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

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Let’s value the freedom to respond.

 

Whilst it is relatively easy to stop an individual from speaking, it is far more difficult to stop them thinking.

Whilst it is relatively easy to stop an individual from speaking, it is far more difficult to stop them thinking.

“To become self-aware, people must be allowed to hear a plurality of opinions and then make up their own minds. They must be allowed to say, write and publish whatever they want. Freedom of expression is the most basic, but fundamental, right. Without it, human beings are reduced to automatons.”

MA Jian (Chinese author of Red Dust, and The Noodle Maker)

 

In writing a blog, one of the most interesting and at times amusing elements of the process is the unpredictability of the responses posted by readers. Posting a reply to any article makes a demand upon the thoughts and the time of the respondent, and such efforts should therefore always be treated with respect. Reading the responses can often be an educative process, with comments made that provide an interesting interpretation upon the issues raised in the original article, and ideas that expand or elaborate upon a focus of debate.

As might be expected, there are regular respondents who have engaged in this arms-length form of conversation, and have contributed useful and interesting ideas and experiences with other readers with whom they have never met, but feel able to share their thoughts. A specific example of this was the informative range of responses to Dancing together to the same inclusive tune posted on November 12th 2014. In this article I referred to a student in Bangalore exploring elements of dance for children with special educational needs, and the dearth of literature related to this subject. Within days, several respondents had posted information that they hoped would be of help, and as a result of this I know that the student concerned has gained useful knowledge, and has also had some personal contact and shared ideas with a dance teacher several thousands of miles from her home. It was in the hope of provoking an interchange such as this, and establishing connections between committed individuals that I began writing this blog.

Whilst there are regular respondents to these pages, it is always interesting to see a posted reply from someone previously unknown. When this happens I find myself wondering what it was that provoked them into writing about this specific topic or on this particular occasion. Did they stumble upon the article by chance, or do they read the blog regularly but have never previously felt the need to respond? Thus it is you see, that as the writer of a blog intended to promote dialogue, my own curiosity is aroused by those who reply.

There are, however, other readers who also give me cause for thought, and possibly even a little concern. From time to time I receive emails from individuals who have read an article and wish to comment but feel unable to do so in the  public domain of a blog. I was looking back over some of these mails a week or so ago and wondering about the sentiments and emotions that they express and the situations in which the correspondents live or work. These emails tend to fall into two categories, the first of which I intend to dismiss fairly quickly, and the second to which I will devote more space.

Category one consists of emails from individuals who have  taken exception to either the comments that I have made or my interpretation of the issues discussed. An example of this relates to the article Thank you for a letter of appreciation posted on July 16th 2014 in which I commented favourably upon the actions of Rachel Tomlinson the head teacher at a school in  Lancashire in the UK. This lady had written to all of her pupils thanking them for their hard work over the course of an academic year, and emphasising that she was proud of all of their personal achievements, even where their academic attainment may not have been outstanding. This head teacher’s actions had impressed me as an example of someone prepared to stand by her beliefs that education should be valued as a holistic process, rather than simply one of jumping through academic hoops. Clearly some readers disagreed, which of course they were perfectly entitled to do. However, rather than posting their responses on the blog they chose to send emails directly to me casting various aspersions upon my personage rather than commenting upon the ideas that I had presented. Fortunately this happens quite rarely and my response has always been to reply politely, suggesting that they share their opinions openly by posting a response in order that others may join in the debate. Strangely enough, they have thus far declined my invitation.

The second category of email correspondents differs considerably from the first. This comprises individuals who want to comment on an article, but feel unable to do so on what they regard to be a public platform that could leave them exposed. Typically they write to me to share a personal experience, often in the school in which they work, that exemplifies an issue that I have raised as an area of concern. For example in responding by email to You can’t hit the middle of the target every time (February 10th 2015) a teacher told me of her own anxieties about the ways in which the perceived failure of children in her school to achieve certain academic targets was being used to label them as “remedial pupils,” and that if they were not seen to make significant improvements they were being recommended for removal from the school. In her email to me this teacher commented:-

“I thought for a long time about whether I could put this reply on your blog, but in the end I decided that if someone recognised me and told the school principal it would lead to trouble. I just wanted to say what I feel, so sent you this mail because I didn’t feel I could put my ideas out there on the internet.”

Obviously, when I receive mails of this nature I send a reply assuring the sender that I will not post any identifying details on these pages. (I sent this posting to the lady quoted above and have her consent to use this passage on condition that her identity remains confidential).

The respondents who fall into this category of individuals keen to engage in debate but wary of doing so in a public arena, may well be justified in their apprehensions. Whilst I believe that education should play an important role in fostering democratic principles, and should aim to teach respect for a range of opinions and perspectives, I am aware that my views do not necessarily strike a chord with everyone. Sadly the ability to express an opinion with an assurance that this will be debated in a civil and courteous manner is not always possible. Indeed such a situation remains beyond the reach of many teachers and others even today, and may be seen as a significant impediment to the promotion of those democratic principles of education that many of us hold dear.

Education since before the days of Socrates has been a process of sharing ideas and gaining knowledge through discourse and dialogue. The opportunities that exist to enhance this exchange of ideas have greatly increased in this digital age. Those who wish to restrict the scope for learning that comes with such debate, are obviously fearful of the widening of the possibilities provided through democratic processes. Whilst some readers remain apprehensive in respect of posting their ideas, they are clearly engaged in the discussion of their thoughts in other less public ways.

To those of you who feel able to post responses on these pages, I say celebrate the freedom that education has afforded you. To those who feel more constrained, I hope you may find other ways of joining the debate with those of us who will respect your opinions. And to those who may still feel the need to take a more oppositional position, I hope that you too may gather the courage to share your opinions, in order that debate may take place upon a more democratic platform than that which you have currently chosen to endorse .

Let’s celebrate today, but not forget tomorrow.

In the mind of the public today, but what about tomorrow, next week, or next month?

In the mind of the public today, but what about tomorrow, next week, or next month?

It is always good to see the work of colleagues and students receiving affirmation and brought to the attention of the public. Today’s Metro Supplement from the Deccan herald carries an article reporting on the International Day of People with  Disability and the work of teachers in Bangalore (http://www.deccanherald.com/content/445176/confident-strides.html). At the head of the article is a picture of children, and in their midst the smiling face of my colleague Jayashree with whom I am fortunate to work whenever I am in the city.

The article celebrates the work of teachers, including those from the Brindavan Educational Trust where our MA programme is based, with a particular focus on the support they give to children with disabilities and special educational needs. The article celebrates the successes of young people and includes an example of a young man with Down’s syndrome, who following some initial difficulties in school now has a successful career working for a multi-national company.

The importance of the support provided to children who experience difficulties with learning, by well qualified professionals such as Jayashree, is emphasised throughout the article, and a very positive outlook on issues of disability is given.

Newspaper reports such as this can play an important role in bringing issues related to disability to public attention, and the support provided by journalists and others in the media is to be welcomed. However, I can’t help feeling that the very fact that we still perceive a need for an International Day of People with Disability tells us something about the long journey that still has to be travelled to achieve a more equitable society. I certainly do not wish to decry the tremendous efforts that are made by individuals and organisations, to bring the needs of children and others who have been marginalised, to the attention of the general public, many of whom remain ignorant of the challenges they have faced. The work undertaken by professionals and parents to raise awareness, has been critical in many of the advances made for children with special educational needs over the past century. I also believe that the media can play an important and responsible role in assisting moves towards achieving more inclusive communities. There have been many excellent campaigning journalists in recent years who have taken up cudgels against inequality and injustice.

Once the International Day of People with Disability passes, the difficulties that these individuals face in their everyday lives don’t go away. It is certainly good to see the commitment of individuals celebrated on this particular day, but it should be recognised that the efforts that they make will also be in evidence for the three hundred and sixty four days that are not in the public eye. I may be accused of being curmudgeonly, and certainly run the risk of antagonising some of my colleagues who have devoted much of their time to the organisation of these one day events. But Just as women in England no longer feel the need to throw themselves under the hooves of the King’s horse in order to demand the vote, and Indian politicians no longer spend time in prisons in order to gain national independence, I hope that a day will come when the rights of individuals with disabilities are fully recognised and those who support them can take a break from the efforts they make to obtain social justice.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has recognised the need to work towards a change in society for a time when:-

Persons with disabilities are not viewed as “objects” of charity, medical treatment and social protection; rather as “subjects” with rights, who are capable of claiming those rights and making decisions for their lives based on their free and informed consent as well as being active members of society.

How long, I wonder until this ambition is achieved?

 

To blog or not to blog? – that is the question

What to do next I wonder?

What to do next I wonder?

The idea of starting this blog was to promote some discussion and possibly debate around the ways in which we may create education systems that are accessible for all learners, value diversity and support the development of a more just society. These are grandiose objectives and I have to admit that when I was urged to begin this journey it was with more than a little scepticism. Many of my colleagues will tell you that technology and Richard don’t go together – he’d far rather have his nose in a book (it’s probably true!). The blog was not my idea, but one that was rather thrust upon me by well intentioned colleagues at the University of Northampton as a means of promoting some of the work in which I am involved, particularly in India. It would, they said, be interesting to share my thoughts with others.

Having come this far it is appropriate to attempt some kind of evaluation of whether the effort has been worthwhile. Should I continue or has the time come to abandon the experiment and move on? I suppose the only way to gauge if the blog has had any value is to consider the replies that have been posted in response to my daily ramblings. Have they really promoted the discussion that was sought and have the original intentions of encouraging dialogue been achieved?

Several individuals have posted kind words commenting on some of the postings. Never believe a writer who tells you that they don’t appreciate good reviews. I am no exception and it has been gratifying to receive a positive reaction to my efforts. However, far more interesting in terms of the original intentions have been the range of thoughtful and perceptive comments posted by visitors who have considered the ideas put forward and expanded upon these on the basis of personal or professional experience. It has been interesting to see the reactions to some of my postings from colleagues, some known to me personally, others with whom I have engaged only by reading their work over a number of years, and to have had the benefit of hearing their opinions. Equally stimulating have been the contributions from individuals with whom I have had no personal contact who have informed my learning through their comments based upon personal and professional experiences. If anyone has learned anything from this blog I am sure it is me.

Whilst the discipline of composing a daily piece for publication has been an interesting exercise that has made a few small demands upon my time, the opportunity to read what others have had to say about the subjects covered has brought many rewards. Not least has been an increase in my own understanding of the ways in which those who have posted have thought about the issues of inclusion, social justice and educational values.

A recent posting by Kanwal Singh in response to my piece “Empathy not blame – a critical component of change” typifies the contributions that I value as assisting me in my own understanding of issues discussed over recent weeks. Kanwal expresses the opinion that:-

“There are no outright experts in inclusive education today and very few who can serve as models. What we need to do is to enter schools, not as ‘experts’ but as ‘partners’ -who pool in their respective effective practices and ideas to reorganize and create an inclusive school”.

What Kanwal articulates here is exactly what I am sure others who have responded to this blog also feel. Her contribution to the discussion is important not only because of the opinion that he has expressed but also because of the questions he raises that need to be further debated (Thank you Kanwal, I will think about a more detailed response – watch this space, as they say). Her call for the development of partnerships for the sharing of effective practices echoes the comments made by others over the past month. If this blog can provide a forum for discussion of important questions such as these then the experiment that I began with scepticism may be one worth continuing.

So, let’s see what emerges over the next few weeks. Perhaps the debate will intensify and the learning opportunities increase. In the meantime, I am grateful to everyone who has offered an opinion or observation and look forward to hearing more from you, and from others as we proceed. Thanks to everyone who has posted for your participation,  and to those of you who have been reading, I hope you will feel able to join the discussion.

"OK, let's go on and see what happens"

“OK, let’s go on and see what happens”

Long road to justice

From the coast of Kerala to international recognition

From the coast of Kerala to international recognition

Sara and I recently went to the cinema to see the Nelson Mandela “bio-pic” Long Walk to Freedom. I first read the book of the same title when it was published in 1996 and found great inspiration from the account of Mandela’s life and more especially from his humanity. The film is very powerful with wonderful performances from all the cast, but in particular the two leading actors Idris Elba as Nelson and Naomie Harris as Winnie Mandela. The depiction of the violence inflicted on individuals because of the colour of their skin was harrowing, but the way in which Mandela and his associates managed to rise above this and maintain their dignity I found moving beyond words.

When I originally read the book upon which this film was based a particular passage stood out for me. I made a note of this and have often returned to it for the message it conveys about the empowering nature of education. Mandela states that:

“Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another”.

The ability of education to improve lives is something in which I believe implicitly. Throughout my career as a teacher I have seen individuals whose lives have been transformed by the opportunities that education has provided. One such example is a colleague now working as a tutor on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education Programme in Bangalore.

Johnson was born and grew up in a fishing village near Trivandrum in Kerala, one of the poorest communities in that state. Through his own endeavours and with the support of teachers in that community he succeeded in gaining an education through his school years and demonstrated his ability as an intelligent and effective learner. Following his schooling he went on to train as a teacher and work in schools, and a few years later took the initiative to find the MA programme at the University of Northampton. Arriving in England, largely naïve about western culture but eager to learn, he studied hard for a year to gain his MA degree in education. Teaching him was easy. He soaked up knowledge and questioned everything. Such was his enthusiasm and determination to learn that he was encouraged to enrol as a PhD student and I was fortunate enough to supervise him through to completion of his research and the award of the doctorate. The thesis that he wrote for his PhD has recently been published as a book, the cover of which appears at the head of this brief article.

After a period of post-doctoral work here in Northampton, Johnson returned to Kerala to work with the community from which he originally came, in order to support teachers and encourage more children to benefit from schooling. His own experiences serve as an example to children and their parents in the fishing villages who are beginning to understand that they too may progress to a more comfortable life if they engage with education. Johnson also now works alongside myself and other tutors as a valued colleague as we teach on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education in Bangalore. He can provide first hand insights into the experiences of excluded children in India in a way that I can never achieve.

I checked with Johnson to be sure that he is happy with what I have written about him here. He is rightly proud of his achievements and continues to make a significant contribution to his community and beyond.  But what I have written here is not simply penned to extol the personal virtues of a single student, but rather to illustrate the transformative power that an inclusive education can have. Many young people in Johnson’s community have been written off as unlikely to gain a great deal from formal schooling. Within his village school attendance is erratic and the resources available for supporting education are minimal. Yet with the right encouragement and the provision of opportunities Johnson has already reimbursed through his actions the faith placed in him by teachers.

It is unlikely that Johnson will ever become the president of a great nation – though I wouldn’t entirely rule this out. But as Mandela states “it is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another”. This is certainly true for Johnson.

Empowerment comes with the provision of opportunity. This in turn comes from the creation of an education system that espouses principles of inclusion and justice. There remains a long road to travel before freedom is achieved for all, and it will need many good teachers to ensure that those who are currently marginalised are able to even begin the journey.