Donald is not an easy boy to like, but still we must try to include him!

It's difficult to see the beauty of the world if you have a paper bag stuck on your head!

It’s difficult to see the beauty of the world if you have a paper bag stuck on your head!

Dear Mr and Mrs Trump,

It is with great sadness that I find it necessary once again to write to you regarding both the academic performance and the conduct of your son Donald. I am sorry to say that in recent weeks he has failed to provide any evidence of progress in most areas of the school curriculum, and his behaviour has become an increasing cause of embarrassment to the school.

I am fairly certain that much of what follows in this letter will come as little surprise to yourselves, particularly as together we have monitored Donald’s idiosyncrasies over an extended period of time, and I am sure that like us, you recognise that he gives the impression of living much of his life in a fantasy world, which of late has resulted in the most alarming delusions of grandeur. Indeed, in a recent conversation with the school’s careers teacher he even made the preposterous suggestion that he thought he might stand next year for the post of head boy. Whilst we would not wish to deter any of our students from standing for such a prestigious post in school, and indeed we are proud of our democratic traditions, I have to say I find it hard to believe that any of our students, who have a reputation for intelligence and fair play would be likely to support Donald in seeking such a position.

The difficulties which Donald presents in school are many, but I feel obliged to draw your attention to a few specific issues brought to my notice by some of his teachers.

Mr Clarke, our excellent head of history has this term been addressing a syllabus that recalls the early settlement of our post-Colombian nation. This most exciting and informative topic is always popular with students who are eager to trace their own origins and explore the possibility that they may have ancestral roots from many parts of Europe, South America, the Caribbean or elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately Donald, who appears to believe that he is of pure “white American” extraction, caused some consternation in the class by suggesting that his classmates Michael Beaumont and Elizabeth Burns may not be authentic American citizens and should be considered for repatriation to France and Scotland respectively. When Mr Clarke ventured to suggest that the name Trump was thought to be of Germanic origin from the term “trumpe” indicating the player of a drum, Donald resorted to his usual strategy of threatening to begin litigation against his teacher. Incidentally I still have thirty badly written letters purporting to be from Donald’s legal representatives on my desk.

Sadly, I can report similar issues from his Geography teacher Miss Grainger, who is in despair over the fact that whilst Donald claims to have a personal connection to young ladies who are the holders of dubious titles such as Miss Venezuela, Miss Panama, Miss Sweden, and Miss Dominican Republic, he was unable to locate any of these nations in his atlas. Miss Grainer is of the opinion that Donald needs to get out a little more. Unfortunately he appears to have little inclination to find out much about the world around him, declaring an aversion to “foreign” and a reluctance to engage with those beyond a small and equally insular coterie.

In citizenship lessons, I’m afraid Donald fares no better. Earlier this week his class were asked to write an essay on the significance today of those magnificent words from Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. I am sure you know them well, but let me just remind you:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Donald took a novel approach to this task by producing an extensive list of exclusion clauses. I won’t trouble you with the detail, particularly as his reasoning was at best flawed and some might well say deranged. However, it would appear that Donald sees no place in the “Land of the Free” for those of the Muslim faith, journalists with disabilities, Mexicans, gay couples or others who may be in dire straits and currently sleeping on the streets of our cities. Furthermore, the recent expressions of ignorance that have poured from his mouth have even disappointed his English pen friend Boris who has announced the cancellation of an intended visit to our school in fear that he might feel obliged to soundly box Donald’s ears.

Despite our continued efforts to accommodate his eccentricities, Donald remains isolated from most of his peers in school and appears to have aligned himself with a particularly disreputable and unsavoury group of youths who congregate outside of the school gate using offensive language, much of which is directed towards other students as they leave the premises. Whilst many of the staff here see Donald as a hapless buffoon, rather in the nature of Homer Simpson, I’m afraid I take a rather less charitable view and see him as being more in the vein of Rasputin or Cruella DeVil.

I trust you will recognise that we have gone the extra mile in tolerating Donald’s bizarre nature. We have been flexible in the administration of our no animals in school policy, allowing him to bring his pet gerbil to class each day; though we still fail to see the reason why he insists on wearing this poor creature on his head. We have made every effort to address the fact that he has difficulty making friends, but sadly his abusive use of social media has made those more respectful students wary of being associated with him.

Reading through what I have written about Donald in this letter, I suspect that what I have to say next may come as something of a surprise. I am sure that there are many schools in this district who would be throwing in the towel at this point, who would be saying enough is enough, and this boy must go. However, this is not our way at the Harriet Tubman Academy, where we pride ourselves on being an inclusive school. Here we have a philosophy of opening our doors to all students, regardless of need or ability. I must admit at a staff meeting yesterday we spent a considerable time revisiting our school principles, but after some debate we have now amended all of our school documentation, and to the declaration that stated that “we welcome all pupils regardless of their race, religion, colour, socio-economic status or sexuality” we have added a clause indicating that “we even do our very best for bigots!”

I do hope that you and your family, including Donald, enjoy a very happy and peaceful Christmas holiday, and that he may return in the new year with a renewed enthusiasm for learning. If you could encourage him to make a single new year’s resolution, might I suggest that keeping his mouth shut whenever something offensive comes into his mind might be a good start.

Yours sincerely

A. Lincoln

School Principal

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moggies against terror

 

Brasmble may not look as if she is politically motivated, but she wishes to express solidarity with the protesting cats of Brussels!

Bramble may not look as if she is politically motivated, but she wishes to express solidarity with the protesting cats of Brussels!

I have always been fond of cats. Whilst there was a time during which I favoured dogs as pets, I now recognise the great individuality of cats, many of whom appear to be far more intelligent than myself, and have a much more relaxed attitude to life. Indeed Bramble, the cat who kindly allows us to share her home here in Northamptonshire (there is little doubt that this is how she sees the situation) spends much of her time seeking the sunniest and most comfortable resting places in the house, and seldom exerts herself beyond the casual walk to her bowl in search of food. I sometimes contrast this with my own lifestyle, but if I consider this for too long it can become depressing.

Often when I am working at home in the study, Bramble will spread herself comfortably on the sofa, occasionally opening one eye to ensure that I am still slaving over a keyboard before returning to her slumbers. I used to think that she chose this position because she liked my company, but have more recently come to believe that she is keeping an eye on me to ensure that I don’t disturb the order of the room which is, I suspect, arranged just as she likes it.

I haven’t written about cats before on this blog, generally believing that they have only a tenuous link to education, save for some excellent literary felines as exemplified in the verses of T.S. Eliot, or several stories by Rudyard Kipling, and that they probably have even less impact upon children’s rights. However, yesterday I found myself initially amused, and then pondering more thoughtfully on the role that cats were playing in the day’s news. This all began with a headline on the BBC website that stated:

“Brussels Lockdown: Belgians tweet pictures of cats to confuse Isis terrorists.”

Not being a user of Twitter, simply because it takes me too much time to master the technology associated with this simple blog, I must confess that I have only minimal understanding of how it works. But I was certainly intrigued by the headline and couldn’t resist reading further. It would appear that as Brussels began its third day living with the highest level of alert in relation to potential terrorist activity, a request was made by the police and other authorities not to disclose details about police activity through the use of social media. Recognising the sense of this request, this has apparently initiated a response by Twitter users, and not only those from within Belgium, who have now set about showing their concern and determination to defeat the terrorists by posting pictures of cats on their accounts. Goodness knows that the situation in Brussels is anything but a laughing matter, but it would appear that the human spirit is able to rise above even the most dire of circumstances.

Apparently thousands, if not tens of thousands of cat images have now been posted on people’s Twitter accounts (I understand that this is usually referred to as “tweeting”, but in view of my usual association of this term with birds, it seems inappropriate to use it on a blog about cats). Many of these photographs can be found on news sites and from the pages of newspapers. Some of the images simply show rather cute kittens frolicking at home. Others have been portrayed more creatively, in poses of mock surrender, or armed with guns or bombs or hiding in a vast range of receptacles.

I would not normally give articles such as this too much attention, but having wasted several minutes smiling at a number of the pictures, I found myself reflecting on an article I had read in the previous day’s Guardian written by the excellent Marina Hyde, in which she argued that one way of confronting those who wish to inflict terror on our communities is through the use of comedy to mock them, and show them up for the mindless cowards that they truly are. Thinking about what Marina Hyde had to say I was soon in accord with her ideas, remembering how some of the great comedians of the past have helped us to see the stupidity of those who try to impose their warped view of the world on others.

Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film the Great Dictator, used comedy to highlight the despicable nature of Hitler, Mussolini, antisemitism, and the Nazis with great effect. Cartoonists all over the world such as Steve Bell, Satish Acharya, Laxman and Jeff Stahler have helped to expose corruption and enabled us to laugh at the perpetrators. Whilst satirical television programmes like “That was the Week That was,” and “Spitting Image” have tackled political cant and pomposity with many a belly laugh. Now it would appear that thousands of largely unknown people are using cats to good effect to highlight the futility of terrorism.

I tried showing some of the pictures to Bramble yesterday evening, and asked her for a suitable quote (yes I know – but there’s no harm in trying). At first she feigned some slight enthusiasm, but eventually curled herself back into a comfortable position turning her back on me with barely disguised contempt. The only message that she seemed to convey was something along the lines of – “I spend my whole life making a mockery of you, but you are not bright enough to notice”.

Comedy is dismissed in some quarters as having little of substance to offer in our interpretation of the world or the ways in which we might confront its challenges. Perhaps we should reconsider this view and allow the cats to continue in their excellent venture to scoff at those who would do us harm

May the pictures below raise a smile!

Laid back cat. Just wake me up when it's all over!

Laid back cat. Just wake me up when it’s all over!

Comedian cat - mocking anyone who wants to disturb his peace

Comedian cat – mocking anyone who wants to disturb his peace

six shooter cat! Part of the cat peace keeping squadron

six shooter cat! Part of the cat peace keeping squadron

Para-military cat. Keeping the cats of Brussels safe

Para-military cat. Keeping the cats of Brussels safe

Boozy cat - it's enough to drive a cat to drink!

Boozy cat – it’s enough to drive a cat to drink!

Book cat - educating himself to understand what it means to live peacefully in a diverse world

Book cat – educating himself to understand what it means to live peacefully in a diverse world

 

Caution lethal cane users on the loose!

 

Mobility aid or lethal weapon?

Mobility aid or lethal weapon?

When I first read a story in yesterday’s newspapers about a visually impaired girl being banned from using her white cane in school I thought that it must be some kind of spoof article. Blind and visually impaired people have been using white canes as an aid to their mobility since 1921, when a photographer named James Biggs from Bristol lost his sight following an accident. Biggs became alarmedwhen dealing with traffic around the city, and therefore painted his walking stick white to be more easily visible. Gradually this approach was adopted by more individuals and organisations, and has now become a common feature that is easily recognised as an indication that the user has limited vision. Users of the white cane, (sometimes referred to as a long cane), receive training from mobility officers and find that this simple device enables them to maintain a degree of independence.

Over many years I have encountered numerous users of white canes and cannot say that I have ever been fearful for my safety or anxious that I was about to be injured by the individuals involved. I was therefore taken aback to hear that seven year old Lily-Grace Hooper has been banned from using her essential mobility aid, by the head teacher of a primary school which she attends, located ironically in the city of Bristol!

Having read a little around this topic, I have found that indeed there have been occasional accidents involving individuals tripping over the white cane used by a visually impaired person. However, it would appear that in relation to the number of individuals using this particular aid to mobility, accidents are few and far between. Indeed, it seems that in schools where children have been using these devices, students soon become aware of the user and get used to the idea that more space may be required by their classmate. Reports of accidents in schools caused by users of the white cane may be out there somewhere, but they have as yet evaded me.

I once had the experience of being run into by a teacher who was a wheelchair user in a school in London. No serious damage was done to either myself or the wheelchair. As is usually the case in polite English society I apologised profusely for having impeded the wheelchair user’s pathway, whilst she similarly begged forgiveness for having crashed into the back of my legs. I am quite sure that such collisions between able bodied teachers, colleagues and students happen every day. I certainly was not inclined to call for a ban upon wheelchairs in schools, recognising that minor events such as that which I had experienced are bound to happen from time to time.

It is to be hoped that Lily-Grace Hooper’s situation can be quickly resolved. I understand that the anticipated accidents that might have been caused by this pupil have not yet occurred, and that as yet there is not a queue of ambulances lined up at the school gates. Common sense would suggest that having a child who is a white cane user in school provides opportunities for the whole school community to learn about the needs of Lily-Grace, and that she will be able to experience what it means to be welcomed and included in school. However, I sometimes find that common sense is not quite as common a commodity as we might expect.

I would like to ask the head teacher of this Bristol primary school why not try to do something original to assist children with this unique learning opportunity? Perhaps they could take it in turns to be blindfolded and with the aid of a cane – white or otherwise, find their way about the classroom in order to make suggestions of how the environment could be made more Lily-Grace friendly. Or maybe this suggestion is simply symptomatic of a “touchy-feely” teacher who believes that we should look for learning opportunities rather than seeing problems – (yes I confess I am such a one!).

I am sure that the head teacher and governors of the school attended by Lily-Grace Hooper will have learned much from the publicity and debate that has surrounded their bizarre decision. I hope that the confidence of Lily-Grace and her family has not been too impaired by this outmoded attitude to a child with a disability. Let’s hope that the school’s managers are now in a position to reflect upon what it takes to be inclusive and to enable all pupils to feel at home in school.

 

Let’s start by putting our own house in order.

This report makes interesting and sometimes uncomfortable reading

This report makes interesting and sometimes uncomfortable reading

It has always seemed to me that my job requires that I keep up to date with current research and legislation in the field of education. As most of my work is focused upon issues of educational inclusion and those socio-economic, cultural and political factors that impede progress towards creating a more inclusive education system and perpetuate marginalisation, my reading often includes national and international data that reports the current situation. Documents such as the Global Monitoring Reports that assess the progress made in respect of the education for all (EFA) goals have always proven useful and have informed both my teaching and research. Usually, these reports provide an overview of the situation for children and families in some of the most economically challenged parts of the world, and indicate initiatives that have had a positive impact upon change. However, there is a distinct danger that in reading these documents, one begins to make assumptions that the greatest challenges facing education are to be found in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, or South American countries. Beliefs  are all too often held that suggest we have somehow got things right in “the west” and that others should simply follow our lead.

Anyone who really believes that we have addressed the obstacles to creating a more inclusive and equitable society here in Europe, might be well advised to read the recently published Education and Training Monitor Report produced by the European Commission. This document provides an overview of the progress made in respect of providing access to a high quality education for young people across Europe, and reviews those influences that are currently having an impact upon achieving positive outcomes. In his introduction to this interesting document, Tibor Navracsics, the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, identifies “investment in education and inclusion through education” as the most important theme that is threaded throughout its pages. The report does identify a number of positive developments that have been supportive of young people in recent years; however, Navracsics makes a bold statement in which he states that:

 “Millions of Europeans are at risk of poverty and social exclusion, inequalities continue to grow and unemployment remains unacceptably high, especially among young people”.

There are positive messages given within the report. Not least is the increase from 34.8% – 38% of the  young people who are now completing post compulsory education and gaining good qualifications. A well educated work force has long been emphasised as a necessary condition of maintaining socio-economic stability in Europe. Unfortunately, whilst there appears to be an increased appetite for education, the report provides evidence that “youth unemployment, poverty and marginalisation remain high and one if four adults in Europe is caught in a low-skills trap.”

Amongst the most alarming sections of the report are those that suggest that the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest people living in Europe is greater than ever, and has grown at an alarming rate. Education has always been seen as a means through which individuals and communities could improve their life opportunities security and stability. But this report suggests that education is a major victim of a Europe wide economic crisis and that the budget cuts that are being made across the continent have had a detrimental impact upon the lives of individuals, with the likelihood of alarming long term consequences. These will most certainly include greater numbers of people living in poverty, and at an extreme may result in increased disaffection and social unrest.

The authors of the report state that:

“Europe is not moving in the right direction fast enough. Educational poverty remains stubbornly embedded, with far too many disadvantaged students, and government investment – crucial to quality education – reveals worrying signs of spending cuts,”

It continues by identifying:

“The persisting determinants of underachievement are, inter alia, socio-economic status, immigrant background and gender.”

Individuals who have arrived in Europe as refugees, often displaced from their homes in the most traumatic of circumstances, along with those who struggle as a result of disability or illness, are seen as most likely to fall beneath the poverty line and live in the least desirable situations. This despite many of those arriving new into Europe, being well qualified and experienced and having held professional positions in the countries from which they have fled.

It is difficult at present to identify the kind of leadership within European countries that is prepared to accept the challenge of confronting these increasing levels of inequality. Sadly it would appear that the fact that some people are doing well and are far more comfortable than they may have been a few years ago, is being taken as an indication that inactivity is acceptable. Unfortunately, for those who are currently struggling to survive and becoming further separated from their neighbours, a lack of willingness to change direction will bring little by the way of relief.

 

“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.

In the vanguard of research developments

Getting to grips with the challenges of sampling. Three keen researchers in discussion with Dr David Preece

Getting to grips with the challenges of sampling. Three keen researchers in discussion with Dr David Preece

Throughout this week three students who recently studied for the MA in Special and Inclusive Education which is managed by the University of Northampton in Bangalore have been here in England. Having proven to be outstanding students on the MA programme they have now advanced to enrol as research students working at PhD level. This is a moment of considerable pride for them, for their families and also for the university.

A common concern expressed by students studying on the Bangalore based programme, is that there is a limited corpus of research literature related to special and inclusive education in an Indian context. Students inevitably find themselves referring to journal articles, books and research reports from outside of India which presents the added challenge of having to critique this work in relation to an Indian education system. It should be obvious that some of the approaches to teaching and learning adopted, for example in the more affluent areas of Europe or the USA, will not be easily applied in rural Indian schools. Issues of resourcing, training, expectations, attitude and understanding all need to be interrogated before any confidence can be gained in the application of ideas from socio-economically advantages countries. It is therefore critical that the research capacity in this area in India is increased, and that more Indian researchers make a contribution to the research literature. Data in relation to inclusion and exclusion is at a premium at present, and it is essential that local researchers address this shortfall in order that teachers, parents and children can move towards a more just education system with confidence.

The three colleagues who have joined the PhD programme here in Northampton this week have already begun to address some of the limitations in research in special and inclusive education in their country. Two have recently published papers in peer reviewed journals based upon their MA dissertations, and all are developing proposals to address critical areas related to the teaching of previously marginalised children in their communities. Their research will of necessity require them to engage with teachers, parents, children and policy makers in India, thereby broadening understanding of the complex issues that they are proposing to address.

As all teachers in India are confronted with the challenges of meeting the requirements of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act introduced in 2009, they are increasingly seeking the support of colleagues who have begun to consider how first generation learners, or those from scheduled tribes or scheduled castes, along with others with disabilities and special educational needs can be included in Indian classrooms. I am sure that in this regard our students in Bangalore will make a significant contribution to the support of their colleagues, and these new and enthusiastic researchers will provide data with which they can inform change.

Meeting with these three new research students this morning they described the journey upon which they are embarking as “exciting”, “scary”, “daunting”, and “challenging”. I am quite sure that all of these words are apt, but also convinced that in the near future they will be making a significant contribution to a growing body of research literature in India. We are fortunate in having these students here with us for a few weeks in Northampton and I am sure we are going to enjoy working alongside them in India over the coming years as they progress towards their doctorates. I look forward to reporting their progress over the years ahead.

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.

 

Making a welcoming contribution

Kurdish art therapist Hassan Deveci, helping Syrian children feel at home in Germany

Kurdish art therapist Hassan Deveci, helping Syrian children feel at home in Germany

A former student emailed me today to ask if I had heard about the outstanding work being undertaken by a Kurdish art therapist named Hassan Deveci who is based in Cologne (Köln), Germany. I had to admit that I had never heard of Deveci or the work that he has conducted from his studio in that Germany city. Apparently Deveci having fled from Turkey, first applied for political asylum in Germany in 1994. Initially he lived in a basic camp as he waited three years for a decision to be made about his status. Having eventually been granted asylum in Cologne, he turned his attention and skills in the direction of helping others.

The German international news channel Deutsche Welle reports that in recent months much of Deveci’s attention has been focused upon helping traumatised children who have fled as refugees from the conflict in Syria. His own experiences at having to leave his native country and settle into a different culture, have clearly shaped his attitudes and strengthened the resolve that he has to help others. He reports how his own recollection of a traumatic time in his life has motivated him to make contact with Syrian families and offer his expertise to assist children in adjusting to a new life in Germany.

It is more than a year since Deveci opened his studio to a small group of Syrian children and encouraged them to express their feelings and experiences through art. It is hardly surprising that much of the work produced by the children with whom he works has a common theme related to war and death. Many of the parents of those with whom he works have expressed their own distress that the images produced by these children tell tales of horror and trauma. However, Deveci is sure that giving these refugee children an opportunity to express their feelings and emotions through art, will have therapeutic benefits.

The parents report that their children’s German language abilities are improving and that they are beginning to make new friends and adjust to their new and strange situation. Equally important is the statement made by a parent that her children are having fun and doing the normal things that others are doing.

Whilst this is certainly a heartening story, and an indication of the care and consideration given by this artist to a group of distressed children and their families, there are some serious questions surrounding the current situation. Deveci states that he is simply one of many volunteers who have come forward to assist children who have lost everything from their former lives in Syria. However, he is now struggling to maintain support at the level which he had hoped, simply because he is running out of materials and the ability to continue financing this initiative.

Reading about this extraordinary man who sees himself as only doing what any decent citizen would wish to do, a number of matters crossed my mind. Firstly, that this man, in taking an initiative has demonstrated a level of personal responsibility and care that is exemplary and provides an outstanding example of citizenship from which we can all learn. Secondly, that those in positions of power and leadership might well benefit by considering the example he has provided and ensuring him the necessary support and resources to continue this work. I also wonder if the personal contact that he is having with these children might be having a beneficial impact upon his own coming to terms with displacement.

Whilst some members of the public and a significant proportion of the media occupy themselves with inciting negative views of “migrants” and refugees, here is a fine example of a man who is more than repaying the hospitality of a country in which many continue to see him as an outsider. I would suggest that he is an excellent example of a good German citizen.

 

 

Inclusion: let’s not narrow the debate.

Tomorrow's nation builder?

Tomorrow’s nation builder?

A couple of undergraduate students stopped me in the carpark as I was leaving the university yesterday and having established that they had accosted the correct person (we had never met before) asked me to clarify a point about the successes achieved through the  Education for All goals. I was, of course, pleased to find these young students engaging with debates about children’s rights and enthusiastic about understanding the current discourse  surrounding the establishment of a new set of fifteen year goals at the United Nations. They were well informed about the review of the Millennium Development Goals and had clearly been following recent media reports on this issue. They had also read a couple of significant texts about current debates in education and thought about these in respect of their own educational experiences.

The conversation was going well, until one of these bright young women, almost inevitably, mentioned the word “inclusion”. She then commenced to talk about the continuing plight of children with disabilities in various parts of the world, and in particular sub-Saharan Africa, a part of the world where she has a number of friends and relatives. This young lady was clearly knowledgeable about this situation and in particular the work of a couple of non-governmental organisations who had established schools in two African countries. Quite rightly she reported the successes achieved by these NGOs, but also identified that there remained much to be done if the goal of universal primary education was to be achieved. At this point her colleague intervened, supporting the view that children with disabilities were still the victims of discrimination and that many teachers remained reluctant to admit them to their classes.

I suppose I should have known better, but I just couldn’t help myself. I found myself agreeing with these two students but also pointing out that inclusion is not simply an issue of disability, and that there are many other factors that inhibit access to education. In the countries for which they were obviously particularly concerned, I suggested that the issues of poverty and gender might also be a contributory factor in the exclusion of some children from school, and that whilst considerable progress has been made in this area, discrimination and lack of opportunity are persistent problems. Singling out disability without considering these other factors, I proposed, might be a naïve way of thinking about the problem.

Millennium Development Goal 2, which concentrated upon the achievement of universal primary education, is of course, very important. However, it would appear that on some university courses that are focused upon childhood, this specific goal is being debated in isolation from others. A brief conversation with these obviously committed and enthusiastic female students revealed that MDG 3 which is concerned with gender equality and female empowerment appears to have passed them by. Over the course of a ten minute conversation it was clear that these two recognised that there may be a correlation between gender and exclusion from education, but that in terms of the inclusion debate that had taken place in some of their lectures, the narrow focus upon special educational needs and disability had managed to by-pass this issue.

It is evident from much of the research conducted in this area that the education of girls can have has a positive effect on the communities in which they live. Women who have received a formal education make a greater contribution to the well-being and mental health of their families are likely to have increased financial stability and employment opportunities and are also more likely to send their own daughters to school.

Internationally governments have been encouraged to provide greater incentives for increased school attendance by girls, including the awarding of scholarships and the development of specific girl friendly schools. In some parts of India, the improvement of toilet facilities for girls has had a dramatic impact upon school attendance, and in Mexico a financial incentive programme in rural areas has increased female enrolment by 20%.

There remains a need to address issues for girls as they get older. Child marriage, and the necessity to manage household tasks or assist in manual labour, coupled with a pervasive poverty, and in some instances high levels of violence against women have all been shown to be major obstacles to retaining girls in school. Furthermore, it remains the case that in the most socio-economically challenged regions of the world, entry into post-compulsory education is a significant issue for would be female students.

During the course of our brief conversation I brought to mind one of my Indian PhD students who will be in England next week. Pooja is undertaking research into parental expectations in relation to the education of girls in an urban community in India. Her work is both original and important and is already highlighting significant difficulties faced by many female students in one of the world’s fastest growing economies. It would be good, I thought, to get these two young students together with Pooja to consider the importance of gender issues in relation to the inclusion agenda.

Taking my leave of the two young women in the carpark yesterday I was heartened that they were clearly reflective and concerned individuals eager to understand some of the obstacles that continue to prevent the development of a more equitable education system. Hopefully, the next time they are in a classroom debate about inclusion they may broaden the focus and thus engage their fellow students and tutors in a more holistic understanding of the inequalities that continue to hinder progress.

 

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.