Good news about teachers just doesn’t sell newspapers!

 

When this teacher does her job well nobody will notice

When this teacher does her job well nobody will notice

Sometimes it feels like the opinions of teachers count for very little when judgements are being made about the quality of education provided for children. It is often the case that when children are perceived to be under performing in schools, or there are media reports about discipline issues, fingers are quickly pointed at teachers as the sole cause of the problems reported.

Here in England there was a time when the views of teachers were eagerly sought by education policy makers at local and national levels. Politicians and administrators were keen to obtain the opinions of those who were working in classrooms in order to inform their ideas, influence policies and bring about change. Sadly, in recent years this has become a less common approach, with a great deal of educational policy made by politicians without recourse to the opinions of teachers, who are often then seen to be held responsible when things don’t quite work out as intended.

It was therefore heartening yesterday to read a research report titled “The Voice of Teachers” which within its introductory pages states that it :-

“aims to move beyond cliché and misrepresentation, bringing to the fore teachers’ own perceptions regarding the education universe they inhabit”.

Perhaps at last, I thought, we have a report that will respect the views of those who work most closely in classrooms, and can provide insights into their professional lives, with all of the concomitant successes and challenges that typify every day school life. Indeed, within a very short time of commencing my read I found that the experiences of the 823 teachers and 441 head teachers interviewed for this research were being presented and discussed in a manner that was respectful, empathetic and realistic in interpretation. There was little evidence of rose tinted glasses in the report’s presentation of facts and figures, but neither was there an apportioning of blame where specific difficulties were identified and shortcomings discussed. Overall the document presents an honest appraisal of school life, drawing upon the perspectives of experienced school professionals alongside a review of significant facts and figures. On reaching the final pages of the report I found myself wondering, why more reports should not draw upon this rich seam of data, provided by teachers and presented in a well-balanced and lucid manner. If only I could find such a document within my own country!

Ah yes, you see, the report in question adopts an approach seldom seen in today’s English education system and comes in fact from Pakistan.

Alif Ailaan is a campaigning organisation in Pakistan that encourages public discourse around education in Pakistan. Interestingly, it is in part funded by a grant from the UK Department for International Development. The organisation has a stated goal to “get every Pakistani girl and boy into school, keep them learning and ensure that they receive a quality education”. This is the kind of statement that is made by many government and non-government agencies across the globe. However, in the case of Alif Ailaan the approach to achieving such a goal appears to be considerably different from that adopted by many others. They are certainly not afraid of being critical of teachers where they feel that this is necessary, but rather than simply apportioning blame, they are committed to looking beyond the headlines to understand the conditions in schools, and how teachers can be supported to address these. This is apparent early in “The Voice of Teachers,” which reports the research commissioned by them in which a clear and balanced statement is made:-

“The teacher is at the heart of the education system. In Pakistan, however, the discourse on education often attributes to teachers virtually everything that is wrong with the system. There is little doubt that teacher performance in the classroom is below par, considering the consistently low learning outcomes recorded through examinations and assessments at all levels of schooling. But is the teacher entirely to blame for this situation?”

The research that informed this report provided data from both questionnaires and interviews, and identified examples of both good practice and shortcomings in classrooms. Among the issues which were identified as problematic in Pakistan’s schools, were overcrowded classrooms, poor quality textbooks, a lack of facilities and equipment, and inadequate professional development opportunities for teachers. The report does not overlook the impact of poverty, stating quite clearly that there are many children attending schools who are malnourished and therefore lack the energy to learn effectively.

Despite the many challenges faced by teachers, the authors of the report described them as being willing to learn and improve their performance, and certainly not lacking in motivation. Many express the opinion that they gain great satisfaction from enabling their students to learn.

The researchers identify many shortcomings in the education system within the country, but at the conclusion of the report they state that:-

 “If there is one clear message from our study, it is that responsibility for the failure to deliver high-quality education does not lie at the doorstep of teachers alone. In fact many of the challenges that teachers face daily have as much to do with their own capacities as with policies and procedures far removed from ground realities and in dire need of an overhaul. It is up to provincial governments to take on this challenge”.

Having read what I consider to be a fair and evenly presented report, which judging from the data that is clearly presented within its pages gives an honest appraisal of schools within Pakistan, I found myself wondering how it would be reported in the press. Dawn, the influential Pakistan national newspaper, often provides well written and interesting articles depicting life within the country. Surely then I would find a report within its pages that would praise the efforts of teachers, whilst discussing the poor resourcing of schools, inadequate training opportunities and large class sizes. I suppose I should not have been surprised, but sadly I found only one article discussing this report and far from praising the work of teachers, this reported that:-

“Over 70 per cent of teachers in Pakistan agree with the statement that corporal punishment is useful.”

This was indeed a finding from the research, and I should not have been surprised that it was singled out for attention by the media. I too was appalled that corporal punishment continues to be seen as a legitimate means of maintaining order in Pakistan’s schools, but just for once it would have been good to see a report that emphasised some of the more positive characteristics of teachers working for the benefits of children, often under the demanding of circumstances. Reporting fairly on the findings of this research could well have provided a much needed boost to teacher confidence – but then, good news rarely makes for attention grabbing headlines!

 

Glittering Prizes?

Prize or portent?

Prize or portent?

Yesterday evening, a colleague from the university was returning to her old school on a mission. I happened to meet her as we were both walking to the carpark at the end of another busy day, and it was during this brief perambulation that she disclosed her apprehensions about the evening ahead. It appears that several months ago she received an invitation from her alma mater to present the prizes at the school’s annual celebration of the achievements of its pupils. At the time, she told me, this seemed like a good idea. Indeed she was flattered by the wording of the invitation stating that as a distinguished alumnus of the school, a well-respected historian and author of a number of key texts, they would be honoured if she would accept their invitation. However, as the moment drew ever nearer she began to wonder why she had ever agreed to this request. She had had recurring visions of staring down from the stage at the gathered masses, who would neither recognise her as anyone of significance or have any desire to be captivated by her words of wisdom. “I am sure”, she suggested, “that if it were Adele, or Wayne Rooney standing before them they would hang on every word.” I suspect that she has interpreted the situation quite accurately, and that neither bursting into song, nor heading a ball into the fourth row will be likely to retrieve the situation for her.

I must confess that I had imagined that prize giving events at schools had probably been confined to history some time ago. As I drove home I found myself sympathising with my colleague’s dilemma, and then smiling with some relief as I remembered that the ugly 1960’s school building that I had myself attended was in the recent past demolished to make way for a housing estate, and therefore no longer exists. This adds certainty to the unlikeliness of ever receiving such a daunting invitation to a similar event.

It was later yesterday evening when my mind returned to the conversation with my colleague that I found myself wondering how the event to which she had so nobly committed was proceeding. As I pondered her situation I began to realise that there are a number of items here at my home that have a close affinity to school prize giving evenings. Thinking about these mementos I began to imagine what they might have meant to the recipient of prizes at the time when they were awarded.

On a wall in our hallway hangs a dark wooden display frame which holds a number of medallions awarded to members of my family for perfect school attendance. Covering dates from 1912 to 1918 these Gloucester Education Committee awards were won by my grandfather and his siblings and were presented to encourage all children and parents in the city to value educational opportunity, and ensure that they were punctual and punctilious in their attendance. An earlier award of a book titled “The Bravest Gentleman in France” is inscribed “Gloucester Education Committee, Linden Road Council School, presented to Henry Terrett for efficiency and regular attendance during the school year ending October 31st 1910. School open 417 times, attended 417,” it is signed by P. Barrett Cooke, Sec. Whenever I open this book I cannot help thinking of the irony that my Uncle Harry received a prize, the title of which may well have returned to his mind as six years later he fought for survival amongst the mud and death that surrounded him at the Battle of the Somme.

Not all of the school prizes within my possession are of so personal a nature. A number of years ago in Norfolk, browsing a second hand book shop (the only form of shopping that seems truly to have any real purpose!) I came across a beautiful leather bound, though slightly foxed, 1934 edition of the Complete Poems of Rupert Brooke, for which I gladly parted with a five pound note. Though slightly the worse for wear, this book has one of the finest bindings of the many that cover the walls of my study. It is, however, the inscription inside the cover of this tome that gives me cause to reflect on the journey it has made to come into my possession. Written in copperplate within the cover are the words “Lancaster Rural Grammar School. This book is presented to J. Jackson for having contributed the best speech at the Whersell Society Prize Debate on Saturday February 27th 1937. J.H. Shackleton-Bailey D.D. Head Master.” J. Jackson remains a mystery to me; I wonder what the motion for debate might have been? It is apparent that like me, he had a love of words and of poetry. I wonder what became of him, and when this volume passed from his hands and those of his family to find its place alongside so many others far less distinguished, on the shelves of a shop in Norfolk?

In case you are wondering, yes I too received a couple of school prizes, though for a pastime far less cerebral than a contribution to debate. Mine were awarded for performance on the rugby field, and I remember the somewhat awkward feelings I experienced in mounting the stage to shake hands with a long forgotten alumnus of the school before he handed over a copy of the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, which I notice now on the shelf above my desk.

Perhaps the task being undertaken by my colleague at her old school last night may have triggered her own memories of prizes received as well as given. I am in little doubt that she too will have one or two adorning the shelves of her home.

Broadening our minds

School displays demonstrate how children are gaining knowledge of history, geography and so much more. Model of the ill-fated Titanic from a primary school

School displays demonstrate how children are gaining knowledge of history, geography and so much more. Model of the ill-fated Titanic from a primary school

Whenever I visit schools I try to spend a little time looking at the colourful displays that usually adorn the walls and corridors. These often provide an opportunity to demonstrate the talents and learning of children, exhibiting works of art, writing or mathematical accomplishments and informing visitors about the learning and experiences of students. Teachers and other staff in schools invest time in ensuring that this work is carefully presented, and just like the students who have produced this work they take immense pride in the artefacts that decorate the school environment.

A couple of years ago I visited a primary school in Ireland and enjoyed a brief perusal of a colourful display depicting early Egyptian history. Carefully constructed collages of Egyptian murals with representations of the jackal-headed Anubis and bird headed Horus, and hand written hieroglyphs covered a wall, whilst models of the great pyramids and of the mummies of pharaohs were arranged and informatively labelled on a table. It was evident that the pupils who had constructed these offerings had been encouraged to use their imaginations whilst learning about a significant civilization through a study of history and geography. As is invariably the case, I found much to admire in the work of the children and the skills of those teachers and other school staff who had offered their support and guidance to these young learners. Similar displays depicting  history, geography, literature and much more from both near at home and distant lands is to be found in most schools.

When I was a child much of my learning about distant places and people was gained either through reading or television documentaries. I remember a phase of reading anything I could obtain that would inform me about the Romans and supplementing my understanding of their influence with visits to the city museum in Gloucester where there was a good collection of artefacts and information. My knowledge of ancient Egypt was largely garnered from similar sources, reinforced by television programmes that included an account of the life of Howard Carter and his discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, and an excellent series presented by the archaeologist John Romer. As a schoolboy  I could never have imagined that in the future I would visit countries other than my own, where I could stand within some of the finest examples of Roman architecture such as the Colosseum in Rome or the amphitheatre at Autun. International travel was, generally speaking not within the remit of school children from my area, and I believed, in common with most of my friends, that my knowledge and understanding of the wider world was always likely to be obtained through reading or the media.

It is partly through reflection upon my early second hand encounters with history and geography that I find myself thinking about how my life has changed, and the great privilege that I have experienced in being able to visit many countries around the world. Furthermore, often through my work, I have been able to meet people and make friends in these countries, and have worked closely with many valued colleagues whose cultural experiences of the world differ greatly from my own. A common factor in every country that I have visited is a patriotic pride that people have in their national heritage, landscape and history. They invariably take great pleasure in showing visitors the geographical, natural and architectural features of their localities, knowing that I am enthusiastic to learn about both the people of a country and the landscape and culture that has shaped their lives.  It is this enthusiasm and pride that has enabled me to wonder at sites such as the Qutb Minar in Delhi, the frozen landscapes of Lapland, the Caravaggio paintings in the cathedral at Valetta, the sulphur baths of Tbilisi and the botanical gardens of Singapore. It is also, in part, through these experiences that I have been eager to reciprocate this hospitality and ensure that visitors to England have similar experiences whilst they are here.

Whilst we can and must, continue to learn from reading and the use of various media, there is no substitute for first-hand experiences of places and people. Travel provides unique opportunities to engage with cultures, climate and religions that differ from our own. The traveller who is prepared to learn from such experiences has the chance to gain greater understanding of those conditions and beliefs that emphasise the ways in which we may differ from people elsewhere, but more especially those basic human characteristics that bind us together. There is a commonly held belief that travel broadens the mind. This is true only if we are prepared to open our minds and to travel respectfully and with a willingness to learn about the lives of those who live in the places we choose to visit.

As I write this today I am conscious of the fact that many of the opportunities for learning through travel that I had only ever dreamt of as a child, but which have at times become open to me, may now be closing for most people. Countries, including Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan and Libya which are the cradle of many great civilizations, magnificent countryside and a rich cultural history are now seen as dangerous and off-limits to most travellers. As a result of this those people living in these countries who have become economically dependent upon tourism are suffering. Equally devastating is the fact that the inhabitants of those countries, and individuals from outside who would wish to visit, are deprived of an opportunity to learn from each other, to make friendships and to understand how much we all have in common.

It is, of course, in the interest of those who would wish to limit education, and to deny individuals the chance to engage in social, intellectual and cultural exchange of ideas, to create a situation where travel is restricted. I do believe, however, that such an attitude cannot prevail. It is too late for those who would wish to roll back the years. Friendships and professional associations have been made and are strong enough to endure. The desire to work and spend time together that has become a feature of internationalisation over the past half century has become embedded in the lives of many people. Artificial boundaries have been challenged, and I am sure that the desire to learn from others, to experience their cultures, to understand their beliefs and share their experiences will play an important role in the defeat of ignorance and insularity. I hope that it will not be too long before normal educational opportunities through travel and interaction are resumed.

 

 

Moggies against terror

 

Brasmble may not look as if she is politically motivated, but she wishes to express solidarity with the protesting cats of Brussels!

Bramble may not look as if she is politically motivated, but she wishes to express solidarity with the protesting cats of Brussels!

I have always been fond of cats. Whilst there was a time during which I favoured dogs as pets, I now recognise the great individuality of cats, many of whom appear to be far more intelligent than myself, and have a much more relaxed attitude to life. Indeed Bramble, the cat who kindly allows us to share her home here in Northamptonshire (there is little doubt that this is how she sees the situation) spends much of her time seeking the sunniest and most comfortable resting places in the house, and seldom exerts herself beyond the casual walk to her bowl in search of food. I sometimes contrast this with my own lifestyle, but if I consider this for too long it can become depressing.

Often when I am working at home in the study, Bramble will spread herself comfortably on the sofa, occasionally opening one eye to ensure that I am still slaving over a keyboard before returning to her slumbers. I used to think that she chose this position because she liked my company, but have more recently come to believe that she is keeping an eye on me to ensure that I don’t disturb the order of the room which is, I suspect, arranged just as she likes it.

I haven’t written about cats before on this blog, generally believing that they have only a tenuous link to education, save for some excellent literary felines as exemplified in the verses of T.S. Eliot, or several stories by Rudyard Kipling, and that they probably have even less impact upon children’s rights. However, yesterday I found myself initially amused, and then pondering more thoughtfully on the role that cats were playing in the day’s news. This all began with a headline on the BBC website that stated:

“Brussels Lockdown: Belgians tweet pictures of cats to confuse Isis terrorists.”

Not being a user of Twitter, simply because it takes me too much time to master the technology associated with this simple blog, I must confess that I have only minimal understanding of how it works. But I was certainly intrigued by the headline and couldn’t resist reading further. It would appear that as Brussels began its third day living with the highest level of alert in relation to potential terrorist activity, a request was made by the police and other authorities not to disclose details about police activity through the use of social media. Recognising the sense of this request, this has apparently initiated a response by Twitter users, and not only those from within Belgium, who have now set about showing their concern and determination to defeat the terrorists by posting pictures of cats on their accounts. Goodness knows that the situation in Brussels is anything but a laughing matter, but it would appear that the human spirit is able to rise above even the most dire of circumstances.

Apparently thousands, if not tens of thousands of cat images have now been posted on people’s Twitter accounts (I understand that this is usually referred to as “tweeting”, but in view of my usual association of this term with birds, it seems inappropriate to use it on a blog about cats). Many of these photographs can be found on news sites and from the pages of newspapers. Some of the images simply show rather cute kittens frolicking at home. Others have been portrayed more creatively, in poses of mock surrender, or armed with guns or bombs or hiding in a vast range of receptacles.

I would not normally give articles such as this too much attention, but having wasted several minutes smiling at a number of the pictures, I found myself reflecting on an article I had read in the previous day’s Guardian written by the excellent Marina Hyde, in which she argued that one way of confronting those who wish to inflict terror on our communities is through the use of comedy to mock them, and show them up for the mindless cowards that they truly are. Thinking about what Marina Hyde had to say I was soon in accord with her ideas, remembering how some of the great comedians of the past have helped us to see the stupidity of those who try to impose their warped view of the world on others.

Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film the Great Dictator, used comedy to highlight the despicable nature of Hitler, Mussolini, antisemitism, and the Nazis with great effect. Cartoonists all over the world such as Steve Bell, Satish Acharya, Laxman and Jeff Stahler have helped to expose corruption and enabled us to laugh at the perpetrators. Whilst satirical television programmes like “That was the Week That was,” and “Spitting Image” have tackled political cant and pomposity with many a belly laugh. Now it would appear that thousands of largely unknown people are using cats to good effect to highlight the futility of terrorism.

I tried showing some of the pictures to Bramble yesterday evening, and asked her for a suitable quote (yes I know – but there’s no harm in trying). At first she feigned some slight enthusiasm, but eventually curled herself back into a comfortable position turning her back on me with barely disguised contempt. The only message that she seemed to convey was something along the lines of – “I spend my whole life making a mockery of you, but you are not bright enough to notice”.

Comedy is dismissed in some quarters as having little of substance to offer in our interpretation of the world or the ways in which we might confront its challenges. Perhaps we should reconsider this view and allow the cats to continue in their excellent venture to scoff at those who would do us harm

May the pictures below raise a smile!

Laid back cat. Just wake me up when it's all over!

Laid back cat. Just wake me up when it’s all over!

Comedian cat - mocking anyone who wants to disturb his peace

Comedian cat – mocking anyone who wants to disturb his peace

six shooter cat! Part of the cat peace keeping squadron

six shooter cat! Part of the cat peace keeping squadron

Para-military cat. Keeping the cats of Brussels safe

Para-military cat. Keeping the cats of Brussels safe

Boozy cat - it's enough to drive a cat to drink!

Boozy cat – it’s enough to drive a cat to drink!

Book cat - educating himself to understand what it means to live peacefully in a diverse world

Book cat – educating himself to understand what it means to live peacefully in a diverse world

 

Caution lethal cane users on the loose!

 

Mobility aid or lethal weapon?

Mobility aid or lethal weapon?

When I first read a story in yesterday’s newspapers about a visually impaired girl being banned from using her white cane in school I thought that it must be some kind of spoof article. Blind and visually impaired people have been using white canes as an aid to their mobility since 1921, when a photographer named James Biggs from Bristol lost his sight following an accident. Biggs became alarmedwhen dealing with traffic around the city, and therefore painted his walking stick white to be more easily visible. Gradually this approach was adopted by more individuals and organisations, and has now become a common feature that is easily recognised as an indication that the user has limited vision. Users of the white cane, (sometimes referred to as a long cane), receive training from mobility officers and find that this simple device enables them to maintain a degree of independence.

Over many years I have encountered numerous users of white canes and cannot say that I have ever been fearful for my safety or anxious that I was about to be injured by the individuals involved. I was therefore taken aback to hear that seven year old Lily-Grace Hooper has been banned from using her essential mobility aid, by the head teacher of a primary school which she attends, located ironically in the city of Bristol!

Having read a little around this topic, I have found that indeed there have been occasional accidents involving individuals tripping over the white cane used by a visually impaired person. However, it would appear that in relation to the number of individuals using this particular aid to mobility, accidents are few and far between. Indeed, it seems that in schools where children have been using these devices, students soon become aware of the user and get used to the idea that more space may be required by their classmate. Reports of accidents in schools caused by users of the white cane may be out there somewhere, but they have as yet evaded me.

I once had the experience of being run into by a teacher who was a wheelchair user in a school in London. No serious damage was done to either myself or the wheelchair. As is usually the case in polite English society I apologised profusely for having impeded the wheelchair user’s pathway, whilst she similarly begged forgiveness for having crashed into the back of my legs. I am quite sure that such collisions between able bodied teachers, colleagues and students happen every day. I certainly was not inclined to call for a ban upon wheelchairs in schools, recognising that minor events such as that which I had experienced are bound to happen from time to time.

It is to be hoped that Lily-Grace Hooper’s situation can be quickly resolved. I understand that the anticipated accidents that might have been caused by this pupil have not yet occurred, and that as yet there is not a queue of ambulances lined up at the school gates. Common sense would suggest that having a child who is a white cane user in school provides opportunities for the whole school community to learn about the needs of Lily-Grace, and that she will be able to experience what it means to be welcomed and included in school. However, I sometimes find that common sense is not quite as common a commodity as we might expect.

I would like to ask the head teacher of this Bristol primary school why not try to do something original to assist children with this unique learning opportunity? Perhaps they could take it in turns to be blindfolded and with the aid of a cane – white or otherwise, find their way about the classroom in order to make suggestions of how the environment could be made more Lily-Grace friendly. Or maybe this suggestion is simply symptomatic of a “touchy-feely” teacher who believes that we should look for learning opportunities rather than seeing problems – (yes I confess I am such a one!).

I am sure that the head teacher and governors of the school attended by Lily-Grace Hooper will have learned much from the publicity and debate that has surrounded their bizarre decision. I hope that the confidence of Lily-Grace and her family has not been too impaired by this outmoded attitude to a child with a disability. Let’s hope that the school’s managers are now in a position to reflect upon what it takes to be inclusive and to enable all pupils to feel at home in school.

 

The long road to liberty

Magna Carta (1215) a launch pad for later legislation to protect the rights of individuals

Magna Carta (1215) a launch pad for later legislation to protect the rights of individuals

I spent most of yesterday at the Palace of Westminster – home of the British Houses of Parliament. I have visited this readily recognised landmark on several occasions, but never cease to be impressed by both the grandeur of the architecture, and the sense of the history that surrounds the place. On arrival, most visitors enter The Houses of Parliament via Westminster Hall, the oldest part of this magnificent building. Westminster Hall was built at the command of King William II in 1097 and was reputedly the largest hall in Europe at this time. The hall contains many splendid features, though it is the superb hammer beam roof commissioned in 1393 by Richard II that impresses me more than any other aspect.

Westminster Hall has witnessed many significant historical events including the trial of Sir Thomas More (1535) and of Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plotters (1606), but most famously, this was the scene of the trial of King Charles I (1649) prior to his execution.

This is the only part of the Houses of Parliament where visitors are permitted to take photographs, and today I was particularly pleased to have this opportunity. As I arrived at the hall my attention was immediately drawn to a series of colourful banners hanging at regular intervals along the walls. With twenty minutes to spare I spent the time examining this display which had been assembled to commemorate a significant point in English history.

800 years ago in 1215 Magna Carta was issued by King John under some duress from a number of Barons, or noblemen at Runnymede near Windsor on the River Thames. Throughout this year there have been a number of events to commemorate this important occasion, which is often seen as a significant landmark in establishing the protection of the rights of individuals in the country. Probably the most famous quotation from Magna Carta is:

“To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice.”

This has been interpreted in many ways, but is usually seen as establishing that every individual should be treated fairly and receive justice and protection by law.

This is, of course, a noble sentiment, but it was educative to examine the banners displayed in Westminster Hall today, which indicated how it has taken many centuries since the issuing of Magna Carta to ensure that rights and justice have been recognised and assured for a broad range of groups and individuals. The banners, each created by a different artist provide an interpretation and information about a number of significant pieces of legislation. These include the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1807), the foundation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (1897) that eventually secured votes for women (1918), the Race Relations Act (1965), the Sexual Offences Act (1967), and the Disability Discrimination Act (1995). Each of these landmarks was significant in securing the rights of groups of people who had suffered discrimination and marginalisation. None was obtained without vigorous campaigning by individuals and pressure groups, but all have had a radical impact upon the lives of significant numbers of people.

A fine example of the sacrifices made by individuals who have campaigned for the rights of their fellow men and women is depicted on a banner that reminds us of the courage of the Tolpuddle Martyrs who, in 1834, having organised agricultural workers to campaign for improved working conditions, were convicted of being members of a Friendly Society, a forerunner of today’s trade unions. At the time, swearing an oath of allegiance to such an organisation was illegal. George Loveless and his fellow agricultural workers were sentence to transportation to Australia, though their convictions were later overthrown following a vigorous campaign by other workers across the country.

What all of the banners have in common is a celebration of justice and a commitment to recognising and respecting the rights of individuals, many of whom had been subjected to abuse over many centuries. The brief time I had to view these works of art today did much to reinforce my faith in human nature and the desire that most people have to ensure justice and equity for the vulnerable. These thoughts were certainly with me as I stood in a minute’s silence along with tens of thousands of others  around the world today as a mark of respect for those who were murdered in Paris by criminals who would probably rather not be confronted by the messages conveyed on these banners.

I present the banners below for you to peruse at your leisure.

Click to enlarge

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‘Have courage to use your own reason!’

 

Vive La France!

Vive La France!

One of my favourite English historians is the late Roy Porter, an exceptionally gifted writer who had the priceless ability to express complex historical and philosophical ideas in plain language. As with many other historians of his ilk, he challenged his readers to throw off the shackles of narrow thought and to think more deeply and question every aspect of the societies that we have created, and their impact upon the people living within them.  My thoughts turned to Roy Porter, and in particular to his excellent book on “The Enlightenment,” yesterday as I listened to the appalling news coming from France of yet another mindless terrorist attack on Paris.

Whilst it is generally believed that the “age of Reason” as the enlightenment is sometimes known, began in England, it is often said that the French adopted its philosophies and innovations and took them to a new level. An argument that is well justified when one examines the scientific, literary and philosophical advances emanating from this beautiful country during what has become known as the “long 18th century” (1685-1815). John Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, written in England in 1689 provided a sound foundation for new and radical thinking, but it was the French “Philosophes”, and in particular Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Diderot who encouraged freedom of thought and expression. So why, you may well ask, did yesterday’s atrocities make me think about Roy Porter and this particular period of history?

Put simply, those key individuals who were the driving force behind the enlightenment believed that humanity and civilization could be improved through rational change. This could only be achieved through the encouragement of open minds and unrestricted thinking, accompanied by respect for ideas which should be openly debated. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant is credited with the expression “Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!” Such a bold statement is clearly anathema to those pathetic and cowardly individuals who murdered innocent people in Paris, and those faceless individuals who support them and who are clearly frightened by any notion of rational and free thinking.

The emblem of the French Republic is often depicted above three words which clearly alarm those who attempt to inflict terror on the streets of Paris and elsewhere around the world. These three words –  liberté, égalité, fraternité are a source of pride in a nation that through its emphasis on the creation of a secular society for its diverse and multi-ethnic population, has often stood against both tyranny and the restriction of free speech. Each of these words represents a challenge to the narrow minded individuals and organisations responsible for acts of terror. Liberté with its call for freedom of expression, movement and thought is the direct opposite of the efforts to control young minds and impose a warped propaganda to create hatred and intolerance. Without  liberté to engage in creative and critical thought, philosophical and scientific development ceases and we would soon revert to the dark ages.

Égalité recognises the concept of respect which is required to give everyone the opportunity to thrive and contribute to society, regardless of their sex, age, ability, colour or religion. This is an idea that creates anxiety in  the terrorist, who through some deluded notion sees himself as superior to others and regards tolerance as a weakness. Yet it is through the sustained efforts of individuals and organisations within our societies that the contributions of individuals that were denied in previous centuries have been recognised and enabled progress to be made in all facets of life.

Fraternité asserts that we are all brothers (and sisters) and have a duty to care for and respect each other. Fine examples of this have been seen in France over the past hours as individuals have put themselves in the path of danger to assist those strangers who have become the latest victims of an act of evil.

The people of Paris, along with all lovers of freedom and democracy have been terribly shaken by the violence inflicted upon its citizens and visitors over the past forty eight hours, but their courage and determination has not been diminished. Neither will those of us who love Paris and its commitment to freedom and culture be deterred from visiting. The French national anthem La Marseillaise is as stirring a song as one could ever hear. Yesterday I was greatly moved, though not surprised, to hear defiant Parisians singing this anthem at the site where so many had lost their lives. As a symbol of freedom and progress Paris has proven to be a source of inspiration to many in recent centuries. I am sure it will continue to set a fine example for the future.

Vive La France!

 

The words from the second verse of La Marseillaise seem particularly apt at present:-

Que veut cette horde d’esclaves,

De traîtres, de rois conjurés ?

Pour qui ces ignobles entraves,

Ces fers dès longtemps préparés 

Français, pour nous, ah ! quel outrage

Quels transports il doit exciter!

C’est nous qu’on ose méditer

De rendre à l’antique esclavage !

Let’s start by putting our own house in order.

This report makes interesting and sometimes uncomfortable reading

This report makes interesting and sometimes uncomfortable reading

It has always seemed to me that my job requires that I keep up to date with current research and legislation in the field of education. As most of my work is focused upon issues of educational inclusion and those socio-economic, cultural and political factors that impede progress towards creating a more inclusive education system and perpetuate marginalisation, my reading often includes national and international data that reports the current situation. Documents such as the Global Monitoring Reports that assess the progress made in respect of the education for all (EFA) goals have always proven useful and have informed both my teaching and research. Usually, these reports provide an overview of the situation for children and families in some of the most economically challenged parts of the world, and indicate initiatives that have had a positive impact upon change. However, there is a distinct danger that in reading these documents, one begins to make assumptions that the greatest challenges facing education are to be found in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, or South American countries. Beliefs  are all too often held that suggest we have somehow got things right in “the west” and that others should simply follow our lead.

Anyone who really believes that we have addressed the obstacles to creating a more inclusive and equitable society here in Europe, might be well advised to read the recently published Education and Training Monitor Report produced by the European Commission. This document provides an overview of the progress made in respect of providing access to a high quality education for young people across Europe, and reviews those influences that are currently having an impact upon achieving positive outcomes. In his introduction to this interesting document, Tibor Navracsics, the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, identifies “investment in education and inclusion through education” as the most important theme that is threaded throughout its pages. The report does identify a number of positive developments that have been supportive of young people in recent years; however, Navracsics makes a bold statement in which he states that:

 “Millions of Europeans are at risk of poverty and social exclusion, inequalities continue to grow and unemployment remains unacceptably high, especially among young people”.

There are positive messages given within the report. Not least is the increase from 34.8% – 38% of the  young people who are now completing post compulsory education and gaining good qualifications. A well educated work force has long been emphasised as a necessary condition of maintaining socio-economic stability in Europe. Unfortunately, whilst there appears to be an increased appetite for education, the report provides evidence that “youth unemployment, poverty and marginalisation remain high and one if four adults in Europe is caught in a low-skills trap.”

Amongst the most alarming sections of the report are those that suggest that the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest people living in Europe is greater than ever, and has grown at an alarming rate. Education has always been seen as a means through which individuals and communities could improve their life opportunities security and stability. But this report suggests that education is a major victim of a Europe wide economic crisis and that the budget cuts that are being made across the continent have had a detrimental impact upon the lives of individuals, with the likelihood of alarming long term consequences. These will most certainly include greater numbers of people living in poverty, and at an extreme may result in increased disaffection and social unrest.

The authors of the report state that:

“Europe is not moving in the right direction fast enough. Educational poverty remains stubbornly embedded, with far too many disadvantaged students, and government investment – crucial to quality education – reveals worrying signs of spending cuts,”

It continues by identifying:

“The persisting determinants of underachievement are, inter alia, socio-economic status, immigrant background and gender.”

Individuals who have arrived in Europe as refugees, often displaced from their homes in the most traumatic of circumstances, along with those who struggle as a result of disability or illness, are seen as most likely to fall beneath the poverty line and live in the least desirable situations. This despite many of those arriving new into Europe, being well qualified and experienced and having held professional positions in the countries from which they have fled.

It is difficult at present to identify the kind of leadership within European countries that is prepared to accept the challenge of confronting these increasing levels of inequality. Sadly it would appear that the fact that some people are doing well and are far more comfortable than they may have been a few years ago, is being taken as an indication that inactivity is acceptable. Unfortunately, for those who are currently struggling to survive and becoming further separated from their neighbours, a lack of willingness to change direction will bring little by the way of relief.

 

Lamenting fallen idols

Tarnished metal?

Tarnished metal?

I imagine that most countries have their sporting heroes; individuals who inspire, entertain and often amaze with their outstanding skills. Sportsmen and women can have a dramatic impact upon the lives of those who watch them, whether in packed stadia or on the television. Children often aspire to follow the example of their sporting idols, and even sensible adults can become quite irrational in their efforts to emulate elite athletes. Take for example the London Marathon, run annually around the streets of the English capital, past many of the city’s major landmarks, and along roads lined with cheering fans. In the past, the marathon was an event for supremely fit and competitive runners, but the inspiration of the London event, and other similar races around the world has had the result of encouraging thousands of individuals to train for months in order to have their own personal moment of glory.

For many years when visiting India I came to accept that images of one of the world’s finest cricketers Sachin Tendulkar would be seen on billboards on every main street. I would imagine that similar exposure is currently being experienced by Richie McCaw the captain of the triumphant All Blacks rugby team in New Zealand, just as may have been the case with Pele many years ago in Brazil and Roger Federer more recently in Switzerland.

Having been involved in playing sport, albeit at a very basic level, for most of my life, I too have had my sporting heroes, and I still find myself in awe of the achievements of Beryl Burton, a sporting personality probably unknown to the majority of the British public, unless they have a particular affinity with riding a bicycle. Her courage and determination was typical of the characteristics that have inspired generations of amateur sportsmen and women everywhere. Whilst I know I could never hope to ride like the inimitable Yorkshire woman, I can still draw inspiration from her example.

Children are undoubtedly influenced by sports personalities. I am sure that there are many young boys who have been encouraged to play football after watching David Beckham, to hit a tennis ball like Andy Murray, or race bicycles in imitation of Bradley Wiggins’ exploits in the Tour de France and Olympics. I am equally aware of girls who wish to emulate the athletic accomplishments of Paula Radcliffe, to swim like Rebecca Adlington, or balance on a beam like Beth Tweddle. Such role models can encourage children to aim high and achieve great things; even those who may struggle with more academic activities.

It is therefore with great sadness that I have of late found both the back pages of newspapers, traditionally the location for sporting news, and the front pages reserved for more serious issues, reporting matters of sporting corruption and cheating. The bullying behaviour of the drug cheat Lance Armstrong, match fixing by long established professional cricketers, corrupt football officials, and over the last few days the reporting of doping scandals in Russian athletics, and probably in other countries as well, has done unimaginable damage to the image of sport.

There have been many occasions during my teaching career when I have had conversations with children who have difficulties coming to terms with the challenges of formal learning, but who have been able to demonstrate their skills with a football or cricket ball, on a bicycle or simply through the freedom of running. Often these young people have found inspiration from their sporting heroes and have looked to them as examples of excellence and sportsmanship. In schools we have seen sport as providing opportunities for encouraging team work, promoting fair play and the understanding of rules, and for the development of collaboration.

Those individuals and groups who have made sporting news of late for all the wrong reasons, have done a grave disservice to children who look to athletes for an example of excellence and achievement. This is a sad time for sports fans wherever they may be, and I fear that it may take some time before the trust that has been so severely damaged can be re-established, and children of all ages can once again attempt to emulate their sporting heroes.

 

It sometimes takes extraordinary courage to be a teacher

 

Dr Sakena Yacoobi, a real life educational heroine

Dr Sakena Yacoobi, a real life educational heroine

I don’t suppose I should have been surprised, but I was a little disappointed yesterday when having mentioned the name Sakena Yacoobi to a group of students, I found that none of them had ever heard about this amazing lady’s work. As they had not heard of Dr Yacoobi or her commitment to education, it was hardly likely that they would have been aware of The Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) which has achieved so much in that desperately poor country.

Dr Sakena Yacoobi is a formidable lady who has, for many years campaigned for the rights of those from poor communities, and especially girls, to receive an education. Having determined to take affirmative action to secure educational opportunities, she has on more than one occasion put her own life at risk and found herself under threat from powerful organisations and terrorists. However, her own personal educational experiences – she was the first member of her family to receive a formal education beyond the early years of schooling, and then found herself living as a refugee outside of her native Afghanistan, has reinforced her commitment to support others to achieve their potential.

As a refugee in the USA, Dr Yacoobi worked to gain degrees in biological sciences and public health. Her academic work was highly regarded and eventually she was made professor at an American university. Such is her commitment to the people of Afghanistan, however, that she decided to return home and develop a number of schools for children in some of the poorest areas of the country. At a time when the Taliban were in power, Dr Yacoobi founded the Afghan Institute of Learning, which supported underground schools with a specific intent of ensuring that girls received a good education. This was a brave action which she entered into fully aware of the risks she was taking.

There are a number of stories about the courage of this extraordinary lady. In particular, reference is made to the occasion when armed members of the Taliban came to a school she was running and tried to impose their narrow beliefs upon her and her staff. With considerable courage Dr Yacoobi invited these armed men into her school and served them tea, whilst arguing in defence of the education of girls, quoting freely from the Quran in justification of her actions. She admits that she thought that the men would kill her, and possibly others within the school, but eventually she persuaded them to leave and went calmly back to providing lessons.

During the period of Afghanistan’s Taliban occupation it was estimated that underground schools organised by Dr Yacoobi and her colleagues were educating up to 3,000 girls. Many have since spoken of the opportunities that these schools afforded them and the gratitude they feel towards this courageous lady.

In 2011 The WISE Prize for Education was established to recognise the services given by outstanding individuals. This prize now has an important international status and is awarded only to people who have made a significant contribution towards changing the lives of others through education. This prestigious award has just been presented to Dr Sakena Yacoobi by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, chair of the Qatar Foundation. On receiving the prize Dr Yacoobi emphasised that many in her country still live in extreme poverty, and are certainly not free from terror. She further indicated that many of the people in Afghanistan continue to suffer and have feelings of helplessness. However, she sees increased educational opportunity as one part of the equation that can assist the inhabitants of Afghanistan towards a better life.

Whilst Dr Sakena Yacoobi remains largely unknown here in the west, there are certainly many in Afghanistan who are indebted to her for her courage and determination. Let us hope that life for those who continue to suffer in that country improves in the near future, with the inspiration of Dr Yacoobi this must be a possibility.

Details of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) can be found at the link below.

http://www.afghaninstituteoflearning.org/

Do please take the time to watch the brief video below in which this extraordinary lady tells part of her story