Broadening the learning horizon could well have benefits.

How important might the learning opportunities being provide here be?

How important might the learning opportunities being provide here be?

In recent years it seems that everywhere I travel education has been reduced to a set of attainment targets. Furthermore the focus of education often appears to have been confined to a narrow and predictable channel around mathematics and science. The social sciences and arts appear less significant in the minds of many politicians and policy makers and achievements by children in these areas can easily pass unnoticed. But maybe now I am beginning to detect a small amount of challenge to this narrow view of the curriculum.

Yesterday was a day of contrasts in terms of the education related media reports that I accessed. On the morning Radio 4 Today Programme the BBC,  in one of those items that always seem to appear as “fillers” between more weighty debate, once again cited a politician (so many have done this that they all blur into one) who wishes that our schools in the UK could be more like those in Shanghai, Singapore or Korea. Leaving aside the fact that these learned politicos appear to have failed to recognise that the cultures of these countries are significantly different from our own, it is clear that the obsession with the education system in these nations is based solely upon educational attainment in mathematics and science. There is no doubt that any scrutiny of academic outcomes in these subjects reveals that China, Korea and Singapore are performing at a high level, but at what cost?

Research conducted into childhood stress and anxiety levels, published in a number of authoritative journals indicates that Chinese students report some of the highest stress levels in the world, and exhibit acute symptoms that include heightened anxiety, despair and feelings of anger towards their peers. Similar reports from Korea suggest that increased levels of bullying and an appallingly high incidence of child suicides may be directly correlated to pressure to do well in academic subjects. Every parent wants their child to do well in school, and it is right that teachers should have high expectations of their students. But perhaps this can be achieved through methods that don’t simply involve cramming for examinations, and might be better managed if greater credence was given to wider aspects of the curriculum.

Once again I found myself feeling somewhat cross that the BBC had resorted to lazy journalism in presenting an item comparing UK education to that elsewhere in the world. However, by contrast it was a news item from Asia that made me think that perhaps there is the potential for a backlash against this simplistic appraisal of the purpose of education.

Krishnan Koushik writing in the education supplement of the Deccan Herald from South India begins his article under the title “The need for reviving liberal education”  (Deccan Herald March 5th 2015) by depicting a typical scenario in which an adult asks a child how they are getting on in school. The child answers by giving his grades in maths and science, but says nothing of other subjects and certainly does not mention whether or not he enjoys schools. The adult is satisfied that he has received a reply that indicates satisfactory attainment in these two dominant subjects, therefore all must be well in this child’s education.

I should state before going any further that the use of the term “liberal” in Mr Koushik’s article will have already raised the hackles of at least one reader of this blog, who has had occasion to use this term as a derogation of my articles in his own writing in the past, but I make no apologies and neither should the journalist who within his feature makes a number of acute observations about the purpose of education.

Krishnan Koushik constructs an eloquent argument for giving greater value to the teaching of literature, the social sciences and art. With regards to the teaching of literature he states that:-

“literature is the study of life. By studying literature, we learn what it means to be human. Literature also teaches us about how powerful language can be. By studying the use of language in literature, we learn how to use the subtleties of the language to our advantage. So, literature helps us in shaping and moulding our character”. 

He goes on to advocate a broadening of our approach to the social sciences by saying:-

“When we study the social sciences, we are studying how people put their societies together and we are looking at the impacts of their decisions about how their societies should be run. By studying these things, we are becoming better informed about how societies should be put together and the intricacies involved in them”.

At no point does Krishnan Koushik deny the importance of the sciences and mathematics, but he makes a good case for ensuring that we provide children with a more holistic appreciation of the world in which they live and for which they will soon assume greater responsibility. Referring to previously revered, but sadly now more often ignored, educators of the past, including Johann Pestalozzi, David Thoreau, Francis Parker, John Dewey and Maria Montessori, Koushik makes a case for recognising the individuality of each child and provided them with a broad range of learning opportunities in which they can find their own passions and strengths. One particular phrase in his article stands out:-

 “Holistic education aims to call forth from people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning”.

Krishnan Koushik’s article is one of several that I have noted in the media from several parts of the world recently. It would appear that concerns are being increasingly expressed about the narrowing focus of education and in particular the marginalisation of all but a few curriculum subjects. The issues surrounding this debate are complex and I believe that many of those who advocate a focus upon science and maths, even at a cost to other subjects, often do so with a genuine concern for the needs of children. The majority of teachers with whom I converse have been expressing their concerns about the narrowing of curriculum priorities. Sadly, many of them are fearful of expressing their opinions or participating in the debate.

If you disagree with the sentiments expressed by Krishnan Koushik or the ways in which I have portrayed these in this blog, do feel free to post a reply. Healthy debate can help us all to learn and understand other’s points of view. Alternatively, if you have been incensed by the liberality of the views expressed you could try to relax by reading a good novel, visiting your local art gallery, exploring the nature of your immediate hinterland, going to the theatre or listening to Mozart or Abida Parveen. Whilst doing so you might consider how future generations will be encouraged to value and appreciate these experiences.

Celebrating a sharing of cultural influences

Adivasi artists have adorned some of the walls of the Valley school with their paintings.

Adivasi artists have adorned some of the walls of the Valley school with their paintings.

When visiting the Valley School as a guest of my good friend Satish, trading a little teaching for the quiet and comfort of a forest life, I am always pleased to find myself amongst creative people. The Valley acts as a magnet to artists, musicians, dancers and poets and my stay this time coincided with that of a Dutch musician and sculptor who was giving some remediation to a work he installed in the grounds a few years ago. Also in attendance were an English story teller, who entertained a willing audience beneath the stars late into an evening, and two classical Indian percussionist who were working with groups of enthusiastic children.

The Valley school staff are committed to celebrating and disseminating the art and culture of India as well as exposing their pupils and the adult community to that from elsewhere in the world. Whenever I walk through the extensive arboreal grounds of the Valley there is evidence of the work of local and tribal artists, potters and sculptors. This sits comfortably alongside the work of children and staff from the school community and that produced by visiting artisans.

The regional variations of tribal art, examples of which can be found on the walls of this environment are a fascination that I have acquired in recent years. At home, a beautiful black and white depiction of birds in a forest, skillfully produced by a Madhubani artist from Bihar hangs in our lounge. My interest in these works meant that I was particularly delighted following my session at the CISCE conference for  school principals, to be presented with a Pithora painting by a tribal artist Rathya Najroo Shekla Bhai from Gujarat.

There is a childlike quality to this work which may understandably be categorised as naive. Yet the picture tells a clear and moving story, depicting life in a tribal community entered through the gateway at the foot of the picture. Here are portrayals of people, animals, birds and activities that typify and shape the culture of these distinctive and dignified people. All of this is surrounded by an intricate border formed by a filigree of patterns and shapes.

A Gujerati tribal painting on canvas portrays the bustle of village life

A Gujarati Pithora tribal painting on canvas portrays the bustle of village life

In enjoying this work and others like it I am aware of how this, and similar tribal art from around the world has influenced that of European artists. The Russian painter Marc Chagall projects a similar naivety in his depiction of animals such as the donkey in his painting “L’Ane Vert” (the Green Donkey) as is achieved in the creation of camels and horses in the Gujarati picture. The tiger in Rousseau’s famous “Tiger in a Tropical Storm” is not so far removed in his simplicity from those magnificent felines at the gates of this work.  Other artists, including Picasso and Matisse were openly influenced by tribal patterns and motifs and could see the underlying spirit of their apparent simplicity and the importance of the stories that they tell.

Just in case you should believe that artistic influences have travelled in only one direction, it is evident in the works of many of today’s Indian painters that they have drawn inspiration from the west. Jaii Deolalkar a talented artist who also works at the Valley spoke to me of her association with the works of Paul Klee, which is evident in a series of her paintings produced in recent years. Her works are untitled, enabling the viewer to see what they may in her art. Her work below with its furious reds and ochres and a depth of field created by brush strokes and shadows, demonstrates how the work of modern Europeans has shaped the thinking of an artist here in Bangalore.

Bangalore artist Jaii Deolalkar draws inspiration from, amongst others, Paul Klee

Bangalore artist Jaii Deolalkar draws inspiration from, amongst others, Paul Klee

This sharing of artistic styles and traditions must surely play a part in helping those of us who are devoid of creative talent, to understand the cultural influences and interpretations of those who have such gifts. The children who learn in this environment are certainly placed in a position of advantage.


Still confused, but eager to learn


The last few days before I leave home for India are always frantic. I have been making this trip so often that I always expect that by now I will be completely organised and ready to fly, but as I write this, little more than twenty four hours before departure my luggage remains unpacked and I have so much to do it feels like I will never be organised. I try to remain calm and tell myself that this is the usual situation and all will fall into place. This tactic however, does little to assuage my panic.

It is fifteen years since Sara and I first visited India and I have been returning with increasing regularity ever since. Nothing could have prepared us for the sensory explosion that greeted us on that first trip. The constant noise of traffic and voices all shouting to be heard, the dizzying motion everywhere from autorikshaws, buses and motorbikes dodging between dogs, goats and cattle, the heady smells of herbs and spices, and the vast range of bright colours that dominate the entire environment. The beautiful reds, greens and kingfisher blues of saris, the garish splash of the cinema posters, ornate shop fronts and huge advertising hoardings, so many in number that it is impossible to take in all the information. I had thought that after so many visits my senses would have adjusted, but they remain excited and at times exhausted by this cornucopia of sensory assault.

I can honestly say that since before that first visit I have tried hard to learn as much as I can about this stimulating and wonderful country. I have read books which inform me about aspects of the history, philosophy, religions, art and architecture of India. I have listened to music, visited exhibitions and tried to keep abreast of a burgeoning Indian media. I have taken every opportunity to question and debate with Indian colleagues about so many aspects of Indian life and culture. Yet still I feel that I know nothing and understand even less of this place to which I am about to return. It would take more than a lifetime of study to begin to appreciate what it is that contributes to this unique environment and its vast and varied populace. It would certainly require an intellect far greater than mine to comprehend the contradictions and the conundrum that is India. But therein is the joy of this opportunity; one that I have endeavoured to grasp with both hands.

I sometimes feel that it is impossible to see India with any accuracy through western eyes. I  believe that this is why for so many years the British, and to a lesser extent the Portuguese, Dutch and French tried so hard to impose their own standards and values on the country and found it difficult to understand the people over whom they governed. Even the Moghuls, with their distinctly Persian influence could not fully impose their cultural dominance upon this sub-continent. Whilst occasional rulers have left their mark, as seen in the magnificent Moghul or British imperial architecture most familiarly represented at Agra through the Taj Mahal, or in New Delhi with its imposing Lutyens buildings, or at times through the systems of administration witnessed in the law courts and education system, there remains a unique Indian interpretation that has taken the best of these but continues to assert an independence of spirit and character. Over the years there have been many great European commentators who have done their best to interpret India for those of us who remain perplexed. The best of these, such as Mark Tully, Stanley Wolpert, James Cameron and William Dalrymple bring some of the minutiae of India into sharper focus, but gaining a broader canvas by which we may appreciate the whole appears far too challenging.

I visit India as a teacher, but as with so many teaching experiences I recognise that I play the role of the student every bit as much as the tutor. Whilst sharing my knowledge and experiences with teachers, students and friends in India I am always learning from them and striving to place my interpretation of the world within their context. After forty years as a teacher (and far more as a pupil) I gain satisfaction from the clarity with which the indistinguishable nature of teaching and learning combined is in evidence, as I work in Bangalore and other parts of the country. The privilege of being a student here as well as a teacher is difficult to capture in words.

So it is that as I do begin to pack my luggage,  I gain a little confidence. The materials with which I will teach have been prepared for some weeks and I know that my colleagues Mary, Jayashree and Johnson will be equally ready. This, I tell myself means that the important preparations have been made. If in packing my suitcase I forget an item of clothing or some other accoutrement this will be of little consequence and is unlikely to detract from the teaching and learning that lies ahead. By this time tomorrow I will have checked that I have my passport a dozen times, and even at the airport I will be unsure that I have remember all that I should have with me. But I know that from the minute I am with students and colleagues in India all this will matter less and that we will embark upon the next stage of our learning together. Perhaps this time I will return from India with a little more understanding and an increased store of knowledge. I can hardly wait!

A Bravura Performance

The actor Eddoe Redmayne with the great mathematician Stephen Hawking who he so eloquently portrays on film.

The actor Eddie Redmayne with the great mathematician Stephen Hawking who he so eloquently portrays on film.

I sometimes think that I don’t go the cinema as often as I should. I have to admit that part of this is a rather personal curmudgeonly streak, which finds the perpetual rustling of sweet wrappers, and the sickly smell of popcorn rather irritating in most cinema environments. As a regular theatre goer, I have been somewhat spoiled by audiences that tend to be respectful and appreciative of the performers on stage, and possibly more aware of their fellow audience members. The current popularity of film in this country is an indication that I am probably alone in my exasperation, and I suspect that if I want to see the latest offerings on the silver screen, I will simply have to subdue my irritation and go along with the modern cinema experience.

On Saturday evening Sara and I visited our local cinema to see a quite remarkable performance by the actor Eddie Redmayne as he depicted the life of Professor Stephen Hawking in the film The Theory of Everything. Playing opposite the actress Felicity Jones who was also impressive in the role of Hawking’s first wife Jane, Eddie Redmayne played the role of the eminent mathematician and scientist through his Cambridge University days, and his subsequent achievements, as he developed his theories around time and assumed his role as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. Both the acting and the cinematography were a real tour de force.

Understandably, the film was little concerned with the complex theories and mathematical principles that have  characterised Professor Hawking’s work, but dealt in large with his physical deterioration as a result of motor neurone disease, and the impact that this had upon his family life and relationships. At times I found the film almost too painful to watch, as for example in a scene where Hawking tries desperately to scale a set of stairs, a task that clearly demands all of his physical strength and mental determination. But in general, the film is, in that rather clichéd expression, “life affirming” in telling the tale of a remarkable and determined man who overcomes enormous challenges to achieve great things.

As is inevitably the case after watching such a powerful and moving piece of art, it takes some time to fully reflect on what has been seen. However, a number of details from the film reminded me of many of the initiatives that I witness on a regular basis from teachers in schools. The very physical nature of the acting of Eddie Redmayne and his immense skill in representing a man whose body changes significantly over the course of time was hugely impressive. But equally informative and represented in a subtle and unobtrusive manner in the film was the response of Felicity Jones in the role of his wife. The adjustments that she made to her attention and care of her husband, reminded me of the actions of so many teachers and parents with whom I have worked over the years. The commitment to an individual who is so highly dependent, and the selfless changes in life style made by a caring adult, designed to provide maximum support, was brilliantly depicted in this film, and true to so many situations that I have seen in other families.

Equally moving was the respect which was shown to Stephen Hawking by those closest to him, including his academic  colleagues. These people who know him well can see beyond his disability in order to appreciate his unique individuality, irreverent sense of humour and outstanding intellect. This contrasts strongly in the film with the attitudes of some members of the audience at a concert in Bordeaux attended by Hawking, who show their apparent  distaste for his presence in the theatre. Their reactions, based solely upon ignorance and prejudice showed why many disabled people still find themselves uncomfortable in such a public forum.

A further potential point of interest to teachers watching this film, relates to the efforts made to enable Stephen Hawking to communicate after he loses his voice. The empathetic approach adopted by a speech therapist, played by Maxine Peake, who initially introduces a simple communication board to her charge, will be familiar to many teachers. The eventual provision of a voice synthesiser shows the liberating effect of matching appropriate resources to the learner. This interface between the professionalism of the teacher, the respect for the individuality of the learner and the determination of that individual to overcome his own learning difficulties, gives an excellent portrayal of the power of a considered approach to teaching.

I am sure that this film will encourage many who see it to reflect not only upon the devastating impact of a progressive disability, but also upon the importance of maintaining high expectations of individuals in this situation. I hope that it may also encourage more people to see how important it is to enable learners, who happen to have a disability, to take some control of their own lives whilst being offered support on their terms.

Viewing this film was a wholly positive experience, so much so that I can even forgive the woman behind me who must have unwrapped a kilo of sweets during its showing!



Marmalade sandwiches, mayhem and revolution – all in one bear!

Mischievous, amusing and often prepared to challenge conventional thinking. Paddington Bear is a hero to many children.

Mischievous, amusing and often prepared to challenge conventional thinking. Paddington Bear is a hero to many children.

The period leading up to Christmas in the UK has a built-in, comfortable predictability, which I’m sure ultimately contributes greatly to the cosiness of the festive season. Houses and streets are illuminated by flashing lights of variable quality and taste, Christmas markets become a feature of almost every town, carol services provide one of the few occasions when church pews can expect to be full, and the tinny music that characterises shops throughout the year gives way to equally discordant renditions of kitsch Yuletide pop songs.

Similarly predicable, and anticipated with equal amounts of enthusiasm or indifference, is the inevitable Christmas blockbuster film, released just in time to attract an audience of children and families as they get into the mood for the coming celebrations. Sometimes these films prove to be a great success and well beloved of the public, in which case they will become an annual feature on our Christmas television screens. Others appear as a damp squib and disappear, forgotten to all but a few cinematic diehards, never to be seen again.

This year there is considerable ground for optimism that the major end of year release, a film based upon the adventures of Paddington Bear, a long established hero for many children and not a few adults, will be a great hit with audiences. Reviews of the film have been wholly favourable, and the few people I know who have seen, it state categorically that it is a joy for children from the ages of five to ninety, (why it is unsuitable for ninety five year olds I don’t quite understand). The film Paddington appears to have achieved that elusive quality, shared with others such as Mary Poppins, of being able to attract both adults and children alike to enjoy a shared cinema experience.

Michael Bond, the eighty eight year old creator of Paddington Bear recalls how

 “I bought a small toy bear on Christmas Eve 1956. I saw it left on a shelf in a London store and felt sorry for it. I took it home as a present for my wife Brenda and named it Paddington as we were living near Paddington Station at the time. I wrote some stories about the bear, more for fun than with the idea of having them published. After ten days I found that I had a book on my hands. It wasn’t written specifically for children, but I think I put into it the kind things I liked reading about when I was young.”

“A Bear Called Paddington” the first book was published in 1958 and has been followed by many others. The bear, attired in duffle coat and hat became an immediate favourite with children and continues to educate and entertain through his extraordinary mishaps in everyday situations. I have always found the character appealing, as he often rails against bureaucracy and petty regulations, challenges convention and cant, and has a strong sense of justice. When reading the books to children I have at times felt that I could hear the author’s somewhat non-conformist voice coming through the text.

This morning on BBC Radio 4 Michael Bond was interviewed about his books and the film, and made a number of interesting observations about how childhood has changed since he first started writing the Paddington books more than fifty years ago. In particular he reflected on the fact that children are expected to grow up much more quickly than they used to, and that they lose their innocence at an early age.

Clearly we cannot turn back the clock. Notions that there was ever a “golden age” of childhood are probably unfounded and change is inevitable. But there was something particularly sad in the tone of voice with which this respected writer suggested that the pressures on today’s children are greater than in the past.

It is indeed sad that the time to play and explore, that was a formative feature of many of our earlier years, is now undervalued by many who make and implement educational and social policy. Although the pressures are not as great here in the UK as in some other countries, the rush to formalise learning and leave the adventures of play behind is increasingly apparent.

Thank goodness for the joyous spirit that can still be instilled in children by writers such as Michael Bond. I do hope that for many years to come, Paddington Bear will be thriving on his favoured diet of marmalade sandwiches and debunking the pomposity at which he has laughed for the past fifty and more years.

Michael Bond wrote a new short story of Paddington Bear to celebrate his new venture into film. To hear the actor Jim Broadbent, who plays a major role in the film, read the story, click on the link below.


Thank goodness for the honest language of children!

Spemser Turner, and eloquent and thoughtful young man, whose honest use of language has much to teach adults.

Spenser Turner, an eloquent and thoughtful young man, whose honest use of language has much to teach adults.

Driving into the university this morning I was listening to the radio, a regular routine that keeps me abreast of the news, when a report came on featuring a ten year old schoolboy from Newcastle in the north east of England. Spencer Turner who attends Farne Primary School was being interviewed at the National Arboretum located in Staffordshire in the centre of the country.

The National Arboretum is a focus of memorial for people who have given their lives in service of the country. Fifty thousand trees and a number of commissioned memorials represent not only military personnel, but also those working for the police and emergency services or involved in rescue or support services overseas, who have lost their lives doing their duty. This memorial landscape attracts visitors from around the world, and provides a centre for contemplation and an opportunity for people who wish to pay their respects to those who have died, both known and unknown.

Across Europe this year there have been many events organised to commemorate 1914 and the outbreak of the First World War. Today at the National Arboretum, Prince William will unveil the latest memorial which will recall a significant event during that terrible time. At Christmas 1914, English and German soldiers who had been facing each other from their trenches across a battlefield, put down their arms, declared a truce and crossed into “no-man’s land” to exchange gifts. In the midst of this temporary cessation of hostilities, a number of the soldiers from opposing armies produced a football and proceeded to enjoy a spontaneous game. This event has been variously reported in newspapers and history books and through theatrical and media productions over the intervening years, but particularly this year at the centenary of the event.

As a permanent means to commemorate this makeshift football match, the Football Association and the British Council organised a competition for school children to design an appropriate memorial to be located at the National Arboretum. Children up to the age of sixteen were invited to submit their designs and there was a huge response. Ten year old Spencer Turner, who featured on the radio this morning, won this competition and along with others from his school will be present at its unveiling today.

This in itself is a touching story of enabling children to participate in a practical way in commemorating the tragedy of a dreadful war. But rather than the event, it was the interview with young Spencer that I found most moving this morning. To their great credit, the Today Programme, a daily news magazine on BBC Radio 4 gave Spenser time to explain his inspiration for the design and to express his feelings about the finished bronze sculpture and his involvement in the day.

Spenser through his articulate and straightforward account of his experiences and emotions painted a vivid picture of what this day means to him. He described how he started with a design featuring a footballer with a ball, but then realised that most of the children entering this competition would be making similar images. Eventually he opted to produce a drawing that shows English and German hands, clasped in friendship within the cage of a ball. This he stated represented these two groups of men coming together through an image of peace that shows that you “can actually stop war.” Having won the competition he says he was shocked and proud, but it was evident from his interview on this morning’s programme that he was also moved by what the memorial that he has designed represents. He talked about knowing little about the First World War until a pack of information arrived in school. From this he had clearly learned much and this shaped his work for the competition.

There are always dangers that commemorations of war can become jingoistic or simply a token gesture which has impact for a short time, and is then forgotten. I am quite sure that in this instance Spencer Turner and many other school children who entered this competition will have learned much about the horror and futility of war. I also hope that the many thousands of people who listened to Spenser on the radio this morning will have noted the eloquence with which he expressed his ideas and the reasoning behind his process of design.

Coming at the end of a week in which the news has been dominated by the extent of the brutality that has become a feature of modern warfare, and in particular the inhumane means of interrogation used to extract information from prisoners, it is opportune to reflect upon different perspectives of war that were reported on this morning’s news. In particular I feel we should stop for a while to consider the contrasting straightforward and honest expressions used by a ten year old school boy who was obviously moved and thoughtful about what he had learned, with those mischievous terms such as “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “coercive methods,” used by adults in positions of power as a denial of torture, which were heard in an earlier news item.

It is only fitting that we should remember the suffering endured by servicemen and civilians during times of war. But it is to be hoped that we can learn lessons from children like Spenser that may govern the ways in which we behave in the future.



Today’s letters may provide tomorrow’s insights

Whilst lacking the immediacy of e-mail, a written letter still feels far more personal.

Whilst lacking the immediacy of e-mail, a written letter still feels far more personal.

 “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

(Blaise Pascal The Provincial Letters 1657)

Responding to yesterday’s blog, in which I commented on the demise of the letter as a means of communication, Tim Loreman from Canada reminisced about the pre-internet era, when he and his then girlfriend (who has since become his wife), being apart from each other on different continents exchanged letters, written on a daily basis, knowing that they might take weeks to be delivered. I was particularly touched by his romantic recollection that “somehow that process of physically writing, waiting, and receiving letters had an appeal all of its own”.

There is still something special about receiving a letter from a friend, and whilst I recognise and value the immediacy of electronic communication, the physical entity of a letter appears to add more weight to correspondence and greater permanence to the words expressed on the paper. I have a file of letters here in my study from my good friend Satish in India, and occasionally return to this small archive in order to reflect on some of the ideas exchanged. There is a reassurance in having this physical permanent record, and whilst I appreciate that it is possible to create files and store e-mails on the computer, this seems like a far more ephemeral and impersonal process.

After reading Tim’s comments I spent a little time browsing the bookshelves around my study, and found myself immersed in the pages of various tomes containing examples of collected letters, that inform us about the lives and experiences of individuals, who are probably best known through their various achievements or published works. I turned first to the collected letters of the poet Dylan Thomas which I purchased in Bristol where I was a student of English literature in the 1970’s. I remember at the time thinking that there is some fine prose in many of these letters, which is largely overlooked by the majority of readers of Thomas, who know him mainly through his poetry and short stories. But if we take an example from a letter written to the novelist Lawrence Durrell in Greece, we can appreciate that his love of words resonated through much of what he wrote, even when it was not intended for publication.

“I think England is the very place for a fluent and fiery writer. The highest hymns of the sun are written in the dark. I like the grey country. A bucket of Greek sun would drown in one colour the crowds of colours I like trying to mix for myself out of a grey flat mud. If I went to the sun I’d just sit in the sun; that would be very pleasant but I’m not doing it, and the only necessary things that I do are the things I am doing.” Dylan Thomas 1938

The letters of others show both their humanity and their humility, as in the touching correspondence between Albert Einstein and a girl who expressed her frustration with difficulties learning mathematics in school in 1943:-

“…Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater.

Best regards

Professor Albert Einstein.”

Jawarhalal Nehru, writing to his ten year old daughter Indira, later herself to become Prime Minister of India, offered sage words of reassurance and advice against adopting stereotyped images of the world or the people who she would inevitably meet during her formative years.

“England is only a little island and India, though a big country, is only a small part of the earth’s surface. If we want to know something about the story of this world of ours we must think of all the countries and all the peoples that have inhabited it, and not merely of one little country where we may have been born.”

Whilst these letters demonstrate a reassuringly ordinary side to those who may often be seen as extraordinary people, other letters have a telling poignancy that can bring us up short and give us cause for deeper reflection. One such communication, of which I have thought on several occasions during this year of remembrance of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the  First World War, is that written by the poet Wilfred Owen to his mother in 1918.

“Dearest Mother,

So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 inches away. And so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges, and jolts. On my left, the company commander snores on a bench. It is a great life. I am more oblivious than the less, dear mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside and the hollow crashing of the shells.

I hope you are as warm as I am, soothed in your room as I am here. I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround us here. There is no danger down here – or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines…”

The sad reality surrounding this letter is that within a week or so of its despatch to his mother, Wilfred Owen was killed in action, exactly one week before the end of hostilities in November 1918.

Had copies of these letters, and so many more beside them not been retained, how much less would we know about their authors and those with whom they corresponded? These short despatches tell us much about the experiences and the emotions that helped to shape the works that they created. The writers of letters can certainly be described as the historian’s friend, and I am sure that there is much that we can learn from the documents they have left behind.

It would be foolish to suggest that we can reverse the tide of the “throw away” communication systems that have come to characterise the digital age, but I do hope that the insights to be gained from the correspondence between individuals may be recognised, and that from time to time we may still be encouraged to write a letter or two in the future.

The creative teacher – able to inspire at many levels

Sorrel Kinley. Inspirational teacher and artist

Sorrell Kinley. Inspirational teacher and artist

One of the great advantages of working with teachers is that so many of them have tremendous talents. Today, Sara and I went to the opening of an exhibition at the Alfred East Art Gallery in Kettering, of superb prints and etchings produced by local artist Sorrell Kinley.

Sorrell was for many years a teacher in primary schools, and now does some work at the University of Northampton, inspiring students to develop their own skills as artists and to utilise this learning for the benefit of children in schools. As a well-respected artist, Sorrell has a particular interest in printmaking, and his work has been exhibited in galleries both in the UK and in other countries. He has had work selected for exhibition at the prestigious Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London on two occasions.

We have been fortunate enough to visit Sorrell’s studio in Northamptonshire and to see examples of his work, which includes aquatints, etchings and gum Arabic transfer prints. Much of his work is inspired by his travels, with beautiful and often atmospheric creations based upon landscape and architecture. His subtle use of colour and texture provides a unique interpretation of scenes that often draw the viewer’s attention to fine details that might otherwise be overlooked. His depictions of an old grain store at Aylsham in Norfolk and a tumbledown barn door are such that the viewer can almost feel the grain of the gnarled wooden planks that bind the structures together. The cold landscapes of the Nene Valley in flood contrasted with the light and heat that possess the prints of buildings in Poitou Charente are captured with a simplicity that can only be achieved by an artist with exceptional skills.

Sorrell is a fine example of a gifted artist who has a passion for teaching and a desire to share his skills with others. He is an unassuming man who wears his abilities lightly, and is always pleased to recognise the enthusiasms of other less gifted individuals.  Those of us who have no real talent often find ourselves in awe of others who are creative and can use their imagination to produce such inspiring works. But typically of many such teachers, Sorrell is modest about his own achievements and eager to encourage his students to achieve to the best of their abilities.

For many children and adults who may struggle to communicate, or express their ideas through the written word as is demanded and prioritised by our education systems today, finding an alternative means of sharing their feelings can be a critical factor in ensuring their self-esteem. Discovering an ability to express their thoughts through art, music or dance has been a source of joy and a liberating factor in the lives of many individuals.  In some instances these are learners who have been written off as failures or given labels that suggest that they are of lesser ability than others. Teachers and artists such as Sorrell often hold the key to enabling such learners to find their voice and have the confidence to express themselves to others. We should never undervalue the arts within our education systems, or under estimate the ways in which they may transform the lives of individuals.

The images presented on today’s blog hardly do justice to the full range of Sorrell’s work, but may give you a brief flavour of his artistic talent. Visiting the exhibition today served to reinforce the feeling that the importance of securing a place for art within the curriculum of our schools should never be over looked.


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.

Celebrating with Pen and Palette

Sunset on the Hills. The cover of the book Pen and Palette painted by Aine Lawlor

Sunset on the Hills. The cover of the book Pen and Palette painted by Aine Lawlor

There is something special about being given the gift of a book. The written word is something I treasure for the access it provides to pleasure and information, and the challenges to thought that are often contained on the pages of books. Today in Dublin my good friend and colleague Michael Shevlin gave me a book that is a visual treat and full of words that provoke thought. The book, titled Pen and Palette contains a selection of poetry and paintings by students at the National Institute for Intellectual Disability (NIID) that is based at Trinity College Dublin.

NIID is committed to enabling young people with learning disabilities to fulfil their educational dreams and has developed a unique Certificate in Contemporary Living which provides support through taught sessions, careers advice, work placements and personal planning to enable individuals to gain in independence and receive recognition for their achievements. In 2008 the first 19 students to achieve the award graduated and since then around 90 further successful graduations have been recorded. The work of NIID has been recognised nationally and is beginning to gain international recognition for its innovative commitment to inclusion.

Pen and Palette is a beautifully produced book. Each page containing a poem written by a student with a learning disability is located opposite a piece of artwork produced by another student. Many of the poems reflect a degree of sadness in the lives of individuals who have been marginalised and have struggled to gain recognition because of their special educational need. Others reflect a joyous release as independence and confidence have been achieved. Reading through the poetry as I sat in the airport awaiting my flight home today, I was moved by their sentiments and the authority with which individual students have been enabled and encouraged to express their thoughts. Any one of the works could have been selected to represent the ideas expressed in the book, but I have chosen one written by John Power that I felt summed up a theme running through the text.

I hope that you too will enjoy this brief poem and may be moved to seek out the book for yourself.

Include Me

By John Power

To be part of a community

Means that I have loads of opportunities

I like to be valued and wanted

Not to be tormented and taunted

I like to help others out,

I don’t like when teenagers shout

Calling names and won’t let me be

Don’t discriminate against me

What goes around comes around you’ll see

You never know, one day you might need me.


John not only reports his own feelings but also I feel, issues a challenge to all of us to consider the implications of creating a society that fails to be inclusive.

Thank you John Power and all the poets and artists in Pen and Palette and to NIID and Trinity College for this joyful initiative.