Time to pedal away for a while.

“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race”.                 H.G. Wells

Slow travel - the best way to wind down!

Slow travel – the best way to wind down!

It’s almost that time of year again. Time to pack panniers and tent, load our bicycles and pedal away for a few weeks in France. Everyone needs time to recharge their batteries, and we are hoping that the hills, coast and valleys of Brittany will provide peace and quiet, beautiful landscape and chance meetings with interesting people. This has been our experience of riding across various parts of Europe over the past thirty years.

Cycle touring for us began when our two sons were quite young and wanted to experience travel overseas. Our budget was limited, and to that point holidays had been spent walking the hills of Wales and Scotland. Travel by bicycle enabled us to venture further afield, taking the ferry initially to Denmark and in subsequent years to France, Holland and Ireland and once even on a budget flight to Portugal. Sara and I have since visited several other European countries under our own pedal power and have explored many interesting places and met numerous interesting people.

For our sons, the initial trips were both an adventure and a great learning opportunity. Not only were they able to visit a number of interesting historical sites or areas of outstanding natural beauty, they also learned to experiment with languages. I recall Toby for instance, gaining the confidence to enter a bakery and order Danish pastries in the local language. As is almost invariably the case, the local shopkeeper appreciated his efforts and was patient with what I am sure was less than perfect pronunciation.

It has been our experience that the best travel is always taken slowly, by foot, by boat, or best of all by cycle. So, as we prepare for our departure for the quiet lanes of Brittany, I will close this blog until we return. We look forward to negotiating a few of the lanes recently traversed by the hardened athletes of the Tour de France, and whilst celebrating a great British win by Chris Froome, we feel sure that we will appreciate the view at our rather sedate pace much more than he had time to do.

Back before to long!

 

 

 

Far from ideal; but thank goodness for a dedicated head teacher and her staff

School entry requirements - designed to exclude a visiting professor!

School entry requirements – designed to exclude a visiting professor!

The end of school term is almost upon us, and yesterday I visited a school to meet with a head teacher colleague who has given more than forty years’ service to teaching. This week she will retire from her post and should look back with immense pride and satisfaction at the contribution she has made to the lives of so many children and families. Typical of so many committed retired teachers I meet these days, she has decided that she cannot simply walk away from some of the challenges that she sees in education, and has therefore decided to continue supporting the school in a new role, which will enable her to assist with researching the effectiveness of teaching and to identify the professional development needs of staff.

As I arrived at the school today I was confronted with an obstacle that has sadly become a feature of most schools in England today. In order to enter the premises I was required to press a button outside the school gate that should have connected me via an intercom device to the school office. The theory is that once I had established my bona fides, and proven that I was not a risk to be repelled, I could be admitted under the control of the school staff. Having made several hapless attempts via the ubiquitous button to gain the attention of anyone in the school, I was beginning to wonder whether I had been seen on the school surveillance cameras as an undesirable character most definitely to be refused entry. Eventually a boy who I would guess to have been around twelve years old, and who happened to be crossing the school playground noticed my dilemma and came to investigate me through the safety of the gate. Looking at me rather as he might have done a chimpanzee in a cage he began a brief conversation:-

“Who are you mister?” he enquired. “Can’t you get in?”

Having confirmed that this was indeed my predicament he shrugged his shoulders and after a brief stroll across the playground entered the school. A couple of minutes later the intercom crackled into action, I announced my arrival and was granted entry. Arriving in the school entrance hall I once again encountered the boy from the gate and thanked him for his assistance.

“It wasn’t me that did anything,” he said. “you must have just got lucky.”

With a cheeky grin he turned away and disappeared along a corridor. I wasn’t quite sure whether this lad had actually spoken to someone in order to have me admitted or if he really had enjoyed my situation as a visitor struggling to gain access. Whichever of these scenarios was true, I decided that rather than pursuing the issue further it was better to be grateful that I was now where I needed to be, and let the moment pass.

I suspect that my morning experience would not have come as a surprise to many of the staff at the school yesterday. As the head teacher explained to me, the end of the school year and the approaching summer holiday is often a period of tension for many children within the school. Unfortunately at this particular establishment, for too many pupils school offers the only real stability in their lives. When they are in school they are managed consistently, treated with respect and provided with a wide range of interesting learning experiences. Such a situation may well not be replicated in their lives outside of the school, and therefore the impending school holidays are not universally greeted with joy.

The school I was visiting is a special school for children who have been labelled as having social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Many who attend have been excluded from mainstream schools on grounds of their poor behaviour, and a significant number come from dysfunctional homes where parents and siblings are under stress and family life is far from stable. When I speak to the pupils here, they are usually full of praise for the staff who work with them, admit (though sometimes a little begrudgingly) that they enjoy school and see this as a safe haven where they have friends and a consistent environment.

In an age when we would ideally wish to see all children included in mainstream classrooms, special schools such as this may be seen as a dilemma. However, there are factors at play here that need to be understood and which suggest that a simplistic view of educational provision is not helpful. The same pupils who tell me that they feel secure and enjoy attending this school, often report a very different story about their experiences in mainstream schools. When pressed on this point, it is common for them to single out the attitudes of teachers, who see them as problems rather than people, as the single most critical factor of difference. At the special school they feel valued and respected, and sadly this has not always been the case elsewhere.

Talking to a couple of boys about the forthcoming school holiday it was evident that whilst for many children this is seen as a welcome period of freedom and relaxation, this is not necessarily the case for pupils from this special school. Here they told me, we have things to do and people to help us get organised. Outside of school there is a lack of direction which sometimes results in boredom and at times ends in trouble.

As I left the school, saying goodbye to a head teacher whose dedication and professionalism I greatly admire, I found myself asking how long it would be before the children with whom I had spent a morning would not be labelled as problems, and if they would someday be welcomed back into mainstream schools. I am quite sure that this is a situation towards which we should all be working, but I am equally concerned that far too many schools are ill-prepared to accept this responsibility. This being the case, I am relieved that there are professional colleagues who are concerned to ensure that those pupils who others reject are given opportunities for learning. This is far from an ideal situation, and will I suspect continue to challenge teachers and policy makers for the foreseeable future.

It is surely the politicians who are proving to be feckless, not those living in poverty.

Poverty will not be eradicated by simply blaming the poor for their own circumstances.

Poverty will not be eradicated by simply blaming the poor for their own circumstances.

Discussions of poverty are always difficult. In part this results from the somewhat vague notions that we appear to have developed around the measurement of poverty and the use of the term as a relative concept. Last week I had a conversation with a couple of students who had read a newspaper article describing the latest UK government “initiatives” around children. Within the article was a section discussing how the government has abandoned an earlier target whereby they accepted a duty to end child poverty by 2020. The suggestion being made was that this target cannot possibly be achieved in the current economic climate and therefore no longer has value and has become a redundant idea.

Ministers in the government have been heard recently using a new term – “worklessness”. This expression, every bit as ugly as it sounds,  is fairly self-explanatory, being used to indicate families where unemployment results in limited income and therefore places them at risk of poverty. The notion is that employment is the key to tackling poverty. Various government ministers espouse the view that cutting welfare benefits will provide greater incentives for families to find employment and thereby enable them to improve their income and become less dependent upon the state. I suppose it is possible to detect an element of logic in this, and in an ideal world we would hope that families have secure employment providing sufficient income for them to provide all of the material essentials for living. But thereby lies the problem. The government’s own figures indicate that around two-thirds of the poorest children in British society already live in “working” families, yet their income is so low that they are unable to provide all of the necessities for a healthy life.

Part of the difficulty with what is basically a very crude approach to tackling poverty, is the naivety of assuming that employment always provides sufficient income for the maintenance of a secure lifestyle. The proliferation of zero working hours, a system of tying an individual into employment contracts with no guarantee of how many hours will be available, and therefore failing to provide a secure income, and in some employment sectors the irregular availability or seasonal nature of work, makes for unstable opportunities for many families. Even when families are able to secure an income, this alone is not always enough to improve their tenuous grip on security.

The two students who had involved me in their conversation suggested that poverty was, of course, relative. In the UK they proposed, we do not see poverty such as that which may be found in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, or parts of Asia or South America. They were, of course right in making this assertion, but I would suggest that this is a very narrow way of looking at the issue. I am not convinced that telling a mother in England who is anxious because she is not sure that she will be able to provide food for her children tonight, and who may be forgoing meals for herself in order that her children can have shoes to wear, that people in Africa are often less well off than she is, will make her feel less worried about her family’s situation.

Being in employment is no guarantee of security. Furthermore, simply using income as a means of assessing poverty also has its limitations. Crude measures, such as poverty being equated as surviving on less than 60% of median national income, and absolute poverty less than 40% may not always be helpful. (Incidentally I find myself frustrated when the media interprets this as less than 60% of average income – there is a significant difference between mean and median income). However, we do need some form of measure that will enable concerned parties to assess how families in any particular country are being supported.

Such an instrument does exist and has recently been updated to recognise those prevailing political and socio-economic factors which impact so sharply upon people moving in or out of poverty. The multidimensional poverty index (MPI) is being adopted internationally with the support of leading organisations such as UNICEF. This instrument identifies both where people are living in poverty, and the factors that cause this problem. The suggestion is that MPI measures should enable policymakers, politicians and NGOs to allocate their resources and tackle poverty more effectively. The MPI identifies difficulties faced at the household level across three dimensions (living standards, health, and education) and provides an indication of the number and distribution of poor people in a population and the deprivations with which they contend.

The MPI operates on the basis that measuring child poverty simply through family income is an imperfect approach and will lead to groups of deprived and vulnerable children being excluded from the support that they most urgently need. The notion that income alone can be used as a means of assessing poverty is largely spurious and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that having a secure financial base does not always guarantee positive psychological or social outcomes for children. For example, having a reasonable income but living in an area where this is still insufficient to provide safe and healthy housing can contribute to the kinds of deprivation that lead to poor child health and other welfare issues. Furthermore, those households that may have responsibility for a disabled or elderly infirm family member may well experience increased pressures that prevent them from seeking employment and requiring specialist help that is beyond their financial means.

Current policy in the UK is both iniquitous and misguided. It seems at times that we are returning to a Victorian blame culture where terms such as the “feckless poor” were in common parlance and quite rightly raised the hackles of Charles Dickens and other social reformers of the day. The focus of blame for poverty has shifted entirely towards families who find themselves in difficulties, a situation that overlooks the complex factors that determine whether or not a child may thrive, and places the responsibility for tackling child poverty entirely upon those families least likely to be able to fend for themselves. Whilst improved opportunities for employment would undoubtedly contribute to the eradication of child poverty, it is irresponsible to believe that this measure alone will solve our current problems. The use of income measures is important, but must surely be complemented by non-income indicators, and a more critical analysis of those wider societal factors that lead families into poverty. Playing the current blame game in which families are seen as wholly responsible for their own situations is not only mean spirited, but is also an abdication of moral responsibility.

Teaching old dogs new tricks!

Young teachers at work - and note how their older students are enjoying this!

Young teachers at work – and note how their older students are enjoying this!

Training and encouraging researchers in education is often a difficult task. There are as many ways of conducting and interpreting research as there are researchers. Approaches to training therefore need to offer ideas in a manner that is both flexible and challenging. So yesterday, having been asked to present ideas about moving the educational research agenda forward here at the university, my colleague Philip decided we needed to pursue new avenues.

The easy option would have been to use an “expert” researcher to deliver a training session focused upon some form of innovative data collection approach or theoretical framework, or to introduce the latest piece of software designed for analysis or interpretation. However, this is an approach that would surely alienate some colleagues and be declared “old hat” by others. Thus it was decided that we should adopt  a strategy that would hopefully surprise and unite even the most hard bitten researchers.

Had you visited the School of Education at the University of Northampton yesterday morning you would undoubtedly have noticed the enthusiastic children who were engaged in activities around the building. School pupils in their bright blue uniforms were sitting at tables, and others on the floor, working with academic colleagues on a range of tasks. Producing posters, designing slogans and logos and generally participating in discussion and debate, these enthusiastic individuals worked hard all morning to educate the adults around them. Their task – to tell the adults in their groups what research means to them, and to inform us about why they believe that investigation is an important element of learning.

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As the morning progressed they identified key words that reminded us of why we began our journey as teachers and researchers. Curiosity, finding things out, discovery, digging for information, exploring new ideas – these were just a few of the expressions that emerged from their work. At the end of the morning they presented their drawings and key words to the gathered audience. They did so with confidence and authority and with good humour and logic. They explained their reasoning and taught us much about the importance of investigation, and the value that we should be seeking to provide in our work as teachers and researchers.

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At the end of the day everyone who had attended today’s training sessions had a broad smile. There was a general acknowledgement that a group of eight and nine year old children had made us think about research in ways that the acknowledged “experts” could never have achieved. I am sure that my memories of the day will largely dwell upon the enthusiasm with which children were able to address issues which we may well have over-elaborated, and made difficult through our dubious levels of sophistication.

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In my experience listening to children usually helps us to see the world in ways that we might have forgotten. The wisdom emanating from a group of school pupils today may hopefully have assisted us in developing as better teachers and researchers in the days to come. The opportunity we had to learn from these children is far more profound than anything I have to say – so I hope you just enjoy today’s pictures. With many thanks for permission given to use these by the children and staff of Oakway School.

An attentive class, sitting up and paying attention!

An attentive class, sitting up and paying attention!

 

What could be achieved with four and a half day’s military spending?

It should surely be obvious!

It should surely be obvious!

Twenty two billion US dollars sounds like a vast sum of money to me; such figures are quite frankly beyond my understanding. But this apparently is the sum that it is estimated would need to be spent annually for the next few years in order to achieve the Education for All goals. This amount of money, so it is reported, would ensure global provision for universal primary education, would see more girls attending and completing school, and would increase educational opportunities for children living in some of the world’s poorest countries. Such a figure could help to achieve a goal to which governments all around the world subscribed in 2000, but one that continues to cause concern and which in some countries is nowhere near being accomplished.

If twenty two billion US dollars per annum is what is required, it is hardly surprising that it so difficult to make progress in this area. After all, such a huge sum of money needs to be provided by wealthier countries, many of whom declare that they are currently facing their own economic challenges. And for those of us who deal with sums of money seldom exceeding the equivalent a few hundred US dollars, twenty two billion is largely beyond our comprehension. I was therefore amazed yesterday when reading a report from the recently held Oslo Summit on Education for Development, which quoted a speech by the Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi in which he states that twenty two billion US dollars is the equivalent of just 4 ½ days of the level of current military spending around the globe.

This statistics seemed to me quite astounding. Surely Kailash Satyarthi, for all of his authority and despite being a man held in such international respect, must have made a mistake. Could this figure be a true representation of the gulf between spending to improve the lives of children, and the development and deployment of weaponry aimed at destruction? Well yes, it turns out, his figures are correct. A search of official international government spending sources reveals that around twenty two billion US dollars is spent on armaments and other military spending every four and a half days.

Kailash Satyarthi in a statement to the Oslo meeting stated that:-

“The best defence is investment in education. If we had invested in education, the world would be much safer today. Education is not only the key to sustainable development, but also the best shield to defend against terrorism, insurgencies and other obstacles that impede the progress of humankind.”

I find myself, not for the first time, largely in agreement with views expressed by this great children’s rights activist.

Of course, it would be naïve to believe that countries will give up their focus upon spending on military equipment and armaments, particularly at what is seen as a dangerous time in many parts of the world. But Kailash Satyarthi makes a valid point when he suggests that should more of this money be directed at education, it might address some of the issues of poverty, greed, envy and deprivation which are the source of many of the conflicts which currently form a blight on a number of societies.

It can be argued with a degree of confidence,  that significant progress has been made towards achieving the Education for All goals in some parts of the world. India, is an example of one country where the educational opportunities for many, though not all children, have certainly increased. However it might be worth asking questions about why international aid to basic education was cut by almost 10% between 2010 and 2012, yet there has been a steady increase in military spending over the same period. Whilst some countries have benefited significantly from support to improve schooling, others, such as Burkina Faso have lost more than 50% of the aid provided for basic education. Other regions of the world are currently being devastated , and schools destroyed in part through use of the many billions of US dollars being allocated for military purposes.

Satyarthi points out that at this time only 4 per cent of all Overseas Development Assistance is targeted at education. He makes a good case for this being increased to a minimum of 15 per cent. However, he is realistic enough to know that this is not going to happen overnight.

I was motivated to write this piece partly because of my own appalling levels of ignorance in respect of the figures above related to educational aid and military spending. I found myself asking the question, If I am so lacking in appreciation of this situation, how can I expect others who are not so directly involved in education to know what is going on in the world?

The scientists William Moerner, Brian Schmidt and Elizabeth Blackburn, who are also Nobel Prize winners, along with a number of other eminent individuals wrote an open letter to the Oslo Summit  in which they pleaded for a change in this situation. In this letter they say:-

“We urge the international community to loosen the purse strings for the future of our children, to protect them from exploitation and violence, and to invest in their education.”

Does it really demand the learning and intelligence of Nobel Prize winners to make us understand that spending so little on providing basic education  when compared to that spent on military development is a denial of the basic human needs of so many children and future generations? If this really is the case, then those of us who consider ourselves to be “educated” are destined to continue to demonstrate our ignorance.

 

Building Norwegian castles in the air!

Henrik Ibsen. I think he understood human nature somewhat better than I do!

Henrik Ibsen. I think he understood human nature somewhat better than I do!

There is a story that tells how the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, having retired to the city of Oslo, then known as Kristiania, would take a stroll through the city each day, coming to rest at the Grand Café where he would lunch with some of the most famous writers, artists and academics of the city. It is rumoured that he was more than fond of a glass or two of schnapps and the occasional pint of beer, though this may of course be apocryphal as so many legends have grown up around the great dramatist over the years.

I had never anticipated that I would find myself seated in that same café, surrounded by portraits of the great writer, soaking in the atmosphere of this splendid location, but here indeed I am. Following a 3.30 am departure from home for an early morning flight via Amsterdam, and a somewhat fraught meeting at the University of Oslo, I can at last relax for a couple of hours before trying to get some sleep in order to prepare for another early morning flight home tomorrow.

This is only my second visit to Norway, the first was equally short, having crossed the border from Finland, a few hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle to attend the World reindeer racing championships a few years ago (yes, I can assure you that this is true), and what a wonderfully exciting event this was. The first visit was purely recreational, enjoyed as part of a break living amongst the Sami people of Lapland during the crisp snows and frozen waterfalls of an Easter holiday. Today’s visit by contrast was entirely focused upon academic matters, with little by the way of entertaining diversion.

The purpose of this visit was to try and negotiate a means through which a Norwegian and a UK university might work together to support the development of research capacity in the area of inclusive education in Georgia. In order to attempt what was seemingly a straightforward task, eight supposedly intelligent adults sat around a table to make plans. A simple enough task one might imagine. But this was not to be, as the discussions progressed it become increasingly clear that what I had anticipated to be a matter of collaborative planning was developing into a major problem. It became apparent that establishing an agreement with regards to processes and procedures was proving to be more difficult than splitting the atom, finding the missing link or discovering a cure for the common cold all rolled into one!

As the hours rolled by, we reached the typical academic compromise of agreeing to differ. There were undoubtedly solutions to be had, but it would not be the way of university bureaucracy to immediately find them. It was as if Chekhov’s Konstantin had entered the room  to present us all with the body of a freshly killed seagull and that we all needed to find meaning in this apparition. It has long been evident that whenever two academics are gathered together you are assured of at least four opinions, and this was certainly in evidence today. At the end of the meeting there was a consensus that what we needed more than anything else was more discussion. The meeting having reached a predictable unsatisfactory conclusion we packed our papers away, agreed that progress had been made and left to go in various directions wondering what had been achieved.

If a camel is really a horse designed by a committee, it is surprising that universities are not overrun with camels. Whilst international negotiations are never easy, a part of me is convinced that we have created such elaborate approaches to decision making that we no longer know where we are going, and certainly have no idea how to get there. When we discover that a committee is not fulfilling its functions we establish a working party to find out why, and once this working party reports, we appoint a new committee to evaluate its findings. Hence the cycle of bureaucracy continues.

Do I sound frustrated? Maybe just a little. I would put this down to a long day and too much sitting around the debating table. Do I believe a solution will be found? Of course I do, because if I didn’t I would not have stuck with this process for so many years. At the end of the day I am optimistic that the honourable intentions which we all brought to today’s meeting will have the desired outcomes. The consequences of believing otherwise are not to be contemplated.

Perhaps we all need to be prepared to compromise, because as Ibsen reminds us:-

“Castles in the air – they are so easy to take refuge in. And so easy to build too.”

 

 

 

Have you texted any good novels recently?

 

The modern art of conversation!

The modern art of conversation!

I was standing on Birmingham’s New Street station a couple of days ago on my way home from a teaching session with research colleagues at the University in that city. I have to say that the platforms at New Street are about as dingy and uninspiring as those of any railway station I have experienced anywhere in the world. I enjoy travelling by train; it usually provides an opportunity to catch up with reading or marking, and generally makes few demands upon the traveller. However, this journey was a little frustrating as the only announcements being made were informing passengers of delayed trains and late arrivals and departures.

As I stood on the crowded platform I became aware that my behaviour probably stood out from almost everyone around me. It did so not because of what I was doing, simply standing patiently in anticipation that I might, with any luck get home before dark, but rather for what I was not doing. As I looked around me I noticed that the six individuals in closest proximity were all engaged in sending messages over their mobile phones. So this, I thought, is what we mean by the digital age; an era in which our digits are used for communication more often than our voices.

Of course, I too send text messages via a mobile phone, but after ten minutes or more had elapsed I was surprised to note that, with still no sign of the much anticipated train, all but one of my fellow passengers was still busily tapping the tiny key board and seemingly oblivious to their immediate surroundings. Perhaps, I speculated, this is the way in which students write their essays today; maybe one of these highly focused individuals is writing a novel or some major work of history or philosophy. Can it be that the great magnum opus will in future be written on a mobile phone? Would it possibly necessitate major surgery to separate these individuals from their phones? These thoughts, I reflected are probably the result of two conditions, the first the effects of a simple ennui brought upon from this unappreciated period of waiting in the bowels of the world’s worst railway station, and the second could well be a Luddite tendency possibly related to my age!

At last the train arrived and slumping wearily, but with some relief into a seat I removed a book (an old fashioned object constructed from paper and board containing sheaves of paper called pages filled with text) from my bag, and settled down to enjoy forty five minutes of reading. Taking her seat beside me, a young lady still connected as if by an umbilicus to her smart phone, continued to exercise her fingers deftly across a tiny screen, a dextrous act that she maintained even whilst leaving the train twenty five minutes later in Coventry. Looking around the carriage I noted that her performance was mirrored with commendable concentration by several other passengers, whilst others listened through headphones, presumably to music or possibly stories, again through their phones, and others switched on electronic tablets to play games or even watch movies.

But then I spotted something reassuring. Having begun to think that I had become an endangered species, possibly at risk of attracting the attention of a passing anthropologist, or even David Attenborough in search of a new epic television programme opportunity, there sat quietly across the corridor of the train I noted was a young lady, possibly sixteen years old, certainly no more than eighteen with her gaze fixed intently upon the pages of a book. My curiosity was immediately raised, could this be the last of the dinosaurs or possibly the missing link? What could it be about this ancient technology that held her concentration so fixedly? My curiosity was soon followed by a feeling of unalloyed joy as she turned a page revealing the cover of her book. Women in Love, a D.H. Lawrence classic no less, I wanted to shout for joy, but being British and reserved restrained myself from so doing and returned to my own text with renewed enthusiasm, and an assured feeling that all was well with the world.

Just in case you may be thinking by now that I am resisting entry into the twenty first century, I will confess that I too occasionally listen to music from my phone. Furthermore, when travelling long distances, particularly by bicycle, I often make use of a digital reading device and celebrate the convenience that this brings (not actually whilst riding of course – but usually seated beside a tent in the evening!) And yes, you can download a copy of Women in Love, along with countless other Lawrence novels onto this wonderful machine at a very reasonable price, I’ve just checked. But I still think that from time to time when standing on a railway platform as uninspiring as that in Birmingham, it can be a pleasant, if somewhat arcane experience to engage in conversation with a fellow traveller. And whilst acknowledging the undoubted virtues  of the digital reader, there is something comfortably reassuring about the feel, the weight and even the smell of a good old fashioned book!