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.

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.

 

 

Bringing colour to the lives of the people of Kabul

 

Street art from the detritus of war. Surely a better use for a tank!

Street art from the detritus of war. Surely a better use for a tank!

Until I read about her in the Guardian yesterday the name Neda Taiyebi was unknown to me, as I suspect it probably was (still is?) to most people here in the UK. I hope that it will soon be a name that is better known as this young lady is engaged in an activity that deserves wider attention.

Neda Taiyebi is an Iranian born artist who for the past year has been living in Afghanistan. At a time when many people have been fleeing from the war ravaged cities of that desperately poor country, Neda has chosen to travel in the opposite direction and believes that she has found a situation in which she is more able to express her artistic talents. Part of the motivation for her work is to be found in her commitment to enabling women to express themselves in an area that has been male dominated and asserts a bullish image to the world. She has commenced this task with enthusiasm and by taking advantage of the devastated landscape that surrounds her in the suburbs of Kabul.

Neda has noted the lack of public art within Kabul, and decries the fact that whilst efforts are being made to revive educational institutions within the city, these are seen as functional establishments with little consideration being given to the development of cultural or aesthetic well-being. Determined to begin to redress the balance, Neda Taiyebi has embarked upon a unique project to create areas of beauty amidst the rubble and chaos of the bomb torn streets of Kabul. A picture in yesterday’s Guardian shows a group of children playing on a piece of street art created by Neda Taiyebi, which is clearly bringing some joy into the lives of these youngsters.

Neda’s approach to creating public art is highly original, but has been achieved by seeking out some of the most potent symbols of violence and destruction to be found in the area. So far, she has created works of art by decorating the husks of three immobilised Russian tanks that have scarred the city streets for a number of years. These previously rusting shells of burned out vehicles have been assaulted with colour, patterns and images that could never have been imagined when these armoured beasts originally patrolled the streets of Kabul.

Taking inspiration from the domestic art that she had seen all around her in her home in Iran, including patterns from textiles and patchwork designs, Neda Taiyebi has demonstrated how symbols of death and ruin can be transformed into a colourful play station for local children. Drawing inspiration from such domestic items has asserted the contribution that women have made to creativity and design and has brought a more reasoned approach to interpreting the streets of the city. In so doing she has received some support from the Afghan government; though sadly, this has of necessity included the presence of an armed guard whilst she undertakes her work.

As we await the arrival of Christmas here in the UK, we have become familiar with the usual colourful lights and trappings that surround us on the streets of our towns, cities and villages. Whilst very little of this can truly be described as street art, it brightens our lives in the midst of winter, and brings pleasure to children and adults alike. Perhaps the work of Neda Taiyebi in Kabul will bring smiles to the faces of people of that once great city. Her assertion that more attention needs to be given to encouraging a cultural and aesthetic appreciation of the world undoubtedly challenges politicians and educators in a country which may see other priorities. However, the smiling faces of children playing on a decorated tank which in previous times would have probably terrorised them, is just one indication of the importance of her work.

Thank you and happy Christmas to Neda Taiyebi, may your work continue to bring joy to the streets of Kabul. And, of course happy Christmas and a peaceful new year to whoever may happen to read this blog.

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

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

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

Dear Mr and Mrs Trump,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely

A. Lincoln

School Principal

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moggies against terror

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the pictures below raise a smile!

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

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

Comedian cat - mocking anyone who wants to disturb his peace

Comedian cat – mocking anyone who wants to disturb his peace

six shooter cat! Part of the cat peace keeping squadron

six shooter cat! Part of the cat peace keeping squadron

Para-military cat. Keeping the cats of Brussels safe

Para-military cat. Keeping the cats of Brussels safe

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

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

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

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

 

Caution lethal cane users on the loose!

 

Mobility aid or lethal weapon?

Mobility aid or lethal weapon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The long road to liberty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click to enlarge

2015-11-16 09.41.54 2015-11-16 09.43.38 2015-11-16 09.59.54 2015-11-16 09.48.27 2015-11-16 09.44.26 2015-11-16 09.44.00 2015-11-16 09.59.17

‘Have courage to use your own reason!’

 

Vive La France!

Vive La France!

One of my favourite English historians is the late Roy Porter, an exceptionally gifted writer who had the priceless ability to express complex historical and philosophical ideas in plain language. As with many other historians of his ilk, he challenged his readers to throw off the shackles of narrow thought and to think more deeply and question every aspect of the societies that we have created, and their impact upon the people living within them.  My thoughts turned to Roy Porter, and in particular to his excellent book on “The Enlightenment,” yesterday as I listened to the appalling news coming from France of yet another mindless terrorist attack on Paris.

Whilst it is generally believed that the “age of Reason” as the enlightenment is sometimes known, began in England, it is often said that the French adopted its philosophies and innovations and took them to a new level. An argument that is well justified when one examines the scientific, literary and philosophical advances emanating from this beautiful country during what has become known as the “long 18th century” (1685-1815). John Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, written in England in 1689 provided a sound foundation for new and radical thinking, but it was the French “Philosophes”, and in particular Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Diderot who encouraged freedom of thought and expression. So why, you may well ask, did yesterday’s atrocities make me think about Roy Porter and this particular period of history?

Put simply, those key individuals who were the driving force behind the enlightenment believed that humanity and civilization could be improved through rational change. This could only be achieved through the encouragement of open minds and unrestricted thinking, accompanied by respect for ideas which should be openly debated. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant is credited with the expression “Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!” Such a bold statement is clearly anathema to those pathetic and cowardly individuals who murdered innocent people in Paris, and those faceless individuals who support them and who are clearly frightened by any notion of rational and free thinking.

The emblem of the French Republic is often depicted above three words which clearly alarm those who attempt to inflict terror on the streets of Paris and elsewhere around the world. These three words –  liberté, égalité, fraternité are a source of pride in a nation that through its emphasis on the creation of a secular society for its diverse and multi-ethnic population, has often stood against both tyranny and the restriction of free speech. Each of these words represents a challenge to the narrow minded individuals and organisations responsible for acts of terror. Liberté with its call for freedom of expression, movement and thought is the direct opposite of the efforts to control young minds and impose a warped propaganda to create hatred and intolerance. Without  liberté to engage in creative and critical thought, philosophical and scientific development ceases and we would soon revert to the dark ages.

Égalité recognises the concept of respect which is required to give everyone the opportunity to thrive and contribute to society, regardless of their sex, age, ability, colour or religion. This is an idea that creates anxiety in  the terrorist, who through some deluded notion sees himself as superior to others and regards tolerance as a weakness. Yet it is through the sustained efforts of individuals and organisations within our societies that the contributions of individuals that were denied in previous centuries have been recognised and enabled progress to be made in all facets of life.

Fraternité asserts that we are all brothers (and sisters) and have a duty to care for and respect each other. Fine examples of this have been seen in France over the past hours as individuals have put themselves in the path of danger to assist those strangers who have become the latest victims of an act of evil.

The people of Paris, along with all lovers of freedom and democracy have been terribly shaken by the violence inflicted upon its citizens and visitors over the past forty eight hours, but their courage and determination has not been diminished. Neither will those of us who love Paris and its commitment to freedom and culture be deterred from visiting. The French national anthem La Marseillaise is as stirring a song as one could ever hear. Yesterday I was greatly moved, though not surprised, to hear defiant Parisians singing this anthem at the site where so many had lost their lives. As a symbol of freedom and progress Paris has proven to be a source of inspiration to many in recent centuries. I am sure it will continue to set a fine example for the future.

Vive La France!

 

The words from the second verse of La Marseillaise seem particularly apt at present:-

Que veut cette horde d’esclaves,

De traîtres, de rois conjurés ?

Pour qui ces ignobles entraves,

Ces fers dès longtemps préparés 

Français, pour nous, ah ! quel outrage

Quels transports il doit exciter!

C’est nous qu’on ose méditer

De rendre à l’antique esclavage !

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

This report makes interesting and sometimes uncomfortable reading

This report makes interesting and sometimes uncomfortable reading

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

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

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

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

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

The authors of the report state that:

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

It continues by identifying:

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

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

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