Never too late to learn!

Learning: a shared experience

Learning: a shared experience

A short article in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper here in the UK reports the sad death of a school pupil in the Nigerian city of Kano. Whenever a school student dies it is a cause for grieving, but perhaps on this occasion the reason to be saddened is rather different than it might have been with others on the school role. The demise of this pupil may not have come as a shock as it might well have done with other students, though he will undoubtedly be missed by his classmates.

Mohammud Modibbo, the student in question, was described by his teacher Abdulkarim Ibrahim as an “easy going and jovial learner”, whose dream of going to university was sadly not to be realised. He recalled how this keen student was “very attentive, and asked questions when he didn’t understand.” He was seen by this teacher as an excellent student who had the potential to progress much further with his studies.

Mohammud Modibbo was clearly a model student, but perhaps what made him stand out from others in his class was his age. You see, this latecomer to school has died at the age of 94 years, having begun his primary schooling in his mid 80s. He was clearly not a typical secondary school student; had he been a fifteen year old, I suspect his demise would not have been reported in the international press. His thwarted ambition to gain university entrance is a matter for some regret, though we should take many positives from this otherwise sad story.

The most heartening aspect of this news report is a recognition that one is never too old to learn. Our current obsession, at least here in western countries, with age related norms and expectations that learners travel a journey at a similar pace, is given the lie by stories such as these. The fact that a primary school was willing to enrol a pupil aged eighty years plus, is both commendable and spirited. Even more remarkable is that this gentleman, whose life experiences were clearly significant, was willing to enter school and learn beside pupils who might well have been his great grandchildren. I am sure that many of his fellow pupils will have benefited from the wisdom and sagacity that he brought to school. Both the school teachers and Mohammud Modibbo should be applauded for this positive and inclusive attitude to learning.

If there is a truly sad aspect to this story, it must be that Mohammud had to wait for so many years to be given the opportunity to become a school pupil. I have no doubt that he will have learned much throughout his life, and that this will have enabled him to contribute greatly to the learning of his far younger classmates. He clearly grasped the opportunity to engage in formal learning with alacrity, and relished the opportunity to accept new challenges and greater insights into the world.

The article reports that acceptance of more senior citizens into schools is not uncommon in several African nations. A great-great- grandmother by the name of Priscilla Sitienei reportedly enrolled in primary school in Kenya at the age of 90 years. I have no doubt that there are other such stories to be told not only from Africa, but elsewhere in the world.

These students, and the schools who have opened their doors to them provide us with inspiring stories of inclusive approaches to education. There is much that we can all learn from the teachers who have welcomed these mature students.

Perhaps when my grandchildren begin school I might be permitted to re-enrol alongside them in order to gain all the exciting learning that I missed first time around!


Education and business can be uncomfortable bed fellows


How can we be sure of the motivations of those who see education as a business opportunity.

How can we be sure of the motivations of those who see education as a business opportunity.

Dr Kishore Singh who is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, recently expressed his concern that universal access to education is in danger of being inhibited because of current proposals being considered in a number of African nations. Government authorities in several of these countries have recently been considering the delegation of fundamental education services to the private sector, in what Dr Singh perceives to be an effort to reduce spending on education.

Dr Singh, who has a background in law, is well versed in the challenges of working towards the achievement of the rights of all children to receive an education, having held a post of responsibility for overseeing the right to education at UNESCO for many years. He has been involved in a number of campaigns in this area, and has been recognised for being outspoken on issues such as the eradication of corporal punishment, and violence towards children. His experience and knowledge is such that we should be prepared to listen attentively when he expresses his concern that children are in danger of being denied learning opportunities because of poor governance.

Whilst expressing his apprehensions about current developments in Africa, Dr Singh was also aware of similar moves elsewhere in the world. The actions identified by this United Nations expert as being of concern, include those of  the Society of Unaided Private Schools of Rajasthan and the Independent Schools Federation of India, who have recently challenged India’s Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE), by suggesting that it violates their autonomy and places a strain upon their resources. There is, of course, an element of genuine concern in such arguments. In countries that are challenged by difficult socio-economic circumstances, where making progress in the provision of education is always going to be accompanied by tensions. However, as Dr Singh states:

“Education is not a privilege of the rich and well-to-do; it is an inalienable right of every child. Provision of basic education free of costs is a core obligation of States.”

Why should Dr Kishore Singh be concerned? If the private sector is willing to provide education for children, shouldn’t the state be encouraged to support such an initiative? It is certainly true to say that there are many excellent private schools, some run by NGOs, others by charitable trusts and even some by wealthy philanthropists, which are doing excellent work in this field. I am sure that Dr Singh recognises this, but he is right to express his apprehensions.

In particular there are concerns that once the state abdicates responsibility for the education of its children, it loses control of the ability to ensure that the quality of schooling is high, and that the curriculum and other procedures are fit for purpose. Where things go wrong, if the state has no oversight and no available sanctions, there is little opportunity for redress. There must also be questions asked about the motivations of those who choose to develop private educational institutions. There are many instances where such schools have been run purely on business lines, with a focus upon making profit, and others where they have been seen as the means of promoting a doctrine which may not always be in the interests of the children or communities which they claim to support. In countries where private schooling sits comfortably alongside that provided by the state, there are well established elements of quality assurance and control, overseen by national governments, to which all schools must adhere. Where such procedures are ignored, this can lead to major injustices and the exclusion of significant elements of the population from schooling.

Where schools are managed in order to make a profit, they are usually dependent upon contributions from the wealthiest sections of society. The children of affluent families tend to be warmly welcomed by the management of these schools, those who come from more marginalised backgrounds less so. When these schools have endeavoured to provide for a proportion of children from poorer communities, or those who have been excluded because of disability or special educational needs, they have often been faced with opposition from those parents who believe that this will be to the detriment of their children.  In talking about the importance of providing parental choice, the managers and owners of these establishments are almost invariably considering the right to choice of only a small and largely advantaged section of the population.

It may, of course, be the case that Dr Kishore Singh’s anxieties are ill-founded. It could be the case that a beneficent and selfless organisation takes responsibility for schooling in a state, and is prepared to accept the guidance of a democratically elected government with regards to how provision for all children can be achieved. Sadly, I think that in expressing his concerns, Dr Singh is right in suggesting that the forfeiting of responsibility for ensuring that all children have access to education is a measure of the lack of commitment to equity and inclusion on the part of some governments.

Ensuring that Education for All becomes a reality was never going to be easy. It will be made even harder if governments fail to accept that it is their responsibility to effect change that will benefit all children.


Picturing life as it is for others

Sometimes one picture can provoke ten thousand words. What (if anything)does this mean to you?

Sometimes one picture can provoke ten thousand words. What (if anything)does this mean to you?


It is the start of another academic year and for various reasons a moment in time that I always find unsettling. For a brief while we live in a period of great anticipation for the days ahead, coupled with scurrying activity to ensure that all is ready for coming teaching commitments, new students and a renewal of research activity, but amidst all this we exist in days which seem to be spent in isolation amongst the echoing space of empty university offices.

Part of the reason for this is the burgeoning conference season that erupts each September drawing academics from the UK to venues in various parts of Europe, to showcase their own work and hopefully to listen and learn from other researchers who are engaged in similar activity. Anyone who has read David Lodge’s excellent and highly entertaining campus novel Small World will have a fairly clear picture of the type of jamboree to which I refer. Lodge, himself a well-respected academic as well as an astute observer of human nature through his cleverly constructed novels, acquired a healthy cynicism about the “academic lifestyle” and its self-proclaimed pretensions of importance. In recent weeks colleagues, and some of my students, have been attending these international conferences in locations including Portugal and Crete in what has become an annual ritual to launch the academic year.

Sometimes these conferences provide an opportunity to hear new ideas and to engage in debates with colleagues who are working hard to move the agenda for children forward, though in my experience it is often necessary to go searching for the sessions where this might just be possible. Often the papers presented are simply recycling ideas and act more like a comfort blanket for those seeking reassurance that their work has some intrinsic value that might continue to justify their continued employment. As you might tell from my tone, I am at present far less enthusiastic about the large international conferences than I might have been earlier in my career.

However, last week, amidst frantic activity with colleagues from Ireland and here in Northampton, to finish writing a research report that was finally despatched on Friday evening, I took a day out to fulfil a promise to a good colleague from Cambridge University to attend one day of a conference in Bath. Being some 150 miles from home, it was just about manageable to drive to Bath, engage with colleagues as promised and then return home in one day. The conference, organised by the British Association for International and Comparative Education (BAICE) promoted a session to discuss some of the ethical and socio-political challenges of working with teachers and children in poorer communities around the world. There were papers presented by academics from universities working in countries in Africa and Asia alongside those from workers in Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and charities with a permanent presence on the ground working in communities to address challenges associated with health, social care and educational issues. Many of the situations faced by these colleagues place the work which I do in collaboration with associates in India firmly into perspective. A discussion about working in the ebola ravaged regions of Africa or in other war torn areas of that great continent makes one realise that the minor frustrations I occasionally feel in my work in South India are somewhat trivial.

The conference session that I attended, and hopefully to which I made a minor contribution, was both stimulating and thought provoking. I heard things that made me in turn angry, hopeful and thankful that there are organisations committed to improving the lives of others even when this places their own lives at great risk. Driving home I reflected on the value of this day, and also on various aspects of its organisation and innovations that added significantly to the experience. Often, after a conference it is possible to revisit the ideas discussed by reading the papers produced by those who have made the extra effort to contribute a written account to enhance the dialogue of the sessions. However, this usually means waiting some time and in many cases the papers, for a variety of reasons, never appear. The convenors of the session in Bath had come up with an excellent solution to this issue by recruiting a talented colleague who throughout the sessions was producing the picture at the head of this blog posting. Around the session theme of Politics of Disability and Education: Perspectives from the Global South, she had illustrated ideas discussed during and after each presentation, thus providing an immediate aide-memoire of the workshop.

Since returning home I have looked at this superb précis of the session on several occasions and have found it stimulating ideas and reminding me of some of the issues that we discussed. The struggles faced by disabled students in South Africa, so ably articulated by two colleagues from that country, the obstacles to achieving anything like universal education in Mali and Senegal with its many difficulties associated with health and social structures, and the gulf between policy and practice in an emerging education provision for the poorer communities in India are all illustrated in this work of art. Now that the term has begun I have printed a copy of this picture and have it close to hand as a reminder of why many of us entered the teaching profession in our callow youth. Hopefully as we get older it may still be possible to kindle the light that gave us direction during those formative years and to avoid the petty distractions that can easily divert us from this course.

What messages (if any) do you take from the picture? I would be interested to hear.