Remember the Children of Peshawar

Peshawar, a historic city with many beautiful landmarks, including this, the Sunehri Mosque. Sadly it is today associated with far more negative feelings.

Peshawar, a historic city with many beautiful landmarks, including this, the Sunehri Mosque. Sadly it is today associated with far more negative feelings.

Children often demonstrate the most stubborn resilience. Thank goodness they do.

Driving to work this morning I was reminded by an item which I heard on my car radio, that it is the anniversary of the dreadful massacre of innocents that occurred at the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan on December 16th last year. Writing about the atrocity on this blog at that time, I described the perpetrators of this mass murder of 122 children and 22 teachers as thugs, and suggested that one of their motivations for this evil deed was their fear that education will ultimately produce an increased number of people who are prepared to condemn their particular brand of bigotry, and stand against their violence and hatred. I have had no reason in the intervening year to change my mind on this matter.

A visit to the website of Dawn, the Pakistan, English Language national newspaper, confirmed what I had expected. A significant amount of space in today’s edition has been devoted to remembering this cowardly act, but even more column inches are given over to a celebration of the courage with which children and their parents have rebuilt a school community and reaffirmed their right to education. Several articles in today’s newspaper consider the current state of Pakistan and its efforts to address security issues and the fear of terrorism, but at the centre of many of the arguments is a reflection on the impact of this specific tragic event upon the lives of children and their families. The words of the journalist Zahid Hussain are fairly typical of the tone set on the paper’s opinion pages when he writes:-

“It was, perhaps, the gravest moment even for this country that has seen so many tragedies and bled so many times. The wounds of parents losing their children can never be healed. Those who escaped the macabre dance of death are back in school traumatised by the memories of their colleagues mowed down in front of them. Their lives can never be the same again.”

Whilst several writers have tried to capture the mood in Peshawar, and to reflect upon how we might interpret the terrible events of December 2014, they cannot hope to achieve the eloquence that is contained in the commemorative pages that dominate today’s edition of Dawn. Under the heading 144 Stories, the newspaper presents a narrative of each of the victims who died that day at the hands of a group of criminals. These stories convey understandable anger, incomprehension, desperation and fear, but many also are filled with compassion, hope and even forgiveness. I found it impossible to read more than a few of these accounts as the poignancy of the words and the feelings so personally expressed quickly become unbearable.

The tragedy of that day last December is peculiarly juxtaposed now here in England, as elsewhere in the world, when families prepare to celebrate Christmas. Many of us look forward to spending time with family and friends, but most particularly with children and grandchildren. Perhaps reading accounts such as those that are published today in Dawn serve an important function in insisting that we reflect upon those freedoms and relationships that we can so easily take for granted, and in ensuring that we are never complacent about the need to stand up against those who would undermine the values which so many of us hold dear. This is not simply an issue for Pakistan, but one for which we must all accept some responsibility. It is one in particular that those of us who are teachers should ensure continues to be discussed in our classrooms and with our students and colleagues.

My words are wholly inadequate in addressing a topic of such gravity, and cannot possibly hold a candle to those used to convey the 144 stories presented in Dawn. If you have time today to read only one page from a single newspaper, you would find it hard to better invest your time than in reading the one highlighted below.

 

http://www.dawn.com/news/1223313/144stories-remembering-lives-lost-in-the-peshawar-school-attack

 

Good news about teachers just doesn’t sell newspapers!

 

When this teacher does her job well nobody will notice

When this teacher does her job well nobody will notice

Sometimes it feels like the opinions of teachers count for very little when judgements are being made about the quality of education provided for children. It is often the case that when children are perceived to be under performing in schools, or there are media reports about discipline issues, fingers are quickly pointed at teachers as the sole cause of the problems reported.

Here in England there was a time when the views of teachers were eagerly sought by education policy makers at local and national levels. Politicians and administrators were keen to obtain the opinions of those who were working in classrooms in order to inform their ideas, influence policies and bring about change. Sadly, in recent years this has become a less common approach, with a great deal of educational policy made by politicians without recourse to the opinions of teachers, who are often then seen to be held responsible when things don’t quite work out as intended.

It was therefore heartening yesterday to read a research report titled “The Voice of Teachers” which within its introductory pages states that it :-

“aims to move beyond cliché and misrepresentation, bringing to the fore teachers’ own perceptions regarding the education universe they inhabit”.

Perhaps at last, I thought, we have a report that will respect the views of those who work most closely in classrooms, and can provide insights into their professional lives, with all of the concomitant successes and challenges that typify every day school life. Indeed, within a very short time of commencing my read I found that the experiences of the 823 teachers and 441 head teachers interviewed for this research were being presented and discussed in a manner that was respectful, empathetic and realistic in interpretation. There was little evidence of rose tinted glasses in the report’s presentation of facts and figures, but neither was there an apportioning of blame where specific difficulties were identified and shortcomings discussed. Overall the document presents an honest appraisal of school life, drawing upon the perspectives of experienced school professionals alongside a review of significant facts and figures. On reaching the final pages of the report I found myself wondering, why more reports should not draw upon this rich seam of data, provided by teachers and presented in a well-balanced and lucid manner. If only I could find such a document within my own country!

Ah yes, you see, the report in question adopts an approach seldom seen in today’s English education system and comes in fact from Pakistan.

Alif Ailaan is a campaigning organisation in Pakistan that encourages public discourse around education in Pakistan. Interestingly, it is in part funded by a grant from the UK Department for International Development. The organisation has a stated goal to “get every Pakistani girl and boy into school, keep them learning and ensure that they receive a quality education”. This is the kind of statement that is made by many government and non-government agencies across the globe. However, in the case of Alif Ailaan the approach to achieving such a goal appears to be considerably different from that adopted by many others. They are certainly not afraid of being critical of teachers where they feel that this is necessary, but rather than simply apportioning blame, they are committed to looking beyond the headlines to understand the conditions in schools, and how teachers can be supported to address these. This is apparent early in “The Voice of Teachers,” which reports the research commissioned by them in which a clear and balanced statement is made:-

“The teacher is at the heart of the education system. In Pakistan, however, the discourse on education often attributes to teachers virtually everything that is wrong with the system. There is little doubt that teacher performance in the classroom is below par, considering the consistently low learning outcomes recorded through examinations and assessments at all levels of schooling. But is the teacher entirely to blame for this situation?”

The research that informed this report provided data from both questionnaires and interviews, and identified examples of both good practice and shortcomings in classrooms. Among the issues which were identified as problematic in Pakistan’s schools, were overcrowded classrooms, poor quality textbooks, a lack of facilities and equipment, and inadequate professional development opportunities for teachers. The report does not overlook the impact of poverty, stating quite clearly that there are many children attending schools who are malnourished and therefore lack the energy to learn effectively.

Despite the many challenges faced by teachers, the authors of the report described them as being willing to learn and improve their performance, and certainly not lacking in motivation. Many express the opinion that they gain great satisfaction from enabling their students to learn.

The researchers identify many shortcomings in the education system within the country, but at the conclusion of the report they state that:-

 “If there is one clear message from our study, it is that responsibility for the failure to deliver high-quality education does not lie at the doorstep of teachers alone. In fact many of the challenges that teachers face daily have as much to do with their own capacities as with policies and procedures far removed from ground realities and in dire need of an overhaul. It is up to provincial governments to take on this challenge”.

Having read what I consider to be a fair and evenly presented report, which judging from the data that is clearly presented within its pages gives an honest appraisal of schools within Pakistan, I found myself wondering how it would be reported in the press. Dawn, the influential Pakistan national newspaper, often provides well written and interesting articles depicting life within the country. Surely then I would find a report within its pages that would praise the efforts of teachers, whilst discussing the poor resourcing of schools, inadequate training opportunities and large class sizes. I suppose I should not have been surprised, but sadly I found only one article discussing this report and far from praising the work of teachers, this reported that:-

“Over 70 per cent of teachers in Pakistan agree with the statement that corporal punishment is useful.”

This was indeed a finding from the research, and I should not have been surprised that it was singled out for attention by the media. I too was appalled that corporal punishment continues to be seen as a legitimate means of maintaining order in Pakistan’s schools, but just for once it would have been good to see a report that emphasised some of the more positive characteristics of teachers working for the benefits of children, often under the demanding of circumstances. Reporting fairly on the findings of this research could well have provided a much needed boost to teacher confidence – but then, good news rarely makes for attention grabbing headlines!

 

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!!

I could never accept a gun as an educational resource.

Surely not a sensible part of teacher training!

Surely not a sensible part of teacher training!

At first I thought that a series of recent reports from Pakistan were unbelievable. There must be some kind of mistake, or perhaps this was a case of sensational tabloid journalism at its worst. But now I know that what I have been reading does in fact have credibility, and this is even more horrifying than my first feelings of disbelief.

It appears that teachers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in the north west of Pakistan are being given training in the handling of firearms and encouraged to carry guns with them in school. This initiative (though this hardly seems to be an appropriate term), follows the atrocious school massacre perpetrated by the Taliban in December 2014. Soon after this terrifying incident a large number of teachers met and approved the idea that they should be armed. However, this view was not shared by all of their colleagues and many rejected the government’s plans to arm teachers.

Police officers have been providing training to teachers from all phases of education, primary schools through to universities, in the belief that armed teachers will prove to be a deterrent to future would be attackers. Can this really be anything other than a misguided act of desperation? As several commentators have already stated, in a country where the use of suicide bombers has been a gruesome feature of many terrorist attacks, it hardly seems likely that a determined fanatic will be dissuaded from their actions by a teacher with a pistol.

It seems to me that the most distressing feature of this decision to arm teachers is the message that it gives to children in schools. Do we want children to learn that the only response to acts of violence is to confront it with an equal amount of force. Surely thereby lies a path to chaos, and the escalation towards an ever more terrifying situation? As teachers we have traditionally endeavoured to encourage children to settle their differences through peacable means, and have attempted to show them that violence is unacceptable. This new policy appears to renage upon this more ethical approach adopted by schools over many years.

Maria Amir, a blogger whose words are often featured in the national Pakistan newspaper Dawn, has recently reported an appalling incident that must have been feared by many teachers and parents. Under a headline reading “Guns for schoolteachers: An inevitable death in Swat,” Amir reportes that at a private school in Mingora a teacher accidentally shot and killed a 12-year old student while cleaning his gun in the school staffroom. Clearly distressed by this incident, Amir states that:-

“The idea that arming teachers is an effective security measure is ludicrous. It implies that the unlikely event of a terrorist attack trumps the daily security threat of teachers carrying guns to school and students being exposed to them”.

The reaction to this tragedy as reported by several journalists has been equally disturbing. Whilst some have condemned the arming of teachers, suggesting that this has inevitably heightened the risk of such accidents, others have implied that this is a sad but unlikely incident, and a small price to pay for preparing teachers to deter terrorist attacks. This is an issue which seems destined to continue as a source of debate amongst teachers and policy makers for some time. Amongst the many voices to have been heard thus far is that of Malik Khalid Khan, the president of the Private Schools Teachers Association. In opposing the arming of teachers he suggests that:-

“It’s not our job; our job is to teach them books. A teacher holding a gun in the class will have very negative affect on his students,”

The job of protecting schools, he believes, should be assigned to trained police officers or military personnel, and not to teachers.

Sadly, we have seen from incidents in several parts of the world, including the United States of America and in my own home country, that if a fanatic is determined to attack a school they are likely to find a way of doing so. I cannot believe that armed teachers are likely to contribute anything to the safety of children, and are far more likely to provoke those who have a fanatical belief or a grudge against schools to resort to ever more despicable forms of violence.

I have never believed that a gun could be regarded as an educational resource. I find it hard to believe that I could be disuaded from this belief even in a situation such as that faced at times in Pakistan.

Disability no obstacle to service in Pakistan

 

Councillor Sher Ali, hoping to make a difference in Pakistan

Councillor Sher Ali, hoping to make a difference in Pakistan

In recent years I have worked with a number of students from Pakistan. They have invariably been hard working and in many instances have expressed a strong commitment towards working in their home country to improve the lives of children and young people who have been excluded or marginalised. Whenever I have discussed the situation for children and young people with special needs or disabilities in Pakistan with these students, they have been able to tell me of some of the progress made for these individuals in schools, but have often expressed their frustrations that many remain excluded from even the most rudimentary educational opportunities.

Sadly, much of the news reported from Pakistan in the English language media, paints a negative picture of a country divided by extreme politics, religious conflict and poverty. Reports of education from the area are often focused upon the limited educational provision for young people and international surveys depict a country in which it has become difficult to be optimistic for the future of today’s Pakistani children. However, this is only one part of the picture and it is important to recognise and celebrate some of the positive stories that indicate progress towards improving lives in what is often described as a “failed state”.

One such story was reported in yesterday’s edition of Dawn, the English language daily national newspaper from Pakistan. Under the headline “Disabled youth councillor plans to serve people,” the journalist Fazal Khaliq reports on the election of a young man named Sher Ali as a councillor in the Malookabad area of Mingora located in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. Mr Ali, who is 22 years old is a wheelchair user who depends upon friends and family to get him from his home to the centre of his town, which requires negotiating 130 steps. However, he is full of determination to represent his constituents and to campaign for improved facilities for all who live in Mingora. In particular, he has issued statements that shows his awareness of the necessity to campaign for improved education facilities. Sher Ali points out that:-

“For over 20,000 population of Malookabad we have only one primary school which is far from here, due to which half of the children do not go to school.”

Referring to his disability, Sher Ali suggests that it is no obstacle to being a good representative of his people, and he has urged others with disabilities to put themselves forward for election. Education and the provision of an improved water supply to his community are just two of the issues that he has singled out as priorities for his campaigning activity. He suggests that his election success was largely built upon the aspirations of young people who have a great desire for change in the communities in which they live. His personal determination is clearly already inspiring others and will hopefully raise awareness not only of his disability, but also of the need for improved educational opportunities for all people in Pakistan.

I suspect that the election of Sher Ali and his enthusiasm for bringing about change in his community will not make the pages of newspapers outside of Pakistan. This is a great shame, because it has become far too easy to read only negative stories from this, and several other countries around the world. Whilst reading stories of conflict, poverty and extremism, whether these be from Pakistan, Syria, Iraq or elsewhere in the world, it is easy to forget the ordinary and extraordinary people who make up the majority population in these countries. Most people wish for nothing more than an opportunity to live a peaceful existence, to earn a living, gain an education and care for their families. Yet they are tarnished by the actions of those who wield power and create an impression that their countries are dysfunctional, dangerous and chaotic.

So long as there are people who are prepared to recognise the abilities of individuals such as Sher Ali, and have the courage to elect them to positions of authority, there must be hopes that there can be improvements in society, and greater opportunities provided for those who are currently excluded. Let’s hope that Sher Ali’s story inspires others to see the positive side of a country that is far too often reported in only negative terms.

More than simply getting on with the job.

I wonder what is going through the mind of this father as he returns his children to school?

I wonder what is going through the mind of this father as he returns his children to school?

Two news stories today have given me cause to reflect upon and celebrate the dedication of teachers. Yet both also present tales of terrible tribulation and could provoke a feeling of despair. However it must be said that despite great adversity, the professionalism of some teachers shines through.

The well respected Pakistan daily newspaper Dawn, today carried an article written by Syed Ali Shah with the headline A dismal state of education in Balochistan (1st June 2015). Balochistan is Pakistan’s biggest province covering more than 40% of the country’s land area. Its provincial capital Quetta is the largest city in the region where the University of Balochistan is located, with an Institute of Education and Research which has a proud history of training teachers. Despite this apparent commitment to education, the Balochistan government has recently declared an education emergency in the province.

It is reported that there are more than 7,000 single room schools in the province, each with a single teacher attempting to address the needs of children across a wide age range. The dropout rate from schools is high and two out of every three girls in Balochistan never have an opportunity to attend school. Teaching conditions are clearly less than adequate, and teachers are struggling with minimal resources and a lack of clear policy direction.

A separate news item, covered by several sources including the Guardian and Reuters news agency describe how children are returning to school following the devastating earthquakes in Nepal. In some areas of Kathmandu and other districts parents and volunteers have built wooden makeshift classrooms, and elsewhere have erected tents in order that children can gain some shelter and return to some semblance of normal education. Parents and children have expressed their joy that schools, even those in temporary accommodation, are once again opening their doors, however, many have also stated their apprehension about separation of children from parents, even for the short duration of a school day.

One eleven year old girl named Sabina told a reporter that:

It’s better to be in the school though I am scared of another earthquake.”

For those of us living in comfort it is difficult to fully appreciate the fears expressed by this girl.

These two news stories highlight the tragedy and trials of people living in desperate situations. It would be easy to see only negative features of the items that have caught the attention of the world’s press. However, I believe that there is another aspect of these situations which we could easily miss.

Teachers who are working in the dire school conditions in Balochistan, and those who are attempting to rebuild educational provision in Nepal are showing a dedication to their task which could easily be overlooked. They will attend their schools each day with minimal resources, and with little knowledge of what the future holds, but with a commitment to ensure that their pupils are provided with opportunities to learn. It has often been said in my own country that the school is at the heart of a community. It is at schools that lifelong friendships  begin. They are places where children develop a passion for sports or art or music, and where hopefully they are enabled to learn the skills, knowledge and understanding that will equip them for the rest of their lives.

Those teachers in Nepal and Balochistan who went to their classrooms this morning have received relatively little mention in the news items highlighted in this blog. It is almost taken for granted that they will continue to provide the service that is expected of teachers in far easier situations. I am sure that they too, just like their students, have apprehensions with regards to their safety and the ways in which they will teach in far from adequate conditions. I am equally sure that they will continue to demonstrate the professional integrity which ensures that they will continue to focus upon the needs of their students.

Who decides what you should know?

 

Caution, the content of these books could expand your mind!

Caution, the content of these books could expand your mind!

The well respected Pakistan newspaper Dawn reports that yesterday the blogging platform WordPress was blocked (23rd March 2015), and those who wished to either publish their own words, or to read those of others posted on blogs, were thwarted in their efforts. The same newspaper has previously commented (February 8th 2015), on the fact that the media channel YouTube remains inaccessible within the country. A spokesman for the Pakistani government has suggested that there is content on the media channel that may be seen as either blasphemous or in other ways offensive, and that the people of Pakistan need protection from such material. I am aware from friends and students that similar restrictions exist in China and in several other parts of the world, and that this is a particular source of frustration to those who have spent time in the west, and have found such media to be a useful source of debate and information.

It is probably true to say that the use of media channels such as YouTube requires a certain amount of discrimination on the part of the user. There is (in my opinion) an awful lot of material available on these outlets that is insignificant, trivial and in some instances offensive, but should this necessarily be made unavailable. I suspect that my interpretation of triviality may be someone else’s notion of high culture, and why should my opinion be any more valid than theirs?

As is often the case with newspaper items, some of the comments posted in response to an article are almost as interesting as the original (no disrespect intended to the unnamed journalist who posted this particular piece in Dawn). In response to the article on WordPress censorship, one correspondent replied:-

By blocking WordPress and YouTube the govt. has deprived its citizens of knowledge, of education, of a basic right the constitution of Pakistan gives us.

This commentator makes a valid point. When used appropriately both WordPress (which is incidentally the platform upon which this blog is based) and YouTube can act as useful educational tools. I have on several occasions used film from YouTube for teaching purposes both here in the UK, and when teaching in other parts of the world. Similarly, I have posted items on this blog with the specific intent of enabling students to continue debating issues discussed in class, and know that others have used it for the same purpose. Does this therefore mean that there should be no censorship of materials posted on the internet?

This is far from a straightforward matter. Censorship when appropriately applied is designed to protect those who are potentially vulnerable or suggestible from potentially harmful influences. The British Board of Film Classification was established in 1912 as an independent body to classify films and give them a rating of suitability to a broad range of audiences. There is a general consensus that this organisation does a good job in ensuring that materials that are unsuitable for children, are classified in such a way that parents are aware, and cinemas restrict access to young viewers. Similarly, most computer systems have safety mechanisms whereby parents and schools can inhibit access to programmes and materials that may be deemed unstable for children. The notion of protecting the young and vulnerable is certainly one with which I have no problem.

The blanket censoring of WordPress and YouTube is a different matter. Those who have made decisions to restrict the availability of these media outlets have not been discriminating in terms of protecting the young and vulnerable, but have rather made a decision that nobody should have access. This surely conveys a message that the censors do not feel that the general populous has either the ability or the right to make up their own minds. Adults are being treated as children, and regarded as incapable of making informed decisions.

I have no difficulty with control that is designed to protect the individual. It is a good idea to enforce laws that mean for example, that in England everybody must drive on the left hand side of the road, or to ensure that alcohol is not sold to children. These are laws with good intent and a deal of common sense. However, I am unsure about who the censorship of media outlets is designed to protect. It seems to me that most adults are quite capable of policing the media for themselves. If an item comes on to the television that I dislike I can change channels or switch off the set. If I disagree with the sentiments or political association of a newspaper or magazine, I choose not to purchase them.

The students with whom I work are intelligent and discriminating individuals. In my experience they make good use of media such as WordPress and YouTube as yet another source of information to be used alongside the other, more traditional sources such as books and academic journals. But maybe here is the nub of the issue. Censorship is not about the platform upon which information is conveyed, but about the power of the messages that may be contained within. After all, throughout history that wonderful, though relatively low tech product the book, has been subjected to censorship or outright banning in many countries, including my own.

I do hope that my friends in Pakistan may have an opportunity to share these thoughts today.

 

Ulysses  by James Joyce, published in France in 1922, banned in UK and USA until 1930s

Doctor Zhivago  by Boris Pasternak, banned in Russia until 1988

The Diary of Anne Frank  by Anne Frank, remains banned in Lebanon

Lolita  by Vladimir Nabikov, published in 1955 then banned in UK until 1959

Wild Swans by Jung Chang, remains banned in China

This man’s education could be put to better use!

 

This is a well written document, presumably produced by someone who has received an education but would prefer to keep others in ignorance. What is to be gained?

This is a well written document, presumably produced by someone who has received an education but would prefer to keep others in ignorance. What is to be gained?

 

It requires an educated person to construct a document, which takes account of good grammar and spelling. It is an even greater achievement to do so in what may be the writer’s second or even third language. Generally speaking when an individual has attained this level of proficiency it is, at least in part, because they have received the support of a teacher.

The above image of a document was given to me this morning by a friend from Pakistan. It had been pushed under the door of an acquaintance in Karachi who has had a long standing commitment to the education of children in that city. As an advocate of education this person has always treated children as individuals deserving of an education, regardless of their nationality, religion, class, gender or caste. This is an attitude that many of us would see as being founded upon human rights and social justice; qualities that we expect to see in educated people, but it would appear that others disagree.

Leaving aside for the moment the rather obtuse sentiments expressed in this leaflet, one of the first things that struck me about it was that it is quite well written. The English language has been used to good effect (even if this is being applied for  nefarious purposes), with reasonable grammar and consistent spelling. It most certainly could not have been written by someone who had not received a formal education. I am making an assumption here that the first language of the writer is not English and that they are more likely to be familiar with Urdu,  Sindhi or possibly Pashtun, and that English could well be their second or third language. I am also interested to note that they have made a decision to write this text in English, presumably in the belief that it is a communication aimed at  other educated individuals.

Having read this embittered diatribe I find myself wondering what is to be gained by denying educational opportunities to others, similar to those that the author has clearly experienced in the past. If he (it is almost certainly a man) wishes to challenge the introduction of western cultural values, he is of course quite entitled to do so. There are many debates taking place regularly around the world about the loss of national and regional identity, and these are often stimulating and well informed. I most certainly support those individuals who believe that the protection of local languages, the preservation of regional heritage and arts, and the fair representation of national histories should be given a priority. Like many others who have engaged in the debate, I have a concern that the English language has become too dominant and is a force for restricting the opportunities of those who are unable to receive tuition in its use. Though I presume that this latter issue is of no concern to the writer of this misconceived missive.

Attempts to stifle debate are usually made by those who feel that they are losing the argument. They betray the insecurities and inadequacies of the author. The messages conveyed in this text are intended to frighten, and to deny the rights of others to have their voices heard. I would suggest that anonymously pushing this leaflet under the doors of individuals who are committed to ensuring that children receive a well balanced liberal education is likely to have the opposite effect. Copies of this narrow minded text are already being circulated and held up as an example of the misrepresentation of the tenets of Islam, and a misguided action by an ill-informed, ignorant and faceless individual.

I am pleased that the writer of this sad text has  gained some benefits from his education. He has obviously acquired the skills of expression, even if he lacks the individuality and critical thinking that could make him into a more interesting author. The threats contained within this document will be abhorrent to the vast majority of people in Pakistan. I hope that the purveyor of this sick note, full of despicable hatred, may find the time to reflect on the efforts made by his teachers on his behalf. They clearly did a good job in terms of his English language abilities. I also hope that if he has children they may experience an education that is truly inclusive, and promotes understanding, respect and tolerance. The kind of education that I imagine most of the schools targeted by this leaflet are determined to provide. Long may they thrive.

 

How much courage does it take to be a teacher?

Standing Up for Schools - supporting those who have no power to support themselves

Standing Up for Schools – supporting those who have no power to support themselves

There were times when I was teaching in school when I would get home exhausted, and at times frustrated as a result of something that happened during the day. However, I never truly felt like throwing in the towel and finding some other way of making a living. I knew the that for every bad day I had at school, there would be fifty or more good ones, and that I could never wish for a better job than that of being a teacher.

Whilst I had the occasional bad day at school I never experienced anything like the stress or the horrors that Ali Khan has faced. An article in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper (17th March), written by Louise Tickle described how, after hearing an explosion, Ali Khan arrived at the school where he taught in Charbagh Pakistan to find it destroyed. The Pakistan Taliban, determined to show their opposition to education and their overwhelming commitment to ignorance, had blown up the school, believing that they could terrorise the local population sufficiently to prevent them sending their children to receive an education. I can well imagine that parents in that area must have experienced many sleepless nights, wondering whether to be cowed by this dreadful act, or to stand in opposition to the murderous bullies.

The Taliban could not have reckoned with the determination of Ali Khan and his colleagues. All fifty two of the teachers from that school returned to work, setting up classes by sharing with another school and operating a shift system. Many of the children and families returned immediately for lesson, others took longer, understandably apprehensive of what might happen. Ali Khan stated that he did have worries himself about returning to work, but then decided:-

“I was born a teacher, and I will die in the profession because of my passion for educating children.”

The courage of teachers like Ali Khan is incredible, and fortunately the majority of us who have the privilege to work in education will never have to confront such situations. However, Ali Khan’s story is sadly far from unique. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) report that schools in seventy countries came under assault between 2009 and 2014. It is hard to imagine the courage required by teachers and children to continue in education in such circumstances. I am not sure that I could be this brave.

This coming June the Norwegian Government will being leading a move to afford schools the same status as hospitals, as sacrosanct spaces during periods of armed conflict. This initiative is receiving support from many other agencies working for child protection and children’s rights. The United Nations special envoy on global education, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, is also joining this campaign, and has asked governments around the world to make a commitment to changing the current situation.

For those of us who work in comfortable educational situations it is difficult to conceive of what we can do from our positions of privilege. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack recognises this dilemma, but believes that the weight of public opinion could be important in exerting the pressure required to ensure that governments back the proposed changes to current legislation. To this end they have launched a petition under the banner, Stand Up for School. This declares:-

“We, the world’s youth, teachers, parents and global citizens appeal to our governments to keep their promise, made at the United Nations in 2000, to ensure all out-of-school children gain their right to education before the end of 2015.

We are standing up to bring an end to the barriers preventing girls and boys from going to school, including forced work and early marriage, conflict and attacks on schools, exploitation and discrimination. All children deserve the opportunity to learn and achieve their potential”.

I am quite sure that Ali Khan will be hoping that such sentiments result in action.

The petition can be found at:-

http://www.aworldatschool.org/upforschool

 

Learning must cross boundaries

Many nationalities - but only one humanity

Many nationalities – but only one humanity

 

It is said that Diogenes of Sinope declared himself to be “A citizen of the World”.

I was talking this morning with one of my PhD students about her research. Her work has involved observing teachers working with children in the early years of their education in schools in the UK. She has then taken some of the teaching approaches that she has learned and applied these in schools in her native Taiwan. Listening to her enthusiastic description of the differences of teaching approach in two countries many thousands of miles apart, and her account of what she has learned, and how she has shared this learning with teachers in both countries, reinforced my belief that there is so much to be gained from working in an international environment.

Later in the day I enjoyed conversations with groups of research students from India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Vietnam, China and Colombia who occupy an office in the Centre for Education and Research at the university. Sharing a common commitment to investigating aspects of education, they bring a vast range of professional and personal experiences to the university. In addition, they have significantly different cultural backgrounds that have shaped their interpretation of the world, and are generous in exchanging these as part of their overall experience of being a student in the UK.

Without exception they enjoy being part of this richly diverse community. They recognise that they have an opportunity to learn from each other, to understand the similarities and difference in the education systems of their countries, and to appreciate the varying challenges that these bring. In formal teaching sessions they exchange their views and consider how their learning may be applied to a wide range of educational situations. Informally, they share food, music, literature and ideas from their homes, and thus broaden their understanding of each other’s cultures.

As tutors working with these students, we gain as much as they do from this multi-lingual and international community of learners. Opportunities to hear about their teaching experiences and the conditions in which they live and work in their home countries, and to listen to their aspirations for the future is a privilege that is to be greatly appreciated. We also benefit from a greater understanding of how educational policy and practices evolve in different circumstances, and how we may apply some of these ideas in our own situation. However, in the past year I have also detected a greater apprehension in their conversations than I recall from the past.

Being an international student in the UK, and I suspect in many other countries, is much harder than in the past. The world is in turmoil and the level of trust in the unfamiliar has significantly decreased. Fear of “foreigners” appears to be on the increase and several of our students have expressed a concern that they are sometimes viewed with an element of suspicion. The burgeoning bureaucracy to which they are subjected in order to monitor their movements and the increased difficulties associated with renewing visas has become a source of frustration. Increased regulation from the UK Border Agency, understandably implemented with national security in mind and designed to discourage a small minority criminal and fundamentalist element, impacts upon all non-British nationals. My fear is that those with a legitimate desire to learn may be detered from doing so outside of their own national boundaries in the future.

The students I work with are sensitive to the need for increased vigilance, but also conscious of the apparent negativity towards visitors to this country that they experience in the media, and sadly on occasions, on the streets. Much of this is founded upon ignorance, and I am sure that if some of the perpetrators of these reactions could spend time with these hard working young people, they would exhibit a different range of behaviours. Having visited several of the countries from which these students have come, I have always been received with kindness and generosity and made to feel welcome. I would like to think that this is reciprocated for colleagues who come here.

I am sure that the students with whom I work as they complete their research degrees will make a major contribution to the education systems in their own countries or elsewhere in the world. I hope that as they do so they will take with them many positive memories of their time in the UK.