“Are we there yet?” – Apparently not!

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I enjoy living in the relative peace and quiet of the countryside, and though I was born and lived all of my childhood and youth in cities, I now feel much more at home in more bucolic surroundings. However, whenever I am asked about how I would feel about returning to city life, I am quite confident in saying that I could settle down to this quite quickly, as long as the city was Dublin.

As a metropolis, Dublin offers all of the cultural delicacies of which I am so fond, art, music, museums and especially theatre, all confined within a city on a human scale and surrounded by mountains, sea and moorland. In other words it has much to hold one within the confines of the city boundaries, but with an easy escape route when in need of solitude or solace. Dublin and its environs has an additional attraction in being the home to a number of very good friends and colleagues.

Having been fortunate enough to work quite regularly in Ireland over the past twelve years and to have visited schools in most of its counties, I have always regarded this as a country that values education and celebrates the lives of children. The teachers I meet in Irish schools are invariably highly professional and committed practitioners with a clear focus upon providing an education system of the highest quality. It was therefore with some dismay that I finished reading this morning a report by the Children’s Rights Alliance, an organisation of around 100 organisations working for children and families. This document titled “Are We There Yet?” reports on the life experiences of children in Ireland today.

There are many positive facts within the report, and it is evident that the majority of Irish children have good experiences of care, nutrition and health, but it is the figures related to child poverty in present day Ireland that give particular cause for concern. It is reported that the incidence of child poverty in the country has almost doubled within a very short time during which the Irish economy was in recession. It is now estimated that one in every eight children in Ireland are recognised as being in poverty with 1,500 homeless children living in emergency accommodation. Equally stark is the revelation that Ireland has the highest rate of youth suicides amongst girls, and the second highest for boys within the European Union, a situation that cannot be helped by the fact that 3,000 children are currently on waiting lists for mental health care.

Early next year the Irish Government is required report to the United Nations on its current conformity with the requirements of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the report suggests that this may prove difficult.

“Are We There Yet?” makes for uncomfortable reading, and it is difficult to imagine how policy makers and politicians will react to this detailed report. Certainly, the austerity measures which were put into place in Ireland would appear to be one reason for this sudden decline in child welfare, and there may be a salutary lesson for other governments, including that here in the UK who have embarked upon a similar course of action. In times of financial difficulties it is invariably the poorest individuals who suffer most, and even in a traditionally caring country like Ireland it seems inevitable that those with the least are likely to have the worst experiences.

Is there any reason to be optimistic I wonder? What I do know is that those professionals who I have had the great pleasure to meet and get to know within the caring professions in Ireland have the professionalism to deliver a first rate service if they are given the necessary resources. Those teacher, health service executive professionals, and social workers with whom I have interacted over a number of years have already demonstrated that they know how to provide the quality care, education and counselling that is quite evidently needed to turn this situation around. The question must be whether there is the political will and know how to enable this to happen.

Ireland has a proud history of education and welfare and a record of valuing learning and encouraging independent thought. It is a country in which I have always felt privileged to be able to work alongside friends and colleagues who I value and respect. I know that they too will be concerned by the findings of “Are We There Yet?” and will already be considering how they can assist families and children to address this worrying situation.

End of an era, but a bright future ahead

ollege of Education. Not the prettiest of buildings, but for many years the centre of many achievements in inclusive education in Ireland.

Church of Ireland College of Education. Not the prettiest of buildings, but for many years the centre of considerable achievements in inclusive education in Ireland.

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”
                                                                                                              Seneca

My Professional association with the Republic of Ireland goes back over a lengthy period and has embraced teaching, research, examining and consultancy work. In Michael Shevlin, a good friend and colleague at Trinity College Dublin I have one of my closest collaborators with whom I have researched and written for more than the past ten years. During that time we have succeeded in securing funding for both small scale studies and the largest educational research project awarded in the country, and we look forward to continuing this professional partnership well into the future.

I am in Dublin today, in part to work with Michael, but also to perform a duty which, I know I will find interesting, but also tinged with a little sadness. Since 2003 I have had a fruitful and highly enjoyable relationship with colleagues at the Church of Ireland College of Education in Rathmines. My association with this long established teacher training institute began when I was appointed as an examiner of special education courses, and then developed in interesting directions as opportunities to conduct research with my colleague Ãine emerged, and later when I supervised the PhD of another tutor David. These and other colleagues at Church of Ireland College have made a significant contribution to the field of special and inclusive education in Ireland. In addition they have provided support to teachers and children in Africa through regular working visits and supply of resources.

Today the college will close, and a proud chapter of Irish educational history will reach its finale. Tutors from the college will move to another institution across the city where they will continue their good work alongside new colleagues and in a significantly different environment. A change of location will certainly not lessen their commitment and may even bring new opportunities and enthusiasm for the challenges ahead.

This evening I will deliver the final lecture at the old college. I am sure that this will be an emotional occasion, particularly for those who have been associated with Church of Ireland College of Education for most of their lives. I have no intention of giving a presentation of any profound significance, but will rather ensure that what I provide will be a celebration of all that is good within special and inclusive education in Ireland, and the tremendous contribution that college tutors have made to this.

I will leave the college tonight with many happy memories of working with excellent colleagues and students. I will recall the many visits made to schools with tutors to visit students putting into practice those skills that had been invested in them during their training. I will similarly remember the meetings to discuss student portfolios of work and to debate curriculum content with Mary, Eamonn, Ruby and other members of the team over coffee and biscuits in the staff common room. The friendly debriefing meetings with Sydney Blain, a true gentleman whose hand carefully manoeuvred the tiller of the college for many years, were always an education and a pleasure. Memories of developing research instruments and shared writing and conference presentations with Ãine, along with sitting in difficult meetings to feed back findings to reluctant policy makers and administrators, will undoubtedly re-emerge. Lengthy supervision meetings with David to debate his research approaches and discuss the findings from his excellent PhD study of the management of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties in Irish schools, added greatly to my understanding of these issues within both an Irish and international context.

There will inevitably be a valedictory air surrounding this evening’s events, but I hope that this will be tempered by a true atmosphere of celebration, and an opportunity for colleagues and students of an establishment held in great affection well beyond Dublin, to reflect on the many achievements of the past. I will also urge colleagues to look to the future and to seek new ways to ensure that their many talents and enthusiasms can continue to benefit the wider educational community.

This may seem like the end of an era, but it also signals the start of new and exciting opportunities.

It may not be a classic but…

A film that clearly has a devoted following

A film that clearly has a devoted following

 

I have been a daily reader of The Guardian Newspaper for at least the past thirty years, and have become familiar with many of its excellent feature writers and journalists. The Guardian covers topical news items in depth and often with a critical perspective, but sometimes an article attracts my attention more for the quirky nature of the story than the seriousness of the content. It was one such feature that held my interest this weekend.

Under the heading “Bollywood Romance that Keeps on Giving” Sharin Bhatti from Mumbai reported how, having been shown every day since its release in 1995, the management of a cinema in that city had decided to take the film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, (roughly translated as “The Brave-Hearted Will Take Away the Bride”) described as a Bollywood Classic, off its schedule. The film, starring the actors Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan apparently tells the story of an Indian couple who fall in love whilst on holiday in European, and recounts how the boy tries to convince the girl’s parents that she should marry him rather than the boy that her father has chosen for her. (I haven’t seen the film personally so can’t tell you more than this). The film is the longest running in the history of Indian cinema.

Almost immediately after removing the film from its schedule the cinema management found themselves with mass protests on their hands. The manager Mr Manoj Desai described how he was overwhelmed by the public outcry and felt that he had no option but to reinstate the film. The record is therefore likely to be extended well into the future.

The choice made by The Guardian to publish this article, may result from a lack of other more serious stories, though I like to think that news of this nature, is designed to raise a smile by reporting one of the more amusing incidents that whilst seemingly trivial in nature, clearly does matter to some people. My own decision to reflect on this article is influenced by a similar situation encountered whilst cycling through the magnificent countryside of Ireland a few years ago.

After several rather wet days in the saddle, pedaling through the rugged and weather beaten landscape of County Mayo and Connamara between Lough Mask and Lough Corrib, on the west coast, we arrived in a little town called Cong. Here we pitched our tent in the lee of a wall to gain some shelter from the impending storm. Having settled our place and secured our bicycles Sara and I made our way to the campsite office and were provided with the usual warm Irish welcome and furnished with information about the locality.

Cong, we were informed was famous for having been the location of a Hollywood movie, which has “put the area on the map.” The film described, directed by John Houston and called “The Quiet Man” starred the screen idol John Wayne, and Maureen O’Hara and was made in 1952. So proud of this film are the people of Cong, that throughout the summer season it is screened free of charge every evening in a small cinema located on the campsite.

The predicted storm arrived, and so it was that the evening saw us making our way to the cinema to watch this Technicolor epic. And so began one of the most bizarre evenings I can recall. Having settled down into our seats we observed that the audience comprised other members of the campsite community, alongside local people for whom this was a regular, and in some instances, nightly venture.

Throughout the film a lady sat next to us knitting a sweater, when the film was finished she informed us that she came to the cinema every evening, every summer. Two other ladies who sat near us, without a doubt had a similar record of attendance, as they knew every line of the film and managed to recite them from the opening until the final credits! Elsewhere, members of the audience unpacked sandwiches or opened picnic baskets and proceeded to share in their evening repast. In all honesty, the film is far from a masterpiece, telling the tale of a misogynistic Irish-born American from Pittsburgh, who travels to Ireland to reclaim his family farm and meets and falls in love with the fiery Mary Kate Danaher played by Maureen O’Hara. However, watching the audience served very well to keep us entertained and also provided welcome shelter from the lashing rain.

Since that visit to Cong, which has much more of interest than The Quiet Man to offer the visitor, we have often laughed as we have recalled that evening in the campsite cinema. Never before have we experienced an evening at a film that has done so much to bring a community together. This was a cinema going experience like no other. The film seemed almost peripheral to the social experience.

This weekend’s Guardian report of the emotions stirred by a Bollywood film gave me cause to recall that enjoyable visit to a beautiful town in Ireland. I would happily return and repeat the experience tomorrow.

A film that provides a social event for locals and visitors to Cong in the summer.

A film that provides a social event for locals and visitors to Cong in the summer.

Moving forward through a shared understanding

 

When teachers, parents, policy makers and researchers come together for a respectful sharing of ideas, the mutual learning opportunities can have benefits for all parties.

When teachers, parents, policy makers and researchers come together for a respectful sharing of ideas, the mutual learning opportunities can have benefits for all parties.

Those of us who spend part of our lives working as educational researchers sometimes decry the fact that much of the education policy implemented by national governments, has little or no foundation in evidence. Policy is at times developed purely on a political whim, and simply reflects the dogma of the current administration. Indeed it can even appear as if policy in my own country is implemented despite being contrary to the evidence provided by a significant corpus of research. The low status afforded to educational research, as opposed to that in many of the pure science disciplines, is often a source of frustration to both teachers and researchers, and is indicative of a lack of respect shown by politicians towards those working in the education professions. However, in recent years I have been pleased to find that there is a notable exception to this situation.

In the Republic of Ireland a significant emphasis is given to the development of evidence based practice in schools. The area of special and inclusive education in particular, is one that has benefited significantly from efforts to conducted investigations into the efficacy of teaching approaches, and the deployment of resources and specific initiatives in schools. The National Council for Special Education, a department which is funded and supported by the Irish national government, has commissioned and overseen a number of substantial research projects that have influenced both policy and practice at a national level.

These projects have included investigations into pedagogical practices to support the education of deaf children, research into the management of challenging behaviours and a longitudinal study of the provision made and learning outcomes for children across the country. The National Council for Special Education having tendered for these investigations have employed research teams from both within Ireland and further afield, and have demonstrated a commitment to improving school practice on the basis of the evidence provided.

The results of research are disseminated through well produced reports, written in language accessible to service users and providers, and through national conferences for teachers, school principals and parents. Because of this collegiate approach, a mutual respect has developed between schools, researchers and this commissioning government agency. Practices in schools have been changed and the excellent work of teachers and other professional colleagues has been endorsed and supported as a result of this approach.

Recently I had an opportunity to attend a conference for around three hundred professionals and parents at which some of the latest research commissioned by the National Council for Special Education, including a project in which I have been fortunate to be involved, was discussed. The importance of this way of working was emphasised by a guest speaker, Professor Samuel Odom from the University of North Carolina in the USA, who during an interesting presentation showed how bogus approaches to working with children on the autism spectrum have emerged as a result of strange doctrines that have no foundation in research evidence. As he advised, if we simply develop practice on the basis of a philosophy or the notions of a few individuals or politicians, without recourse to a rigorous investigation of the ethics, efficacy and impact of the approach, we may well end up doing more harm than good. Professor Odom made a strong case for ensuring that before significant changes are implemented in schools, these should be subjected to a thorough investigation using objective means to verify their likely impact.

The teamwork established between policy makers, researchers, school managers and teachers in Ireland provides a sound example of how a shared focus upon providing effective teaching and learning can be achieved. If only every government were able to demonstrate the same commitment to this systematic approach to understanding what works in schools, we might find that teachers and children were more assured in the excellent work that they do together in classrooms.

Celebrating with Pen and Palette

Sunset on the Hills. The cover of the book Pen and Palette painted by Aine Lawlor

Sunset on the Hills. The cover of the book Pen and Palette painted by Aine Lawlor

There is something special about being given the gift of a book. The written word is something I treasure for the access it provides to pleasure and information, and the challenges to thought that are often contained on the pages of books. Today in Dublin my good friend and colleague Michael Shevlin gave me a book that is a visual treat and full of words that provoke thought. The book, titled Pen and Palette contains a selection of poetry and paintings by students at the National Institute for Intellectual Disability (NIID) that is based at Trinity College Dublin.

NIID is committed to enabling young people with learning disabilities to fulfil their educational dreams and has developed a unique Certificate in Contemporary Living which provides support through taught sessions, careers advice, work placements and personal planning to enable individuals to gain in independence and receive recognition for their achievements. In 2008 the first 19 students to achieve the award graduated and since then around 90 further successful graduations have been recorded. The work of NIID has been recognised nationally and is beginning to gain international recognition for its innovative commitment to inclusion.

Pen and Palette is a beautifully produced book. Each page containing a poem written by a student with a learning disability is located opposite a piece of artwork produced by another student. Many of the poems reflect a degree of sadness in the lives of individuals who have been marginalised and have struggled to gain recognition because of their special educational need. Others reflect a joyous release as independence and confidence have been achieved. Reading through the poetry as I sat in the airport awaiting my flight home today, I was moved by their sentiments and the authority with which individual students have been enabled and encouraged to express their thoughts. Any one of the works could have been selected to represent the ideas expressed in the book, but I have chosen one written by John Power that I felt summed up a theme running through the text.

I hope that you too will enjoy this brief poem and may be moved to seek out the book for yourself.

Include Me

By John Power

To be part of a community

Means that I have loads of opportunities

I like to be valued and wanted

Not to be tormented and taunted

I like to help others out,

I don’t like when teenagers shout

Calling names and won’t let me be

Don’t discriminate against me

What goes around comes around you’ll see

You never know, one day you might need me.

 

John not only reports his own feelings but also I feel, issues a challenge to all of us to consider the implications of creating a society that fails to be inclusive.

Thank you John Power and all the poets and artists in Pen and Palette and to NIID and Trinity College for this joyful initiative.

Learning from close to home to the wider world.

 

 

The Titanic - not unsinkable as any Irish school child will tell you!

The Titanic – not unsinkable as any Irish school child will tell you!

I think it may be something to do with being first landfall across a wide Atlantic Ocean that has created an obsession with us inhabitants of these British Isles with the weather. At one time I thought this was a peculiarly English preoccupation, but this is not the case, the Irish use the weather as a precursor to conversation just as much as we ever do at home.

I am in Dublin where the locals have a description of the kind of weather I experienced this evening on my stroll from Trinity College to my regular berth at the St George Hotel. They describe this as soft. It is so soft that it bounces from the pavement and soaks my trousers to the knees. My umbrella releases a torrent that creates an effect akin to peering out from behind a tumbling waterfall, and the wind, funnelled along O’Connell Street is doing its best to turn me inside out. Apart from this it’s another fine day here in this beautiful city.

I appear to have an affinity with countries beginning with the letter “I”. My visits to Italy have always left me wanting more, my affection for India has been regularly expressed on this blog and if I had to live outside of my native land I think I would be very happy here in Ireland. Perhaps I should try Indonesia and Iceland, destinations as yet unexplored, but with an initial capital letter that encourages me to believe they would make me welcome.

Over the past ten years, as a regular visitor to Ireland I have visited every county and in my estimation at least forty schools, and have always been overwhelmed by the fabled Irish hospitality. Whilst every nation is subject to its stereotypes, the legendary warmth of the Irish welcome, far from being a myth is something I experience wherever I go here. Another image of Ireland is that of a land of celebrated poets and scholars fostered by a nation that values education and nurtures talent. Here again my experience of the Irish education system tends to reinforce this picture and I find teachers who value their national culture and celebrate the creative achievements of their native sons and daughters in their teaching.

Perhaps the pride that is taken in their national heroes may be attributed to life on a relatively isolated island with a small population, but it does seem to me that the Irish have much to celebrate in their creative genius. Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Edna O’Brian, Jack Yeats, Francis Bacon, Seamus Heaney, Brendan Behan, Susanna Drury, John Field, Brian Friel – the list goes on, and Ireland appears to have given the world a collective intelligentsia disproportionate to its size. Or maybe there is another reason why this may appear so. Whenever I visit schools here in Ireland, I  gain an impression of the great standing that Irish writers, artists, musicians and thinkers hold within these establishments. Children appear knowledgeable about the men and women who have created their independent nation with detail that I seldom find elsewhere. I suspect that the struggle that this nation had to assert its independence, has had a significant influence upon this situation, and that this assists greatly in the process of instilling a national identity.

There is always a danger of course, that this focus upon national identity could lead to a narrow perspective of the world beyond. But here in Dublin at least, this is evidently far from the case. A glimpse at the local newspaper shows that this week alone I could enjoy the work of the American playwright Arthur Millar with a performance of The Price at The Gate Theatre, the music of Berlioz and Tchaikovsky at the National Concert Hall, a screening of a film about the life and work of the artist Bernini at the National Gallery, or an exhibition by the German photographer Kathrin Baumbach at the Copper House Gallery. The opportunities for learning are considerable and the recognition of international creativity significant.

It seems to me that to imbue our children with an appreciation of their cultural heritage is a critical responsibility of schools. To then expand on this and to provide them with an opportunity to look outwards to the wider world is an obligation, if we wish them to have an appreciation of what other cultures can bring to our understanding and develop a respect for others. Here in Ireland this appears to be a healthy approach. Let’s hope it is maintained and that others may learn from this example.

A gift to aid our understanding

Hashim. Khan Dawran in a White and Gold Jama and Turban, Leaning on a Staff, ca. 1650, Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.

Hashim. Khan Dawran in a White and Gold Jama and Turban, Leaning on a Staff, ca. 1650, Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.

In Ireland they describe this weather as “soft”, their Celtic neighbours the Scots call it “dreich”. Whichever way you look at it, the rain is pouring down and the wind is howling. This is Dublin on a wet Wednesday. I pull the collar of my overcoat up around my neck and push on head down into an icy blast. An umbrella would be a liability today as O’Connell street has become a funnel for the wind whistling up from the Liffey.

Dublin and more specifically Trinity College has provided a base for a longitudinal research study that I have been conducting with Irish colleagues into special educational needs provision throughout the country. I have made many friends here and have visited schools in virtually every one of the twenty two counties. I have seen teachers working in both the English and Irish tongue in the coastal cities of Cork and Limerick and in the moorland villages in counties Donegal and Mayo.

So it is that for the past four years I have been a regular visitor to Ireland’s capital city and have a great affection for its people and culture. Dublin is a beautiful city, small enough to explore on foot, close to mountains and the sea and furnished with some of the finest Georgian architecture. A great centre for the arts, where the names Swift, Joyce, Beckett, Yeats, Bacon and Orpen have passed into legend and continue to attract tourists and students by the score. The Old library at Trinity College stands as a symbol of the city’s long time treasured commitment to learning, and the twin statues of Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke stand sentinel at the entrance to the college casting a contemptuous glance at those of us would be scholars passing through the portals to the inner sanctum of learning within.

Whilst Trinity undoubtedly provides a great seat of learning it is to another part of the city that I often direct first time visitors to Dublin. Whenever I have a brief period of leisure in the city I head for the Chester Beatty Library, an archive of the most splendid and beautifully displayed manuscripts and artefacts. The library, though it is far more accurately described as a museum of international importance, is founded upon a collection donated to the city by Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, a mining engineer born in New York who was an avid collector of illustrated manuscripts, beautiful calligraphy and other richly decorated materials from across Asia. Much of his considerable wealth was directed to the conservation of artefacts and especially ancient texts which are now lovingly displayed in the eighteenth century Clock Tower Building adjacent to Dublin Castle.

The library has won national and international awards both for the quality of its displays and for its important work in conservation. I never tire of visiting its galleries and gazing in awe at the magnificent collections which are freely on view to the public.

What Chester Beatty has bequeathed to the world is a great insight into the lives of peoples from around the globe. Here for all to see is a wonderful celebration of all the world’s major religions, a cornucopia of arts, crafts and design from the cultures of every continent. Each section of the library draws to the attention of the discerning viewer the skills, knowledge and passions of people from the most populous cities to the remote regions of deserts and mountains. The message clearly articulated within this collection is one of creativity and ingenuity. Beatty built his collection upon respect for the creative genius he saw in the inhabitants of every land and leaves us in awe at the mastery of craftsmen from all walks of life. This is a true celebration of the differences that exist across cultures and of the opportunities that these differences provide for learning from one another. Anyone who visits with an open mind and a thirst for learning has an opportunity to gain insights and new understanding of the importance of diversity and the true meaning of a shared learning.

Many of the artefacts on display were in all probability produced by craftsmen and women whose formal learning may have been limited. I always come away from visits to this collection renewed in my belief that I have much to learn from people whose cultural, religious and philosophical heritage is very different from my own.

Trinity College Dublin

Trinity College Dublin

Some of the wonderful artefacts on display at the Chester Beatty Library can be seen at http://www.cbl.ie/