Avoiding uncomfortable issues will not help children

Are the people who live in this slum community to be blamed for their own poverty? There appears to be some who would suggest that this is a reasonable argument.

Are the people who live in this slum community to be blamed for their own poverty? There appears to be some who would suggest that this is a reasonable argument.

Several months ago on this blog I wrote a series of short pieces in response to the Global Monitoring Report on progress towards the Education For All (EFA) goals (February 2014). This report considers the actions taken to improve educational opportunities focused in the main on those who live in socio-economic disadvantage or in areas racked by conflict or natural disaster. The EFA goals are to be revised next year with a new programme of actions to be announced by UNESCO which will hopefully renew the focus upon the state of the world’s children.

Amongst the many criticisms of the Global Monitoring Report was the lack of attention given to children with disabilities who constitute a significant proportion of the world’s children who are out of school. Placing an exact figure on this excluded group is far from easy, but I was reminded in an email earlier this week by an esteemed colleague, Professor Peter Mittler, that a lack of focus upon this population devalues the interpretation of the statistics provided within the UNESCO report. There can be few individuals who have campaigned more avidly for the educational rights of disabled children over the past fifty years, and in my experience, when Peter expresses concerns we should all take notice.

Peter had been prompted to write to me on seeing the programme for a seminar held at Cambridge University at which I had been invited to speak on the topic of respectful research when working in international contexts. Quite rightly he was not particularly interested to hear what I had to say, but far more concerned that this seminar should place the issue of the education of children disabilities at the centre of debate. The seminar, sponsored by the British Association for International and Comparative Education  (BAICE) had the title “Education for Social Justice: Framing an Agenda for Disability Research and Action in the Global South” and brought together representatives from Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and academics researching in the area of children’s rights, inclusion and disability. I must say that these types of events are often characterised by the generation of a lot of hot air and it is not unusual to come away feeling quite frustrated that little of substance has been discussed, and that our understanding of issues has failed to move forward. Yesterday’s event provided a very pleasant exception to this rule.

Unlike many seminars dealing with complex issues, those in attendance at this event were prepared to engage in critical debate and did not steer clear of controversy or contention. Professor Pauline Rose (to whom I am not related) confronted some of the concerns about the UNESCO report, accepting that when the 2015 goals are constructed that there is a far greater need to place an emphasis upon disability issues. She was able to present some proposals for these goals following recent discussions at UNESCO that did indeed appear to recognise previous shortcomings.

By far the most lively debates were provoked by the paper given by Professor Helen Penn who presented a critique of the ways in which international non-government agencies have, in her view, pandered to the political agendas of governments, and complied with them in the implementation of narrowly focused and short term strategies of early intervention that place a focus of blame for poverty and exclusion on the very people who are living in destitution and marginalisation. Helen’s paper raised hackles, and especially and not surprisingly amongst the NGO representatives in the room. As often happens in the heated debate that followed, some of the rationality of discussion was slightly lost in emotion. But I think that, whilst not agreeing with everything Helen had to say, she raised a number of important points.

We have certainly seen in my own country a government that has identified those who live in poverty and others who have needs associated with disability  being labelled at best as feckless and in many instances singled out as  scroungers and negligent in terms of their personal responsibilities. The move from a caring and humane society to one that seeks scapegoats and apportions blame to the most vulnerable within the country has happened relatively quickly. Helen demonstrated how this is fast becoming a universal trait and that at a time when more people are gaining in wealth and social prosperity, the gap to those living in need is widening and the willingness to improve their circumstances has waned. Helen’s argument is that governments, needing to be seen to take action have looked for short term solutions that emphasise the ineptitude of those in need, rather than attempting to address issues of wider societal change. Hence, for example, a focus upon early intervention aimed specifically at those described as having disabilities, special educational needs or sociability difficulties, which are very visible as actions, rather than addressing wholesale societal change to create greater equality and social justice.

I think that probably most people in the room could agree with much of what Helen had to say. For the representatives of NGOs the uncomfortable feeling that they were in some way complicit in this situation did not sit easily. Personally I felt that those of us in the room who are employed as researchers or academics had no reason to feel guiltless in this situation or complacent about our roles. It is too easy as a researcher to sit on the side-lines and observe what is happening without having the courage to comment on that which we see as having a negative impact upon the lives of children.

The revised goals to be provided in 2015 will be welcomed as a renewal of focus upon critical issues. They will however, only have an impact if more people engage in debates of this nature and make a commitment to get involved in working towards change in the lives of children who remain marginalised in all our countries. If we simply sit back and watch as our political masters continue to blame the most vulnerable members of our society for their own difficulties, rather than challenging this current trend, then we do a disservice not only to those in our classrooms, but also to the dignity of our profession as teachers.