Watch your language!

Having enough language to be polite is something we should all be able to achieve.

Having enough language to be polite is something we should all be able to achieve.

The beginning of a new year is often seen as a time for making resolutions. These personal commitments, most of which are invariably doomed to fail and to pass into oblivion by the middle of January, appear to be a means of assuaging the accumulated guilt in respect of things left undone, or even those done which are now best forgotten. Apparently the most common of these annual false aspirations relate to losing weight (presumably a direct response to Christmas over indulgence), or getting more exercise. Whatever the selected form of self-improvement, it is variously reported in the popular media that more that ninety percent of new year’s resolutions fall by the wayside within weeks; though many are likely to be resurrected on an annual basis. It is in part, through an awareness of this dismal failure rate, that a number of years ago I made a new year’s resolution not to make new year’s resolutions. Unlike most, this is one to which I am happy to report I have adhered with minimal difficulty.

Those who may have been searching for resolutions at the end of 2015 might just have noticed a suggestion being made by the British Council, an august body that supports international collaboration and fosters cultural events in many parts of the world. Representatives of the British Council suggested that in 2016 we should all consider making greater efforts to learn a foreign language. Language learning, it was suggested, encourages greater cultural understanding, can contribute to international co-operation and may also be a sociable and an enjoyable experience. In a world where inter-cultural exchange has increased, our experiences of meeting, socialising and working with people from other countries could be greatly enhanced by extending our linguistic competence.

I had given little further thought to this suggestion by the British Council until yesterday when I read an article from the Deccan Herald titled, “Mother Tongue for Educational Success”. In this article Dr Aradhana Mudambi argues that in India, increased mobility through the late twentieth and early twenty first century, means that many families now have a multi-lingual base which can be seen as either a challenge or an opportunity. She presents scenarios in which a man from Gujarat marries a woman from Kerala and they find themselves living in Bangalore. Here is a possible opportunity she suggests, for children to be brought up in a family where Gujarati, Malayalam and Kannada are spoken, probably alongside English, and even a little Hindi. Dr Mudambi proposes that children brought up in this way would have many advantages, not only in respect of their linguistic skills, but also through maintaining their family’s cultural heritage.

Sadly, for many families in this situation, the easy choice is to become dependent upon English. After all, English is widely spoken amongst educated people in India, and is the preferred medium through which many parents wish to see their children educated in schools. Here Dr Mudambi sees a problem. In some homes, she suggests, it has become increasingly difficult for children to communicate with their grandparents and others of that generation. They have become proficient English speakers, but have lost anything more than a rudimentary understanding of their mother tongue. This denies all of the family an opportunity to share stories and heritage that we know to be so important in enabling the development of a secure identity. More effort is needed to protect mother tongue not only for the preservation of Indian languages, but also to promote effective learning and cultural identity. As Dr Mudambi states:-

“By building their native language abilities while not neglecting their English development, students will have the best of all worlds”.

I wonder to what extent the English language has become a problem. Competence in English is most certainly an advantage. It has become the preferred language of business, academia and social media in many parts of the world, and it is increasingly noticeable that those who have little English language are restricted in their employment, education and social opportunities, even in those countries where it was not introduced until the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. This situation clearly places those of us who are native English speakers at an advantage. But does it also make us complacent and lazy? What incentive is there for me to learn another language if I am one of those fortunate individuals for whom English happens to be my mother tongue?

It is true to say that I speak some French, and gain particular pleasure even from the limited opportunities I have to practice this most beautiful language. I also have what can best be described as “pigeon German” (should that be Deutsch taube?) but in all honesty even the most educated of Germany’s pigeons despair at my grammar! Being proficient in English enables me to enjoy the original words of Shakespeare and Milton, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens who were influential in shaping the art and culture of my native land. Whilst I am aware that these authors have been ably translated into many languages, it does seem a privilege to be able to engage with the original language as presented by these giants of the written word. Am I missing something when I read the works of Kenzaburo Oe, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka or Naguib Mahfouz in translation? Possibly not, though to be able to appreciate the lyricism of their original form must be wonderful.

I feel this as an Englishman who enjoys reading the works of authors from around the globe, albeit in translation. I can’t help wondering how it might feel to have been the son of a Gujarati father but unable to read the works of Narayan Hemchandra in the language of that state, or to have been born in Karnataka and not to be able to see the plays of Thanjavur Paramasiva Kailasam produced in the original Kannada.

Language is an important means through which we maintain the heritage of our countries and states. In a world that is becoming increasingly Anglicised there may be a danger that some of our most precious history and art could be lost. It does seem to me that Dr Mudambi makes some important points about the need to encourage a greater understanding of the languages of our home nations. I also have sympathy with the argument put forward by the British Council in suggesting that we should all make a little more effort to appreciate the richness of the many languages that surround us.

The long road to liberty

Magna Carta (1215) a launch pad for later legislation to protect the rights of individuals

Magna Carta (1215) a launch pad for later legislation to protect the rights of individuals

I spent most of yesterday at the Palace of Westminster – home of the British Houses of Parliament. I have visited this readily recognised landmark on several occasions, but never cease to be impressed by both the grandeur of the architecture, and the sense of the history that surrounds the place. On arrival, most visitors enter The Houses of Parliament via Westminster Hall, the oldest part of this magnificent building. Westminster Hall was built at the command of King William II in 1097 and was reputedly the largest hall in Europe at this time. The hall contains many splendid features, though it is the superb hammer beam roof commissioned in 1393 by Richard II that impresses me more than any other aspect.

Westminster Hall has witnessed many significant historical events including the trial of Sir Thomas More (1535) and of Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plotters (1606), but most famously, this was the scene of the trial of King Charles I (1649) prior to his execution.

This is the only part of the Houses of Parliament where visitors are permitted to take photographs, and today I was particularly pleased to have this opportunity. As I arrived at the hall my attention was immediately drawn to a series of colourful banners hanging at regular intervals along the walls. With twenty minutes to spare I spent the time examining this display which had been assembled to commemorate a significant point in English history.

800 years ago in 1215 Magna Carta was issued by King John under some duress from a number of Barons, or noblemen at Runnymede near Windsor on the River Thames. Throughout this year there have been a number of events to commemorate this important occasion, which is often seen as a significant landmark in establishing the protection of the rights of individuals in the country. Probably the most famous quotation from Magna Carta is:

“To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice.”

This has been interpreted in many ways, but is usually seen as establishing that every individual should be treated fairly and receive justice and protection by law.

This is, of course, a noble sentiment, but it was educative to examine the banners displayed in Westminster Hall today, which indicated how it has taken many centuries since the issuing of Magna Carta to ensure that rights and justice have been recognised and assured for a broad range of groups and individuals. The banners, each created by a different artist provide an interpretation and information about a number of significant pieces of legislation. These include the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1807), the foundation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (1897) that eventually secured votes for women (1918), the Race Relations Act (1965), the Sexual Offences Act (1967), and the Disability Discrimination Act (1995). Each of these landmarks was significant in securing the rights of groups of people who had suffered discrimination and marginalisation. None was obtained without vigorous campaigning by individuals and pressure groups, but all have had a radical impact upon the lives of significant numbers of people.

A fine example of the sacrifices made by individuals who have campaigned for the rights of their fellow men and women is depicted on a banner that reminds us of the courage of the Tolpuddle Martyrs who, in 1834, having organised agricultural workers to campaign for improved working conditions, were convicted of being members of a Friendly Society, a forerunner of today’s trade unions. At the time, swearing an oath of allegiance to such an organisation was illegal. George Loveless and his fellow agricultural workers were sentence to transportation to Australia, though their convictions were later overthrown following a vigorous campaign by other workers across the country.

What all of the banners have in common is a celebration of justice and a commitment to recognising and respecting the rights of individuals, many of whom had been subjected to abuse over many centuries. The brief time I had to view these works of art today did much to reinforce my faith in human nature and the desire that most people have to ensure justice and equity for the vulnerable. These thoughts were certainly with me as I stood in a minute’s silence along with tens of thousands of others  around the world today as a mark of respect for those who were murdered in Paris by criminals who would probably rather not be confronted by the messages conveyed on these banners.

I present the banners below for you to peruse at your leisure.

Click to enlarge

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Being respectful should not require silence!

Protesters against and supporters of President Xi stand shoulder to shoulder in London. Could this scene be replicated in Beijing?

Protesters against and supporters of President Xi stand shoulder to shoulder in London. Could this scene be replicated in Beijing?

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” 
Archbishop Desmond Tutu

 

For many years now I have had the privilege of travelling to work with teachers and researchers in many parts of the world. Sharing ideas with colleagues and sometimes wrestling to interpret these in different cultural contexts has been a great privilege, and has afforded me opportunities to see how other people live, work and try to make sense of the world. Amidst all this, I hope that the experience has taught me to be respectful of other societies and to be prepared to engage in critical discussions whilst making an effort to understand a broad range of motivations and contexts.

The British media today is dominated by reports of the visit to the country by China’s President Xi Jinping. Yesterday he was afforded all the pomp and ceremony in which this country excels. State banquets, an audience with the Queen, an opportunity to address the UK Parliament and a ride along the mall in a carriage more suited to a performance of Cinderella than to the streets of twenty first century London. Unsurprisingly the President’s visit has divided the nation, with those who are in favour of accepting potentially high levels of investment from China into the development of UK infrastructure, juxtaposed with others who believe that we should not be welcoming a dictatorial leader who has overseen increased human rights atrocities in his country.

I have visited several parts of China on a number of occasions and over the past fifteen years have made a number of good friends and colleagues in the country. I have also worked with some outstanding Chinese students who are now making a significant contribution to education back in their homeland. These valued contacts have often afforded me kind hospitality in their country and sometimes in their homes. As with others from around the world, they are proud of their country with its rich history and traditions, though in private many are also critical of the many injustices that they see as characterising modern day China.

China is a vast country and I cannot claim to have seen much of its broad spread. However, I have seen enough to form some idea of the rich diversity within its peoples and culture. As well as Han Chinese colleagues in the East of China and Beijing, I have enjoyed time with friends in the Muslim Uygher communities in Xinjiang Province, and recognise that not all citizens of this vast country have the same interpretation of what it means to be Chinese. I am quite sure that my brief visits to China have shaped much of my thinking about the kind of society that has been created in this diverse part of the world. These thoughts have been very much to the forefront of my mind as I have watched the red carpet treatment given to President Xi Jinping following his arrival in London.

It seems to me that when visitors come to the UK, whoever they are, we should ensure that they receive a warm welcome and that they are made comfortable. Inevitably if they are a Head of State we would expect that they should be granted access to those in positions of responsibility and leadership in the country. However, if we are welcoming visitors as friends, as was implied by both the Prime Minister Mr Cameron, and by President Xi Jinping in speeches yesterday, we should expect that a frank exchange of views, as is common between friends might ensue.

Yesterday in the Guardian newspaper there was an interesting article written by the exiled Chinese novelist Ma Jian whose excellent books Stick Out Your Tongue, and The Noodle Maker won international praise. Having been at the receiving end of Chinese Government oppression over a number of years he is fully justified in making a number of observations about how President Xi Jinping’s visit will be reported in China. Emphasising the dangers of being critical of the administration in the country, Ma Jian writes:-

“The message from the Chinese tyrants to their subjects will be clear: if the queen of the UK, the oldest democracy in the world, lavishes your president with such respect and approbation, then what right have you to criticise him?”

Freedom of speech is something which was hard won and is now treasured in many of the world’s great democracies, including the UK. Ma Jian has every right to voice his opposition to Chinese Government oppression, and it is to the credit of the UK Government that he has been made welcome as a resident of this country and is provided with a platform from which to express his opinions. Sadly there are many other Chinese nationals who are in a similar position to Ma Jian and find that whilst their work and ideas are appreciated and indeed honoured outside of China, they face imprisonment and torture if they express themselves within their own country. The artist Ai Wei Wei has received many plaudits for his exhibition currently to be seen at Royal Academy in London, the Nobel Prize winning writer Liu Xiaobo is currently being held as a political prisoner in Jinzhou, Liaoning, whilst his work is honoured in most parts of the world, and the lawyer Xu Zhiyong founder of the Chinese New Citizens’ Movement which has campaigned for the rights of Chinese citizens is similarly incarcerated. These individuals and many thousands of others who, being less well known have escaped the attention of the western media, do not appear to have a voice in the current negotiations being conducted between the UK Government and the Chinese President.

Unlike some who have written in the British press or appeared in interviews on the radio, I do not believe that we should have refused President Xi Jinping entry to the country. However, if as Mr Cameron suggests, there are opportunities for strengthening bonds between the governments of two countries, I would hope that he provides the kind of critical friendship that in recognition of those values of human rights and social justice that are often said to characterise the UK, enables him to express his abhorrence of the repression and ill-treatment of those who voice opinions contrary to those of the totalitarian regime that administers China.

Having been lavishly entertained at Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament President Xi Jinping may now be in need of a day of leisure. If so, he could do far worse than visiting the Royal Academy to see the work of his fellow countryman Ai Wei Wei. I suspect that this is an unlikely scenario as it would demand a willingness to engage in a learning experience that could be in danger of broadening his perspectives.

 

Educating ourselves in order to understand the lives of others.

 

Let's not give up on the world's poorest children

Let’s not give up on the world’s poorest children

“Education is a fundamental right and the basis for progress in every country. Parents need information about health and nutrition if they are to give their children the start in life they deserve. Prosperous countries depend on skilled and educated workers. The challenges of conquering poverty, combatting climate change and achieving truly sustainable development in the coming decades compel us to work together. With partnership, leadership and wise investments in education, we can transform individual lives, national economies and our world.”             

 BAN KI-MOON, UNITED NATIONS SECRETARY-GENERAL

This week could prove to be important in the lives of many of the world’s poorest children. I have written several times on this blog about the Education for All goals, established to improve the lives of children and families around the world. At times I have discussed the alarming statistics, such as those contained in the 2014 UNESCO Global Monitoring Report, that suggests that whilst progress has been made, this is at an alarmingly slow rate. Too many children continue to live in poverty, have no opportunity to go to school and are subjected to hunger, violence and a lack of adequate health care.

In New York in the coming days, representatives of United Nations member governments will be coming together to discuss the updating and future monitoring of the EFA goals. National governments are being asked to identify their own priorities and the actions they plan to take towards implementing change. High on the agenda is the development of universal education and  an assurance that all children have an opportunity to learn and acquire the skills, knowledge and understanding to contribute to the lives of their families and countries.

Education alone cannot address the ills of the world. Natural disaster, conflict and political instability are all factors that impact upon the potential for improving children’s lives. However, without education the task is so much greater. A new publication from UNESCO, Sustainable Development Begins with Education: How education can contribute to the proposed post-2015 goals, provides both interesting statistics, and evidence for the ways in which the provision of education can impact upon a vast range of issues. These include the rights of women, environmental stability and climate change, economic well-being and poverty reduction, all of which are so dependent upon an educated population to ensure progress.

It is, of course easy to become cynical and to sink into despair when considering the state of the world, and the apparent indifference often shown to such overarching issues. However, if change is to occur, we must surely begin by educating ourselves about the current situation and the impact upon the lives of those who either receive an inadequate education, or no education at all. Whilst many of the  EFA goals have not been achieved, we should acknowledge the tremendous commitment made by some governments, non-governmental organisations and dedicated individuals that have resulted in positive change for many children.

A few days ago a colleague proposed that the setting of new post 2015 goals would have little impact and that some countries will sign up to these with no intention of effecting change. In ten years time, he suggested, the same countries will be in the same decrepit state or even worse.  He may be right, but the alternative is simply to ignore the challenges, claim that this is not our responsibility and to remain in ignorance of what needs to be done.

Change through education begins when we educate ourselves, and recognise the significance of the difficulties faced by many of the world’s children. It must obviously not stop at that point, but unless we equip ourselves with this level of knowledge we remain unaware of the starting point for change and less likely to work towards improving the lives of those in the greatest need. There is a great danger in believing that the situation experienced by the poorest people in the world has little to do with us in our state of relative comfort. However, history shows that conflict that begins in those states where people are dispossessed or feel that they are oppressed by corrupt and uncaring regimes, quickly spread and impact upon the lives of those much further afield.

To suggest that this is not our problem is both disingenuous and naïve. If you also believe that educating yourself about the challenges faced by children living in poverty and without adequate education is important, you might take a few minutes to read the latest UNESCO document, and to watch the brief attached video recording.

Click on the link here to read the UNESCO document

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT BEGINS WITH EDUCATION

 

Click below to see a video made to publicise this issue

 

This man’s education could be put to better use!

 

This is a well written document, presumably produced by someone who has received an education but would prefer to keep others in ignorance. What is to be gained?

This is a well written document, presumably produced by someone who has received an education but would prefer to keep others in ignorance. What is to be gained?

 

It requires an educated person to construct a document, which takes account of good grammar and spelling. It is an even greater achievement to do so in what may be the writer’s second or even third language. Generally speaking when an individual has attained this level of proficiency it is, at least in part, because they have received the support of a teacher.

The above image of a document was given to me this morning by a friend from Pakistan. It had been pushed under the door of an acquaintance in Karachi who has had a long standing commitment to the education of children in that city. As an advocate of education this person has always treated children as individuals deserving of an education, regardless of their nationality, religion, class, gender or caste. This is an attitude that many of us would see as being founded upon human rights and social justice; qualities that we expect to see in educated people, but it would appear that others disagree.

Leaving aside for the moment the rather obtuse sentiments expressed in this leaflet, one of the first things that struck me about it was that it is quite well written. The English language has been used to good effect (even if this is being applied for  nefarious purposes), with reasonable grammar and consistent spelling. It most certainly could not have been written by someone who had not received a formal education. I am making an assumption here that the first language of the writer is not English and that they are more likely to be familiar with Urdu,  Sindhi or possibly Pashtun, and that English could well be their second or third language. I am also interested to note that they have made a decision to write this text in English, presumably in the belief that it is a communication aimed at  other educated individuals.

Having read this embittered diatribe I find myself wondering what is to be gained by denying educational opportunities to others, similar to those that the author has clearly experienced in the past. If he (it is almost certainly a man) wishes to challenge the introduction of western cultural values, he is of course quite entitled to do so. There are many debates taking place regularly around the world about the loss of national and regional identity, and these are often stimulating and well informed. I most certainly support those individuals who believe that the protection of local languages, the preservation of regional heritage and arts, and the fair representation of national histories should be given a priority. Like many others who have engaged in the debate, I have a concern that the English language has become too dominant and is a force for restricting the opportunities of those who are unable to receive tuition in its use. Though I presume that this latter issue is of no concern to the writer of this misconceived missive.

Attempts to stifle debate are usually made by those who feel that they are losing the argument. They betray the insecurities and inadequacies of the author. The messages conveyed in this text are intended to frighten, and to deny the rights of others to have their voices heard. I would suggest that anonymously pushing this leaflet under the doors of individuals who are committed to ensuring that children receive a well balanced liberal education is likely to have the opposite effect. Copies of this narrow minded text are already being circulated and held up as an example of the misrepresentation of the tenets of Islam, and a misguided action by an ill-informed, ignorant and faceless individual.

I am pleased that the writer of this sad text has  gained some benefits from his education. He has obviously acquired the skills of expression, even if he lacks the individuality and critical thinking that could make him into a more interesting author. The threats contained within this document will be abhorrent to the vast majority of people in Pakistan. I hope that the purveyor of this sick note, full of despicable hatred, may find the time to reflect on the efforts made by his teachers on his behalf. They clearly did a good job in terms of his English language abilities. I also hope that if he has children they may experience an education that is truly inclusive, and promotes understanding, respect and tolerance. The kind of education that I imagine most of the schools targeted by this leaflet are determined to provide. Long may they thrive.

 

How much courage does it take to be a teacher?

Standing Up for Schools - supporting those who have no power to support themselves

Standing Up for Schools – supporting those who have no power to support themselves

There were times when I was teaching in school when I would get home exhausted, and at times frustrated as a result of something that happened during the day. However, I never truly felt like throwing in the towel and finding some other way of making a living. I knew the that for every bad day I had at school, there would be fifty or more good ones, and that I could never wish for a better job than that of being a teacher.

Whilst I had the occasional bad day at school I never experienced anything like the stress or the horrors that Ali Khan has faced. An article in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper (17th March), written by Louise Tickle described how, after hearing an explosion, Ali Khan arrived at the school where he taught in Charbagh Pakistan to find it destroyed. The Pakistan Taliban, determined to show their opposition to education and their overwhelming commitment to ignorance, had blown up the school, believing that they could terrorise the local population sufficiently to prevent them sending their children to receive an education. I can well imagine that parents in that area must have experienced many sleepless nights, wondering whether to be cowed by this dreadful act, or to stand in opposition to the murderous bullies.

The Taliban could not have reckoned with the determination of Ali Khan and his colleagues. All fifty two of the teachers from that school returned to work, setting up classes by sharing with another school and operating a shift system. Many of the children and families returned immediately for lesson, others took longer, understandably apprehensive of what might happen. Ali Khan stated that he did have worries himself about returning to work, but then decided:-

“I was born a teacher, and I will die in the profession because of my passion for educating children.”

The courage of teachers like Ali Khan is incredible, and fortunately the majority of us who have the privilege to work in education will never have to confront such situations. However, Ali Khan’s story is sadly far from unique. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) report that schools in seventy countries came under assault between 2009 and 2014. It is hard to imagine the courage required by teachers and children to continue in education in such circumstances. I am not sure that I could be this brave.

This coming June the Norwegian Government will being leading a move to afford schools the same status as hospitals, as sacrosanct spaces during periods of armed conflict. This initiative is receiving support from many other agencies working for child protection and children’s rights. The United Nations special envoy on global education, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, is also joining this campaign, and has asked governments around the world to make a commitment to changing the current situation.

For those of us who work in comfortable educational situations it is difficult to conceive of what we can do from our positions of privilege. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack recognises this dilemma, but believes that the weight of public opinion could be important in exerting the pressure required to ensure that governments back the proposed changes to current legislation. To this end they have launched a petition under the banner, Stand Up for School. This declares:-

“We, the world’s youth, teachers, parents and global citizens appeal to our governments to keep their promise, made at the United Nations in 2000, to ensure all out-of-school children gain their right to education before the end of 2015.

We are standing up to bring an end to the barriers preventing girls and boys from going to school, including forced work and early marriage, conflict and attacks on schools, exploitation and discrimination. All children deserve the opportunity to learn and achieve their potential”.

I am quite sure that Ali Khan will be hoping that such sentiments result in action.

The petition can be found at:-

http://www.aworldatschool.org/upforschool

 

A flickering light gives hope for education

 

Those of us who can assert that education is not a crime are the fortunate ones.

Those of us who can assert that education is not a crime are the fortunate ones.

“They can destroy books and computers, or they can imprison people.

They can confiscate property and shut down classes.

But they can’t confiscate education.

They can’t end the love of learning, love of teaching”

Supporter of the Bahai Institute of Higher Education, in exile

Is education a right or a privilege? What happens when individuals or groups of people are denied access to education? To what lengths will people go in order to obtain an education, or to ensure that others do not gain access to learning? These questions, and other similar points of debate were the focus of a discussion held yesterday evening at the University of Northampton.

The debate around these fundamental issues was provoked by the showing of a film “To Light a Candle” made by the Iranian journalist and film maker Maziar Bahari, whose other films include Of Shame and Coffins (2000) and Along Came a Spider (2003). He has also been involved in the production of television documentaries, including programmes for Channel 4 and the BBC in the UK. Bahari is not unfamiliar with controversy and oppression having spent time in an Iranian prison accused of anti-state activity after filming and publicising “illegal demonstrations” and “illegal gatherings” in Tehran. “To Light a Candle” is certainly unlikely to enhance his popularity amongst the current rulers of Iran as it continues Bahari’s theme of recording oppression and denial of human rights.

“To Light a Candle” tells the story of the Bahai community in Iran and their struggle to obtain education and fair employment. The Bahai’is are a significant minority religious group within Iran, where their faith was originally founded in the nineteenth century. Ever since their foundation, during the time of the Ottoman Empire they have faced persecution, but they have always resisted this oppression through determined non-violent resistance.

In modern day Iran Bahai’is are forbidden access to higher education and are not allowed to teach in universities. Some of those who have sought a university education elsewhere and have returned to Iran have been denied the right to practice their professions, and the degrees that they have obtained from well-established universities have not been recognised within the country. One of many examples of this level of persecution is the story of Faran Hesami who graduated in 2003 with a Master’s degree in Educational Counselling from the University of Ottawa, Canada. On her return to Iran, where she hoped to work for the benefit of her local community Faran Hesami was arrested and tried and informed that her degree was illegal, and therefore she had been practicing as a counsellor illegally. The court sentenced her to four years imprisonment.

“To Light a Candle” is in many respects a depressing film, and not surprisingly, those of us watching, representing many different nationalities, cultures and a range of secular and religious beliefs, were horrified at the level of oppression depicted. Everyone present at the showing of this film had benefitted from education from primary school days through to university, and there was a general consensus that our experiences left us better equipped to make a contribution to the countries from which we come. Whilst the sense of injustice around the room was palpable, there was however, one aspect of this film that gave everyone present hope that things will be better in the future. On several occasions individuals from the Bahai community shown in the film demonstrated their commitment to obtaining an education and their preparedness to go to great lengths to assert this right. The point was strongly made, that whilst it is possible to deny access to universities or libraries, to destroy learning materials and resources, and to attempt to stop people learning together, determined individuals will find ways of circumventing legislation and oppression and will continue to learn.

Within Iran students and academics, supported by many Iranians who are not of the Bahai faith have organised themselves to create the Bahai Institute of Higher Education (BIHE). Through this underground movement classes are organised and qualifications obtained. Though the Iranian authorities do not recognise this institute or its awards, the organisers of this movement persist and are continuing to assert the right to education. Academics from around the world have supported this movement by giving their time to teach courses at the BIHE at a distance through internet links and the production of teaching materials. The film showed professors from Canada and the United States of America engaging with students on a range of courses and enabling them to have access to high quality teaching.

The showing of this film to a small audience enabled those present to reassert their commitment to the concept of education for all. Many of the students present have been involved in researching and debating aspects of inclusive education over the past few years, and their tutors in some instances for far longer. Discussions about the exclusion of children from education because of disability, poverty, caste or conflict have been a regular feature of the work of those present. This film added a new dimension to our attempts to understand the impact of exclusion and the importance of  gaining a holistic view of the meaning of inclusion.

The courage of individuals, who are struggling in the face of danger to obtain an education, should encourage all of us who have opportunities to learn in freedom alongside our peers and colleagues, to value what we have. The overwhelming view within the room was that education is indeed a right, but that perhaps those of us who have had educational opportunities should recognised how privileged we are, by comparison to others who live under oppressive regimes. Whilst members of the Bahai community in Iran and others around the world continue to be denied their right to education, it will be essential that those of us who do have the freedom to learn continue to debate these issues, and bring them to the attention of others.

Education is Not A crime, is a movement campaigning to bring the denial of education to the Bahai community to wider attention. You can find details at:-

http://www.educationisnotacrime.me/

To see a trailer for the film “To Light a Candle” go to:-

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7aE27GyMMo

 

 

New Year’s resolution (or should that be revolution?)

A new year begins. What will it bring to the lives of children?

A new year begins. What will it bring to the lives of children?

I like to think that I am by nature an optimist. I tend to believe that problems exist to be confronted, and that people are generally good and willing to work together to improve the lives of others. But having said this, I must confess that I find that the newspapers at the end of one year and the beginning of the next can sometimes dent my otherwise sunny disposition. In many ways it would be a good idea to steer clear of the journalistic harbingers of doom for a few days, at least until the depressing review of the old year and predictions for the new are well out of the way. However, I think there may be a different way of dealing with the woebegone soothsayers of newsprint, so long as we are prepared to recognise that their apocalyptic auguries are not necessarily reliable, and  are entirely dependent upon the inactivity of every individual who can make a difference.

I long ago gave up on on making New Year’s resolutions. It seems to me that most of these were generally destined to be forgotten or discarded by mid-January, and that those which were maintained were often of no real substance or consequence. Here again the media do not help by informing us  of the new year pledges made by numerous “celebrities” as if their virtuous intent was something  with which we should be amazed. (Am I the only one for whom the term “celebrity” often refers to someone of whom I have never heard? – perhaps I should get out more!). However, the notion that we should occasionally stop and reflect upon our own situation, and that which  affects the lives of others, is of itself, no bad thing, and perhaps an indicator that we might do this more often. Whilst New Year appears to have been hijacked as a time for such activity, there is, of course, no reason why we shouldn’t undertake such cerebration at any time.

UNESCO have just issued a document titled Sustainable Development Begins With Education, which provides exactly the kind of reflection that I have in mind. I must admit that I almost put this document to one side, fearing that alongside the many other year end doom mongers, this might just push me over the edge. Fortunately I overcame my latent cowardice and found within this document a number of affirming statements, which whilst bold in their assertion, are founded upon evidence presented in a series of helpful vignettes. In a piece as short as this I cannot possibly do justice to the UNESCO document, neither can I highlight all of the statements made. But I can present examples here, along with a suggestion that may hopefully have more credence than most superficial New Year’s resolutions. The UNESCO document highlights examples of how:

  • Education prevents the transmission of poverty between generations.
  • Equity and inclusion in education are crucial for enabling the best possible learning outcomes.
  • Education helps women have a voice.
  • Equitable education service delivery is critical to tackle the roots of discontent in cities.
  • Education helps reduce political corruption.

As stated, each of these statements is accompanied by brief examples to illustrate the truths that they contain.

UNESCO suggest that the knowledge that education has an impact upon these, and other issues, should help to spur policy makers and professionals forward to create the conditions that enable progress to be made.

I suppose it might be said that everything suggested here is obvious, and that the people who read this blog are those who would share such sentiments, and already have a commitment to support the moves that would promote change. This is quite true, but maybe this is because of the limited way in which we conduct our professional conversations and actions.

Here then is the suggestion that I promised above. I suspect that on issues of education, equity, poverty and social justice many of us spend most of our time talking to other like-minded individuals. This is in part a result of the professional and personal circles in which we rotate and the fact that most of us belong to the tut-tutting classes who express our concerns for the state of the world. So perhaps we need to rethink our own behaviours and to consider the ways in which we commune with those who are less aware of the issues facing children, and the possible consequences of taking affirmative action on behalf of education. Maybe we need to find those channels, which far from preaching to the converted, may lead us to sup with the devil and increase his (or her) awareness of the difficulties faced by many children and the important role that education can play in improving their lives. After all, it is not individuals like you that are inhibiting progress, but it may well be others who are less aware or prefer to remain in ignorance of those issues that you are attempting to address every day in your classrooms, or elsewhere in your life.

For those of us working in academic institutions, this might present many new challenges. We are expected to attend the conferences, publish papers, write books and give lectures to those who are already likely to give us a sympathetic hearing. We may therefore need to find new means of communicating with those who may be less inclined to hear and more oppositional in terms of the ideas we wish to express. Such activity may afford us new learning opportunities and help us to become better informed in addressing those issues for which we claim to carry a torch.

I am not suggesting that I have the answer to how we might move forward. All suggestions for how such a task may be confronted will be gratefully received. Maybe we can review progress at the end of 2015.

A VERY HAPPY, PEACEFUL AND SUCCESSFUL NEW YEAR TO ALL FRIENDS

A copy of the UNESCO document Sustainable Development Begins With Education can be read at

http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002305/230508e.pdf

 

 

 

Let’s celebrate today, but not forget tomorrow.

In the mind of the public today, but what about tomorrow, next week, or next month?

In the mind of the public today, but what about tomorrow, next week, or next month?

It is always good to see the work of colleagues and students receiving affirmation and brought to the attention of the public. Today’s Metro Supplement from the Deccan herald carries an article reporting on the International Day of People with  Disability and the work of teachers in Bangalore (http://www.deccanherald.com/content/445176/confident-strides.html). At the head of the article is a picture of children, and in their midst the smiling face of my colleague Jayashree with whom I am fortunate to work whenever I am in the city.

The article celebrates the work of teachers, including those from the Brindavan Educational Trust where our MA programme is based, with a particular focus on the support they give to children with disabilities and special educational needs. The article celebrates the successes of young people and includes an example of a young man with Down’s syndrome, who following some initial difficulties in school now has a successful career working for a multi-national company.

The importance of the support provided to children who experience difficulties with learning, by well qualified professionals such as Jayashree, is emphasised throughout the article, and a very positive outlook on issues of disability is given.

Newspaper reports such as this can play an important role in bringing issues related to disability to public attention, and the support provided by journalists and others in the media is to be welcomed. However, I can’t help feeling that the very fact that we still perceive a need for an International Day of People with Disability tells us something about the long journey that still has to be travelled to achieve a more equitable society. I certainly do not wish to decry the tremendous efforts that are made by individuals and organisations, to bring the needs of children and others who have been marginalised, to the attention of the general public, many of whom remain ignorant of the challenges they have faced. The work undertaken by professionals and parents to raise awareness, has been critical in many of the advances made for children with special educational needs over the past century. I also believe that the media can play an important and responsible role in assisting moves towards achieving more inclusive communities. There have been many excellent campaigning journalists in recent years who have taken up cudgels against inequality and injustice.

Once the International Day of People with Disability passes, the difficulties that these individuals face in their everyday lives don’t go away. It is certainly good to see the commitment of individuals celebrated on this particular day, but it should be recognised that the efforts that they make will also be in evidence for the three hundred and sixty four days that are not in the public eye. I may be accused of being curmudgeonly, and certainly run the risk of antagonising some of my colleagues who have devoted much of their time to the organisation of these one day events. But Just as women in England no longer feel the need to throw themselves under the hooves of the King’s horse in order to demand the vote, and Indian politicians no longer spend time in prisons in order to gain national independence, I hope that a day will come when the rights of individuals with disabilities are fully recognised and those who support them can take a break from the efforts they make to obtain social justice.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has recognised the need to work towards a change in society for a time when:-

Persons with disabilities are not viewed as “objects” of charity, medical treatment and social protection; rather as “subjects” with rights, who are capable of claiming those rights and making decisions for their lives based on their free and informed consent as well as being active members of society.

How long, I wonder until this ambition is achieved?