Gremlins in the works!

Is this the Gremlin that caused some aggravation over the past couple of days?

Is this the Gremlin that caused some aggravation over the past couple of days?

If I was superstitious, which I’m not (touch wood), or if I believed in conspiracies , which I don’t (in case someone is out to get me), I would have been hiding away over the past couple of days. But I genuinely have not.

Having written about cyber bullying and the digital age, I went off to Dublin, with a couple of ideas in mind about other issues I might consider writing about, only to find that whilst others had easy access to this blog, mine was being denied. After repeatedly trying to access this platform and attempting to post an item, with no success whatsoever, I made various enquiries of colleagues with technical expertise at the university,  that led to the discovery that I was no longer recognised on the University of Northampton system!

A number of theories immediately sent my imagination into overdrive. Perhaps I had finally overstepped the mark and upset the Dean of Education or the Vice Chancellor to an extent that had given them grounds to dismiss me from my post! But no, surely if this were the case they would have informed me in as polite a manner as they saw fit. Maybe my suggestion that the digital age has potential pitfalls as well as advantages, had enraged someone in an anorak sitting at a keyboard to such an extent that they had, through the wonders of technology, cut off my access to this particular form of communication.  Not a likely scenario as I always try to be quite polite and well-mannered in my ramblings, and also because I suspect that such individuals have far more interesting things to do with their time. Or perhaps I had fallen victim to an invidious form of the very cyber bullying against which I had railed in my last posting. Could it be that some malicious individual had taken offence at my words and was seeking to take revenge? Certainly I was feeling somewhat victimised as others seemed to have no difficulties accessing the very materials over which I had previously felt some ownership, whilst I was being excluded. Of all my theories, this is the one that presents the most worrying traits of paranoia! But then as Joseph Heller in Catch 22 stated:-

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you”

As I don’t speak the language that appears to dominate today’s high tech world, I am still unsure about what actually happened over the last couple of days. Suffice it to say that I now appear once again to be able to access these pages, and the status quo seems to have been restored. Thank you to those colleagues in Northampton, and particularly Belinda who have laboured on my behalf to restore this situation, and many apologies to anyone who may have been inconvenienced by an inability to post replies on these pages.

There is perhaps a lesson for all of us here about our over dependency on the technology of the day. I recall many years ago the debates that were had over whether a letter should be posted first class, because its urgency was such that the contents should be with the intended recipient the next day, or whether a second class delivery taking perhaps two or three days would be sufficient. Even now, I find that a letter posted from the UK to a friend in India might take a week in its journey before it arrives, a concept viewed as quaint by many of my younger friends,  yet in this digital age we anticipate that everything should be instantaneous. Emails arrive across the world and often receive a reply within minutes. Furthermore some people become irritable if a reply is not received with such indecent haste! This appears to be the speed at which we expect communication to take place in this modern age. When everything slows down, we become frustrated and seek reasons why the efficiencies of our systems are no longer in evidence.

It may  be that when there are breakdowns in the communication systems, upon which we have become dependent, we should see this as an opportunity to reflect upon the value of time. Perhaps occasionally moving at a slower pace might have benefits in encouraging us to be more thoughtful about the actions that we take and the words that we use.  However, having said this, I do hope not to have the frustration of being excluded from these pages again!

The digital age. A potential source for constructive debate, but only if we behave with respect.

The digital age provides an immediate means of expressing ideas and promoting debate. But it needs to be managed in a manner that is respectful of others.

The digital age provides an immediate means of expressing ideas and promoting debate. But it needs to be managed in a manner that is respectful of others.

 

My good friend Satish in India recently entered the digital age. When I first met Satish in 1996 he was very much an advocate of the simple life, eschewing much of modern technology, and urging us all to turn our attention back to living in harmony with the natural World that we are so sadly neglecting and abusing. These are still the principles that guide his life, but on recent occasions when we have met I notice that he is seldom separated from his electronic tablet.

I am not, of course suggesting in any way that the maintenance of sound ecological principles or advocacy of a more resilient and sustainable lifestyle is incompatible with modern technology. Many of us have embraced the use of computers for much of our work, leisure and communication, but I suspect that we often do so whilst giving limited thought to the potential influence and impact of the systems that we are using. Fortunately, there are some users of digital media who are constantly questioning its place in our wider lives and certainly in respect of the education of children. Satish is one such individual.

On a couple of occasions recently Satish has drawn my attention to interesting, and at times disturbing news items related to the use and abuse of technology. This morning I received an email from him (I used to only receive hand written letters until a year or so ago) pointing me in the direction of a BBC news item about the prevalence of cyber bullying (http://www.bbc.com/news/education-30043084). This has been an area of debate amongst teachers and the general public for some time and appears to be an unpleasant phenomenon that is on the increase.

Bullying has been a particularly vicious factor in schools, probably for as long as they have been in existence.  Over the years the lives of many children have been blighted by those who find the means to exert control or wield a malicious power over them. Through identifying and exaggerating difference or exploiting perceived weaknesses the bullies have often made the lives of their victims miserable, and have exploited their position of power, often as a means of masking their own inadequacies. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that most bullies have low self-esteem and seek a false position of authority through the control of their victims. I recall occasions as a teacher and certainly as a head teacher, when I was required to address the bullying behaviour of certain individuals, and to find the means of supporting those who had suffered at their hands. However, cyber bullying is a relatively new phenomenon and not one that I experienced either as a child or in my role as a teacher.

The news item singled out by Satish reports the work of a committee overseen by a Member of the UK Parliament, Graham Stuart, who suggests that teachers are failing to address this issue and that cyber bullying has become a critical matter in schools. He is reported as saying that:-

“Schools have a part to play in ensuring young people are safe and are kept away from the misery and depression which online abuse can bring about.”

However, he also acknowledges that many children are far ahead of their teachers in understanding the use of social media, a concept with which they have grown up, and that there is a need for teachers to receive additional training in this area.

I am sure that Mr Stuart is quite right in this assertion, and I am aware that for many of us who completed our formal education in the pre-digital age, we often feel that we are left behind by the younger generation. However, I do feel that it is important that there is some recognition that the issue of cyber bullying is not one faced solely by children and schools.

There have been many instances reported in the media of the abuse of social media aimed at adults whose opinions happen to differ from those of others. On July 16th, I wrote on this blog about Rachel Tomlinson a head teacher in Nelson, Lancashire, who sent a letter to her pupils praising them for their positive attitudes and friendly disposition, which she valued as much as their academic attainments (Thank you for a letter of appreciation). She had gained some attention in the national press, but was also subjected to abuse through social media by some rather sad people who felt that head teachers should not concern themselves with pupils becoming good people, but should rather be cramming them with knowledge.

Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but the means through which this is expressed, and the language that is used, can either add to a constructive debate or become a form of abuse. The actions of Rachel Tomlinson having gained some national attention were always likely to promote comment. Sadly, the availability of digital platforms, such as Facebook and twitter enabled some less than respectful outpourings to be made by individuals who chose to hide behind pseudonyms, presumably because they lacked the courage to write under their own names.

Those of us who as adults choose to use digital outlets as a means of sharing ideas and promoting debate, such as I am doing right now, have a responsibility to ensure that we do so in a manner that is respectful and considered. Whilst the report issued by Mr Stuart and his committee has identified a genuine problem to be addressed in schools, it is essential that we recognise that many children who are involved in the misuse of social media are simply imitating the behaviours of adults that are often reported and excused in the media. Teachers and parents are facing a new challenge in this digital age, but the responsibility to face these difficulties must be shared by a much wider community if it is to be seriously addressed.

 

 

Confronting ignorance and prejudice

 

This report from Human Rights Watch raises a number of disturbing issues regarding obstacles to the creation of a more inclusive education system.

This report from Human Rights Watch raises a number of disturbing issues regarding obstacles to the creation of a more inclusive education system.

I suspect that anyone who has taught for any length of time has at some point had to deal with incidents of bullying or name calling, where one child has exercised power over another. Such incidents make life miserable for the victim and can cause anxiety and fear amongst his friends, who may distance themselves from him in apprehension that they may also fall victim to the bully. Schools should be safe havens for all children and fortunately most deal with bullying quickly and sensitively and do their utmost to protect children, but sadly some forms of bullying are particularly pervasive and vicious. When race, religion or caste are involved this seems particularly to be the case.

Human Rights Watch an independent, international organization that works to advance the cause of human rights for all has recently published a report with the shocking title “They Say We’re Dirty”.  In this report evidence from interviewing 160 people, including 85 children in four Indian States examines the obstacles preventing certain children from attending school. The report is written in response to the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (2009) that has focused on getting children from marginalised groups, including those from scheduled tribes, scheduled castes and with disabilities into schools. The Government of India has made a huge commitment to achieving universal education, as this report acknowledges, but the number of children out of school remains high. This inevitably varies from state to state with major socio-economic and geographical challenges placing considerable obstacles in the way of speedy progress. However, there are many examples that demonstrate that where there is a commitment, schools can become far more inclusive for the benefit of children who would previously not have received a formal education.

It is, in my opinion, important to recognise the many positive actions that have taken place, some of which I have witnessed during my visits to Indian schools. But that does not mean that we should ignore some of the disturbing details that appear in this report produced by Human Rights Watch. The very title of this report is an affront to the sensibilities of any reader. To give a report a heading which states “They Say We’re Dirty,” immediately suggests to the reader that there are going to be a number of negative statements within. This is indeed the case and even a cursory reading of the document leaves one with a certain feeling of despair. There are many critical points made within the report, I am still absorbing some of these and will probably return to the report over the next few days, but I must make reference to an issue that appears to permeate the whole text.

At the outset of this piece I highlighted issues of bullying, which many of us as teachers have had to address over the years. What we should never have to confront are blatant incidents of prejudice and bullying by teachers and pupils in collusion. This report suggests that such occurrences were seen frequently in the schools visited and were particularly aimed at children from scheduled tribes or scheduled castes. There are several references made to transcripts from interviews with children that describe their experiences of schooling. These are far from edifying and in some instances will surely provoke feelings of revulsion from any teacher or other adult concerned to create a more just education system. The quotation below from a twelve year old girl in Bihar is typical of several contained within the report

“I never knew about caste or what Dom [sweeper] is. I first came to know when I was in Class V. All the children used to make fun of me and say, ‘You are Dom caste, your mother doesn’t give you proper clothes.’ One day, I came home and told my father that the other children insult me. He decided to speak to the teacher. He said to her: ‘Do the Dom have no honour and dignity, are those children the only ones who have it?’ The teacher asked him not to interfere in the fights among children. So my father threatened to send a written complaint to the education department. She got scared and pleaded with him to not send a letter or she would lose her job. He relented, but not much has changed since then. Even now the children say such things.”

How do children become so prejudiced against others? What have they learned from the adults around them who have surely shaped their views of the world? Of particular concern is the apparent indifference of a teacher who is only prepared to address such issues when she feels that her own job is at risk. Is this not an affront to the whole profession of teaching?

It is, of course, easy to jump to conclusions in such situations. There is insufficient evidence in a report based upon very low numbers of pupils and teachers and in only four states to generalise about the behaviours within this report. However, even one incident of this nature is surely unacceptable and there is a clear indication here of the distance that needs to be travelled in order to fulfil the expectations of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act. In my experience the majority of teachers in India are anxious to do the best for all the children in their care and for those who are new to the formal schooling system. This report indicates to me the urgency of providing support to teachers in order that such attitudes can eventually be eradicated.

Bullying often results from stresses in the bully’s own life. Whilst this is not an excuse for the kinds of behaviour discussed in this report, the problem certainly goes much deeper than the individuals involved. Unless we examine and confront the causes of the prejudices reported in “They Say We’re Dirty,” progress is unlikely to be made.

Today students on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education Course in Bangalore are beginning a module examining issues of social emotional and behavioural needs. Sadly I will not be with them this week but my excellent colleagues will undoubtedly provide many opportunities for learning and debate. It seems to me that this report may well be pertinent to the issues at the heart of their work.

A full copy of The Human Rights Watch report: “They Say We’re Dirty” can be downloaded at the link below

http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/india0414_ForUpload_1.pdf