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”

 

Can we speak of “Mother India”?

The message is clear. No words that I provide can add to this message.

The message is clear. No words that I provide can add to its meaning.

 

In a speech to the United Nations made in September 2015 United States President Barak Obama stated that:-

“One of the best indicators of whether a country will succeed is how it treats its women. And I have to say I do not have patience for the excuse of, ‘Well, we have our own ways of doing things.’”

It should be regarded as appalling that in the twenty first century it is still necessary to be emphasising that in many parts of the world, and in many aspects of life, women still face challenges in terms of being treated with respect and having their basic human rights recognised. Far from having achieved equality, it is true to say that in many instances women and girls remain oppressed and discriminated against.

Yesterday morning, less than a mile from where I am staying in Jayanagar, Bangalore, I came across a wall displaying the paintings shown on this blog page. I was unable to distinguish the function of the building behind this wall as the only indication provided was in Kannada, a language with which I am totally unfamiliar. However, if a picture can tell a thousand words, I think these are more than eloquent in expressing some of the challenges that many women feel exist within Indian society today. Furthermore, I feel certain that these images would resonate with women, and those who empathise with their plight in many other parts of the world.

The treatment of women in India has come under the spotlight and been scrutinised by the media and through the courts on many occasions recently. The death of Jyoti Singh following a savage attack and rape by a gang on a Delhi bus in 2012 is one of the most brutal examples of the dangers that many women and girls face today. But whilst this extreme violence makes the news, inequalities in education and employment opportunities are less frequently debated, despite being an obvious feature of the local landscape. School dropout rate amongst adolescent girls in India remains unacceptably high, despite improvements in recent years, a recent health survey indicated that 56% adolescent girls (15-19 years) in India are anaemic, as against 30% adolescent boys, and the same report shows that girls in India have 61% higher mortality than boys at age 1-4 years. These figures will undoubtedly be disputed and debated, but appear to be a clear indictment of the inequality that exists in twenty first century India.

Fortunately, there are many people here in India as elsewhere who have not only recognised the inequalities perpetuated by a patriarchal society, but are taking action to draw attention to injustice and stand up for those who are subjected to humiliation and discrimination. In 2014 the second Men Engage Global Symposium was held in New Delhi, resulting in the publication of a document that has become known as the Delhi Declaration and Call to Action. The Delhi meeting proposed a number of activities to enable men and boys to debate and understand the impact of discrimination, and to demand a more equitable approach to ensuring women’s rights in all aspects of life. Amongst its most powerful assertions is the following:-

“Patriarchy affects everyone, but in different ways. Women and girls continue to face significant, disproportionately high levels of gender injustice and human rights violation. Men and boys are both privileged and damaged by patriarchy, but are rarely aware of that fact. Men and boys are also gendered beings. Gender equality brings benefits to women, men and other genders.”

The images from the streets of Jayanagar require no interpretation from myself. They are powerful enough to stand without commentary, my only concern being that they are in a back street of a Bangalore suburb and not more prominently displayed. I have a research student here in India whose work is  focused upon the low expectations which still impede the educational opportunities afforded to girls in some Indian communities. She speaks passionately of the benefits that she has gained through education and the support of a family that values the learning that she has gained. She is also conscious of the fact that many others continue to be denied the education that she has received, and she is determined to work as hard as she can to redress the balance.

Life for many women, both here in India and elsewhere, including my own country, has improved significantly. That does not excuse any of us from turning our backs on the many millions of others who still face danger, hardship and deprivation on a daily basis.

How much longer will women feel the need to depict their lives in this way?

How much longer will women feel the need to depict their lives in this way?

 

Monkey business and a critical campaign

A campaign that could make a real change in the lives of many children

A campaign that could make a real change in the lives of many children

In England if you wish to have good views of our native red foxes, the best place to seek them out is probably in the city. These sleek long tailed creatures were originally woodland and forest dwellers, and indeed many still live this lifestyle, but there are also large numbers that have become urbanised and have taken to living within our cities and towns. Indeed the foxes of Bristol have become so famous that they have featured in television documentaries as people have made them welcome in their gardens, watched the growth of their cubs, and walked along with them on the avenues and streets of that historic city.

The fox is a clever animal (often depicted as cunning in children’s stories) and may well have realised that he is less likely to be pursued by woefully sad people who take pleasure from chasing terrified creatures across the English landscape mounted on horseback, if he assumes a more urban identity.

In India I have often seen monkeys. Whenever I have visited the Valley school, surrounded as it is by forest, I have encountered troupes of these acrobatic mischief makers sauntering along the forest floor, sitting on rooftops or high in the canopies of the trees. I remember seeing monkeys sitting along the fence of a park as I travelled into the city from Delhi international airport, and I have caught glimpses of these creatures in Cubbon Park, here in Bangalore. But until today I had never met monkeys during my morning walk through Jayanagar. However, this morning, there they were marching down a lane towards me, all slinky swagger and mast high tails. Amongst their number was probably the most obese monkey I have ever see. The urban diet is clearly doing him no good!

This fellow should certainly go on a diet!

This fellow should certainly go on a diet!

Monkeys are not essential when it comes to finding interest on the streets of Jayanagar, where colourful posters and hoardings advertise everything from cosmetic surgery and ayurvedic health treatments, to website design and translation services. These often provide information overload, and in many instances their content passes me by without holding my interest beyond a few seconds. However, near Madhavan Park my attention was held by a large poster which announced a particularly important event.

I remember as a child that poliomyelitis, usually simply referred to as polio, was a terrifying disease causing terrible muscle weakness or even paralysis. I attended primary school with a boy who wore a leg caliper and had restricted mobility as a result of contracting this awful condition as an infant. In England now, instances of polio are fortunately rare, largely because of a national programme of immunization developed by the Polish immunologist Hilary Koprowski in 1950; if ever a man deserved to be lauded with honours and awards, it was surely this one.

The poster that arrested my gaze today announced two national immunization days and declared an intention to immunize every child under the age of five years. A second poster, with information in both English and Kannada, depicted a child being given the simple oral drops of the vaccine that will provide a life time of protection. Such posters provide a salutary reminder of the terrible health risks that still confront many children and families living in this country, particularly those from the economically disadvantages communities that form such a significant proportion of the population. The message conveyed is simple, but probably needs to be reinforced by education and other means of communication. However the word is spread, as I see many children and adults on the streets of Jayanagar who bear the scars of this disease, I hope that the campaign and its vital message has the desired effect.

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As a postscript to this posting: For those of you who are regular readers of this blog, and have been kind enough to inquire. You will doubtless be pleased to hear that I am now fully clad in clean clothes, my laundry having returned from its extensive tour of the state of Karnataka!

Celebration from the Western Ghats to the Malabar Coast

 

Attending school is critical to the children of these Kerala fisherman. Raising the quality of their education may be a challenge that remains to be addressed.

Attending school is critical to the children of these Kerala fisherman. Raising the quality of their education may be a challenge that remains to be addressed.

Tomorrow in Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), Kerala University will host an event at which education minister P. K. Abdu Rabb will formally announce that Kerala has become the first Indian State to achieve 100% primary education provision. A drive by the state literacy mission (Athulyam) has been well supported by teachers and there is evidence of significant success in improving school attendance and the state literacy rates. This is indeed a cause for celebration, and is indicative of the commitment that I have seen amongst many teachers and education officials in this part of India.

I have been fortunate enough to visit Kerala on a number of occasions and have several good friends living in that state who work in education, and have contributed greatly to its development. Like much of India it is a region of extremes with wealthy suburbs of cities such as Trivandrum and Kochi, cheek by jowl with areas of poverty and deprivation. Tourism on the famous backwaters attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year to explore tranquil rivers, canals and lakes and to view an abundance of bird life in beautiful bucolic surroundings. Keralan cuisine, which makes superb use of local ingredients, including the ever plenteous coconut, finds particular favour with western tourists, and I can personally verify the excellence of the fish molly, appam and  payasam available in most of the coastal regions. This important industry has provided employment and supported the development of luxury hotels and resorts on a par with any to be found in Europe. However, within walking distance of many such developments are fishing communities where men continue to live a life of struggle with the seas in order to make a meagre living and support their families who live in the most rudimentary of accommodation and often eat a far more basic diet.

When visiting Kerala, I have had opportunities to observe lessons in a number of schools, where for the most part dedicated teachers work hard to ensure that the pupils in their charge receive a good education. As is the case elsewhere in the world, these schools vary considerably in respect of their buildings, resources, classrooms and those who staff them. I consider it a privilege to spend time talking to teachers in any school, and the enthusiasm and commitment that they demonstrate is a real tribute to their professionalism. This is as much the case in Kerala as it is here in Northamptonshire. However, I often find myself worrying about the disparity that I see across schools, and whilst this is an issue here in my own country, I feel this in India more than in many other places that I have visited.

I was thinking about this issue yesterday as I read reports of Kerala’s educational success. Let me say from the outset, that the achievement of universal primary education in the state is something to celebrate, and a matter in which the education policy makers should quite rightly take pride. However, I also found myself hoping that having hit this important target, these same policy makers do not rest on their laurels and that they recognise the need to avoid complacency. Getting children into school should be seen as the first, albeit critical stage of this development. Far tougher issues continue to challenge the education system in Kerala, as elsewhere in India. I have been to schools in the state where children are provided with the most modern facilities and resources, are taught by highly qualified teachers and learn in classes of twenty five pupils. These schools rival many that I have seen in the UK and other parts of Europe and are a fine example of what can be achieved in this, one of India’s wealthiest states. By contrast, I have spent time in Government schools in some of the poorer communities of Kerala where class sizes of 60 pupils are still common, teacher absenteeism is a problem and children share the most rudimentary text books and other resources. This level of inequity continues to be a problem, which unless it is addressed will perpetuate the social divide between a burgeoning Indian middle class and those who have limited opportunities to progress from their current impoverished condition.

Tomorrow’s announcement will, quite rightly be heralded with fanfares and celebration. It is certainly not my intention to rain on this all too well deserved parade. The foundations have now been laid for the further development of an education system that can be much more inclusive and afford greater opportunities for all children in Kerala. Within the state the challenge after tomorrow is to ensure not only that children are attending school, but that they have a chance to learn effectively and with access to the teachers and resources that they need. Where Kerala leads today, let us hope that the rest of India may follow in the near future. When this happens there will be a reason for even greater celebration.

 

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!