Teachers – at the forefront of challenging ignorance and bigotry.

Diversity and difference is a cause for celebration and an opportunity for learning - for those who are prepared to open their minds and leave their prejudices behind.

Diversity and difference is a cause for celebration and an opportunity for learning – for those who are prepared to open their minds and leave their prejudices behind.

Last evening I had a very sad and disturbing conversation with a friend who teaches in a school in a city not very far from here. Angela (not her real name) has worked in the same primary school for the past fourteen years and is totally committed to her pupils and their families. Angela is a good musician and she is involved in a wide range of after school activities for children including organising a school choir, a recorder group and a drumming class. In addition, she helps to run a parent and child activity group for a couple of weeks during each school summer holiday. Angela’s husband is similarly involved in a number of initiatives to support children and families, in what is one of the poorest parts of the city in which they live.

Angela tells me that at the end of the school day yesterday an unusually large number of parents, mostly mothers, who had come to collect their children, came to see her to have a brief conversation. Most, she tells me, had the same message that they wished to convey. “Please”, they said, “make sure everyone knows that we are good people, and we are disgusted by the events that have taken place today in France, these people do not represent our community.”

As the parents were conveying this message, Angela was completely ignorant of the murder of journalists and cartoonists that had taken place earlier in the day at the offices of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo in Paris. She tells me that she was at first confused, but as the significance of what had happened became apparent she then felt angry and slightly nauseous. Being largely unaware of the events, after all she had been in class all day, she was at a loss as to what she could say.

Angela teaches in a school where more than fifty percent of the children come from Moslem families. Her school is located in a part of the city where Moslem’s make up a majority of the local neighbourhood. It is a peaceful and well respected community that contributes greatly to the socio-economic and cultural well-being of the area and the city as a whole. Of late however, many who live in this district have become increasingly afraid of anti-Islamic sentiments that have been intensified both by terrorist activities in various parts of the world, and by the fanning of flames by a number of xenophobic individuals and organisations.

Today, as on every school day, Angela will continue to give her best for the children in the school. She will, as always be available for families, and will demonstrate the same enthusiasm for the musical after school activities that she runs. The saddest part of Angela’s situation, she tells me, is that good, caring and dedicated parents feel the need to apologise to her, and reassure her that they do not subscribe to the hatred shown by a tiny minority who are prepared to murder, maim and terrorise those who do not share their warped view of the world. Angela tells me that over her years of working in this school she has come to appreciate the warmth and affection shown towards her by parents of children attending this school. She and her colleagues have been thankful for the support given to the school by members of the local community, and regard those of the Moslem faith as kind, considerate and caring. Of course, she tells me, there are a few parents who are not supportive and do not want to participate in the life and activities of the school, but isn’t this true of schools everywhere? This is not a factor dependent upon religious belief.

Listening to Angela’s recounting of her after school conversations, it was impossible not to empathise and to appreciate her concerns and those of the families with whom she works. It was equally difficult not share in her sadness and anger that a small minority can have the effect of demonising the  peaceful majority who espouse a religious belief. Though anger will have only a negative impact and is part of what the terrorist tries to achieve. Today Angela and her colleagues will try to reassure parents and children as they arrive at the school gates. It should not be necessary, but today, possibly more than on others, they will be vigilant in listening for any unkind or inappropriate comment that might be made towards a child in school. She does not anticipate that there will be any real need to behave differently from the ways that she might on any other day, but she is none the less concerned that there may be difficult moments.

Good teachers like Angela care about their children and do their best for them regardless of their background, culture or religion. They look for the good that exists in all children and do their best to support them in their learning and social development. This is the way that all professionals who are committed to children act, and will continue to behave, despite the provocation of a few misguided bullies and thugs who through a misrepresentation of faith attempt to terrorise the populace. Education should be free of fear, must promote the exchange of ideas, celebrate difference and diversity and aim to create a more inclusive and respectful society. If this is achieved the perpetrators of atrocities such as those committed in Paris yesterday will be seen for what they are – acts of cowardice and totally unrepresentative of anyone other than a bigoted minority.

The actions that will be taken by Angela and her colleagues, and by teachers in classrooms and on playgrounds across the world today will have far greater impact than ignorant men armed with guns could ever have.

Nous sommes Charlie!

Still more battles to be fought and won.

Having made so  uch progress to wards a more inclusive education system, now is not the time to rest on our laurels.

Having made so much progress towards a more inclusive education system, now is not the time to rest on our laurels.

In March of last year I referred to a blog called Diary of a Not So Ordinary Boy, written by the mother of a boy named Sam who has Down’s syndrome (No right of access to the “ordinary” world? March 16th 2014). Sam’s mother also happens to be a teacher. I regularly follow this blog which provides insights into both the pleasures and challenges of a parent, who is clearly very perceptive in respect of current educational initiatives, and also has strong opinions of the provision that should be making for children such as her son. There have been times when I have smiled at the successes shared, such as Sam’s achievements in making friends through riding his bicycle (something to which I can certainly relate), but sometimes the writing also has the opposite effect and makes me wonder at the obstacles put in the way of Sam and his mother.

Earlier today I read Sam’s mother’s latest offering, titled “Battle Weary” (January 3rd 2015). You can read this for yourself at  http://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/. Far from being a piece that celebrated the many achievements of her son, this contribution left me wondering about the kind of educational uncertainty that has been created in the UK in recent years. On initial reading I found this latest article thoroughly depressing, but on re-reading it a couple of hours later my emotions have perhaps moved further in the direction of disappointment with the inadequacies displayed by those of us who have advocated for a more inclusive education system.

“Battle Weary” is indeed an apt title for the posting in question, because it begins with a reminder that parents were at the forefront of campaigns to achieve the right of all children, regardless of need or ability, to be educated alongside their peers in mainstream classrooms. However it concludes with a depressing assertion that many parents are now exhausted from their efforts to ensure that when children do enter mainstream schools, they receive the education that they need and the support of committed teachers. The implication is that seeking the rights of children to the most basic of educational needs has become an impossible mission, causing many parents to withdraw their children from mainstream schools and seek a special school placement.

Sam’s mother lists a number of factors that she sees as having contributed to the failure of schools to meet the needs of many children. Inadequate training of teachers, poor resourcing and the over emphasis upon academic attainment and narrowly focused assessment and testing procedures are all seen as inhibiting progress. These are certainly contributors to the difficulties with moving the inclusion agenda forward that are recognised by many teachers and families. However, one particular paragraph in the blog  caused me particular despondency and makes me wonder about our failures as educators. Sam’s mother writes:-

“I can’t count the times I see the relationship between parents of children with special needs and the schools they attend characterised as a battle.  As a parent I’ve been labelled as pushy, or fussy, and difficult; precious.  I’ve alluded to the magnifying effect of Down’s syndrome, the way that everything is harder, slower, in sharper relief.  Parents are under pressure.  Teachers are under pressure.  Add to that a challenging child, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, but what you have is a powder keg, a road crash waiting to happen, and one that echoes, continues to affect families and subsequent teachers, for years to come.  It was a shock to realise that maybe I wasn’t as awkward as I was made to feel”.

This paragraph emphasises how easy it is for relationships between professionals and parents to break down. I suspect that many teachers might suggest that the lack of empathy described here is the result of the pressures that they are working under in schools. Certainly Sam’s mother, herself a teacher, acknowledges that these stresses are genuine, and is not suggesting that teaching children who are seen as more “challenging” or “less able” than their peers is a simple task. If truly inclusive schooling is to be achieved, gaps between the views and expectations of both teachers and parents are clearly going to have to be closed, and this will demand a lot more work on the part of schools.

If I was the parent of a child who was struggling at school, and for whom I felt inadequate provision was being made, I too would be “pushy”. It was largely as a result of the efforts made by parents, many of whom were perceived as being demanding and awkward, that a recognition of the marginalisation of children with special educational needs was achieved. Sadly, Sam’s mother, and many others like her, are now beginning to turn their backs on mainstream schools that they feel are not addressing the needs of their children. My greatest fear is that many education policy makers and some school managers will be happy to see these parents leave and will feel that their reservations about a more inclusive education system are fully justified.

I recall that throughout the 1980s and 1990s many parents and professionals stood together to fight for the right of children such as Sam to attend mainstream schools. Perhaps having largely achieved this aim, too many of those professionals felt that the battle was won. It is evident from the expressions of frustration expressed not only by Sam’s mother, but by many others in similar situations, that this is far from the case. I do hope that there are parents who may still have enough faith left in those teachers who remain committed to a more just approach to education, to join with them to see the journey that they commenced together through to a more satisfactory conclusion. A failure to do so will result in yet further generations of children being pushed to the margins.

A tour de force for learning

The shopkeepers of York were inspired by the Tour de France which visited the city this weekend. Can such inspiration be harnessed for teaching and learning?

The shopkeepers of York were inspired by the Tour de France which visited the city this weekend. Can such inspiration be harnessed for teaching and learning?

Sara and I have just returned from watching the first two stages of the Tour de France – in Yorkshire. If you are baffled by the reason we went to the north of England to watch this quintessentially French event I should perhaps explain that “La Grande Boucle”, the world’s most spectacular annual sporting event, often visits other countries in order to provide cycle racing fans with an opportunity to feel that they are a part of the spectacle. I have, like many in this country, been riding a bicycle since I was a child and trying to ride quite fast around the local lanes, often with friends from my club the Rockingham Forest Wheelers, has become a source of both exercise and relaxation. I should warn you in advance that in common with many who pursue this particular sporting pastime, should you ever find yourself in conversation with me about cycling I can bore you for hours with discussion of gear ratios, the records of Eddy Merckx or the comparative merits of shimano or campagnolo (campag every time for me – no competition there really!).

I had not intended mentioning the Tour de France on this blog, as it seems far removed from the usual topics under discussion on these pages. However, first thing this morning I read Nancy Gedge’s  blog “The Diary of a Not So Ordinary Boy” through which Nancy gives regular accounts of her life with Sam her son who has Down’s syndrome. I have written about this blog before (March 16th 2014), and regularly read Nancy’s page as it provides positive insights into aspects of parenting of a young man with special educational needs.

In her most recent blog piece “Tour de Town” http://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2014/07/04/tour-de-town/ Nancy Gedge describes how Sam has suddenly found a new passion for riding his bicycle and has increased his confidence and competence as a cyclist. She describes how for some time cycling with Sam was a somewhat laboured occupation as he moved so slowly that at times he almost ground to a halt. This has obviously been a source of some frustration to Nancy who recounts how she is often anxious about getting to places on time and reluctantly resorts to using a car (a far inferior form of transport to the bicycle many of us believe) in order to get around efficiently. However, Nancy’s worries are at an end, whilst it is unlikely that Sam will ever emulate the performances of Mark Cavendish or Bradley Wiggins, he is now speeding along at a pace that may even challenge his mother and has a new found zest for two wheeled propulsion to be admired.

The most interesting aspect of Sam’s transformation from a cycling tortoise to a two wheeled hare is the source of inspiration that has enabled him to make this significant progress. Nancy Gedge speculates on the reason for this sudden change and asks the rhetorical questions:-

“Had we taken him on training runs?  Did we practice with him in the evenings?  Take him to a cycling club?  Buy him a yellow jersey or show him video footage of Bradley Wiggins?”

Apparently none of these tactics had been used. The source of this transformative process had been much more simple and one that we often witness in children, namely the influence of a friend and role model. Nancy describes how a young man, often employed as a “babysitter” for Sam, who is an enthusiastic cyclist had proven to be an inspiration for her son who now wants to be just like this lad and ride at a similar speed and with the same confidence.

Reading Nancy’s blog I was not surprised by this heartening tale. It would be foolish for those of us who work in education not to give full credit to the teaching which is provided by peers. Children are often far more impressed by those who are slightly older than themselves than they are by the adults in their lives. This applies to both parents and teachers, who may often be seen as authoritative figures with aspirations that do not totally equate to those of the children in their care. However, the influence of a young role model can often inspire learning as children attempt to imitate the behaviours and demeanour of their near contemporaries. Such has clearly been the case with Sam as it has with many others before him. As teachers we need to harness opportunities like these. Learning often comes from the inspiration of the moment and with encouragement can lead to surges in competence and a new enthusiasm for learning. I suspect that the recent events at the football world cup in Brazil will have encouraged many youngsters to go out and hone their skills or join a football club, just as I anticipate that the numbers of new cyclists on the roads of Yorkshire this weekend, inspired by the professionals who raced through the county, will be considerable.

Teachers need to get their inspiration for enabling their pupils to progress wherever they can. Sam’s source of learning was another young man for whom he clearly holds some admiration. Others will be moved to participate by a great sporting event. As educators we must grasp these opportunities, build upon them and enable our students to recognise such sources of learning as valuable in their lives.

Speeding cyclists pass in an instant, but the inspiration that they provide can make a difference.

Speeding cyclists pass in an instant, but the inspiration that they provide can make a difference.

Questions from my fuzzy brain

Parents and children together as learners in Urumqi

Parents and children together as learners in Urumqi

True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.

Attributed to Socrates

I’m back in England and trying to shake off the jet lag. This might account for some rather fuzzy thinking today. Having spent the best part of forty years working in Education, I become increasingly aware of how little I know about the areas in which I am supposed to have some level of expertise. This is further compounded when I attempt to place my professional learning in an international context. But then, this is all part of the excitement of being a teacher, a researcher and a learner. Perhaps when the jet lag wears off things might become a little clearer.

Over the course of a few days in China I was able to have discussions with teachers and post-graduate students as well as visiting schools and embarking on some conversations (through an interpreter) with children. I encountered much that was familiar. Dedicated teachers who demonstrated their professional knowledge and understanding, and applied their skills to managing groups of children with a range of needs; students eager to acquire insights into how research can inform improvements in the lives of children and their families. Much of what I saw in schools and university classrooms was very similar to what I might have seen in England, India, Ireland or any of the other countries with which I am acquainted. But as with any other learning it is the unfamiliar that is challenging and ensures that we have the motivation to continue learning.

I always feel that it is good to come away from a situation that has raised a number of questions, and to make time to think about these.  I find that when I visit schools in countries other than my own, this is a  frequent, often challenging but invariably rewarding experience. An example of this  occurred a couple of days ago when visiting a facility for pre-school aged deaf children in Ürümqi. In one classroom there were more adults than children, all seated on the floor engaged in a range of play activities. There was evident enjoyment in the learning taking place and real purpose in the tasks I was observing. Talking with the teacher in charge of the school she explained that most of the adults I was watching were parents. This was a situation that I might have encountered in many schools in England, where parents are frequent visitors to classrooms. However, the next piece of information with which she provided me, surprised me and led to the questions that continue to buzz around my fuzzy brain.

The parents working alongside their deaf children in that lively classroom are required to attend the school with their child every day for a year. Many come from parts of Xinjiang Province  hundreds or even thousands of kilometres distant from the school (Xinjiang is China’s largest province and accounts for one sixth of  its huge total area). These dedicated and often anxious parents find accommodation locally in which to live and attend the school every day to learn alongside their children. This commitment is a requirement for the child’s attendance at this school, which provides specialist support from well qualified teachers, therapists and audiologists. The children whose parents cannot make such a commitment simply do not get a place. The teacher explained to me that the intention is that all children on reaching school age should have acquired the communication skills to enable them to attend a mainstream school. Furthermore, every parent should be equipped and confident to support their child as they commence formal schooling. The whole process appeared to be well focused on establishing learning founded upon a partnership between teachers, therapists, pupils and parents.

So, now to my questions. The parents I witnessed have made a huge commitment in time and finances to benefit the education of their children. Many are living away from their homes to be near to the school for most of the year in order to achieve this. What impact I wondered does this approach have upon family life and upon the siblings of the deaf children? Having worked in this intensive and well supported situation I would imagine the expectations of parents of what might be provided in mainstream schools may be raised. How are these expectations realised I wonder, and how do the teachers in the mainstream schools respond to the demands likely to be made of them? What about those deaf children in Xinjiang Province whose parents for legitimate reasons cannot make this commitment? How do their children fare?

Such an intense approach to working with children in a pre-school situation is beyond my previous experience and having come away from Ürümqi I may never have the opportunity to find answers to these questions. Maybe you have knowledge that can help me here. If so, then please come to my assistance. However, one of the great advantages of experiences such as these is that the questions raised can be discussed with colleagues and students in the weeks and months to come and may possibly result in new ideas and insights into how we might work with children. The joy of this blog at times is that people I have never met can also inform my understanding of phenomena such as these. This is of course a great relief, because until such time as the jet lag fades I have no real hope of sorting out these questions for myself.

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Shaking a stick is unlikely to solve many problems!

Is there an inspector coming soon to your home? Will you make the parenting quality mark?

Is there an inspector coming soon to your home? Will you make the parenting quality mark?

Throughout my teaching career and certainly when I was head teacher, I believed that schools should be supportive of parents and recognise the important role that they play in the education of their children. As parents my wife and I were always committed to supporting our sons’ schools in any way that we could. We were similarly focused on supporting their learning whether this was through help with homework, attending parents’ evenings or transporting them to music lessons, swimming classes, cricket coaching or scouts. In these simple acts we were doing no more than the majority of parents want to do for their children.

It is no secret that there are some parents who for a variety of reasons do not offer the levels of support to their children that we would all wish to see. Is there a teacher anywhere who has not at some time been engaged in staffroom conversations about “the parents we never see” or those who are seen as inept or even negligent? I am sure that this has been the case throughout history. I am equally sure that even those of us who would regard ourselves as being good parents have, at some point, been less than perfect in our support of our children or their schools.

A conversation with a PhD student this morning led me to look at today’s Times newspaper. This was prompted by the obvious anger and furious response that this particular student, herself a parent and teacher, had to a feature on the front page. The article about the role of parents in the education of their children, or rather the outburst that prompted it to feature so prominently in the Times is reported across the UK media and has raised both hackles and questions. My own reaction to the reported messages is one of amazement and whilst I find that there is little to be gained by personalising situations, I am rather dismayed that the Chief Inspector of Schools in England has launched a tirade against what he sees as “bad parents”.

Sir Michael Wilshaw was himself a head teacher and has many years of teaching experience in schools and as an education administrator. In his article he reflects on his time as a head teacher when :-

“If parents didn’t come into school, didn’t come to parents’ evening, didn’t read with their children, didn’t ensure they did their homework, I would tell them they were bad parents”.

In his new role, as Chief Inspector of Schools, a position that carries a lot of influence, he states:-

“I think head teachers should have the power to fine them. It’s sending the message that you are responsible for your children no matter how poor you are.”

Whilst I agree that we should encourage parents to be as supportive of their children and the schools they attend as possible, I am not convinced that either the language he uses or his understanding of family situations are presented in a helpful manner. In particular I have concerns for some of the expressions used in this report.

Firstly, I am not sure how telling parents that they are “bad” remediates the situation. Simply applying a negative label does not enable a situation to improve. I recall when I was a head teacher I had several conversations with parents who had themselves had negative experiences of schooling as children. Often for these parents attending school, having to talk to teachers who they often saw as living totally different lives from their own, was a daunting experience. I
remember one mother telling me that she was physically sick before coming to a parents evening as she knew her son had learning difficulties and felt that she would be blamed.

I also recall going to visit parents who were unable to attend parents evenings because of family or work commitments. Arranging child care, or in one particular instance care for a sick wife presented challenges that it would have been easy to overlook. These were not “bad parents” but rather those in situations, not of their own choosing that may make them to appear inadequate in the eyes of Sir Michael Wilshaw.

Of equal concern is the notion that these apparently “bad parents” come from poor backgrounds and that they use this as an excuse for not supporting their children. The annals of child negligence and abuse record many instances where those from privileged backgrounds have been as guilty as any of poor parenting. Why single out those from poorer backgrounds as being more inclined to such “bad parenting.”

Finally, I am intrigued by the idea that head teachers should be placed in the role of policeman, judge and jury in imposing sentences and fines upon parents. This does not sound like the role of a head teacher in a caring school, and certainly not one that many head teachers known to myself would want to adopt. In my experience, and that of many of my colleagues, making the effort to engage with parents through positive actions and by recognising that they often have difficulties to confront in their lives which they see as overwhelming is more likely to reap benefits for both children and families.

Yes, there are inadequate parents, ineffective teachers and also poor inspectors. But surely working together to support each other in a process of improvement is better than shaking a stick and making furious noises – though of course this does not gain you the publicity that you may crave.

Looking beneath the surface

This child has responsibilities but will he receive an education

This child has responsibilities but will he receive an education

I was not surprised when a colleague approached me making horrified noises about the contents of the Human Rights Watch report “They Say we’re Dirty” about which I wrote yesterday. The issue of bullying of children by their peers, and even more disturbing, their teachers, is clearly distressing and I would have anticipated that any of my colleagues might have had the same reaction. “Why”, she asked me, “don’t parents get together and do something about this?” This is a natural reaction, but I think we should try to see this situation from a number of perspectives.

In many instances parents in any education system can feel intimidated by what seems like a fairly alien and intimidating environment. In England I suppose it is easy to believe that because parents themselves went to school, they will feel comfortable in their dealings with teachers and in visiting classrooms. Yet those of us with experience of working in schools know that there are many parents who feel anxious in meetings with teachers. How much more intimidating might this situation be for parents who had a bad experience of schooling, or even more so for those who have never attended school?

It is evident from the Human Rights Watch report that there are many parents who do not know how to approach schools or to work with teachers, even when those teachers are keen to involve them. There may be many reasons for this, but one in particular stands out for me from this document. For many of the families living in the Indian communities discussed in this text, existence is a hand to mouth business. In order to feed their families and maintain any form of reasonable livelihood it is necessary to make the most effective use of all available labour. One of the children interviewed for the Human Rights Watch report states:-

“My mother stopped my studies and asked me to look after cattle. We have goats, sheep and two cows. I feel like going back to school. My parents are not ready to send me to school but otherwise I would go. Earlier they had asked me to stop going to school when my elder sister had a daughter. I like going to school a lot.”

For many of us, as parents as well as teachers it is hard to imagine the dilemma that exists in some of the poorer communities around the world. Caring for cattle or looking after a baby so others can work and in order that everyone can eat is a reality for many children, whose families live within or close to poverty. Whilst we might say that it is irresponsible of parents not to send their children to school, it may equally be said that it is negligent of a society to allow such a situation to persist. Who am I to criticise the mother cited above until I know more of the pressures under which she lives?

Maybe we need to be more sympathetic to the needs of families and to listen to their reasons for dropping out of the education system. Even more important might be the efforts that could be made to design learning opportunities that sit more comfortably with the life patterns of people living in poverty. Rather than creating education systems and expecting children and families to adapt to these, we might consider examining the life styles of these families and building education provision to support them. This of course demands thinking in a different way about schooling, but as professional educators isn’t this what we are supposed to do?

Many platitudes are voiced about education being the route out of poverty. There is, of course, much evidence to suggest that obtaining a good education improves life chances. However, education takes time and does not address the immediacy of families in need. Suggesting to a mother than her child’s schooling will have benefits in ten years time may appear meaningless when she is struggling to find the resources to provide today’s meal. There is no easy solution to this problem, but I am concerned that whilst reports such as “They Say we’re Dirty” serve an important purpose in raising awareness of the many injustices that limit opportunities, there is a danger of resting on indignation rather than seeking reasons and solutions. We need to look beneath the surface of these issues rather than taking a simplistic view.

For many parents their aspirations are for maintaining their current living standard, even when these are far from satisfactory. Some even fear that if their children receive an education they will leave their community to seek better paid employment and opportunities away from home. Perhaps the challenge for educators is to identify the ways in which to communicate to families that their lives may be improved by a generation of educated young people, whilst campaigning to ensure they receive the support that they need today. There are no easy answers, but I would be interested to hear what you think.

“We were told…”


Generalisations and stereotypical labelling can be the bane of a teacher’s life. I can guarantee that any teacher reading this blog will be able to recall expressions used about children that whilst having no evidence base have become part of the folklore of education. I can personally recall many of these, some of which I found particularly irksome – “gypsy traveller children always have poor school attendance records,”“boys with ADHD are always going to be trouble in class.” I’m sure that you could add your own equally irritating examples to these. The saddest feature of such expressions is that they can become self-fulfilling prophecies when teachers or others begin to believe them and adjust their expectations accordingly.

Recently, my good friend Savitha Ravi an outstanding school principal from Bangalore sent me a link to a video recording (see below) which reminded me of a number of occasions when I was a head teacher and parents would tell me of the predictions made about their children. A typical example can be related from the parents of one of my former pupils, a young lady with Down’s syndrome, whom I often meet in the local town. They recall how when she was just two years old they were told by a senior medical officer that their daughter would probably never talk, and that she would most certainly need an intensive level of care for the rest of her life. Having been given this professional information they went home and prepared to adjust their lives to ensure that the necessary high levels of provision would be in place for the remainder of their daughter’s years.

Looking back on this these highly committed parents are now able to smile and reflect on how they, and their daughter have proven the professionals to be wrong. Their daughter is now married, has successfully managed a job and lives a largely independent life with her husband (about whom similar predictions were made) about a hundred miles from her parents. When discussing this situation they recall the many stresses that they have experienced as parents and particularly those which they feel were caused by well-meaning but sometimes ill-informed professionals.

The story of these parents is not so different from many others whom I have known and who often use the expression “we were told that…” in recalling their experiences. “We were told that he would never walk,” – “we were told that children like Dean are impossible to toilet train.” Some of you will have heard similar tales beginning with the expression “we were told…” without a doubt.

Whilst I am not being critical of my professional colleagues who may have used such expressions in the past, after all they are probably basing their predictions upon many years of experience, I am concerned that the potential for lowering expectations can have a detrimental impact upon the education of children. It takes a confident and determined parent to confront such a diagnosis and to defy the wisdom of the professional or challenge their assertions.  One such parent Kristine Barnett is portrayed in the video clip forwarded to me by Savitha.

Kristine is the mother of Jacob who at an early age was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. When Jacob was still an infant she was told that her son might never be able to speak and might never be able to tie his shoelaces. She describes how when she was given this prognosis she was “completely devastated” and that it was “pretty scary.”  She recalls that when told these things “I believed them. They were my doctors and therapists and people that we trusted.”  During the interview seen in the video she never challenges the professionalism of any of the medics or teachers with whom she dealt, but what she does demonstrate is a confidence in her personal intuition as a parent and her profound belief in her right to choose a path for Jacob. Kristine describes the decisions she made to take Jacob away from the specialist schooling that was being provided for him and to give him opportunities alongside “typically developing” children. She goes on to tell a tale of her son flourishing and revealing an extraordinary gift for scientific thinking, and an ability to learn abstract concepts and apply these in ways that other much older individuals never manage.

Jacob, at the age of fifteen, is working alongside well established scientists in Toronto and has demonstrated the potential to become a leading physicist and researcher. In the video we see that he is an engaging young man who is certainly articulate and very focused upon his scientific studies. I must confess that when he talks about quantum physics he leaves me well behind in terms of my understanding. At the end of the interview Jacob tries to reassure listeners that mathematics and science is really quite simple and that “anyone can do it.” He certainly demonstrates a belief in himself that is much greater than many predicted for him.

I am not, of course suggesting that every child given a diagnosis of autism is a potential genius. What does concern me is that for so many parents expectations are lowered at a very early stage of their child’s development. Professionals do have to err on the side of caution and we should accept that raising false expectations may be as damaging as predicting low attainment. However, it takes an exceptionally strong parent like Kristine to challenge the authority of the professionals and to provide an alternative view of the world for their child with special educational needs.

The video (to which there is a link below) provides a much better analysis of the challenges faced by Kristine and the accomplishments of Jacob than I could possibly achieve in this short blog. Sadly, I have no doubt that I will continue to hear parents using the expression “we were told…” but hopefully I will also find more who have chosen to raise their own expectations and prove the professionals wrong.



The long road to independence

Plotting a route to independence is best managed through a partnership between schools and parents

Plotting a route to independence is best managed through a partnership between schools and parents

A few days ago I referred to a blog written by Nancy Gedge (No Right of Access to the Ordinary World March 16th). Nancy often has interesting things to say about her experiences as both a parent and a teacher. On March 24th she posted a piece titled Getting Children to do Stuff in which she describes her feelings about gaining a balance between giving children direct instructions and expecting them to conform, and giving them opportunities to make independent decisions. At times she reflects upon this issue in relation to her own son Sam who has Down’s syndrome.

Many parents can recall times when they made decisions that involved an element of risk. The first time that their child was allowed to cross the road alone, or stay out with friends late into the evening is often an occasion of some apprehension for parents. Thankfully all usually ends well and gradually the same challenges lessen until we are happy that our children can conduct themselves safely in a range of situations which were previously viewed as fraught with danger.

Nancy makes a number of interesting observations about these situations and how the way she perceives them may be different in respect of her son Sam. The protective instinct in parents is an important feature of enabling children to grow up in security and to move gradually towards independence. But as Nancy relates:-

“Sometimes, the Down Syndrome means that we are treading the same old paths for longer than we ever thought possible.  Sometimes I admit that I just want them to do what I want them to do because I want them to do it and that is that.”

When I was teaching in schools I often heard colleagues referring to parents as being “over protective.” It is an interesting expression and I appreciate the fact that we should be encouraging children to gain independence. However, I would rather a parent who was over protective than one who might be negligent. But as Nancy reminds us, not all children will move at the same pace and we need to ensure that a balance between protection and independence is maintained.

How we achieve this balance is a difficult question to answer. Nancy discusses this issue using some interesting words. Combining her roles as teacher and parent she says:-

“So when I look at the children around me, both at home and at school, I know that the very last thing I want for them is blind obedience.  I especially don’t want it when it is coupled with compliance.  And I certainly don’t want to see those qualities celebrated in end-of-term assemblies.  Yes, they need to do as they are told, yes, there are times when they need to do it straight away, no questions asked; but as they grow, as they turn from the children they are into adults, I want them to turn from obedience to discipline.”

I am interested in the journey that Nancy describes here; that involving a transition from childhood to adulthood with recognition that there should be a lessening of compliance and a move towards self-discipline. Like any journey this is generally taken in stages from unquestioning obedience through choice and decision making to independence. For all children this is a gradual progression, but for some it is a much harder route to follow. The decisions that parents have to make are often difficult and the influence of schools can be great. Teaching children to make independent choices, to understand the consequences of their actions and to recognise risk is something that can be managed within the relative security of the classroom. Opportunities to begin learning these skills need to begin early during schooling, but in some instances is left until far too late in the education process. As Nancy states, compliance can be a stifling factor on the road to independence and schools need to be aware of this.

For parents of children described as having learning disabilities the journey to independence can be longer than they would wish and certainly more arduous than for many of their children’s peers. Schools can do much to support both children and their parents on this journey if they choose so to do.

Nancy’s blog piece “Getting Children to Do Stuff” can be read at:-



No right of access to the “ordinary” world?


We must be prepared to listen to the experiences of parents if we want to produce a more inclusive education system.

We must be prepared to listen to the experiences of parents if we want to produce a more inclusive education system.

My friend and colleague the artist Jean Edwards whose work I mentioned in an earlier piece that I had written (The art of expression January 30th 2014), recently drew my attention to a blog called “The Diary of a Not so Ordinary Boy,” which is written by the parent of a young man named Sam who has Down syndrome. As might be expected this mother is able to articulate the experiences of living with a child who presents with some learning difficulties, in a manner that most of us would struggle to achieve. The number of years I have worked in this field are insignificant when it comes to an attempt to understand the lives of parents who have experiences such as those described in the piece brought to my notice by Jean.

Sam’s mother describes an interesting transition in the life of her son, one that she herself clearly was unsure about at the time when she made some significant choices. From the language she uses, it is evident that this parent had made a commitment to ensuring that her son was included in all aspects of education and the wider society in which he lives. But it is clear from what she says that she has felt frustrated with some of the difficulties that she has faced in enabling Sam to be included in a number of activities which would seem to be more readily accessed by his peers. Having over an extended period of time made tremendous efforts to enable Sam to participate in a range of out of school and extra-curricular activities, which would allow him to make friends and be a part of what she describes as the “ordinary world,” Sam’s mother has embarked upon a different direction. The way she phrases this is to say:-

“Now, though, I have learned to do things a little differently.  Now, I am happier for him to march to the sound of his own drum, rather than mine”.

Sam’s mother has made decisions that resulted in Sam moving further away from the “mainstream” that she had desired and to seek refuge in more specialist provision. The language that she uses to describe this process provides ample evidence that this was not a decision taken lightly.

“Now that Sam is in special education it would be easy to accuse us of excluding our son from society, hiding him away from the cruel gaze of the outside world, and, as a younger mother, that was certainly something I was afraid of.  My son wasn’t somebody to be ashamed of; he was (and is) different and proud, and we are proud of him.  But when it came down to it, I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice his education to an ideal of inclusion that I didn’t see working for him”.

In many ways I find these words of Sam’s mother to be very sad; not so much because of the decision that she has made, but because of the situation that led to her taking this action. At the conclusion of her piece, she writes

“Rather than sending Sam out into the world, maybe we need to invite it into ours.  And that means more than school.”

My interpretation of these words, and I hope that Sam’s mother will forgive me if I have got this wrong, is that whilst she, and probably other parents with children who are described as having special educational needs, have made a concerted effort to have their pupils join the “ordinary world”, this world is not yet prepared to fully accept children like Sam. I am not so naïve as to believe that in many instances this is not the case. I am indeed acutely aware of schools and other organisations that find many reasons to reject children and describe them as unsuitable candidates for the kind of institution or society that they have created.

How should we react to the situation in which Sam’s mother finds herself? In her blog she states that Sam is now far happier attending clubs that are run by professionals who understand and meet his individual needs. He is, in one sense, far more included in the activities of these than he ever was in those more “mainstream” organisations, where he was not understood. I can fully appreciate her sentiment that maybe we need to ensure that others are invited into Sam’s world in order to help them to understand his needs and those of others who have been marginalised or rejected. My main worry is that it is far too easy to refuse such an invitation and that the many battles that have been fought by parents over the years for their children to become included in the “ordinary world” may become diminished if we are less than insistent on seeing the mainstream change. (See Parents and teachers, learning and teaching together March 3rd). And here we have another problem. Why should the mainstream change if they see no reason to do so? Unless they are enabled to see the benefits to be gained from creating a more inclusive education and social system, they are unlikely to make efforts for what they may see as the sake of a minority.

I am in no way critical of Sam’s mother for the actions that she has taken. I know personally several others who have made similar judgments about the inability of the mainstream to provide for their children and have followed a similar path. However, I do feel that it is an indictment of society if we still believe that it is acceptable that children who are perceived as being “different,” a label which in actuality usually means “inferior,” can be denied access to the same learning and social opportunities made available to their peers. It is surely the responsibility of all of us to support Sam and his mother in bringing about the change we would all wish to see.

The “The Diary of a Not so Ordinary Boy,” can be read at:-



Parents and teachers, learning and teaching together


Sharing ideas with Dr Mithu Alur at a conference in Goa. Mithu is one of many parents who have led the demand for a more inclusive education system in India.

Sharing ideas with Dr Mithu Alur at a conference in Goa. Mithu is one of many parents who have led the demand for a more inclusive education system in India.

One of the most pleasing aspects of writing this blog has been the number of parents of children described as having special educational needs who have posted their opinions. In recent days, as I have focused upon issues related to the labelling of children, several parents have contributed thoughtfully to the debate, often sharing their own very personal experiences of the educational challenges faced by their children. Their observations and comments confirm the importance of ensuring that all of us, teachers, researchers, providers of professional development and other professionals, pay attention to what parents have to teach us as we search for a route towards more inclusive schooling.

Were it not for parents and their determination to fight for justice for their children, provision would still be denied to many even today. In earlier posts I have referred to the UNICEF report on the progress made towards the goals established through Education for All. Whilst it is clear that this progress has in many respects been disappointing, the picture would be far worse if it were not for the actions taken by parents. Sometimes the campaigning of parents has been supported by professionals and politicians, but often they have found it necessary to lobby those very groups who they may have expected to be their allies. This has often resulted in tensions between parents and professionals and in some instances there have been schisms in systems that would have benefited from closer collaboration.

I have been fortunate in my career to have had opportunities to work with many knowledgeable parents, whose commitment to achieving justice for their own children, and also for those of less confident parents who struggle to negotiate the labyrinthine corridors of education authorities has resulted in significant change. In India, parents such as Dr. Mithu Alur have worked tirelessly to represent others and to demand change from politicians and policy makers. It has not always been easy to get her voice heard but she has persisted and overcome many obstacles. Her successes have been many, and thousands of parents have benefited greatly from her work and that of ADAPT (formerly The Spastics Society of India), the organisation that she founded and now leads from offices in Mumbai.

In the UK the work of Dame Philippa Russell, who is currently chair of the UK Government Standing Commission on Carers, has dedicated more than forty years of her life to campaigning on behalf of people with disabilities. She was initially motivated by the needs of her own son, but has since worked selflessly in pursuit of justice for others. She has often provided a voice for those parents who feel less able to articulate their own concerns and has been a strong advocate for their rights and those of their sons and daughters.

Dame Philippa Russell, an inspiration to parents and professionals alike and a formidable campaigner for the rights of children and adults with disabilities.

Dame Philippa Russell, an inspiration to parents and professionals alike and a formidable campaigner for the rights of children and adults with disabilities.

Both Mithu Alur and Philippa Russell provide inspiration for those of us who work in pursuit of inclusive education. They are exceptional leaders in this field and have developed organisations and networks that have had national influence. There are doubtless parents of their ilk in countries around the world. Whilst the majority of parents are unlikely to take such a place of prominence on the national stage, many work steadily to improve the opportunities for children at a local level. Their motivation is strong and personal and as professionals we need to listen carefully to what they have to say about their experiences, and learn from their expertise. An important part of our role as professionals must be to provide them with a forum through which they can express their ideas and a partnership to enable them to achieve their aspirations.

Individuals with a wide range of professional and personal experiences and expertise have been kind enough to respond to pieces I have written for this blog. The observations that parents have made in their postings provide a good example of the valuable contribution that they can make to our understanding of critical issues. If progress towards inclusion is to be made it will demand that both professionals and parents continue to share their understanding and interpretation of the complexities of schooling in order to work together for change.

So, thank you to everyone who has contributed so far to the discussions on this forum. Your comments are continuing to help us all in understanding some of the challenges that we face in working for a more inclusive society.