Far from ideal; but thank goodness for a dedicated head teacher and her staff

School entry requirements - designed to exclude a visiting professor!

School entry requirements – designed to exclude a visiting professor!

The end of school term is almost upon us, and yesterday I visited a school to meet with a head teacher colleague who has given more than forty years’ service to teaching. This week she will retire from her post and should look back with immense pride and satisfaction at the contribution she has made to the lives of so many children and families. Typical of so many committed retired teachers I meet these days, she has decided that she cannot simply walk away from some of the challenges that she sees in education, and has therefore decided to continue supporting the school in a new role, which will enable her to assist with researching the effectiveness of teaching and to identify the professional development needs of staff.

As I arrived at the school today I was confronted with an obstacle that has sadly become a feature of most schools in England today. In order to enter the premises I was required to press a button outside the school gate that should have connected me via an intercom device to the school office. The theory is that once I had established my bona fides, and proven that I was not a risk to be repelled, I could be admitted under the control of the school staff. Having made several hapless attempts via the ubiquitous button to gain the attention of anyone in the school, I was beginning to wonder whether I had been seen on the school surveillance cameras as an undesirable character most definitely to be refused entry. Eventually a boy who I would guess to have been around twelve years old, and who happened to be crossing the school playground noticed my dilemma and came to investigate me through the safety of the gate. Looking at me rather as he might have done a chimpanzee in a cage he began a brief conversation:-

“Who are you mister?” he enquired. “Can’t you get in?”

Having confirmed that this was indeed my predicament he shrugged his shoulders and after a brief stroll across the playground entered the school. A couple of minutes later the intercom crackled into action, I announced my arrival and was granted entry. Arriving in the school entrance hall I once again encountered the boy from the gate and thanked him for his assistance.

“It wasn’t me that did anything,” he said. “you must have just got lucky.”

With a cheeky grin he turned away and disappeared along a corridor. I wasn’t quite sure whether this lad had actually spoken to someone in order to have me admitted or if he really had enjoyed my situation as a visitor struggling to gain access. Whichever of these scenarios was true, I decided that rather than pursuing the issue further it was better to be grateful that I was now where I needed to be, and let the moment pass.

I suspect that my morning experience would not have come as a surprise to many of the staff at the school yesterday. As the head teacher explained to me, the end of the school year and the approaching summer holiday is often a period of tension for many children within the school. Unfortunately at this particular establishment, for too many pupils school offers the only real stability in their lives. When they are in school they are managed consistently, treated with respect and provided with a wide range of interesting learning experiences. Such a situation may well not be replicated in their lives outside of the school, and therefore the impending school holidays are not universally greeted with joy.

The school I was visiting is a special school for children who have been labelled as having social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Many who attend have been excluded from mainstream schools on grounds of their poor behaviour, and a significant number come from dysfunctional homes where parents and siblings are under stress and family life is far from stable. When I speak to the pupils here, they are usually full of praise for the staff who work with them, admit (though sometimes a little begrudgingly) that they enjoy school and see this as a safe haven where they have friends and a consistent environment.

In an age when we would ideally wish to see all children included in mainstream classrooms, special schools such as this may be seen as a dilemma. However, there are factors at play here that need to be understood and which suggest that a simplistic view of educational provision is not helpful. The same pupils who tell me that they feel secure and enjoy attending this school, often report a very different story about their experiences in mainstream schools. When pressed on this point, it is common for them to single out the attitudes of teachers, who see them as problems rather than people, as the single most critical factor of difference. At the special school they feel valued and respected, and sadly this has not always been the case elsewhere.

Talking to a couple of boys about the forthcoming school holiday it was evident that whilst for many children this is seen as a welcome period of freedom and relaxation, this is not necessarily the case for pupils from this special school. Here they told me, we have things to do and people to help us get organised. Outside of school there is a lack of direction which sometimes results in boredom and at times ends in trouble.

As I left the school, saying goodbye to a head teacher whose dedication and professionalism I greatly admire, I found myself asking how long it would be before the children with whom I had spent a morning would not be labelled as problems, and if they would someday be welcomed back into mainstream schools. I am quite sure that this is a situation towards which we should all be working, but I am equally concerned that far too many schools are ill-prepared to accept this responsibility. This being the case, I am relieved that there are professional colleagues who are concerned to ensure that those pupils who others reject are given opportunities for learning. This is far from an ideal situation, and will I suspect continue to challenge teachers and policy makers for the foreseeable future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not about agreement, but the quality of the argument.

 

Socrates taught us to learn through logical disputation. I suspect that this may be put to the test over the next few days.

Socrates taught us to learn through logical disputation. I suspect that this may be put to the test over the next few days.

I suppose that most teachers have mixed feelings about marking student’s work. This is a situation that probably pertains no matter whether working in a primary school or a university. These days, the majority of my marking activity is undertaken in relation to post graduate courses, which means that I often read work that is interesting and thoughtful, and sometimes provocative and challenging.

Recently I have marked assignments that have taught me about various aspects of education in India, and a dissertation that challenged my views about setting children for English lessons in a primary school. Occasionally students express ideas and opinions with which I am fundamentally in disagreement. This can in itself be interesting as the marking process is not about having to be in accord with the ideas advanced, and if the student presents a good argument supported by appropriate referencing and sound evidence, it is good to be challenged.

There have been times when I have read statements that have made me raise my eyebrows in surprise. I recall once marking an essay written by an undergraduate student that opened with the never to be forgotten words “A little known Swiss psychologist called Piaget…” At the time I was tempted to write “little known to you maybe, but not to most students of education!” I resisted the urge to be slightly sardonic, and simply directed the student to some reading that I hoped might expand their knowledge of one of the most influential developmental psychologists of the twentieth century.

Early this morning I opened my emails and found some work forwarded to me by an undergraduate student who was asking for some initial comments. My first impressions were favourable. The introduction to an assignment addressing teacher understanding of behaviour difficulties was well written, with reference to some interesting literature and a well-constructed description of the framework upon which the work was to be developed. So far, so good, but then I came across a phrase that made me take a sharp intake of breath. “Children who cannot abide by classroom rules,” argued the writer, “should be excluded from the school and educated in a separate unit where they cannot be disruptive of lessons.” Reading on I anticipated, or at least hoped for, a qualification of this bold assertion. However, two pages further on and my desires had not been realised. Teaching is a difficult enough task, argued this student, and if children make it even more so by disrupting lessons they should simply be removed.

Reading to the end of this work, which presented a lot of emotion, but little evidence upon which to base a logical argument, I found myself wondering how to respond. I most certainly find myself at odds with the sentiments expressed in the assignment, but did not simply want to express my disagreement or disapproval. I was far more inclined to write a response debating the points made. But having reflected on the contents of the essay, I eventually decided that rather than putting my thoughts on paper, I would invite the student to meet and debate the issues.

Having decided on this course of action I emailed the author of the work asking her if she would like to discuss her assignment, and suggesting that the work was well written, but that she needed to strengthen her arguments if she really believed that excluding children from lessons, or even from school was a good idea. I made it clear that I didn’t agree with her perspectives, but hoped that she might be able to justify her suggestions. A reply came within an hour welcoming my invitation and suggesting that all alternatives to exclusion have been shown to fail. “Why don’t you put my arguments on your blog?” She asked. “I think you will find that most teachers agree with me and would like to see trouble makers removed from schools.” Now there was a challenge I couldn’t resist.

I look forward to meeting with this interesting student and to seeing how she builds a case for her assertions.

A goat is an asset, but a girl is a liability!

A much needed organisation promoting inclusion in India

A much needed organisation promoting inclusion in India

 

Home Page of Educate Girls  (click on this link for further information)

One of the most interesting aspects of working in the area of inclusive education is that the opportunities for learning and understanding a range of complex situations are immense. Whilst most of the students I work with on the MA programme in Bangalore are concerned for the education of children with special educational needs, many exhibit a much broader understanding of those conditions that either support inclusion or lead to isolation and exclusion from education.

Teaching and researching in the field of education in the UK inevitably means that I spend a great deal of my time working with well-educated and highly intelligent, articulate women. Schools in my country are dependent upon a professional and dedicated work force made up largely of women, and in many subjects in schools the performance of girls exceeds that of their male peers. This has not always been the case, and it took many years of campaigning and determination on the part of liberal minded educators to ensure that girls in schools receive opportunities commensurate to those of their male classmates.

In India, when visiting schools, particularly those addressing the needs of primary aged children, I am always aware of the predominantly female teaching profession that is characteristic of these establishments. Here, teachers are seen very much to be part of a caring profession and as women have generally been the care providers in homes, this responsibility has been passed on to the classroom. Female teachers carry the bulk of responsibility in most of the schools I have visited in India, and accept and perform their duties with enthusiasm and a commendable commitment to their students. Yet many of these women are exceptional in respect of their personal and professional experiences and the opportunities that they have had, to become learners.

In stating at the outset of this posting that many of the teachers who attend the MA in Special and Inclusive Education course in Bangalore have a broad understanding of factors that impact on inclusion, I had in mind a number of conversations that I have had with an excellent student who recently graduated from the course. The research conducted by Pooja for her final dissertation was focused upon the challenges that exist for many girls in India who wish to obtain an education but face many obstacles in achieving their ambition. I am delighted to say that Pooja is intending to continue her studies in this area as she commences on a journey that should enable her to graduate in a few years with a PhD.

Whilst there are many obstacles to inclusion in India, those which are inhibiting the education of girls, particularly in rural areas and in poorer communities, appear particularly difficult to address. There are still dominant beliefs about the place of women as child carers and home makers in some parts of Indian society that frustrate girls who wish to pursue their studies. The conversations I have had with Pooja and with other friends and colleagues in India, has encouraged me to explore this issue further, and in the course of my investigations I have stumbled upon a number of remarkable organisations and individuals who are attempting to address this matter.

Educate Girls was founded in 2007 as an organisation specifically aiming to increase the enrolment of girls into schools. They have recruited and trained teams of young women who work in communities to raise awareness of educational opportunities, to explain the benefits of schooling and to encourage families to send their girls to school. These teams, known as Team Balika (Community Volunteers) are comprised mainly of 18 – 25 year olds, who have undergone training and have a commitment to work with schools and village communities to promote their cause. Under the inspirational leadership of Safeena Husain, a formidable tour de force, they have made significant progress since their early days and have been responsible for the enrolment of more than 80,000 girls into schools.

The work of this organisation is much needed, with an estimated 3 million girls out of school in India. Even when girls do attend school it is believed that out of every 100 girls in rural India only one reaches class 12.

Recently Educate Girls was one of four recipients of the 2015 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship receiving a $1.25 million, three-year investment to enable them to continue and expand their work. The video clip below provides an introduction to the excellent work that this organisation is doing. It shows both the magnitude of the problem, and the enthusiasm of those who are working for a more inclusive approach to education. Early in the film it is suggested that in some parts of India it is still perceived that “A goat is an asset, but a girl is a liability!” Those who are working hard to challenge such a view, whether it be through activism or research, are making a significant contribution to the development of more inclusive schools.

THE VIDEO BELOW SHOWS SOME OF THE EXCELLENT WORK OF EDUCATE GIRLS

 

 

A matter of contrasting fortunes?

Picasso's Les Femmes d'Alger, when will we see this work again?

Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger, when will we see this work again?

There are occasions when the juxtaposition of articles in a newspaper gives me cause for thought. Such was the situation yesterday evening as I sat with a cup of tea and perused the pages of The Guardian. On page three, there covering almost half of the page was a colourful reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s painting Les Femmes d’Alger (Women of Algiers). Painted in 1955, this picture captures the essence of the 19th century artist Delacroix’s painting of the same title, bringing it into the twentieth century through modernist representation and the bold use of colour. It is a truly magnificent work, and as someone who is an admirer of the Spanish painter’s work, I was pleased to see it presented in my daily newspaper.

The reason for the presentation of Picasso’s image were not related to its quality as a work of art, though it is undoubtedly a masterpiece. Indeed the accompanying article told the reader little about the painting’s history, the techniques deployed by the artist or its place in relation to other works from this period. Instead, the piece written by journalist Mark Brown was wholly focused on the astounding fact that Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger sold at Christie’s auction rooms in New York for a staggering £114 million pounds ($179,365,000), a record for any work of art. Both the seller of this work and the purchaser remain anonymous, but I suspect that their pulse rates quickened at the announcement of the astounding monetary figures involved.

By contrast, on page 40 of the same Guardian edition, Patrick Butler, the newspaper’s social policy editor, always a thought provoking writer, presented a piece in which he discussed the situation of children and families living in poverty in the UK. Just to be clear, the definition of a family in poverty used in this country, is those living on less than 60% of median national family income. In a well considered article, Butler suggests that the UK government target of reducing child poverty to less than 10% of the overall population by 2020, is unlikely to be met. The  government policy of austerity, which is set to continue following the recent general election,  appears likely to make this target unrealistic and may well exacerbate the situation to previously unrecorded levels. Indeed, he reports that the well-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that child poverty, currently recorded at 17% is likely to rise to 21% by the end of the decade. A figure that should make anyone who has a concern for the welfare of children stop and think (or better still protest against this appalling situation).

In contrasting the two articles, I must make clear that I have no difficulties in accepting that an anonymous purchaser can afford to pay such an eye watering sum of money for a painting. (Though I do hope that we will all have the opportunity to see Les Femmes d’Alger hanging in a public gallery and that it will not simply linger in a secure bank vault from now on). The reporting that we have such wealthy individuals in society is simply a fact of life that we have recognised for many centuries. I do however, have major concerns that whilst the sale of a work of art for a huge amount of money is celebrated and features high on the world’s media agenda, we confine the report on child poverty to a few column inches at the foot of page forty in a single newspaper.

In considering the two articles in the same edition of the Guardian, there was one word that remained in my mind for some time after reading both. Anonymity appears to be a feature of both pieces. The vendor and buyer of the great Picasso picture both remain unknown. They have presumably chosen to remain anonymous, shunning personal publicity in part for their own protection from the media and possibly those who might target their wealth. In Patrick Butler’s article, those children who are currently living in poverty, and those likely to be in this situation in the very near future, are also unnamed. This is not a criticism of the journalist, who can do no more than report the facts as he has obtained them. I suspect that many such children and families would also wish to retain anonymity in order to maintain their personal dignity and in the hope that their circumstances might change.

It seems to me strange that what I would see as excessive wealth, and abject poverty are both seen as a legitimate cause for anonymity. I wonder what the underlying purpose of this secrecy may be? Could it be that there  are elements of guilt or shame associated with these situations? Might it be that anonymity ensures that we do not see these phenomena in personal terms and therefore feel more distanced from them? Certainly I find it difficult to relate to a situation in which I could spend £114 million on a painting (or anything else for that matter!), but I am sure that I probably also have only a vague understanding of what it must be like to live in poverty. By anonymising these situations I am protected from having to understand the personal experiences of others.

Perhaps it is one of the great virtues of newspapers that they can provoke this kind of thinking by publishing such contrasting articles on the same day. Both Mark Brown and Patrick Butler have presented us with facts, but it is for us to determine how we interpret these and to consider our emotional responses. I do hope that the new owner of Les Femmes d’Alger enjoys this Picasso masterpiece, and that he enables us to share in his pleasure. I also hope that Patrick Butler and the Institute for Fiscal Studies are proven wrong in their predictions and that life will improve for the many families suffering hardship and penury.

ECP Colour logo

Bangalore beckons

 

Joining again with friends

Joining again with friends

I am sure that there are many people who when about to embark on a journey feel fully prepared and organised. As I pack my bags for India I am confident that I have everything needed for working when I get there, having spent many hours going back through presentations and materials that I will be using for teaching over the coming weeks. I am less confident that I will arrive with all the necessary items of clothing and other domestic requirements, which always appear to be packed in a hurry.

I prefer to travel with as little luggage as possible, and having made similar journeys to Bangalore over many years, I have learned to recognise those accoutrements that are surplus to requirements, and which on previous trips have stood idly by in a room until ready to be taken home. Even so, I usually find myself sitting on a plane wondering if I have all essential items packed.

I once flew to Mumbai seated next to a passenger who was visiting India as a tourist for a month and had everything he needed, or so he hoped, in a small holdall taken onto the flight as hand luggage. I remember being full of admiration for someone who could travel so light and with a sparse number of items. Though I also reflected that he could find himself most unpopular on a return flight had he been unable to change or wash his clothing after a month of wearing the same shirt in India’s dust and heat! – That is a somewhat disrespectful comment and I hope that the gentleman in question had a great time and returned to England with a suitcase full of good memories.

Over the past few days colleagues here at the university have asked me about what I am going to teach in India and about the challenges of preparing to deliver ideas about inclusive education, largely a western concept, within an Asian culture. They are quite right in seeing this as an important issue and one which needs to be approached with respect and an appreciation of local and national procedures and traditions. Fortunately, when working in Bangalore, I do so alongside long established Indian friends and colleagues whose experiences and perceptions have greatly influenced the ways in which I work.

I like to think  when working with colleagues in India that I have taken full consideration of the circumstances in which they teach, and have informed myself by spending time in local schools and working alongside colleagues in classrooms. However, I am always aware that when working alongside teachers I learn as much, or possibly more than I can convey through my teaching practices.

Keeping up to date with Indian research, legislation and literature is demanding, but affords many enjoyable learning experiences. Applying this learning with colleagues is something I look forward to as I prepare for this next expedition.

The coming days are sure to provide plenty of new learning opportunities and a chance to renew old acquaintances and make new friends. Above all, there will be times spent in debating the approaches we can develop and adopt to challenge exclusion and ensure that children who have been marginalised have new opportunities for learning and succeeding. The commitment of teachers in India is such that the education scene is changing quickly and dramatically. There is every reason to be confident that in the future schools will become far more inclusive than they have been in the recent past.

If I board the plane tomorrow minus an item or two of clothing, or without my toothpaste or a bar of soap I am sure I will overcome these omissions without too many difficulties. So long as I arrive with open eyes and a willingness to share in learning, I am convinced that all will be well. I look forward to reporting further after I settle once again into India’s Garden City. As Mark Twain informed us

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

But only if we travel with an intention to learn and respect those who we meet along the way.

Can dreams of a better future become reality?

 

How will children growing up here view the world in the future?

How will children growing up here view the world in the future?

“It has always been my dream to give my children a better education than me. I had to leave school at 16 because my mother was sick and needed me to look after her.” These are the words of Avine Hassan, but the sentiments expressed could be those of any parent with aspirations for their children to do well at school. Sadly, in Avine’s situation, the opportunity to provide such an education has been severely impaired and this is just one of many stressful factors in her life.

Avine’s words are taken from an article published in The Guardian newspaper (11th April 2015) under the headline “I Never Imagined I’d Bring Up My Children in a Refugee Camp,” in which she recounts the tragic tale of fleeing from Syria with her husband and four children, leaving behind her home, business and all their possessions. Fighting outside of her home and finding a bullet embedded in the window frame of her house, led Avine and her husband to make the heartbreaking decision to leave a home that they loved. Having paid £2,000 pounds to a man who is clearly making a lucrative profit by assisting families like this to cross the border into Iraq, Avine arrived barefoot in a refugee camp containing 50,000 people, though it was built with facilities for half this number.

Understandably, Avine’s children spent a long time tearfully asking when they would return home, and why they were now living in a tent. Their mother now knows that they can never return to the life they had before, as it is reported that their former home and all of its contents have been completely destroyed. It is now four years since they fled the conflict, and Avine’s children have ceased asking about a return to their former lives. They have clearly become reconciled to the fact that life will never be the same again.

In Syria, Avine had run a successful bridal make-up service, and her husband was a qualified accountant. They have gone from a comfortable middle class existence, to one of penury and fear. Their future remains unknown and precarious, but amidst all of this, they continue to see education as a critical factor in enabling their children to find a better path in life. After a period when it seemed unlikely that formal schooling would be possible, things began to improve. The charitable organisation Save the Children opened a support centre, and now there is schooling available for children for six half days a week. In addition there are now resilience workshops established to support children in learning to cope with having lost their homes, possessions and in some cases family members. I am sure that such a centre will provide an invaluable service, but I suspect that many of these children will carry a heavy burden for the rest of their lives.

I find it almost unbearable to read accounts of families such as Avine’s and of the appalling circumstances in which they find themselves. These are innocent people who have worked hard and have ambitions for their children, that have been destroyed through acts of violence and political ineptitude. As is typical of mothers everywhere, Avine’s concerns are not for herself, but primarily for the welfare and futures of her children. She continues to dream and has not given up hope that in the times to come her children may have better lives than they have now. She recognises that education can play a significant role in enabling these improvements to come about. However, it is evident that education alone will not lead to greater stability, and cannot tackle the appalling levels of poverty that have been created through this conflict and many others like it around the world.

Avine’s husband is currently seeking opportunities for the family to relocate to Germany, where his skills and those of Avine could be put to better use. Such a move would also increase the educational and social opportunities of their children and bring new economic opportunities. However, Avine is realistic and knows that if they are granted entry into Germany, which is by no means certain, this will involve a long and complicated process. She may be less aware of the levels of anti-immigrant sentiment that exists at present across Europe, perpetuated by those who cannot begin to imagine the trauma experienced by families such as this.

It is hard to believe that anyone reading The Guardian report could not be moved and indeed angered by the dreadful situation that exists in the lives of so many refugees from Syria. It is to be hoped that the rest of the world recognises the unfolding tragedy and accepts some responsibility to provide whatever support can be mustered. Their own government and those who perpetuate the tragic war in Syria have turned their backs on these long suffering families. There is a strong possibility that the rest of the world may do likewise. Let’s hope that Avine’s children receive the education that they deserve and that their experiences help them to shape a more caring future. The alternative hardly bears thinking about.

 

 

Small isn’t always beautiful.

 

The romanticised image of the rural school may be somewhat distanced from the truth.

The romanticised image of the rural school may be somewhat distanced from the truth.

I am quite sure that some people, including more than a few teachers, imagine that teaching in a small rural school in a beautiful environment would be part of an idyllic lifestyle. It certainly does have its attractions. The economist E.F. Schumacher in his thought provoking book Small is Beautiful contributed positively to the education debate when he suggested the need to ensure that learning values local communities and contributes to regional economics, a focus best achieved through locally based provision. For many, his economic theories have been interpreted as ensuring that schools remain small, locally based and committed to the espousal of ethical and sustainable living.  Such schools should enable communities to maintain their own identities and enable the maintenance of  family cohesion. This idea has at times been fostered through fiction, as was the case in the 1950’s when Miss Read (the nom de plume of Dora Jessie Saint) wrote her idealised accounts of life in the mythical English villages of Fairacre and Thrush Green, including the best-selling Village School.

It is still possible in some of the more remote regions of the British Isles to find single teacher schools serving tiny child populations, though in recent decades many of these have been closed and amalgamated with others to provide for a larger pupil group. The loss of a school from any community is sad and can be traumatic for those who live there, but the notion that these were ideal establishments in which to work was often far from the truth.

Teachers in small schools are responsible for delivery of the same breadth of curriculum as their counterparts in larger establishments. The demands made upon a single teacher to provide a thorough foundation in all subjects are considerable and daunting to all but the most versatile of professionals. There are often difficulties in maintaining classes if the single teacher falls ill, and even greater challenges for any pupil who doesn’t relate well to the teacher, when there is no alternative. So, whilst a romanticised image of the small school will persist, they are certainly not institutions free of difficulties.

These thoughts came to mind today after reading an article in the Hindu (Here Dalits denied basic education, by R. Sujatha, April 1st 2015) which tells of  the apparently parlous state of education in some rural areas of Tamil Nadu. This reports a campaign by educational activists (it is not explained exactly who these are) and a non-governmental organisation called Samakalvi Iyakkam to appoint more teachers to what are currently single-teacher schools. I would imagine that at this point readers in England and other European countries who have an image of single teacher schools in their minds, may be thinking of a  class of perhaps 15 to 20 children. However, the focus of the campaign from Samakalvi Iyakkam is upon providing additional staffing to single teacher schools with a population of more than 115 students. I think that most of us would accept that one teacher with 115 students of mixed age, needs and ability is far from the idyllic situation that readers of Miss Read’s novels might have anticipated!

The Hindu report, which draws heavily upon budgetary figures prepared by Adi Dravidar Welfare Department, identifies the poor staffing ratios in school as just one of the critical factors limiting school attendance. Even where there is a reasonable supply of teachers, the lack of expertise in some subjects such as science and mathematics, is inhibiting effective curriculum opportunities. The article reports that less than one third of students completing primary education in six districts of Tamil Nadu (Chennai, Kancheepuram, Tiruvallur, Tiruvannamalai, Vellore and Villupuram) progress to secondary schooling. In addition to poor staffing levels other factors such as poor toilet facilities, the lack of safe drinking water in 33% of schools and 58% of schools having no playground facilities, are also seen as contributing to this sorry situation.

The Right to Education Act is one of the most progressive and imaginative pieces of legislation to promote inclusion, to have been put into place in any country. However, this is most certainly destined to fail if attention is only given to the development of school facilities in urban areas. Furthermore the lack of professional development for teachers and the low esteem in which they are often held, particularly in government schools in rural areas, is a major obstacle to progress.

I don’t believe that many teachers are really expecting some form of Shangrila in their teaching situations. We all know that teaching is a challenging profession, but equally one that can be immensely rewarding for teacher and pupil alike. It is unlikely that an education system that places an excessive load upon teachers by putting them in front of ridiculously large classes, or denies pupils and teachers access to the most fundamental of resources, and basic necessities, will aid the significant progress that is articulated as a desirable outcome in current Indian legislation.

As is almost invariably the case, those who are struggling most with the challenges outlined by the Adi Dravidar Welfare Department, live in the poorest communities of Tamil Nadu. I am quite sure that a similar situation pertains in other states across India. The willingness to implement change is in evidence throughout the Indian education system. I see this regularly in the commitment of the teachers with whom I work whilst visiting the country. There is, however, a persistent difficulty in achieving the levels of co-ordinated response that can bring about the change that everyone wishes to see.

 

 

 

Children: victims in a war not of their making

Will a whole generation of children miss an education in Syria?

Will a whole generation of children miss an education in Syria?

A Report just issued by the charitable organisation Save the Children, which draws upon research evidence from several reputable international agencies, highlights the devastation caused by the current conflict in Syria. The report, titled, The cost of war: Calculating the Impact of the Collapse of Syria’s Education System on the Country’s Future, documents the disaster for children caused by the appalling conflict that has been a regular feature of news programmes on our television schools for the past four years. It makes for harrowing reading and says much about the lack of care given to protect the innocent during times of conflict.

The report states that before the start of the war, the majority of Syria’s children were enrolled in primary school, and there was a significant commitment to education on the part of the government and families. Literacy rates at this time were at 95% for 15–24-year-olds. Today, almost 3 million children are out of school and the country has one of the lowest enrolment rates in the world. The example of the city of Aleppo is given where the enrolment rate is shockingly low at around 6%. Furthermore, half of the Syrian children currently in refugee camps are not receiving formal access to school. The report estimates that the cost of replacing damaged, destroyed or occupied schools and lost equipment could be as high as £2 billion ($3 billion). Many of the country’s teachers have been killed or are directly involved in the conflict, and even if peace returns soon, it will take many years to restore education provision to more than a minimal level within Syria. The danger is that there will be a lost generation who have not had the benefit of formal schooling.

Syria is a nation renowned for its literature. I recently read Rafik Schami’s excellent and moving novel The Dark Side of Love, and I similarly enjoyed Fragments of Memory: A Story of a Syrian Family by Hanna Mina. These writers are articulate and educated individuals who drew attention to Syria for the most noble of reasons. They represent a rich and proud artistic heritage and provide insights into the emotions and passions of an educated and cultured Syrian people. One wonders from where the next generation of Syrian writers, artists, scientists and engineers may emerge. Probably not from a land where the infrastructure, and in many instances the will of the people has been so clearly destroyed.

All sides in the Syrian conflict make claims about fighting for justice and freedom, yet what they have currently caused is chaos and hatred. In the midst of all this, as in all conflicts, there are children who are powerless to effect change, who are denied an opportunity to receive even the most basic education. If as the United States senator Hiram W. Johnson, stated in 1918, “the first casualty of war is truth,” then the second is surely those women and children who will be expected to rebuild families and homes when the conflict is over.

The Syrian writer Maram al-Massri sums this up well in her poem Women like me, where she describes the disenfranchised nature of the innocents amidst conflict.

 

Women like me

do not know how to speak.

A word remains in their throats

like a thorn

they choose to swallow.

Women like me

know nothing except weeping,

impossible weeping

suddenly

pouring

like a severed artery.

Women like me

receive blows

and do not dare return them.

They shake with anger,

they subdue it.

Like lions in cages,

women like me

dream . . .

of freedom . . .

Maram al-Massri

 

The Save the Children Report: The cost of war: Calculating the Impact of the Collapse of Syria’s Education System on the Country’s Future can be found at: Save The Children 2015

 

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