Courage and bigotry captured on camera

Tess Asplund. making a stand against bigotry

Tess Asplund. making a stand against bigotry

There are some photographic images that appear to remain embedded in my mind for a very long time. Sometimes these are retained simply because of a personal interest in the subject, such as the stark but beautiful portrait of the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett by Jane Bown, or the 1946 image of Gandhi, Nehru and Sardar Patel in close conversation by Kulwant Roy. Others impose themselves because of the sheer horror of the stories they represent, as is the case with many of the works of Don McCullin taken in Vietnam or the image of a drowned Syrian child who was simply looking for a safe and better life when he was washed up on the shore in Turkey.

A couple of days ago my mind was taken back to a chilling image from 1989. A solitary man stands before a tank in Tiananmen Square in Beijing; he holds a bag in his left hand, as if he has come straight from shopping at the local market. We cannot see his face, but instinctively we know that if we could we would recognise fear, but also bold defiance as he makes his protest and expresses his disgust at the oppression of a brutal political regime. In her excellent and horrifying book “The People’s Republic of Amnesia,” Louisa Lim visits survivors of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the parents and friends of those killed by the Chinese regime, many of whom had never previously seen this famous image of the anonymous individual who has simply become known as “Tank Man.” Even today she found many who would not talk about the photograph or did so only in circumstances where they were sure they would not be seen or overheard.

The reason that my memory brought back this powerful picture so recently was the publication of a similar image of a young black woman named Tess Asplund that was published in the Guardian newspaper on May 5th, and no doubt in thousands of other newspapers around the world. In this picture an individual lady, once again with a bag at her left side, stands defiantly before a hostile crowd of racist neo-nazi marchers on the streets of Borlänge in Sweden. The self-styled Nordic Resistance Movement has gained momentum in Sweden despite the numerous racist and anti-semitic outpourings of its shadowy leadership. The photographer David Lagerlöf has captured the bravery and defiance of his extraordinary subject as she stands in the middle of a road silently but powerfully confronting those who hate her because of her colour, her culture and her opposition to their narrow view of the world.

Such acts of non-violent protest require tremendous courage on the part of the individual, but it is highly perceptive of this single determined lady as she states:-

“I hope something positive will come out of the picture. Maybe what I did can be a symbol that we can do something – if one person can do it, anyone can.”

I am not convinced that she is correct when she says that anyone can take such a courageous stand. Hers was an act of bravery which should be seen as a motivation for all who oppose racism or other acts of collective violence, but I wonder if I would have the courage to behave as she did?

The action taken by Tess Asplund gives a powerful message. But let’s imagine that the photographer David Lagerlöf had not been present at the moment. How many of us would have heard of this solitary act of defiance? Photo-journalism, as with other forms of reporting can play an important role in communicating not only the news, but also the best and worst aspects of humanity. This is why the image of Tess Asplund, along with that of Tank Man, and many others which depict the human spirit at its strongest will leave an indelible mark on many of our minds.

Indian colleagues, leading the research agenda

Researchers experienced and novice work together to develop an understanding of educational issues.

Researchers experienced and novice work together to develop an understanding of educational issues.

 

In recent months an exciting new venture for our work in promoting inclusive education in Bangalore, has been the development of a small cohort of research students who are registered to study for a PhD with the University of Northampton. These are, for the most part, students who have completed their MA programme with us in Bangalore and have already produced work of exceptional quality for their postgraduate dissertations. Indeed, some of their work has been published in reputable research journals and their investigations have attracted interest beyond India. These enthusiastic investigators have been busy of late generating formal research proposals and submitting these for the scrutiny of university committees that oversee research quality and ensure ethical practice.

For those of us involved in supervising the work of these students and providing an appropriate training programme, both during our visits to Bangalore and at a distance, this development brings new opportunities and challenges. It has always been our intention to support colleagues in the promotion of a new generation of skilled researchers who can assist in moving inclusive education forward in this part of India and we are delighted to have recruited colleagues of such outstanding quality. However, we are also aware of the currently limited opportunities that exist for these colleagues to become fully immersed in an education research culture such as that which exists in the UK and much of Europe. We are though, fully committed to the process of assisting our students to change this situation, and have every confidence in their abilities to play a leadership role in the near future.

I have been thinking about these challenges over the past couple of days, my attention having been drawn to an article written in an Indian financial magazine called Mint, by Anurag Behar who is from the Azim Premji Foundation. Under the headline Researching Education, Behar argues that there should be both an increase in educational research in India, and a realignment of focus to ensure that we can gain greater insights into both the role and effectiveness of the teacher, and a deeper understanding of education in a social context. The article is clearly written for a lay audience, but makes a number of astute observations about the current lack of understanding of education provision in the country and the ways in which it may promote positive social and economic change.

A number of expressions in this interesting piece of journalism provide evidence of the thoughtful approach adopted by Anurag Behar. At one point he suggests a specific role for educational research when he states that:-

“with experience and rigorous reflection, one can arrive at relevant (let’s call them) operating principles that can help in flexibly responding to multiple contexts and situations. Given our dynamic social reality, even these need constant critical interrogation”.

He then goes on to suggest some quite specific questions, listing some of what he sees as being current priorities:-

“how can the capacity of our 8.5 million teachers, who have a full-time job, be improved within the constraints and diversity of our education system and social reality? How does community engagement with schools become effective? How can schools foster constitutional values? How should schools be governed, recognizing fully that simplistic, industrial-mindset governance mechanisms are not only ineffective but also harmful to good education? How do we deal with the rot in the pre-service teacher education system?”

As I read Behar’s short article, I wondered how many colleagues working within schools and universities in India would agree with the arguments he puts forward. Those of us who endeavour to keep abreast of educational research in India, are often frustrated by the apparent belief that large scale surveys are the only means of providing useful data. Such work requires significant funding which is not available to either the practitioner researcher, or to many who would wish to engage with the kinds of questions that Anurag Behar would have prioritised. The value of smaller scale studies focused upon the specifics of pedagogy and classroom management is largely denied by those in positions of authority and power in the Indian education system. In concluding his article he suggests that:-

“Research in education must focus on the real and important issues within education. This requires educators themselves to become adept at asking and answering research questions, rigorously and systematically. If educators take responsibility for research, it will definitely cause a quiet revolution in education research and education itself”.

I find myself totally in agreement with this last statement, and hope that Behar’s views may be heeded by those who oversee educational research in India. Our young enthusiastic researchers in Bangalore have already proven themselves, along with many of their peers who have completed small scale research for a post graduate qualification. They have developed research skills and utilised these as they have investigated the realities of classroom life, and the challenges faced by teachers, students and families. Their commitment to the promotion of change and the development of a more equitable society is one of the most important stimuli that encourages myself and my colleagues in our work in Bangalore. In reading the article from Anurag Behar I am heartened to see that others are recognising the importance of fostering a research culture that is clearly focused upon schools, teachers, children and families. Such arguments further justify the work being undertaken by our excellent students and will, I hope encourage them towards ever greater achievements.

Balmy Nights and Dosa Delights

Good food, good company and a cooling roof fan

Good food, good company and a cooling roof fan

In all the years that I have been visiting Bangalore I have never experienced heat such as that which is singeing the city at present. I associate a hot sticky atmosphere with some of the times I have spent in Chennai, where the humidity means that it is normal to be drenched in sweat, but the Bangalore climate is generally less oppressive.

This week, by mid-morning the temperatures are usually in the high thirty’s and I find myself grateful for the air conditioning in the room where we teach. It is noticeable that some students have taken a strategic view of the situation and locate themselves where the full blast of cold air can be encouraged to sweep across them. I usually find air conditioning somewhat oppressive as it dries the atmosphere causing my throat to tighten after a long period of teaching, but during this visit I have come to see it as a blessing. However, with the entire city seeking solace from the AC machines, the Bangalore power suppliers are unable to cope with demand. The resulting power cuts, which have been frequent in recent days shut down the cooling systems, meaning that once again we swelter in the heavy atmosphere.

Night time is a challenge. I cannot sleep with the air conditioning blasting in the room. It is noisy and the constant drying of the air leaves me dehydrated. Switch it off and the heat takes over. Most nights I lie on top of the bed, waking several times to drink water and seek the comforts of a rub down with a towel. Such mild discomforts are, of course, a minor price to play when measured against the work with which it is a privilege to engage here in India.

My good friend Sumathi tells me that when the climate becomes so oppressive in her house, she takes a sheet, soaks it in water, wrings it out, and hangs it across an open window. This has a significant impact in cooling the room. It sounds like a positive intervention, but I suspect that if I try it here, the hotel management may well be less than pleased.

It was in the company of Sumathi and her husband Ravi, along with Pooja and Darshan that we ate last night at one of the four MTR (Mavalli Tiffin Rooms) that grace this city, MTR 1924. These simple, but delightful emporia, which as the date suggests, have operated for the best part of a century, serve some of the finest dosa to be found anywhere. I had previously eaten at MTR near the Lal Bagh, and it was a great experience to be taken to this different outlet in Jayanagar. It was clearly Sumathi and Ravi’s intention that we should try as much of the menu, which offers a vast range of South Indian cuisine, as we could possibly manage. As a consequence the table was soon adorned with masala dosa, rava dosa, neer dosa, bhath, plain dosa and assorted chutneys. A feast for the eyes, the stomach and the soul. Good company, good food, good conversation, and all under the breeze of efficient roof fans – what more could one wish from an evening after a busy day of teaching. Indian hospitality is always warm and welcome, the weather here is hot, but something that simply has to be accepted.

Smile, you’re on camera!

New found friends on the streets of Jayanagar

New found friends on the streets of Jayanagar

 

It has been a while since I posted anything on this blog. Sometimes other writing commitments have to be prioritised and of late I have been running to catch up. But being back in Bangalore working with students and colleagues inevitably prompts new thoughts and offers rich experiences.

First impressions of India tend to remain embedded in the mind. When here, I often recall the searing blast of heat, the chaos of traffic and the brightness of colour that hit my senses on first arriving in Chennai in 2000. This was a real shock to the senses, and one that repeats itself daily whilst in this country. On this current visit I have a colleague with me who is making his first visit to India, and I am sure that in years to come he will be recounting the similar sensory assault that greeted him yesterday.

In order to assist his acclimatisation, soon after arriving in Jayanagar I took David for a short walk (it would have been even shorter had I not become lost in the backstreets!) around the winding lanes of the district. Pointing out familiar landmarks and introducing him to the rich tapestry of the street vendors and their multi-coloured palette of assorted goods, I soon found him indulged in one of his favourite passtimes of taking copious photographs. As I observed David happily clicking at his shutter and making subtle adjustments to the camera lens in order to frame the right image, I knew that before long the inevitable crowd of photogenic enthusiasts would  gather.

Whether it is something to do with our current egocentric era of superficial celebrity; one which  has given birth to that most ubiquitous utensil of self egrandisement – the “selfie stick”, or simply a generous attempt to to give the tourists a warm welcome, I’m not sure. But exactly as I would have predicted, within minutes we were surrounded by a group of young men and boys, all eager to be part of the scene and a central feature of at least one, and preferably multiple photographs. Looking slightly bemused David found himself required to frame photographs of the “other foreigner” in the company of these local celebrities who clearly relished the thought that they may now feature amongst the many pictures that comprise David’s family album back home in England.

Such trivial incidents amuse me, not because of any great significance, but more because of the simple humanity displayed by local people who feel the need to engage with visitors to their community. The desire to communicate and to relate to other human beings is a natural instinct, but one which is often ignored or even suppressed. As we rush about our busy lives we pass thousands of individuals on the street who can easily become a nameless blur of humanity. Taking a little time to stop and share a moment with a stranger, or simply saying hello with a smile can go some way to restoring the sociability that has traditionally formed a bond within and between communities. Five minutes pause for an unplanned photograph can be time well invested if it sends a message that, though our lives and experiences are vastly different, we share many of the social characteristics that have informed all of our communities. Hearing the laughter of the gathered crowd, and trying to interpret the content of their conversations which I am sure involved a number of harmless jokes at our expense, I was particularly impressed by the ease with which these youngsters felt able to make friendly contact with  strangers who had chanced upon their street.

Once again over the coming days I will try and fail to understand many of the features of people’s lives here on the streets of Jayanagar. It may be impossible for me to gain a true picture of the experiences of those I meet, but in my failed attempts I can at least ensure that my efforts are accompanied by a smile.

Never underestimate the power of dance

Marking MA dissertations is both an interesting experience and a challenge. Many students conduct interesting small scale research studies and write fascinating dissertations that educate their tutors as much as themselves. The challenge often comes with getting them all marked in a limited time span ready for examination boards.

Along with colleagues who teach on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education course in Bangalore, I recently finished marking our latest batch of final studies from a cohort of excellent students. As is often the case there was a significant amount of highly original and innovative work within these dissertations, and the time spent reading and marking was informative and interesting. Most of the students complete research focused upon their own work and schools, and provide insights into the daily challenges that they face and the ways in which they endeavour to overcome these. Often they investigate their own teaching approaches with considerable enthusiasm and critique these in a most honest and reflective manner.

A recent video posted on the BBC news website (see below) encouraged me to return to a number of recordings made by Maitreyee one of our Bangalore students whose excellent dissertation I marked a few weeks ago. Maitreyee works in a special school with many children who present with complex learning needs and in some instances additional physical disabilities. She is an enthusiastic dancer who performs with a local group in Bangalore and had utilised her knowledge of dance to inform her teaching in school.

Maitreyee in her research considered how the use of dance impacts upon both the learning and well-being of the students she teaches. Through a series of interviews and video recorded observations she involved her students at the heart of her project,and was able to demonstrate the many benefits of the work that she has undertaken over several years . Watching the video recordings it was soon evident that many of the young people in her classes use dance as an effective means of communication whilst also gaining a great deal of pleasure from their movement and performance. This is a unique study and one that I hope may find a broader audience though publication.

It was with Maitreyee’s work in mind that I returned to the BBC video posted on this blog which I feel demonstrates a number of things with which I am sure she would agree. Not least that dance can be a tremendous vehicle for learning and that for some students it inspires self-confidence, a means of expression and enthusiasm. Equally important is the message that we should never underestimate an individual who is labelled as having a specific “condition” or described as having a disability.

I have watched this video several times now and each time new thoughts come to mind. Firstly, that I personally lack the co-ordination that is evident in the accomplished young lady featured in the film. Secondly, that she exudes an amazing confidence and authority in her demonstration of technique and her teaching. Thirdly, that she expresses a realistic ambition and dedication for what she might achieve in the future, and finally, that this is a young lady who has great confidence in her own abilities, and that others must also have shared this confidence, though I suspect some may have underestimated  her capabilities.

I don’t really want to say anything more about this video recording, but rather leave it for you to watch and then hopefully to hear about the reaction it might promote in you. If you have comments I would be delighted to hear what they are. I hope you enjoy the short presentation.

Now I’d better get back to some marking I suppose.

 

 

Can we speak of “Mother India”?

The message is clear. No words that I provide can add to this message.

The message is clear. No words that I provide can add to its meaning.

 

In a speech to the United Nations made in September 2015 United States President Barak Obama stated that:-

“One of the best indicators of whether a country will succeed is how it treats its women. And I have to say I do not have patience for the excuse of, ‘Well, we have our own ways of doing things.’”

It should be regarded as appalling that in the twenty first century it is still necessary to be emphasising that in many parts of the world, and in many aspects of life, women still face challenges in terms of being treated with respect and having their basic human rights recognised. Far from having achieved equality, it is true to say that in many instances women and girls remain oppressed and discriminated against.

Yesterday morning, less than a mile from where I am staying in Jayanagar, Bangalore, I came across a wall displaying the paintings shown on this blog page. I was unable to distinguish the function of the building behind this wall as the only indication provided was in Kannada, a language with which I am totally unfamiliar. However, if a picture can tell a thousand words, I think these are more than eloquent in expressing some of the challenges that many women feel exist within Indian society today. Furthermore, I feel certain that these images would resonate with women, and those who empathise with their plight in many other parts of the world.

The treatment of women in India has come under the spotlight and been scrutinised by the media and through the courts on many occasions recently. The death of Jyoti Singh following a savage attack and rape by a gang on a Delhi bus in 2012 is one of the most brutal examples of the dangers that many women and girls face today. But whilst this extreme violence makes the news, inequalities in education and employment opportunities are less frequently debated, despite being an obvious feature of the local landscape. School dropout rate amongst adolescent girls in India remains unacceptably high, despite improvements in recent years, a recent health survey indicated that 56% adolescent girls (15-19 years) in India are anaemic, as against 30% adolescent boys, and the same report shows that girls in India have 61% higher mortality than boys at age 1-4 years. These figures will undoubtedly be disputed and debated, but appear to be a clear indictment of the inequality that exists in twenty first century India.

Fortunately, there are many people here in India as elsewhere who have not only recognised the inequalities perpetuated by a patriarchal society, but are taking action to draw attention to injustice and stand up for those who are subjected to humiliation and discrimination. In 2014 the second Men Engage Global Symposium was held in New Delhi, resulting in the publication of a document that has become known as the Delhi Declaration and Call to Action. The Delhi meeting proposed a number of activities to enable men and boys to debate and understand the impact of discrimination, and to demand a more equitable approach to ensuring women’s rights in all aspects of life. Amongst its most powerful assertions is the following:-

“Patriarchy affects everyone, but in different ways. Women and girls continue to face significant, disproportionately high levels of gender injustice and human rights violation. Men and boys are both privileged and damaged by patriarchy, but are rarely aware of that fact. Men and boys are also gendered beings. Gender equality brings benefits to women, men and other genders.”

The images from the streets of Jayanagar require no interpretation from myself. They are powerful enough to stand without commentary, my only concern being that they are in a back street of a Bangalore suburb and not more prominently displayed. I have a research student here in India whose work is  focused upon the low expectations which still impede the educational opportunities afforded to girls in some Indian communities. She speaks passionately of the benefits that she has gained through education and the support of a family that values the learning that she has gained. She is also conscious of the fact that many others continue to be denied the education that she has received, and she is determined to work as hard as she can to redress the balance.

Life for many women, both here in India and elsewhere, including my own country, has improved significantly. That does not excuse any of us from turning our backs on the many millions of others who still face danger, hardship and deprivation on a daily basis.

How much longer will women feel the need to depict their lives in this way?

How much longer will women feel the need to depict their lives in this way?

 

Rowing boats and navigating a safe passage

Look carefully. There's some serious learning going on here!

Look carefully. There’s some serious learning going on here!

Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

Life is but a dream!

         (Traditional Children’s rhyme)

Between teaching two cohorts of students and running a training day for our research students here in Bangalore, we like to make the most effective use of our time. This sometimes means providing training sessions in either the schools where our students work, or in those of colleagues who provide support to our work here in the city. We are dependent upon the goodwill of so many friends in Bangalore and we are therefore always pleased to be able to give something back in kind to them and their schools.

Thus it was that yesterday a group of teachers and parents found themselves seated on the floor, rocking to and fro, whilst chanting the children’s rhyme that appears at the top of this posting. Later in the morning, the same group were playing a simple traditional Indian game of hop and catch, though restricted space somewhat limited the scope of this particular escapade.

If having read the above you are wondering what this has to do with the professional development provided to a school staff and parents, I probably owe you an explanation. Latha, who was one of the first students here in Bangalore to graduate from the MA programme, had asked that we visit her school to work with parents and colleagues to consider how early educational experiences can help children to become confident learners. We were more than happy to oblige, and suggesting that formalisation of education is being increasingly imposed upon children at an ever younger age, we decided to demonstrate the value of informal learning and to explore the uses of play.

Great fun was had by all as they experienced the kind of activities that we would hope all parents enjoy with their children. This was accompanied by more serious discussion about early years learning, the promotion of healthy child development and the importance of providing secure relationships between children, and for children and adults. We examined in some detail the many learning opportunities that exist outside of the classroom, and the importance of acknowledging that children learn much from people who are not formally designated as teachers. By the end of the day we had all reflected upon a unique learning experience, and promised to go away and encourage the children and adults in our lives to learn by being more playful.

Today was rather more formal, though also involved a number of enjoyable learning experiences. My good friend Savitha, who has been so supportive of our work in Bangalore, and is a fine example of someone committed to running an inclusive school, invited me to assist her staff in developing inclusive classroom planning strategies. Knowing of the great enthusiasm always exhibited by the staff of Pramiti school, it was easy to facilitate a range of practical tasks focused upon the children with whom they work.

Both of these days were not only rewarding, but were important to those of us who come here to offer the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme. Having rowed boats across very smooth waters, and navigated a route through classroom planning, we will now hoist sail and sally forth to work with our next group of students.

The teachers at Pri. .miti School are amongst the most inclusive I have ever met. Not just in India, but anywhere

The teachers at Primiti School are amongst the most inclusive I have ever met. Not just in India, but anywhere

Staying focused as we approach the finishing line.

Everyone assumes a role as we learn together on the MA programme

Everyone assumes a role as we learn together on the MA programme

Supporting our MA students in Bangalore as they work on the preparation of their dissertations is always interesting and at times challenging. At present we are working with a very enthusiastic and able group who have generated excellent research proposals and piloted one of their data collection instruments. At this stage of their progress they come back to us with many questions and a few anxieties about aspects of their piloting that maybe didn’t run as smoothly as might have been wished for. At the moment our job is not simply to give answers, but to give them opportunities to find solutions.

As part of the proceedings we encourage these neophyte researchers to bring their issues to sessions in order that we can help them to think these through, and learn about managing their projects. This invariably leads to lively debates and results in a stimulating learning environment from which we all benefit. Today was no exception.

This afternoon started with one of our students showing a brief clip of video recording of her work with parents of children from a village community near where she is based. Many of these adults are parents of first generation learners and our student wishes to gain data from them to inform her research, which is examining the effectiveness of the school provision made for their children. This is an exciting project which demonstrates the commitment and impact that some of our students are having in fostering more inclusive learning opportunities.

In order to gain the data that she requires this keen researcher is planning to use focus groups, but like many at this stage of her research development, she is apprehensive and has questions about how best this should be managed. What are the difficulties in collecting data from parents who cannot read and write? How do I manage a group when they don’t follow the conventions of taking turns to speak? These and other similar concerns were brought to the table. So this afternoon, much of the time was spent in role play, with students taking  the part of participants, researchers, recorders and observers. Everyone took the role they were playing seriously, and the action was followed by a lively discussion, with an exchange of ideas and suggestions that helped in the development of a set of principles for focus group management. Hopefully our student feels more confident and many of her questions will have been addressed. I look forward to her reprting back after the next stage of data collection.

Sessions such as these, led largely by the students themselves, and often involving friendly banter and laughter, can only be conducted when they feel at ease with each other, respecting their classmates and demonstrating a willingness to share ideas. I am sure that as these students begin the last leg of their journey towards achieving their MA degrees they are forming friendships that will endure, and have gained new skills and knowledge that they will take forward for the benefit of the children and teachers with whom they work.

Days like today reinforce the fact that it is a privilege to work together with such committed professionals.

 

 

Watch your language!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebration from the Western Ghats to the Malabar Coast

 

Attending school is critical to the children of these Kerala fisherman. Raising the quality of their education may be a challenge that remains to be addressed.

Attending school is critical to the children of these Kerala fisherman. Raising the quality of their education may be a challenge that remains to be addressed.

Tomorrow in Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), Kerala University will host an event at which education minister P. K. Abdu Rabb will formally announce that Kerala has become the first Indian State to achieve 100% primary education provision. A drive by the state literacy mission (Athulyam) has been well supported by teachers and there is evidence of significant success in improving school attendance and the state literacy rates. This is indeed a cause for celebration, and is indicative of the commitment that I have seen amongst many teachers and education officials in this part of India.

I have been fortunate enough to visit Kerala on a number of occasions and have several good friends living in that state who work in education, and have contributed greatly to its development. Like much of India it is a region of extremes with wealthy suburbs of cities such as Trivandrum and Kochi, cheek by jowl with areas of poverty and deprivation. Tourism on the famous backwaters attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year to explore tranquil rivers, canals and lakes and to view an abundance of bird life in beautiful bucolic surroundings. Keralan cuisine, which makes superb use of local ingredients, including the ever plenteous coconut, finds particular favour with western tourists, and I can personally verify the excellence of the fish molly, appam and  payasam available in most of the coastal regions. This important industry has provided employment and supported the development of luxury hotels and resorts on a par with any to be found in Europe. However, within walking distance of many such developments are fishing communities where men continue to live a life of struggle with the seas in order to make a meagre living and support their families who live in the most rudimentary of accommodation and often eat a far more basic diet.

When visiting Kerala, I have had opportunities to observe lessons in a number of schools, where for the most part dedicated teachers work hard to ensure that the pupils in their charge receive a good education. As is the case elsewhere in the world, these schools vary considerably in respect of their buildings, resources, classrooms and those who staff them. I consider it a privilege to spend time talking to teachers in any school, and the enthusiasm and commitment that they demonstrate is a real tribute to their professionalism. This is as much the case in Kerala as it is here in Northamptonshire. However, I often find myself worrying about the disparity that I see across schools, and whilst this is an issue here in my own country, I feel this in India more than in many other places that I have visited.

I was thinking about this issue yesterday as I read reports of Kerala’s educational success. Let me say from the outset, that the achievement of universal primary education in the state is something to celebrate, and a matter in which the education policy makers should quite rightly take pride. However, I also found myself hoping that having hit this important target, these same policy makers do not rest on their laurels and that they recognise the need to avoid complacency. Getting children into school should be seen as the first, albeit critical stage of this development. Far tougher issues continue to challenge the education system in Kerala, as elsewhere in India. I have been to schools in the state where children are provided with the most modern facilities and resources, are taught by highly qualified teachers and learn in classes of twenty five pupils. These schools rival many that I have seen in the UK and other parts of Europe and are a fine example of what can be achieved in this, one of India’s wealthiest states. By contrast, I have spent time in Government schools in some of the poorer communities of Kerala where class sizes of 60 pupils are still common, teacher absenteeism is a problem and children share the most rudimentary text books and other resources. This level of inequity continues to be a problem, which unless it is addressed will perpetuate the social divide between a burgeoning Indian middle class and those who have limited opportunities to progress from their current impoverished condition.

Tomorrow’s announcement will, quite rightly be heralded with fanfares and celebration. It is certainly not my intention to rain on this all too well deserved parade. The foundations have now been laid for the further development of an education system that can be much more inclusive and afford greater opportunities for all children in Kerala. Within the state the challenge after tomorrow is to ensure not only that children are attending school, but that they have a chance to learn effectively and with access to the teachers and resources that they need. Where Kerala leads today, let us hope that the rest of India may follow in the near future. When this happens there will be a reason for even greater celebration.