What can we learn in one minute fifty seven seconds?

 

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One minute and fifty seven seconds – not much out of a busy day, and certainly very little time to do justice to the experiences of a seven year old child.

I can remember a couple of occasions in my life when I thrilled to the experience of being on the sea in a relatively small boat. One of these trips, out of Brixham harbour in Devon, on flat calm waters was to catch blue and silver mackerel, which made a fine supper during a brief family holiday. Many years later, as an adult, a far more exciting journey was experienced from the Isle of May in the Scottish Firth of Forth returning to the mainland following a week living on that quiet and desolate nature reserve. On this particular journey huge waves crashed across the boat as it pitched and rolled through the white crested peaks and troughs of a savage sea. However, as the skipper of the vessel manoeuvred a familiar pathway with apparent nonchalance back to the safety of the tiny port of Anstruther, where we knew warmth and shelter awaited, I was neither fearful for my safety and that of my family, nor apprehensive of what lay ahead.

How different then were my experiences from those of seven year old Malak who features in the first of a series of “unfairy tales” recently launched by UNICEF. These short animations combine the power of art and music to convey a simple but harrowing message about the plight of children fleeing Syria in search of a safe haven where they will not be shot at, bombed, or forced from their homes. Sadly, this is a story with which we are all now so familiar. So, will a simple animated film make any difference?

This was a question I asked myself this morning having watched “Malak and the Boat”, and I am still unsure that I have an answer. The title “Unfairy Tale” applied to these short animations is a subtle play on words. As children many of us are brought up with fairy tales; fables that often become ingrained within our national and cultural identities. Those of the brothers Grimm, or Hans-Christian Anderson, or Perrault have become classics of literature, much loved stories with which we became familiar in our early years. The play on words in the title of these brief animations, with an emphasis upon how “unfair” life can be for so many children and their families is an apt juxtaposition for a series of short films that convey a desperate message. (As a matter of fact, many traditional fairy stories have sinister undertones which have in some instances terrified rather than entertained the children to whom they were read.)

UNICEF’s “unfairy tales” are beautifully made and compelling. They are also short enough to hold the attention of even those who live busy lives and claim to have little time to think. But I am still unsure whether they are likely to have the impact that their producers intend. I find myself asking, who will see these films? They came easily to my attention because I am well connected to media outlets and newsfeeds that consider children’s rights, but I am unaware of them having been placed in a position of prominence beyond these. Are UNICEF therefore releasing these films only in the direction of those individuals and organisations that have already demonstrated concern? If this is the case, can they possibly hope to have an impact?

Whilst conveying the brutality that is a part of the daily lives of so many children and expressing a message that we all need to hear, I wonder if these carefully crafted works of art can possibly change the attitudes and approaches of governments, organisations or individuals who for so long now have been confronted with the horrifying images of children in distress washed up, and not always alive, on the beaches of Europe? Many of these destitute children appear to have simply become a daily feature of our television news programmes and have often been relegated to the inside pages of our newspapers. Can the efforts of UNICEF in producing these films possibly have any effect?

We have already seen that attitudes towards the ever growing population of refugees fleeing war torn countries have been conveyed in words of sympathy, empathy, and sorrow, but of late these emotions have been more frequently transposed by fear, hatred and resentment. But as the images of suffering have become a nightly feature of our television screens I would suggest that the most common reaction has now become one of indifference. Will yet one more bold and impassioned approach to gaining understanding, such as this from UNICEF change any of this?

These are the imponderables that I found myself addressing this morning as I began my comfortable journey to work. I have no answer, and indeed I suspect there are no easy solutions. In the meantime, we must applaud those who are making bold efforts to keep the plight of desperate refugees to the forefront of our minds. The UNICEF films may, or may not make a difference, but at least as an organisation they are taking affirmative action, both through this media and their actions on the ground, to support those who are suffering as a result of the carnage inflicted upon Syria.

I post “Malak and the Boat” here for you to see for yourself. It will take a whole one minute and fifty seven seconds from your busy schedule today to watch this film, and even longer if you then decide to send it to a friend. Perhaps after watching you can help me to find answers to some of the troubling questions I have asked above. If so, I would like to hear what these are.

Click on the image below to watch “Malak and the Boat”

 

Remember the Children of Peshawar

Peshawar, a historic city with many beautiful landmarks, including this, the Sunehri Mosque. Sadly it is today associated with far more negative feelings.

Peshawar, a historic city with many beautiful landmarks, including this, the Sunehri Mosque. Sadly it is today associated with far more negative feelings.

Children often demonstrate the most stubborn resilience. Thank goodness they do.

Driving to work this morning I was reminded by an item which I heard on my car radio, that it is the anniversary of the dreadful massacre of innocents that occurred at the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan on December 16th last year. Writing about the atrocity on this blog at that time, I described the perpetrators of this mass murder of 122 children and 22 teachers as thugs, and suggested that one of their motivations for this evil deed was their fear that education will ultimately produce an increased number of people who are prepared to condemn their particular brand of bigotry, and stand against their violence and hatred. I have had no reason in the intervening year to change my mind on this matter.

A visit to the website of Dawn, the Pakistan, English Language national newspaper, confirmed what I had expected. A significant amount of space in today’s edition has been devoted to remembering this cowardly act, but even more column inches are given over to a celebration of the courage with which children and their parents have rebuilt a school community and reaffirmed their right to education. Several articles in today’s newspaper consider the current state of Pakistan and its efforts to address security issues and the fear of terrorism, but at the centre of many of the arguments is a reflection on the impact of this specific tragic event upon the lives of children and their families. The words of the journalist Zahid Hussain are fairly typical of the tone set on the paper’s opinion pages when he writes:-

“It was, perhaps, the gravest moment even for this country that has seen so many tragedies and bled so many times. The wounds of parents losing their children can never be healed. Those who escaped the macabre dance of death are back in school traumatised by the memories of their colleagues mowed down in front of them. Their lives can never be the same again.”

Whilst several writers have tried to capture the mood in Peshawar, and to reflect upon how we might interpret the terrible events of December 2014, they cannot hope to achieve the eloquence that is contained in the commemorative pages that dominate today’s edition of Dawn. Under the heading 144 Stories, the newspaper presents a narrative of each of the victims who died that day at the hands of a group of criminals. These stories convey understandable anger, incomprehension, desperation and fear, but many also are filled with compassion, hope and even forgiveness. I found it impossible to read more than a few of these accounts as the poignancy of the words and the feelings so personally expressed quickly become unbearable.

The tragedy of that day last December is peculiarly juxtaposed now here in England, as elsewhere in the world, when families prepare to celebrate Christmas. Many of us look forward to spending time with family and friends, but most particularly with children and grandchildren. Perhaps reading accounts such as those that are published today in Dawn serve an important function in insisting that we reflect upon those freedoms and relationships that we can so easily take for granted, and in ensuring that we are never complacent about the need to stand up against those who would undermine the values which so many of us hold dear. This is not simply an issue for Pakistan, but one for which we must all accept some responsibility. It is one in particular that those of us who are teachers should ensure continues to be discussed in our classrooms and with our students and colleagues.

My words are wholly inadequate in addressing a topic of such gravity, and cannot possibly hold a candle to those used to convey the 144 stories presented in Dawn. If you have time today to read only one page from a single newspaper, you would find it hard to better invest your time than in reading the one highlighted below.

 

http://www.dawn.com/news/1223313/144stories-remembering-lives-lost-in-the-peshawar-school-attack

 

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

 

“Are we there yet?” – Apparently not!

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I enjoy living in the relative peace and quiet of the countryside, and though I was born and lived all of my childhood and youth in cities, I now feel much more at home in more bucolic surroundings. However, whenever I am asked about how I would feel about returning to city life, I am quite confident in saying that I could settle down to this quite quickly, as long as the city was Dublin.

As a metropolis, Dublin offers all of the cultural delicacies of which I am so fond, art, music, museums and especially theatre, all confined within a city on a human scale and surrounded by mountains, sea and moorland. In other words it has much to hold one within the confines of the city boundaries, but with an easy escape route when in need of solitude or solace. Dublin and its environs has an additional attraction in being the home to a number of very good friends and colleagues.

Having been fortunate enough to work quite regularly in Ireland over the past twelve years and to have visited schools in most of its counties, I have always regarded this as a country that values education and celebrates the lives of children. The teachers I meet in Irish schools are invariably highly professional and committed practitioners with a clear focus upon providing an education system of the highest quality. It was therefore with some dismay that I finished reading this morning a report by the Children’s Rights Alliance, an organisation of around 100 organisations working for children and families. This document titled “Are We There Yet?” reports on the life experiences of children in Ireland today.

There are many positive facts within the report, and it is evident that the majority of Irish children have good experiences of care, nutrition and health, but it is the figures related to child poverty in present day Ireland that give particular cause for concern. It is reported that the incidence of child poverty in the country has almost doubled within a very short time during which the Irish economy was in recession. It is now estimated that one in every eight children in Ireland are recognised as being in poverty with 1,500 homeless children living in emergency accommodation. Equally stark is the revelation that Ireland has the highest rate of youth suicides amongst girls, and the second highest for boys within the European Union, a situation that cannot be helped by the fact that 3,000 children are currently on waiting lists for mental health care.

Early next year the Irish Government is required report to the United Nations on its current conformity with the requirements of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the report suggests that this may prove difficult.

“Are We There Yet?” makes for uncomfortable reading, and it is difficult to imagine how policy makers and politicians will react to this detailed report. Certainly, the austerity measures which were put into place in Ireland would appear to be one reason for this sudden decline in child welfare, and there may be a salutary lesson for other governments, including that here in the UK who have embarked upon a similar course of action. In times of financial difficulties it is invariably the poorest individuals who suffer most, and even in a traditionally caring country like Ireland it seems inevitable that those with the least are likely to have the worst experiences.

Is there any reason to be optimistic I wonder? What I do know is that those professionals who I have had the great pleasure to meet and get to know within the caring professions in Ireland have the professionalism to deliver a first rate service if they are given the necessary resources. Those teacher, health service executive professionals, and social workers with whom I have interacted over a number of years have already demonstrated that they know how to provide the quality care, education and counselling that is quite evidently needed to turn this situation around. The question must be whether there is the political will and know how to enable this to happen.

Ireland has a proud history of education and welfare and a record of valuing learning and encouraging independent thought. It is a country in which I have always felt privileged to be able to work alongside friends and colleagues who I value and respect. I know that they too will be concerned by the findings of “Are We There Yet?” and will already be considering how they can assist families and children to address this worrying situation.

Hungry to learn but starved of opportunity.

Kerala - a State that Prides itself on the quality of its education

Kerala – a State that Prides itself on the quality of its education

In The hands of Gandhiji, the hunger strike was often a potent weapon, and one that he used  to highlight the injustices created by British officialdom during the Quit India campaign. In addition, he and many other satyagrahi deployed this very personal and potentially fatal tactic during times of community sectarian violence in order to bring parties to a greater sense of personal responsibility. Many have been the debates about this extreme tactic, and not all have endorsed the hunger strike as a legitimate means of protest. It was undoubtedly a powerful tool when deployed by Gandhi, in part because of the reverence with which he was held by much of the Indian population at the time. In the hands of others, including for instance the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in England, or Palestinians protesting the Israeli occupation of their lands, success has been at best limited. The ten nationalist hunger strikers who died in prison in Ireland in 1981 also had little impact on change  because they commanded the respect of only part of their community, and as a result of their real or perceived association with violence perpetrated during the “troubles” in Northern Ireland.

The difficult history of hunger strikes is one that I still find challenging in terms of understanding its legitimacy as a form of protest. It undoubtedly takes a passion and commitment on the part of the individual that is not to be found amongst the average protester, but at times it can also appear as a selfish act which impacts as much upon loved ones as it does upon those who are the intended focus of demands. Gandhi, who was a great man, and shrewd politician but not a saint, was only too well aware of the importance of his persona as a critical part of his protest.

It was then with some disquiet that I read an account in today’s Indian Express newspaper of a group of children who have commenced a hunger strike in Mamalakkandam, in the Ernakulam district of Kerala. These young people attend the government high school in their small remote town, the next nearest equivalent school being 30 kilometres away. Their school was upgraded to high school status only last year, an important move that should create better education and employment opportunities for young people from the local community. However, having proudly announced the opening of this important new establishment, the government have failed to provide any teaching staff to ensure  the promised education. Bricks and mortor alone cannot afford an education, but do provide useful photo opportunities for politicians.

With the support of parents groups and other locals, a group of students protested at the district educational offices at Kothamangalam earlier in the week, but it appears that their not unreasonable demands that their school requires teachers, fell on deaf ears. As a result of this lack of positive response, the student body have intensified their protests, and two students have taken the desperate measure of commencing a hunger strike in the hope that this may spur the authorities into action.

On reading the news report I found myself experiencing a very mixed set of reactions. I certainly feel the need to commend the students and parents of Mamalakkandam for demanding their rights to a quality education, thereby enhancing their future prospects and potentially the prosperity of the community. Kerala has long prided itself on being the most educationally advanced state of India, even boasting almost 100% literacy across the region, but it seems to me that situations such as this says much about the state of a nation that is being heralded for its speed of development and economic power. As in most parts of the world which lay claim to advanced “development” there is evidence that whilst some individuals benefit from increased wealth, others get pushed further towards the margins of society. If education has a role to play, which as a teacher I most certainly believe to be true, it must be supported at all levels and for the benefit of all people.

Whilst empathising with the students and wishing them every success with their protests and legitimate demands, I do however have a number of concerns. Acts of protest should never be undertaken lightly, and where they involved putting the health, and possibly even the lives of children at risk, we must become alarmed. The courage of the students, the desperation of the parents, and the demands of a community must surely be acknowledged and respected by anyone who claims to see education as a universal right. A failure to act on the part of government education officers could not only result in personal tragedy for the young hunger strikers and their families, but would also be an act of injustice perpetrated against a whole community, and would destroy the credibility of the State Government and the image of Kerala as a focus for educational excellence in India.

The outcomes of this situation could have implications well beyond Mamalakkandam. The response of education administrators will say much with regards to the way in which they perceive their responsibilities. Along with many others, I will be following this story with hopes of a happy outcome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching old dogs new tricks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An attentive class, sitting up and paying attention!

An attentive class, sitting up and paying attention!

 

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

It should surely be obvious!

It should surely be obvious!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Disability no obstacle to service in Pakistan

 

Councillor Sher Ali, hoping to make a difference in Pakistan

Councillor Sher Ali, hoping to make a difference in Pakistan

In recent years I have worked with a number of students from Pakistan. They have invariably been hard working and in many instances have expressed a strong commitment towards working in their home country to improve the lives of children and young people who have been excluded or marginalised. Whenever I have discussed the situation for children and young people with special needs or disabilities in Pakistan with these students, they have been able to tell me of some of the progress made for these individuals in schools, but have often expressed their frustrations that many remain excluded from even the most rudimentary educational opportunities.

Sadly, much of the news reported from Pakistan in the English language media, paints a negative picture of a country divided by extreme politics, religious conflict and poverty. Reports of education from the area are often focused upon the limited educational provision for young people and international surveys depict a country in which it has become difficult to be optimistic for the future of today’s Pakistani children. However, this is only one part of the picture and it is important to recognise and celebrate some of the positive stories that indicate progress towards improving lives in what is often described as a “failed state”.

One such story was reported in yesterday’s edition of Dawn, the English language daily national newspaper from Pakistan. Under the headline “Disabled youth councillor plans to serve people,” the journalist Fazal Khaliq reports on the election of a young man named Sher Ali as a councillor in the Malookabad area of Mingora located in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. Mr Ali, who is 22 years old is a wheelchair user who depends upon friends and family to get him from his home to the centre of his town, which requires negotiating 130 steps. However, he is full of determination to represent his constituents and to campaign for improved facilities for all who live in Mingora. In particular, he has issued statements that shows his awareness of the necessity to campaign for improved education facilities. Sher Ali points out that:-

“For over 20,000 population of Malookabad we have only one primary school which is far from here, due to which half of the children do not go to school.”

Referring to his disability, Sher Ali suggests that it is no obstacle to being a good representative of his people, and he has urged others with disabilities to put themselves forward for election. Education and the provision of an improved water supply to his community are just two of the issues that he has singled out as priorities for his campaigning activity. He suggests that his election success was largely built upon the aspirations of young people who have a great desire for change in the communities in which they live. His personal determination is clearly already inspiring others and will hopefully raise awareness not only of his disability, but also of the need for improved educational opportunities for all people in Pakistan.

I suspect that the election of Sher Ali and his enthusiasm for bringing about change in his community will not make the pages of newspapers outside of Pakistan. This is a great shame, because it has become far too easy to read only negative stories from this, and several other countries around the world. Whilst reading stories of conflict, poverty and extremism, whether these be from Pakistan, Syria, Iraq or elsewhere in the world, it is easy to forget the ordinary and extraordinary people who make up the majority population in these countries. Most people wish for nothing more than an opportunity to live a peaceful existence, to earn a living, gain an education and care for their families. Yet they are tarnished by the actions of those who wield power and create an impression that their countries are dysfunctional, dangerous and chaotic.

So long as there are people who are prepared to recognise the abilities of individuals such as Sher Ali, and have the courage to elect them to positions of authority, there must be hopes that there can be improvements in society, and greater opportunities provided for those who are currently excluded. Let’s hope that Sher Ali’s story inspires others to see the positive side of a country that is far too often reported in only negative terms.

Hoping for more than a declaration of intent.

Expressions of good intent. Let's hope they come to fruition

Expressions of good intent. Let’s hope they come to fruition

Last week in Incheon, in the Republic of Korea, government ministers from more than 100 countries, along with representatives of non-governmental organizations and youth groups met at the World Education Forum. The focus of discussions at this meeting was for the most part upon how the right to free and quality education can be provided for all the world’s children, including the 58 million who currently have no access to school.

Speakers representing august organisations such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Bank Group took to the stage to assert their commitment to improving the lives of children and keeping education high on the world development agenda, until such time as all children have gained the right to go to school. The sentiments expressed were sincere and I have no doubt that the conference delegates will have returned home fired with a new determination to bring about change. Ringing in their ears will be the latest declaration asserting the intention to ensure “equitable and inclusive quality education and lifelong learning for all by 2030”.

I describe this Incheon Declaration as the “latest” as it follows hot on the heels of previous such statements including Jomtien, Thailand (1990), Salamanca, Spain (1994) and Dakar, Senegal (2000), all of which have been signed with due solemnity and good intentions by world leaders with the intention of improving the plight of the world’s children. The Education for All goals, with clearly defined targets towards achieving universal primary education have provided an important focus for education policy makers, children’s rights activists and politicians around the world. But I can well understand those who on reading the Incheon Declaration will ask whether by simply writing yet another aspirational document progress will be assured.

One delegate at the Incheon forum who has greeted the new declaration with words of both encouragement and caution is the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and children’s rights campaigner Kailash Satyarthi from India. Speaking to the gathered audience he reminded them that when they met in Dakar fifteen years ago they established goals that were then seen as attainable, but he reflects upon the intervening period with mixed feelings. Satyarthi described how new opportunities for education has transformed the lives of some individuals in his own country, but he also reflected on the fact that it is already too late to transform the lives of many children who are  trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and gruelling child labour. One of the most powerful statements that Satyarthi made to the forum was that he refuses to accept any of the excuses that continue to be made in defence of denying children access to school and that others should do the same.

Whilst Kailash Satyarthi demonstrated a great deal of frustration at the failure to deliver on previously expressed goals, which should by now have benefited millions of excluded  children, he still believes that a concerted effort on the part of those who are concerned could result in educational opportunities for all. Whilst praising the intentions of those world leaders who have supported this latest international declaration, Satyarthi leads by example through his recognition that if progress is to be made it will be on the basis of actions taken by individuals as much as through legislation. We could all do worse than follow in his footsteps.

When reading about events such as that held in Incheon it is easy to become cynical and to believe that this is yet one more talking shop from which little of substance will emerge. However, if just a few individuals are inspired by the words expressed with such passion by Kailash Satyarthi, and decide to take affirmative action on behalf of children, the World Education Forum will have been worthwhile.

You can hear the presentation given to the World Education Forum by Kailash Satyarthi here