problems with today’s schools. Lack of discipline, too much time devoted to useless knowledge (I almost rose to this bait but managed to resist), teachers who are too friendly with children, homework that parents can’t understand. In fifteen minutes I was informed of almost every ill associated with our clearly ailing education system.

Sitting as still and silent as I possibly could, fearing that the slightest comment might result in the loss of an ear, I respected the lady’s tirade until at last she finished her work with the immortal words:-

“I wouldn’t want to be a teacher, you must have the patience of a saint!”

Paying my bill and making with a sense of relief towards the door, I wondered if perhaps I should have taken the initiative and begun a conversation about Northampton Rugby Club’s excellent performances this season, or maybe asked her opinion about the suspension of Dylan Hartley, or England’s prospects in the coming World Cup?

I will store these ideas just in case the next time I go for a haircut the same lady is standing by with her scissors and low opinion of our education provision.