Time to pedal away for a while.

“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race”.                 H.G. Wells

Slow travel - the best way to wind down!

Slow travel – the best way to wind down!

It’s almost that time of year again. Time to pack panniers and tent, load our bicycles and pedal away for a few weeks in France. Everyone needs time to recharge their batteries, and we are hoping that the hills, coast and valleys of Brittany will provide peace and quiet, beautiful landscape and chance meetings with interesting people. This has been our experience of riding across various parts of Europe over the past thirty years.

Cycle touring for us began when our two sons were quite young and wanted to experience travel overseas. Our budget was limited, and to that point holidays had been spent walking the hills of Wales and Scotland. Travel by bicycle enabled us to venture further afield, taking the ferry initially to Denmark and in subsequent years to France, Holland and Ireland and once even on a budget flight to Portugal. Sara and I have since visited several other European countries under our own pedal power and have explored many interesting places and met numerous interesting people.

For our sons, the initial trips were both an adventure and a great learning opportunity. Not only were they able to visit a number of interesting historical sites or areas of outstanding natural beauty, they also learned to experiment with languages. I recall Toby for instance, gaining the confidence to enter a bakery and order Danish pastries in the local language. As is almost invariably the case, the local shopkeeper appreciated his efforts and was patient with what I am sure was less than perfect pronunciation.

It has been our experience that the best travel is always taken slowly, by foot, by boat, or best of all by cycle. So, as we prepare for our departure for the quiet lanes of Brittany, I will close this blog until we return. We look forward to negotiating a few of the lanes recently traversed by the hardened athletes of the Tour de France, and whilst celebrating a great British win by Chris Froome, we feel sure that we will appreciate the view at our rather sedate pace much more than he had time to do.

Back before to long!




Not waving but drowning?

All at sea - becalmed or awiting a storm?

All at sea – becalmed or awaiting a storm?

 Definitions of coasting:

To slide down an incline through the effect of gravity.

To move without use of propelling power.

To act or move aimlessly or with little effort.
New terms appear within the education lexicon quite frequently. They soon enter into common parlance and are distributed liberally through the media, in meetings or at the school gate. Sometimes the new word or expression, after a period of short term fostering enters into the adoptive language of the education profession, but others are rejected or simply go out of fashion.

The latest term that has tripped indelicately from the lips of the UK Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, and has grabbed the attention of the media is “coasting.” This morning on the radio, I listened to Mrs Morgan being interviewed about this term and reached the conclusion that, articulate as she undoubtedly is, the process of adequately defining “coasting,” as used in an educational context, remains a work in progress. I do of course appreciate that obfuscation is an essential part of any politician’s armour, and understand that a person who holds such a post of responsibility as that in the possession of Nicky Morgan, needs to err on the side of caution. However, a discussion with two other colleagues who I met on arrival at the university this morning, confirmed that I was not the only one left wondering about the lack of clarity applied to this latest fashionable term. This morning’s radio interview was far from enlightening.

From what we could glean from an admittedly brief radio interview, it would appear that over the next couple of years, school inspectors will be asked to identify those schools that may be judged to be successful, but are seen to have taken their foot off the accelerator and have begun to ‘coast’ with little perceived purpose. Such schools will presumably be told to hoist sail, unfurl the spinnaker and seek more favourable winds. Though when asked about the consequences of being found ‘coasting’, the admiral of the educational fleet appeared less than certain. Asked what actions might be taken to encourage such schools to stop “coasting,” she appeared to flounder, and sounded almost surprised by the question.

The Oxford English dictionary certainly appears to indicate that “coasting” is a nautical term. Therefore, somewhat perplexed by this situation I sought the advice of a colleague who I know to be an enthusiastic and accomplished sailor. I must emphasise that he is not involved in education in schools, and indeed had not heard this morning’s interview. However, he was able to inform me that in his vocabulary, coasting is sometimes an essential part of the sailor’s strategy. From time to time he tells me, it is necessary to ease back a little and to take stock of the progress made. Such a period then enables the skipper of a vessel to make choices about the correct setting of sails and to check the direction of travel. For this seasoned adventurer, who has twice crossed the Atlantic in a ridiculously small boat (by my limited reckoning) unscathed, coasting is seen as an essential process and a positive action.

I can imagine that there are many head teachers, who having successfully steered their school through choppy educational waters, achieved good academic and social outcomes and gained the respect of their local community, must relish the idea that they can ‘coast’ for a brief time as they asses their current position and make plans for the immediate future. In the words of my sailor colleague, a failure to take this kind of action sometimes results in the ship running aground.

As ever, I will be interested to see the new advice given to inspectors of schools, and the ways in which this is interpreted over the coming months. It will be equally educative to see the consequences faced by any schools that are deemed to be “coasting”. Might we witness use of the cat o’ nine tails? Will school governors be keel hauled? Might head teachers be forced to walk the plank? Possibly not, though I suspect that someone is dreaming of an appropriate admonition for mutinous teachers even as we speak.

In the meantime, when next out on my bicycle rather than occasionally freewheeling down the hills, I will try to increase my cadence, just in case there is a Morganite lurking in the bushes!


Captain Morgan, notorious 17th-century Welsh pirate and privateer, scourge of the Caribbean


Nothing lost, and much gained in translation

Marcelos on the left enabling  Niall to make himself undertood to our Portuguese colleagues

Marcelos on the left enabling Niall to make himself undertood to our Portuguese colleagues

As a watery light began to announce this morning’s dawn, I made my way along the straight road that leads towards the centre of São Carlos. My destination was the Catedral de São Carlos Borromeu, with its canary yellow dome, said to have been modelled on that of St Peter’s in Rome, though of course on a much smaller scale.

Despite leaden skies and a morning not yet fully formed, it would be impossible not to be impressed by the modern stained glass windows that are the most striking feature of this building. Beneath the dome a blue and yellow encirclement of abstract glass softens the rather austere white walls. But most surprising is the movement captured in larger windows that depict street scenes, with representations of men and women apparently walking across the glass. A further panel reveals a fisherman casting his hopeful nets all created in a vivid blue.

In medieval days of course, the stained glass windows served an important function of displaying biblical stories to a largely illiterate congregation. These wonderful works of art would remind viewers of their duty, their Christian heritage and their mortality. The need for interpretation to those who had limited skills in reading, was clear at this time, and there are parallels with experiences at our workshop for early career researchers today.

When researchers from two different countries and cultures come together there are always likely to be challenges, and amongst the greatest of these is that of language. Fortunately, just as in previous times the Christian masses had the assistance of stained glass, over the past three days we have had an excellent interpreter. Marcelos has demonstrated consummate professionalism in acting as a bridge between those colleagues whose only language is Portuguese, and others who have only English. His patience and good humour has enabled our work to flow freely and has ensured understanding and a sharing of ideas.

Language was no barrier to enthusiastic researchers

Language was no barrier to enthusiastic researchers

The dissemination of knowledge is an essential part of the educational research process and today we had fine examples of how researchers have shared their investigations with different groups. David Preece placed an emphasis upon effective communication with the families of children on the autism spectrum, whilst Aila Narene Dahwache Criado Rocha demonstrated principles of communication between health workers and educators. Niall Devlin fascinated the audience with his analysis of how educational psychologists relate to children, and Marli Vizim described the importance of respectful work with people living in some of the poorer communities of São Paolo State.

Each of these presenters demonstrated an important feature of good educational research, that of ensuring that children teachers and families are not simply the subject of our investigations, but are accepted as partners at each stage of the process. This was a theme evident throughout the day, as participants in this workshop made ambitious plans for further work over the coming months and years. Although these researchers are at an early stage of their careers, it is already evident that they have a determination to conduct investigations that will be of benefit to others and move the inclusion agenda forward.

A coming together of colleagues in São Carlos has proven to be a great success. In the initial stages there was apparent nervousness, apprehension about the route ahead and the challenges of working in two languages. But just as the cathedral stained glass windows gradually increased the intensity of the light within the building this morning, so have the last few days seen an increase in confidence and an awakening of ideas.

I am sure that several working relationships and a number of long term friendships will have been established during three days of working together in São Carlos. I am equally confident that educational research aimed at improving the lives of children and families is safe in the hands of these early career researchers with whom I have been privileged to work this week.

Many thanks to all for your hard work and collaboration during this brief visit.

São Carlos cathedral on a wet early morning

São Carlos cathedral on a wet early morning






In taking offence it is perhaps not a good idea to adopt the behaviours of the offender


Ill-chosen words easily provoke a reaction. Sadly this is often give in equally ill-chosen terms

Ill-chosen words easily provoke a reaction. Sadly this is often give in equally ill-chosen terms

I’m quite sure that over the years we have all said things that we have later come to regret. It does seem that sometimes words come out of our mouths before our brains have processed the stupidity of what we are saying. This most certainly appears to have been the case with Goa’s Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar at the ‘We Care Film Festival’ on disability issues held in Panaji, Goa this week.

It could be argued that politicians who are in positions of public responsibility, and are therefore called upon to make speeches with some frequency, should be well versed in the art of diplomatic expression, but it is evident that on this occasion Mr Parsekar got things horribly wrong. He is certainly now paying the price, having been negatively featured in articles in the Times of India (January 21st) the Herald in Goa (22nd January) and the Hindustan Times (same date) to name but a few newspapers.

The offending words of this hapless gentleman, spoken at a festival in which the lives and accomplishments of people with disabilities were being celebrated were as follows:-

“There are some brothers and sisters in the society, who are born with certain disabilities. God forgets to give them certain things. That is negligence on the part of God and for that the child has to suffer for his entire life.”

It has long been understood that if you wish to avoid controversy in speech making, amongst the subjects you avoid are personal identities and religion. When I say long understood, I think this applies to the majority of us who are from time to time asked to speak in public, though the adage unfortunately appears to have eluded Mr Parsekar. Hopefully he is now much wiser after the event, but sadly the damage has been done.

Understandably, the film festival organisers, the well-respected Disability Rights Association of Goa (DRAG) were swift to condemn the Chief Minister’s comments, and I am sure that they now regret having tendered to him an invitation to this event. I am quite certain that he will not be high on their invitation list in the future.

The Chief Minister’s words were not only crass, but also showed a complete lack of understanding of the lives of disabled people and their families. Whether you are of any organised faith or none, the pre-scientific nonsense of his statement is similar to those latter day assumptions that disabled people were cursed, inflicted with a sign of punishment or possessed of demons that were common in the dark ages, and should have been confined to the history books many years ago. Mr Parsekar has clearly failed to recognise that disability is just one factor that contributes to human diversity, and as such should be respected in the same way that we should appreciate people from other historically marginalised groups. Having read reports of his speech, I am sure that Mr Parsekar will now be stating that he was misinterpreted in what he said, but he certainly miscalculated badly, and has understandably caused a level of offence that I suspect will have seriously damaged his political career.

There is another aspect of this situation caused by Mr Parsekar’s ignorance and misinterpretation that I personally find similarly disturbing. Just as the Chief Minister’s behaviour should be viewed as unacceptable, I also found some of the responses to his words equally obnoxious. On the Times of India website, an opportunity provided for readers to comment on his speech has certainly attracted a great deal of vitriol. Like many of these commentators, I would wish to wholly condemn the statement made by Mr Parsekar, unlike some of them, I see no value in doing this in equally offensive language. I’m sure that many of the comments made in the heat of the moment were as poorly considered as the Chief Minister’s own words. Ironically, many of those who condemn him as being discriminatory towards people with disabilities choose to describe him in terms which if used in relation to those they believe they are defending, would cause both hurt and offence.

Not all of the comments posted fall into this category, some, particularly those from individuals with personal stories of the impact of disabilities to report, provide insights into a much more real world, and in so doing make appropriate observations. These include responses from people with disabilities, an example of which is a posting that explains clearly the discrimination experienced by many individuals and concludes by saying:

“I am happy to find many right thinking people coming out strongly against this obnoxious remark. My request to all my countrymen to treat us as equals, we are human beings and have right to be treated so”.

The person making this comment, whilst clearly deeply hurt by the Chief Minister’s comments, managed to frame his response by putting forward a series of reasoned remarks without recourse to abusive language.

Reasoned debate around the lives of people with disabilities is important, but only if it directly involves these individuals in the discourse. Proponents in the debate need to moderate their language and ensure that they argue from a well-informed standpoint. It is certainly evident that in this sad affair, neither Mr Parsekar, nor some of those who have commented on his unacceptable words have chosen to take a path of moderation or sufficiently informed themselves to make a valid contribution.



Tell me, have you reached your full potential yet?


I wonder if this wayward school boy ever reached his "full potential?"

I wonder if this wayward school boy ever reached his “full potential?”

I have just been struck a dreadful blow – it is just possible that I may have reached my full potential! On the other hand, there is a vague possibility that I may yet have untapped resources, that will enable me to achieve greater things in life.

Of course, I don’t actually regard either of the statements made above as having any currency. Both are completely meaningless and speculative, but they are used here to illustrate the vacuous nature of an expression that I have heard throughout my career in education, the use of which can serve either to limit or create putative expectations of children.

I recall when I was appointed as headteacher of a school in the 1980s being informed that my principle task was to ensure that every child reached his or her full potential. A few weeks ago I heard the chief inspector of schools for England commenting that too many secondary schools are failing to enable children to attain their potential, and this weekend, a report in the Independent newspaper informs me that mainstream schools are failing to enable children with special educational needs to reach their full potential. This last observation is based upon a report recently published by Mencap, a national charity supporting children with learning disabilities and their families. I will return to this in a while, but firstly let me ask you a few questions.

Do you personally feel that you have achieved everything that may have been possible in your life? Have you reached your full potential or fallen short of this? Might it be that you are still striving to reach this ultimate goal? More importantly, no matter what answer you may have given to these questions, I wonder how you came to this conclusion? Who decided what your potential might be? Has that which was regarded as your potential been exceeded, or inhibited through the expectations of others? Perhaps the most contentious question of all (if you work as a teacher) might be, how well equipped are you to judge the potential of others?

The history of education has not always reached the highest of standards in the art of prediction, as excerpts from a number of school reports reveal:-

“She writes indifferently and knows nothing of grammar”, wrote one of Charlotte Bronte’s teachers who clearly could not have anticipated the success of the novel Jane Eyre a few years later.

Equally wide of the mark was the observation made in 1895 that “He will never amount to anything.” A comment that must surely have been a later source of some embarrassment, to the teacher who uttered these words in respect of a young Albert Einstein.

It is, of course, easy to mock those who have made such wayward comments or made predictions that have proven false with time, but there may equally be an important message here to which we should take heed. I am sure that not all students possess the determination and tenacity of Charlotte Bronte or Albert Einstein, and that for some, the setting of a low benchmark may have an inhibiting effect upon the progress that they could make.

Returning to the Mencap report based upon a survey of 1,000 parents of children with learning disabilities who attend mainstream schools, I find that it contains much useful information which deserves careful consideration. In particular, it is apparent that many parents feel that teachers within mainstream schools are inadequately trained to address the needs of pupils with complex needs. Some of these parents express their frustrations with a system that has low expectations of their children and provide limited opportunities for them to interact with their peers. Examples of children who spend most of their time with a teaching assistant, working on separate tasks to those set for the rest of the class are provided. Is this inclusion would seem to be a legitimate question to ask.

I feel fairly confident in stating that low expectations have hindered learning for children with disabilities and special educational needs for as long as there have been schools. However, I still have some reservations with regards to the language that is used in debating this situation. The article in the Independent newspapers reports that Jan Tregelles, Mencap’s chief executive stated:-

“Parents feel the education service is woefully ill prepared to properly support children and young people with a learning disability to reach their full potential,”

It is that term “full potential” which, having read this far into these ramblings you will have appreciated is giving me cause for concern. I am wholly in accord with the suggestion that we need to raise expectations and to provide the kinds of resources and training that may enable all pupils to succeed in schools. I am however concerned that in using this term “full potential” we are instilling in teachers a belief that we can set targets for children, which if achieved will enable us to feel content in both their and our accomplishments. Is there, I wonder complacency here, based upon a spurious notion that we can determine what an individual should achieve, according to their age or ability? How does this differ from the now discredited belief that we can set our expectations of the potential achievements of pupils on the basis of their gender, ethnicity or social class?

Like Jan Tregelles, who has given an immense commitment to improving the educational opportunities for children with learning disabilities, I have concerns that many schools are not addressing the needs of all their pupils. Unlike the authors of the Mencap report, I feel that there are significant dangers from teachers or policy makers who believe that they have the ability or right to determine the potential of others.

I have no doubts that some who read this article will say that this is simply a matter of semantics. However, I would contend that the language we use about children can be powerful. We are well aware of the negative influence that placing a label on a child, such as “learning disability”, “dyslexia” or “autism” may have on the achievements of the individual. Might it not be equally dangerous to believe that we have the right or the ability to sit in Judgement on the potential of a child?


The English Language, virtue or tyranny?


he Tower of Babel, as depicted by the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1529 - 1565). Biblical tradition has this as the source of the World's languages.

The Tower of Babel, as depicted by the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1529 – 1565). Biblical tradition has this as the source of the World’s languages.

Proficiency in understanding and using language is one of the keys to learning. Anyone who has ever spent much time in a country where they are lacking the basic skills of communication in the local language, will have realised that they are in a position of significant disadvantage. It is therefore understandable that issues surrounding the medium of instruction and the languages to be taught in schools should be a regular focus of debate. For much of the time contentions around the teaching of languages simmers beneath the surface of educational disputation, but occasionally it boils over into an effervescent tumult of dissension.

In India a current altercation that is keeping both policy makers and teachers exercised is being built around which languages should receive a place of prominence in the curriculum. A number of establishments formerly known as ‘central schools’, but which today are referred to as ‘Kendriya Vidyalaya schools,’ were originally founded to educate children of Indian Defence Services personnel families. A recent directive from the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) to remove the teaching of German from these schools and to replace this with instruction in Sanskrit has met with considerable opposition. The documentation presented by CBSE lacks transparency, but it would appear that at least one motivation for this action is to instil a greater appreciation of Indian culture in the pupils attending these schools.

Sanskrit is an important foundation language which has provided much of the vocabulary and grammar to be found in Indo-Aryan, Munda and Dravidian languages and therefore a great influence upon many of those spoken in modern India; (it also has, to my untutored eye, a most elegant written script संस्कृतम्). As with other ‘root languages,’ such as Latin or Ancient Greek in Europe, it is important that an understanding of these sources, and their influence upon our learning and culture is maintained. However, the current debate in India is not so much about the importance of etymology, but rather one of the utility of languages as taught in today’s schools. The replacement of a modern language, in this instance German, with one that is seen largely as being archaic, has raised more than a few eyebrows.

For most of us viewing this debate from the outside, there is a tendency to see this as little more than the proverbial ‘storm in a teacup’, yet beneath the surface there are significant issues that should perhaps demand our attention. The relationship between language and identify is an important one as has been demonstrated in many parts of the world. As an example of this, I need not look far from home. In Wales in the first half of the twentieth century, the Welsh language was taught only in a few regions of the principality, but national pride and a resurgence in seeking to understand cultural heritage resulted in a policy that has led to all schools in the country now teaching the language and a re-emergence of its domination in several parts of the country. For many Welshman this has become a source of national pride, and anyone attending a Wales versus England rugby match will attest to the conviction of Welsh speakers in this regard. As a regular visitor to the Republic of Ireland, I seldom hear the Irish language spoken, though it remains a requirement that all primary school teachers can demonstrate proficiency in the language, and it is a core feature of the school curriculum. This is a prime example of defending ‘national culture’,  with very few people anticipating that Irish will replace English as the lingua franca of the nation.  Sadly, other languages of the British Isles, such as Kernowek, once commonly spoken in Cornwall remain obscure and largely unknown even to the residents of the areas in which they may once have flourished.

There are however, important matters here that rightly exercise the minds of educators. Two in particular have come to mind whilst following the Sanskrit or German debate. The first may be seen as the Anglicisation of the modern world. Today we witness a situation whereby the English language has come to dominate the worlds of business, academia and modern media. I am always conscious that as a native English speaker with a relatively good command of the language, I am at an advantage in many situations. I notice this particularly when working with professional colleagues, who are undoubtedly intellectually adept and highly educated, but may struggle to work as effectively as they would wish in English, when it is their second, third, or even fourth language. As English speakers we make few concessions to those who we expect to learn our mother tongue, and seldom make the effort to meet them half way. This situation has resulted in a significant part of the world’s population being at least placed at a disadvantage, and in some instances excluded from major activities that many of us take for granted.

A second concern must be for those children and teachers working in communities where English is rarely spoken and who learn for the most part in their local language. It has become evident that the availability of high quality teaching resources in these languages is often limited. There are far greater profits to be made through the production of teaching materials in English than in a language such as, for example, Telugu in India or Xhosa in South Africa. Language has become a vehicle for social mobility, or conversely for the limiting of opportunity. Just as in terms of material comfort the gap between those who are wealthy and those who are poor can be seen to be increasing, so is the disparity between the Anglophones and those who depend upon local language becoming a tool of oppression.

I can, of course understand why in India, as in other parts of the world, parents strive to secure places for their children in English media schools. As a parent myself, I am aware of the immense linguistic advantage that my children and grandchildren have being brought up in England. But I am also saddened by the fact that local languages, so often rich in history and literature, are in some instances being devalued. The choices being made by education policy makers are important, and I can see the tensions that exist in making decisions that affect the lives of so many learners. I suspect that the demand for German language (if ever this existed in the first place) in India is likely to decline. But it would be reassuring to think that greater educational value could be given to those beautiful languages such as Kannada, Tamil or Marathi that are still used by majorities in Indian states.

I will possibly return to this issue, but leave you today with this thought. If a child could learn to speak English, Chinese, Arabic and Spanish, he would be able to communicate efficiently with more than fifty percent of the world’s population.