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.


Sharing with sisters – probably beyond the call of duty!

I can assure you sisters, that my intentions are entirely honourable!

I can assure you sisters, that my intentions are entirely honourable!

Whilst in a school yesterday I met a teacher who was also visiting to see how a child with special educational needs had settled into class. This teacher works at a local nursery school and had worked with the boy in question since he was just two years old. He had recently transferred into the school and the purpose of the nursery teacher’s visit was to meet with his class teacher to discuss how he was progressing, and to offer any necessary insights into his needs on the basis of her experience of teaching him.

It was good to hear her reporting how well the boy had adjusted to life in a “big class” and that he had made friends, and appeared to be very happy. His new teacher is delighted with his progress, both social and academic and he apparently gets up each morning keen to finish his breakfast and get to school. As we were talking, the teacher informed me that she was pleased to see that at various times during the week, her former pupil has lessons from a male teacher. Pursuing this theme she expressed the view that there are far too few men working in schools with primary aged pupils, and even fewer working with nursery classes. Male role models, she sugeested, are very important in the lives of little children.

Listening to her views I found myself largely in agreement with her comments, and reflected on my own personal professional experiences of working with nursery aged children. For a few years early in my career I taught a class of nursery children, all of whom had some difficulties with learning, in a school in Somerset in the South West of England. This was a particularly formative period of my career, as I worked for a quirky, though dynamic head teacher; his paperwork was a mess, his office resembled Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, but his leadership qualities and commitment to staff, children and parents unquestionable. It was to a large extent through the critical, but supportive demands made by this head teacher that I learned much about child development, the importance of observing children, and of the need to critcially evaluate  everything I did in the classroom.

Whilst comparing experiences of working with nursery aged children with the visiting teacher today, and finding that we have much in common in respect of our belief in the importance of these formative years, I recalled an incident that reinforces the view that perhaps we need more men working in nursery schools.

My afore mentioned head teacher approached me one day bearing details of a two day residential course for nursery teachers, to be organised by the then King Alfred’s College, which has since become the University of Winchester. The course was largely focused upon early language acquisition in nursery aged children, and knowing this to be an area in which I was particularly interested, he said that the school would pay for me to attend.

Eager to learn, I happily sent off the application form and fee and was pleased to be accepted on the course. On the appointed date I duly arrived in the ancient city of Winchester and located the course venue.

On arrival at the reception desk my initial enthusiasm was slightly impaired by a rather frosty lady, a realistic doppelganger for the late Hattie Jacques, who with very little evidence of what could have been described as  a welcoming smile, in a rather loud baritone voice, demanded to know  exactly who I was and what I was doing standing before her. With some trepidation I exclaimed, rather meekly, that I was there for the course. Raising her eyebrows and fixing me with a stare that could have melted steel, she declared that there must be some error.

“What”, she demanded, with the grace of a matador scenting a kill, “is your name?”

“Richard Rose”, I replied, making every effort to hide my knocking knees, and feeling somewhat like a naughty schoolboy (a feeling which had been a familiar feature of my school days!).

With a triumphant air, having scrutinised her list of expected delegates she pinned me to the wall with an iron gaze and declared,

“As I suspected, you are not on my list!”

Beginning to believe that I might indeed be an imposter, I fumbled in my pocket to recover the letter accepting me as a delegate on the course. Handing this over to her I pleaded my case, but with little hope of mitigation.

Scanning her list of attendees once more, her mood suddenly changed, her face now wreathed in a smile that was far more becoming for an individual charged with the responsibility for welcoming visitors.

“Now I see the cause of the confusion”, she declared. “You are indeed here on the list, but you have been recorded as Rose Richards! Clearly whoever compiled the register had not expected attendance from a man. It is, of course, a perfectly understandable mistake.”

I wanted to express the view that I could see the mistake, a simple name reversal,  but wasn’t quite sure that I agreed that it was understandable. However,firmly believing that discretion is almost always the better part of valour, and having raised a smile, I did not wish to reverse this much more comfortable situation. I therefore maintained a decidely subservient approach.

“Ah well”, I replied, “an easy mistake to make, at least the problem is solved.”

“Not quite”, came the reply that seemed to challenge my complacency. “You see young man, (I particularly remember the somewhat derogatory tone attached to that ‘young man,’ with it’s emphasis firmly on the “man.”, all delegates are sharing twin rooms at this conference, so we do indeed have a problem!”

Returning once more to her official documents, her smile once again broadened as she discovered that Rose Richards was booked to share a room with the head of a Roman Catholic nursery school who just happened to be a nun! I had to agree with her, we did now have a problem!

Now I am sure that many sisters from the Catholic church are very broad minded, but the final, and undoubtedly wise decision, made by the conference gatekeeper resulted in myself and this local head teacher being the only delegates given single room accommodation. A sensible solution, and when I eventually found my room I was delighted to find that as a mere man, I might be in solitary confinement, but the cell was comfortably appointed.

I am delighted to see that today there are far more men working in nursery and early years education, though still probably less than is desirable. I am sure that like me they will recognise the tremendous opportunities for learning about child development, which come with these teaching posts. I do hope that today’s men in early years teaching no longer face the kind of interrogation about their place in such schools that was common in the 1970s. However, if they do, I hope that in years to come they too will be able to laugh at the predicaments in which they find themselves.

Incidentally, I never did discover whether the sister heard about this confusion. I like to think that if she did, she too would have raised a smile.