It sometimes takes extraordinary courage to be a teacher

 

Dr Sakena Yacoobi, a real life educational heroine

Dr Sakena Yacoobi, a real life educational heroine

I don’t suppose I should have been surprised, but I was a little disappointed yesterday when having mentioned the name Sakena Yacoobi to a group of students, I found that none of them had ever heard about this amazing lady’s work. As they had not heard of Dr Yacoobi or her commitment to education, it was hardly likely that they would have been aware of The Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) which has achieved so much in that desperately poor country.

Dr Sakena Yacoobi is a formidable lady who has, for many years campaigned for the rights of those from poor communities, and especially girls, to receive an education. Having determined to take affirmative action to secure educational opportunities, she has on more than one occasion put her own life at risk and found herself under threat from powerful organisations and terrorists. However, her own personal educational experiences – she was the first member of her family to receive a formal education beyond the early years of schooling, and then found herself living as a refugee outside of her native Afghanistan, has reinforced her commitment to support others to achieve their potential.

As a refugee in the USA, Dr Yacoobi worked to gain degrees in biological sciences and public health. Her academic work was highly regarded and eventually she was made professor at an American university. Such is her commitment to the people of Afghanistan, however, that she decided to return home and develop a number of schools for children in some of the poorest areas of the country. At a time when the Taliban were in power, Dr Yacoobi founded the Afghan Institute of Learning, which supported underground schools with a specific intent of ensuring that girls received a good education. This was a brave action which she entered into fully aware of the risks she was taking.

There are a number of stories about the courage of this extraordinary lady. In particular, reference is made to the occasion when armed members of the Taliban came to a school she was running and tried to impose their narrow beliefs upon her and her staff. With considerable courage Dr Yacoobi invited these armed men into her school and served them tea, whilst arguing in defence of the education of girls, quoting freely from the Quran in justification of her actions. She admits that she thought that the men would kill her, and possibly others within the school, but eventually she persuaded them to leave and went calmly back to providing lessons.

During the period of Afghanistan’s Taliban occupation it was estimated that underground schools organised by Dr Yacoobi and her colleagues were educating up to 3,000 girls. Many have since spoken of the opportunities that these schools afforded them and the gratitude they feel towards this courageous lady.

In 2011 The WISE Prize for Education was established to recognise the services given by outstanding individuals. This prize now has an important international status and is awarded only to people who have made a significant contribution towards changing the lives of others through education. This prestigious award has just been presented to Dr Sakena Yacoobi by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, chair of the Qatar Foundation. On receiving the prize Dr Yacoobi emphasised that many in her country still live in extreme poverty, and are certainly not free from terror. She further indicated that many of the people in Afghanistan continue to suffer and have feelings of helplessness. However, she sees increased educational opportunity as one part of the equation that can assist the inhabitants of Afghanistan towards a better life.

Whilst Dr Sakena Yacoobi remains largely unknown here in the west, there are certainly many in Afghanistan who are indebted to her for her courage and determination. Let us hope that life for those who continue to suffer in that country improves in the near future, with the inspiration of Dr Yacoobi this must be a possibility.

Details of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) can be found at the link below.

http://www.afghaninstituteoflearning.org/

Do please take the time to watch the brief video below in which this extraordinary lady tells part of her story

 

Let’s hope that there are opportunities for Geeta, and not only the politicians here!

 

A "true daughter of India" returns to the fold ( the majority of whom never knew she was missing in the first place!)

A “true daughter of India” returns to the fold ( the majority of whom never knew she was missing in the first place!)

I do like a good news story. At times when the media is overwhelmed by tales of doom and disaster it is reassuring to find, often tucked away at the foot of an inside page, a story that celebrates the goodness of human nature. So it was today that whilst reading the Guardian newspaper I came upon a headline which would have warmed the coldest of hearts. The headline read:- “Deaf-mute woman returns home to India after 13 years lost in Pakistan.” This article, written by Jon Boone who is based in Islamabad, reports how a young girl who is now known as Geeta had been discovered, lost and confused and without any means of identification in Lahore in 2002. Now in her 20s, Geeta had been rescued by Abdul Sattar Edhi and his wife Bilquis who supported her care and education. The means by which Geeta came to be in Pakistan appears to be lost in a fog, but there was no doubt about her Indian nationality, and to quote the article, “the young woman never gave up hope of returning home.”

That ambition has now been realised, Geeta having apparently recognised her real family from photographs sent from Bihar. Again the full story behind how this happened is somewhat vague. Geeta has now returned to India, arriving at Delhi airport with all due ceremony with the intention that she should be reunited with her long lost family. The administration of DNA testing is intended to indicate once and for all if she is truly related to the family in Bihar who claim to have misplaced her all those years ago.

On the surface this should be one of those simple, happily ever after stories positioned to compensate for the latest plague and pestilence filling the pages of a national daily. However, just as fairy tales are seldom as innocent as they may first appear, Geeta’s tale has a number of sinister twists. It now appears that Geeta has rejected the family that seems eager to claim her, and whose stories about her early life appear not to tally with her memory of events. What should have been a happy reunion appears to have become a case of bitter disappointment.

As if this story wasn’t sad enough, it seems that several prominent Indian and Pakistani politicians are now seeking to make capital from this less than desirable situation. It is reported that on arrival at Delhi airport Geeta was “whisked away” by India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj to receive the red carpet treatment and to provide a welcome photo-opportunity. Recognising that Geeta is unlikely to be back in the embrace of her family at any time in the immediate future, and that she is now in a situation of some confusion and anxiety, Foreign Minister Swaraj stated that:-

“It does not matter if we find her parents or not, she is a daughter of India and we will take care of her.”

I suspect that when the Foreign Minister says “we”, she does not actually anticipate inviting Geeta into her own home. However, it might be hoped that someone in a position of power and influence will at some point consult Geeta about her desires and do their best to accommodate these.

Not to be upstaged by their Indian counterparts, the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi, had planned a lavish reception for Geeta, a means of demonstrating Pakistan/India co-operation and to gain much needed positive publicity to counteract the negativity that often appears to characterize the relationship between these two nations. Sadly, because of the tragic earthquake that has just claimed many lives in Pakistan, this event, quite rightly, has had to be cancelled.

However, all is not lost. I am reliably informed that Mr Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India* has 15.7 million followers on Twitter, that wonderful tabloid hack rag of cyber space. He reassured them all that:-

“it was truly wonderful to have you (Geeta) back home”

Isn’t it impressive how much sincerity can be encompassed within so few characters? I have no doubt that the guaranteed support of so high profile a leader must be reassuring and that her fears will have been immediately displaced.

This is clearly a wonderful media opportunity for so many politicians, for no sooner had Mrs Swaraj and Mr Modi departed the scene than Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had Geeta delivered to his official door, accompanied, of course, by the gathered masses of the press, to pledge his support for the, by now somewhat bemused, returnee. The Hindu newspaper reports that he has pledged to afford Geeta all possible support until she finally feels settled back in her home country.

It is, of course, reassuring to see some excellent collaboration between politicians from India and their brothers and sisters in Pakistan. We should certainly not doubt the good intentions of these civil leaders to ensure that Geeta’s situation improves, and that eventually she knows more of her personal history, and is settled wherever she may choose. Whether such actions need to be completed in a blaze of publicity, I am not so sure. But let’s hope that those few lingering cynical doubts in my mind are proven to be totally unjustified.

On the other hand – where were you today Rahul Gandhi? Looks like you’ve missed a trick again!

*To err is human – apologies for a slip of the brain which led me to earlier  suggest that Narendra Modi was Prime Minister of Pakistan – I do hope that this did not alarm my friends in Pakistan or over excite those in India – please forgive!!

In the vanguard of research developments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being respectful should not require silence!

Protesters against and supporters of President Xi stand shoulder to shoulder in London. Could this scene be replicated in Beijing?

Protesters against and supporters of President Xi stand shoulder to shoulder in London. Could this scene be replicated in Beijing?

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” 
Archbishop Desmond Tutu

 

For many years now I have had the privilege of travelling to work with teachers and researchers in many parts of the world. Sharing ideas with colleagues and sometimes wrestling to interpret these in different cultural contexts has been a great privilege, and has afforded me opportunities to see how other people live, work and try to make sense of the world. Amidst all this, I hope that the experience has taught me to be respectful of other societies and to be prepared to engage in critical discussions whilst making an effort to understand a broad range of motivations and contexts.

The British media today is dominated by reports of the visit to the country by China’s President Xi Jinping. Yesterday he was afforded all the pomp and ceremony in which this country excels. State banquets, an audience with the Queen, an opportunity to address the UK Parliament and a ride along the mall in a carriage more suited to a performance of Cinderella than to the streets of twenty first century London. Unsurprisingly the President’s visit has divided the nation, with those who are in favour of accepting potentially high levels of investment from China into the development of UK infrastructure, juxtaposed with others who believe that we should not be welcoming a dictatorial leader who has overseen increased human rights atrocities in his country.

I have visited several parts of China on a number of occasions and over the past fifteen years have made a number of good friends and colleagues in the country. I have also worked with some outstanding Chinese students who are now making a significant contribution to education back in their homeland. These valued contacts have often afforded me kind hospitality in their country and sometimes in their homes. As with others from around the world, they are proud of their country with its rich history and traditions, though in private many are also critical of the many injustices that they see as characterising modern day China.

China is a vast country and I cannot claim to have seen much of its broad spread. However, I have seen enough to form some idea of the rich diversity within its peoples and culture. As well as Han Chinese colleagues in the East of China and Beijing, I have enjoyed time with friends in the Muslim Uygher communities in Xinjiang Province, and recognise that not all citizens of this vast country have the same interpretation of what it means to be Chinese. I am quite sure that my brief visits to China have shaped much of my thinking about the kind of society that has been created in this diverse part of the world. These thoughts have been very much to the forefront of my mind as I have watched the red carpet treatment given to President Xi Jinping following his arrival in London.

It seems to me that when visitors come to the UK, whoever they are, we should ensure that they receive a warm welcome and that they are made comfortable. Inevitably if they are a Head of State we would expect that they should be granted access to those in positions of responsibility and leadership in the country. However, if we are welcoming visitors as friends, as was implied by both the Prime Minister Mr Cameron, and by President Xi Jinping in speeches yesterday, we should expect that a frank exchange of views, as is common between friends might ensue.

Yesterday in the Guardian newspaper there was an interesting article written by the exiled Chinese novelist Ma Jian whose excellent books Stick Out Your Tongue, and The Noodle Maker won international praise. Having been at the receiving end of Chinese Government oppression over a number of years he is fully justified in making a number of observations about how President Xi Jinping’s visit will be reported in China. Emphasising the dangers of being critical of the administration in the country, Ma Jian writes:-

“The message from the Chinese tyrants to their subjects will be clear: if the queen of the UK, the oldest democracy in the world, lavishes your president with such respect and approbation, then what right have you to criticise him?”

Freedom of speech is something which was hard won and is now treasured in many of the world’s great democracies, including the UK. Ma Jian has every right to voice his opposition to Chinese Government oppression, and it is to the credit of the UK Government that he has been made welcome as a resident of this country and is provided with a platform from which to express his opinions. Sadly there are many other Chinese nationals who are in a similar position to Ma Jian and find that whilst their work and ideas are appreciated and indeed honoured outside of China, they face imprisonment and torture if they express themselves within their own country. The artist Ai Wei Wei has received many plaudits for his exhibition currently to be seen at Royal Academy in London, the Nobel Prize winning writer Liu Xiaobo is currently being held as a political prisoner in Jinzhou, Liaoning, whilst his work is honoured in most parts of the world, and the lawyer Xu Zhiyong founder of the Chinese New Citizens’ Movement which has campaigned for the rights of Chinese citizens is similarly incarcerated. These individuals and many thousands of others who, being less well known have escaped the attention of the western media, do not appear to have a voice in the current negotiations being conducted between the UK Government and the Chinese President.

Unlike some who have written in the British press or appeared in interviews on the radio, I do not believe that we should have refused President Xi Jinping entry to the country. However, if as Mr Cameron suggests, there are opportunities for strengthening bonds between the governments of two countries, I would hope that he provides the kind of critical friendship that in recognition of those values of human rights and social justice that are often said to characterise the UK, enables him to express his abhorrence of the repression and ill-treatment of those who voice opinions contrary to those of the totalitarian regime that administers China.

Having been lavishly entertained at Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament President Xi Jinping may now be in need of a day of leisure. If so, he could do far worse than visiting the Royal Academy to see the work of his fellow countryman Ai Wei Wei. I suspect that this is an unlikely scenario as it would demand a willingness to engage in a learning experience that could be in danger of broadening his perspectives.

 

Making a welcoming contribution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Inclusion: let’s not narrow the debate.

Tomorrow's nation builder?

Tomorrow’s nation builder?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

United in competition

Everyone a potential athlete - regardless of need or ability

Everyone a potential athlete – regardless of need or ability

Sport has often been a unifying factor in the lives of individuals. Through participation in sport people make lifelong friendships, and some sportsmen and women who may struggle academically can demonstrate their abilities and prowess in ways that may be impossible in the classroom. As someone who has always been involved in playing sport, whether on the rugby or cricket pitch or the squash court in my younger days, of now whilst sitting astride a bicycle, I have learned to value the opportunity to meet fellow team mates and competitors from all walks of life. Thus have my horizons been broadened through participation and friendship with a wide range of other people.

In recent years, far greater attention has been given to participation in sport by those who have disabilities. Events such as the Paralympic Games and the London Marathon have enabled the general public to gain some appreciation of the dedication and competitive nature of many fine athletes who happen to be disabled. Here in  UK names such as Tanni Grey-Thompson, David Weir and Jody Cundy became as familiar during the London Olympics in 2012 as those of many of the elite able bodied athletes. Such has become the level of professionalism associated with sports organisations for those with disabilities, that many of the finest competitors, such as the cyclist Sarah Storey, are now competing and winning against their able bodied peers.

The dedication required of any athlete to reach the top of their chosen sport is undeniable. I recall several years ago driving home from work in torrential rain when I noticed coming towards me along the lane on which I was travelling a wheelchair user moving with considerable pace. My first instinct was to stop and check whether this was someone caught in the storm who might need assistance, but then at the last minute I recognised the individual in the chair. David Holding is a former wheelchair athlete probably best known for being a four-time winner of the London Marathon. He also won a gold medal at the Paralympic games as well as holding world records and winning many other events. On seeing David on the road I immediately recognised that he would have scorned any offers of assistance, as training in all weathers is exactly what all top athletes do, and why would he wish to be different from any other?

David Holding and his many achievements came to mind yesterday as I read an article from Monday’s Independent newspaper under the headline “Wheelchair basketball: How ‘reverse integration’ is overcoming the discrimination surrounding disabilities” written by Lesley Evans Ogden. In this brief article the writer reports how wheelchair basketball, once seen as a sport played solely by sportsmen and women with disabilities has become increasingly popular with able bodied athletes.

Evans Ogden suggests that the sport has changed many previous ill-conceived perceptions about both wheelchair users and the nature of sport. Here is competition played by athletes with a broad range of needs and abilities who play as equals in a game that requires immense skill and courage, but does not discriminate between individuals. Danielle Peers a former national wheelchair basketball player is quoted in the article as stating that this inclusive approach to sport could be perceived as a way to “do disability differently.” Peers, who does not have a disability recalls her own assumptions that as an able bodied athlete she would be able to compete alongside those who depended upon a wheelchair and soon excel at the sport. She now recognises that this was both arrogant and naïve and reports having been quickly taught a lesson about the competitiveness and skill of her new team mates.

Progress has clearly been made in both encouraging more people with disabilities to become involved in sport, and affording them the respect they deserve as athletes. Marni Abbott-Peter, a four-time Paralympic medal winner in basketball for Canada who now coaches the British Columbia team in Canada, sees many advantages in having a more inclusive approach to her sport. “Once we started having more able-bodied involvement, it brought a lot more ‘sport people’ to the sport,” she says.

This form of what has been termed “reverse integration,” in part aims to bring able bodied athletes closer to the world of those equally dedicated competitors who happen to have disabilities. I am sure that the understanding and appreciation gained by all who participate in such sporting activities is more focused upon the competition than it is upon disability.

A life to live long in the memory

 

 

Krishna Nath (1934 - 2015) activist, writer and scholar

Krishna Nath (1934 – 2015) activist, writer and scholar

 

I believe the first test of a truly great man is in his humility. (John Ruskin)

References to “great men” or “great thinkers” seem to be distributed quite liberally these days, and the attributes of greatness appear to have been diminished in an age of celebrity. Whilst I have been fortunate to meet many eminent scholars, writers and teachers during the course of my career, I have met very few to whom I might assign a title of greatness. However, I was greatly saddened during my recent visit to Bangalore to hear of the death of an individual who I first met in 2000 and was fortunate enough to spend time with on several subsequent occasions who certainly justified the much overused sobriquet “great man.”

Professor Krishna Nath, who was born in 1934 passed away a couple of weeks ago whilst staying with friends at the Valley School in Bangalore. Born into a family of freedom fighters who opposed British rule in India, Krishna Nath continued a heritage of dissent and protest throughout his life, often adopting the cause of Dalit and Tribal peoples who were oppressed and denied basic human rights. As a Satyagrahi he went to prison on thirteen occasions having taken non-violent action on behalf of people who had been subjected to demeaning actions by various authorities. By organising the occupation of Hindu temples by members of the disgracefully labelled “untouchable” castes, thus challenging the authority of a conservative and extreme leadership of that faith, he placed himself in direct opposition to powerful forces and paid the price with periods of incarceration. His actions attracted a number of critics and bitter opponents, but also won great respect from more liberally minded Indians and a wide range of politicians and intellectuals.

As a young man, Krishna Nath was politically active with the Samajwadi movement, campaigning on issues of social justice and equality, and deeply opposed to the dynastic politics of Congress and the inward looking approach of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Having seen the dawning of Indian independence in 1947, like many other idealists at the time, he quickly became disillusioned by the inability of successive Indian governments to provide greater stability and opportunity in the lives of the country’s poorer people.

It was not only for his work as a social activist that Krishna Nath was held in high esteem. Having spent much of his life studying the culture and traditions of the peoples of the Himalaya regions, he was regarded as one of the leading authorities in this area, and wrote a number of scholarly works that have informed an understanding of the region and its people. The World Buddhist Conference recently honoured him for his contribution towards Buddhist thought and culture. Sadly, very little of this work has been translated into English, though it is to be hoped that a suitable scholar might be found to undertake work that would be invaluable to those who would wish to understand more of the culture and history of this little known region. Perhaps the University of Varanasi, with which he was associated over many years may take on the responsibility of ensuring that his seminal work reaches a broader audience.

I was fortunate enough to engage in conversation with Krishna Nath on a few occasions when my visits to the verdant lands of the Valley School near Bangalore coincided with his. Listening to his profound thoughts on Gandhism, the state of Indian politics, the plight of Tibetan Buddhists and Buddhism, or on many aspects of Himalayan art, music or languages, one was soon aware of being in the presence of a true intellectual who had made an immense contribution to the life of his country. Amongst all of this, his apparent simplicity and humility stood out as a characteristic of a man who was more interested in his listener than in hearing his own voice.

Amongst all his intellectual prowess, there was a  very natural and often humorous side to Krishna Nath. I recall for example crossing a busy road in Bangalore with him on one occasion. By this time he was not terribly nimble on his feet and clearly did not enjoy the chaos of the traffic. Standing between hooting cars, lorries, motorcycles and auto rickshaws (not to mention an assortment of cattle) in the middle of the highway, Krishnaji turned to me and said:-

“Richard my friend, I always feel close to God when I am crossing the roads in Bangalore!”

I knew exactly what he meant and was grateful when we reached our destination in one piece.

On another occasion, leaving the dining hall at the Valley school, I was unable to locate my sandals that had been left outside the door prior to entry. Just as I was about to accuse the local monkey population of yet another theft, I heard Krishna Nath exclaiming that his feet had most certainly swollen as his sandals felt extremely tight! Gazing at his predicament I was soon able to solve the problem by locating his footwear and relieving him of my own.

I could have wished to have spent more time with a man who was a great scholar, and a tireless fighter of injustice and oppression. Listening to him speak I was acutely aware that every word he used was carefully measured and his statements weighed and considered before he proffered an opinion. His life was an example and an inspiration to all who came into contact with him. The Dalai Lama, and numerous Asian intellectuals considered Krishna Nath to be a friend and sound counsellor, and many have good cause to be thankful for his tireless campaigning on their behalf. The memories of the few occasions when I was able to sit and listen to him, are ones that I treasure, and I count myself fortunate to have known him.

Many of the recordings made of Krishna Nath Speaking are not available in English, despite the fact that he spoke the language fluently. This brief recording is one of the few to have English sub-titles and provides only limited insight into his great intellect

 

New beginnings

New students eager to lear

New students eager to learn

It seems hard to believe that yesterday we began teaching a fourth cohort of students on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme here in Bangalore. Twenty enthusiastic individuals gathered somewhat apprehensively at the Brindavan Education Trust in Jayanagar, all eager but understandably uncertain about the road ahead.

I never underestimate the tremendous sacrifices that many of our students make in order to study for a higher degree. In addition to making a financial commitment, they have to reorganise their home and working patterns in order to study, and often organise child care and make other arrangements to enable them to attend classes. In Bangalore this dedication to professional development is often intensified by the challenge of working, studying and writing in ways that may be considerably different from those experienced in an Indian context. I am full of admiration for the students who join us on this journey and look forward to working with this new group of twenty professionals. Today’s new students give us every reason to believe that they are going to be an excellent group and will progress steadily through the course.

DSC00104

As with any course of this nature it has taken many years to reach a point where we are confident of the sustainability of the work. Discussions about the possibilities of bringing a university accredited course to promote inclusive approaches to teaching and learning began as early as 2003, and it has required the determined endeavours of colleagues in Bangalore to succeed in this mission. The commitment of colleagues who have worked on course development, recruitment, the devising of curriculum content and the securing of India specific resources is a tribute to the vision that they have of creating a more just and inclusive society in India and beyond. Without their persistence, often against major obstacles, this exciting venture would never have been launched.

Last week we met with some of our students who graduated with their MA in Special and Inclusive Education in April. From the perspective of course tutors this was a reaffirming experience as they talked about the work they are doing now, and the ways in which they are applying learning from the course. Latha and Rekha talked passionately about their work in ensuring that the schools where they are principals adopt an inclusive approach, welcoming children with a wide range of needs and abilities. Champa described a new project in which she is engaged, working with street children and those who are homeless and rejected by their families. Four of our students, Pooja, Elsie, Sulata and Sumathi have developed their hunger for inquiry to the extent that they will be commencing studies towards a PhD with us over the next few weeks. Each of them is keen to pursue research that will make a difference to the lives of excluded or marginalised young people in India.

It is the stories told by our students that inspire us and encourage us to return and to find new ways of improving the MA course and challenging thinking about inclusive education. The memories of an informal discussion in the home of a friend in Jayanagar, and the subsequent efforts made by colleagues here in Bangalore to turn a dream into a reality are something to be valued. The professionalism of the tutors with whom I am fortunate to work on this programme will ensure that students continue to have a positive learning experience and that its future sustainability will be secured. I look forward with anticipation of another exciting day working with teachers and students today in Bangalore.

Hungry to learn but starved of opportunity.

Kerala - a State that Prides itself on the quality of its education

Kerala – a State that Prides itself on the quality of its education

In The hands of Gandhiji, the hunger strike was often a potent weapon, and one that he used  to highlight the injustices created by British officialdom during the Quit India campaign. In addition, he and many other satyagrahi deployed this very personal and potentially fatal tactic during times of community sectarian violence in order to bring parties to a greater sense of personal responsibility. Many have been the debates about this extreme tactic, and not all have endorsed the hunger strike as a legitimate means of protest. It was undoubtedly a powerful tool when deployed by Gandhi, in part because of the reverence with which he was held by much of the Indian population at the time. In the hands of others, including for instance the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in England, or Palestinians protesting the Israeli occupation of their lands, success has been at best limited. The ten nationalist hunger strikers who died in prison in Ireland in 1981 also had little impact on change  because they commanded the respect of only part of their community, and as a result of their real or perceived association with violence perpetrated during the “troubles” in Northern Ireland.

The difficult history of hunger strikes is one that I still find challenging in terms of understanding its legitimacy as a form of protest. It undoubtedly takes a passion and commitment on the part of the individual that is not to be found amongst the average protester, but at times it can also appear as a selfish act which impacts as much upon loved ones as it does upon those who are the intended focus of demands. Gandhi, who was a great man, and shrewd politician but not a saint, was only too well aware of the importance of his persona as a critical part of his protest.

It was then with some disquiet that I read an account in today’s Indian Express newspaper of a group of children who have commenced a hunger strike in Mamalakkandam, in the Ernakulam district of Kerala. These young people attend the government high school in their small remote town, the next nearest equivalent school being 30 kilometres away. Their school was upgraded to high school status only last year, an important move that should create better education and employment opportunities for young people from the local community. However, having proudly announced the opening of this important new establishment, the government have failed to provide any teaching staff to ensure  the promised education. Bricks and mortor alone cannot afford an education, but do provide useful photo opportunities for politicians.

With the support of parents groups and other locals, a group of students protested at the district educational offices at Kothamangalam earlier in the week, but it appears that their not unreasonable demands that their school requires teachers, fell on deaf ears. As a result of this lack of positive response, the student body have intensified their protests, and two students have taken the desperate measure of commencing a hunger strike in the hope that this may spur the authorities into action.

On reading the news report I found myself experiencing a very mixed set of reactions. I certainly feel the need to commend the students and parents of Mamalakkandam for demanding their rights to a quality education, thereby enhancing their future prospects and potentially the prosperity of the community. Kerala has long prided itself on being the most educationally advanced state of India, even boasting almost 100% literacy across the region, but it seems to me that situations such as this says much about the state of a nation that is being heralded for its speed of development and economic power. As in most parts of the world which lay claim to advanced “development” there is evidence that whilst some individuals benefit from increased wealth, others get pushed further towards the margins of society. If education has a role to play, which as a teacher I most certainly believe to be true, it must be supported at all levels and for the benefit of all people.

Whilst empathising with the students and wishing them every success with their protests and legitimate demands, I do however have a number of concerns. Acts of protest should never be undertaken lightly, and where they involved putting the health, and possibly even the lives of children at risk, we must become alarmed. The courage of the students, the desperation of the parents, and the demands of a community must surely be acknowledged and respected by anyone who claims to see education as a universal right. A failure to act on the part of government education officers could not only result in personal tragedy for the young hunger strikers and their families, but would also be an act of injustice perpetrated against a whole community, and would destroy the credibility of the State Government and the image of Kerala as a focus for educational excellence in India.

The outcomes of this situation could have implications well beyond Mamalakkandam. The response of education administrators will say much with regards to the way in which they perceive their responsibilities. Along with many others, I will be following this story with hopes of a happy outcome.