Raising standards – hopefully for everyone.


Will all children receive a seal of approval?

Will all children receive a seal of approval?

Over the weekend I received an email from a colleague who teaches in a school in a county in the north of England. A few months ago this teacher, who I have never met, contacted me and asked if I would be willing to run a one day workshop in the primary school where she works. The focus of the workshop was to be on enabling pupils with special educational needs to be involved in planning for their individual education plans. Having negotiated a suitable date I was very happy to agree to this request and had begun a little planning for how I would organised the day.

I was somewhat surprised and a little disappointed on Sunday morning to find a message in my inbox from the teacher who had negotiated these arrangements, informing me that the event would have to be cancelled. In one sense, this is not a problem, it relieves a little time in my diary, but I was none the less somewhat disturbed by a part of this colleague’s message. Having made a number of apologetic opening remarks, hoping that I had not been inconvenienced and that I would understand that the decision was not her own, this obviously stressed lady went on to explain:-

“At a staff meeting on Thursday the head teacher informed us that special educational needs was no longer on the priority agenda, and that all of our focused training for the next year would be on raising standards, particularly in mathematics where we need more children reaching the highest grades. Therefore any work involving SEN would have to be shelved until a future date”

I could feel this teacher’s frustration and anxiety leaping at me from this email, and have the feeling that she felt somewhat embarrassed to have to cancel the event. Naturally I wrote back to her telling her not to worry and that I was in no way inconvenienced. Trying to reassure this colleague I emphasised that I recognised the situation and explained that I fully understand the situation. But do I?

What does the expression “special educational needs was no longer on the priority agenda” mean? More particularly, is the implication here that raising standards in mathematics does not have implications for children with special educational needs? Is it possible to raise standards in a school without considering this section of the population? Can standards across the board be raised by looking at the performance of one section of the school population whilst ignoring others?

I have no difficulty with the notion of raising standards in mathematics in a school. The teaching of the subject is obviously important, and we would hope that all children are enabled to achieve mathematical competence according to their need. But surely this is the point, we should be enabling all children to achieve. It is essential that all teachers feel competent and confident in teaching mathematics and that they should therefore receive professional development in this area. However, I would hope that somewhere in this training there might be an emphasis upon supporting those children who have particular difficulties with learning mathematical concepts and applying these in a range of situations.

I have long held the belief that if teachers learn the skills of planning and differentiating to ensure that pupils of all needs and abilities can be included in lesson, this is a major step towards raising standards for all children. Teachers who think carefully about how they can provide effective access for those who have difficulties with learning, usually develop strategies that benefit all learners.

I hope that in reading the email received on Sunday, something was lost in translation. Perhaps the head teacher meant to say that the focus of training for the coming period will be on raising mathematical standards for all children, including those who find the subject particularly difficult. Some of these children are probably not destined to reach “the highest grades”, but yet may make significant progress if provided with the right kind of teaching and support.

I would like to think that this time next year the achievements of all children in this school in mathematics are significant, and that the performance of both the most gifted mathematicians and those who have made progress with more basic concepts, is recognised and acknowledged. I would also hope that my colleague who has clearly been made to feel uncomfortable by the decisions made in her school, is fully involved in speaking on behalf on the pupils for whom she clearly feels responsible.




The alarm rings and I see through blurred eyes that the illuminated clock face says 6.00am. I reach out and find Sara stirring next to me. Ah yes, back home in England. I try in my somewhat befuddled, jet lagged state to calculate the time in Bangalore – 11.30 am, friends there will have been about their labours for many hours whilst I have been catching up on sleep. Drawing aside the curtains and looking from the bedroom window it is dark outside, but I am able to discern that there is no glistening white covering of frost this morning. Good news, the temperature is above freezing, at 5 degrees a relatively mild start for this time of year, but certainly not a South Indian morning.

A bowl of muesli for breakfast rather than the more customary dosa or idli of recent days helps prepare me for the day as I catch up with Sara on the news from home of the past two weeks and share some of my experiences from Bangalore. It is reassuring to return to a familiar routine, though I cannot imagine my life now without frequent visits to India and my friends and colleagues there.

Whenever I return from working with students in India I find myself pondering what I have learned. The whole experience of the visit has an influence upon my educational outlook. I find myself recharged with an enthusiasm for work shaped by the privilege of working with teachers committed to gaining a greater understanding of how they may change the lives of marginalised children.  The critical thinking that characterises the taught sessions on the MA programme in Bangalore challenges any notion of security we may have had in our own ideas of how to create an inclusive society. Whilst I am a tutor on this course I find that I am much more of a learner, a student of the cultural and socio-economic challenges confronted by Indian teachers on a daily basis. My conventional thinking is challenged and I am excited by the willingness of students on the course to debate issues and explore ideas.

Whilst this learning is clearly a positive outcome of the collaboration with colleagues in Bangalore, I also find that I become increasingly intolerant of the market driven bureaucratic processes that have been created by education policy makers in both India and England. The creeping iniquitous policies and procedures that have increasingly focused upon making our schools, colleges and universities into competitive institutions rather than supportive learning environments is something which causes me to become ever more anxious for the future of teaching. Healthy competition certainly has a place, but when schools feel unable to accept pupils who they perceive as likely to have a negative impact upon their academic results, this does nothing to assist the creation of an inclusive educational community. In India the Right to Education Act has been implemented with honourable intentions aimed at supporting learners who have been excluded from fair educational opportunities. At  the present time many school teachers and their principals are wary of addressing the requirements of the Act for fear that parents will perceive that a new intake of disadvantaged students may have a negative impact upon academic standards and the opportunities provided to their children. There is no empirical evidence to support their fears, but these apprehensions need to be addressed rather than ignored.

We must not blame teachers who express these concerns. When teachers believe themselves to be inadequately prepared to address the needs of the students in their class, they are naturally apprehensive and may well appear reluctant to cooperate. It is essential that those teachers who have the skills, understanding and knowledge to address the needs of children who may challenge conventional teaching, share this expertise with those who are less confident. We must ensure that this is achieved through collaboration and the establishment of supportive networks which will ultimately benefit both teachers and children. Sharing learning may appear more difficult in a competitive education environment, but the generosity of the students with whom we have been working indicates that it is certainly possible.

Over the past two weeks I have worked with teachers and students who have not only made a commitment to develop their own professionalism, but will also become the future leaders of educational inclusion in their communities. It is because of this that my optimism for the future of education in India far surpasses my concerns about the increasingly competitive nature of schooling. If these colleagues with whom I have been working are in any way representative of the teachers of Bangalore, then a more inclusive education system is assured.

Today’s news: Read all about it and think on this.

It may be an over generalisation to say that Indians love newspapers, but certainly there are news vendors everywhere here in Bangalore. The range of newspapers, in English, Kannada, Hindi and other Indian languages is phenomenal and it seems that local people just can’t get enough news. If the results of cricket matches are the first items they look to (bad news from New Zealand again today), the politics pages certainly rate second. Electioneering is in full swing with pictures of Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal, the three main protagonists gazing out of most of the early pages. Each promises the earth, but I see little concrete policy coming from any of them. Politics would appear to be the same the world over.

Whilst here in Bangalore I find that I quickly slip into the Indian newspaper habit. Each morning hanging from the door handle of my room is a bag containing today’s edition of the Times of India, a national paper which compares to the Times newspaper at home hardly at all. Whilst another English paper, the Deccan Herald is also readily available, my morning newspaper of choice is the Hindu. In all honesty I miss The Guardian with its detailed analysis of world events, and the daily satirical whit of Steve Bell, but when in Bangalore one really has to do what the Bangaloreans do.

Shuffling through the pages of the Hindu this morning and casting my eye across items about the recalibration of meters on auto-rickshaws, the sterilization of urban monkeys and the shooting of the man-eater of Dodabetta, my scanning was suddenly halted by an article with the headline “Most class 1 students in rural schools cannot read words”.  The article, reporting the findings of the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2013 conducted in Karnataka State laments a general decline in pupil achievements in reading and mathematics over the past year. In addition, the number of children now attending paid tuition has dropped by as much as 2.5%. Tuition classes have been regarded by many parents as an essential means of boosting the likelihood of their children gaining good public examination results. Maybe this is an indication of financial hardship or perhaps they are reassessing the value for money angle of some of the tuition centres.

It is significant that this is a report from rural areas in a country where the discrepancy in wealth between cities and the countryside is certainly noticeable. In Bangalore new schools are emerging all across the city and are being rapidly filled by glistening children in neatly pressed uniforms and brightly shining shoes delivered by parents in their equally shiny new Volkswagens and SUVs.  The city has clearly benefited from an economic renaissance and many individuals are prospering. However, in the poorest districts of the city where families depend upon state schools and in the villages, this prosperity is seldom apparent.

Of particular interest to me in this article was an analysis of the response in terms of supporting school infrastructure in order to deliver on the 2009 Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE). Criteria were established with this Act to assess the implementation of mandatory requirements aimed at improving the education of children from marginalised groups, including those with disabilities or from scheduled castes or scheduled tribes. These include the setting up of libraries and the provision of drinking water and toilets, all things we would take for granted in English schools. The survey found that in the rural schools 15.2 % did not have access to drinking water and a further 4.7% had facilities but there was no water available. Whilst 1.7% had no toilets, 32.4% had toilets that were not useable and 7.6% did not have separate toilets for boys and girls. Only 9% of schools were reported as not having libraries, but a staggering 40.4% had libraries that were not being used by children.

It is difficult to be fair when viewing these figures and this situation through western eyes. Furthermore, it is wholly inappropriate that as a guest in India I should cast any condemnatory remarks in the direction of administrators and managers who are trying to juggle priorities in education with those in areas such as environment and transport, often under challenging circumstances. Figures such as those above are particularly shattering when I think of the enormity of the task of supporting teachers in the development of inclusive schools. Each of these statistics reveals the day to day realities of the lives of many children, teachers and families. How can what we are doing on a small course in Bangalore possibly make a difference?

Every journey must begin with a single step. I can only hope that for every fifty teachers with whom we interact here in India one may go the extra mile towards changing the education system to one that is more equitable and inclusive. To do so demands resilience and fortitude. Teachers have to be activists and agents for change in a way that those in my own country can hardly imagine. The joy in working here is the knowledge that every student with whom we work on this course is making a commitment to enable children to gain access to an education that is firmly focused on their needs and those of their families and communities.

In support of this venture our students today completed activities founded upon ensuring that their pupils were able to access learning at their own level in classes of diverse need and ability. Through carefully planned lessons, the use of mind maps and the analysis of pupil needs they continued to demonstrate their dedication to learners and their ingenuity as teachers. As tutors on this course we come from a privileged background and reap the riches of working with consummate professionals. We know that we have had educational opportunities that are denied to so many with whom we work here. Yet whatever we give to our students they return with interest a thousand times.

And finally a piece of good news (that hopefully will not make the morning newspapers). Just as I was about to contrive making a dhoti out of a bedsheet in order to go out this evening my laundry was returned. This comes as a great relief to myself but even more so to the good people of Jayanagar I suspect!

Planning for diverse needs. The product of thinking

Planning for diverse needs. The product of the thinking of one group of students

Why are we here?

Blackboard outside of school in Jayanagar, Bangalore inviting applicants for pupils from marginalised groups under the RTE

Blackboard outside of school in Jayanagar, Bangalore inviting applicants for pupils from marginalised groups under the RTE

It’s a long way from Northamptonshire to Bangalore, a journey that I have made many times and one that lately I have shared with my colleagues Mary and her husband Tom and with John. Is the journey valid and worthwhile? This is a question I have often asked as I have wandered aimlessly around Dubai airport in transit from Birmingham, or whilst attempting to shrug off the jet lag during the first days after arrival. However, it takes only a little time until as a result of the kindness of friends and colleagues, a sort of confidence is aroused and I am reaffirmed in my appreciation of why we are here.

I suppose that in common with many other teachers I have always believed in education as a means of empowerment. In my own experience education has been a source of liberty, providing me with opportunities that were denied to earlier generations of my family. Education has to be a vehicle through which learners, many of whom have been marginalised or disenfranchised and others who have become disaffected can gain the confidence they require to participate fully within their communities. Without such a purpose its objectives are often contrived around policy agendas and are therefore likely to be sadly limited. For some this notion of education as empowerment is clearly easier to comprehend or to achieve than it is for others, but the challenge of engaging those who have traditionally been viewed as difficult to reach has always been part of the thrill of teaching. The empowerment of teachers is equally important. Teachers who feel that they are respected and have their professionalism recognised are more likely to maintain their commitment to their pupils. When they believe that they are being sidelined and their experience and expertise devalued, they too become disaffected.

I remember many years ago reading the late Nate Gage’s inspiring book The Scientific Basis of the Art of Teaching (1978). In this work Gage suggests that whilst effective teaching is systematic, organised and carefully planned in a scientific manner, it fails to inspire unless it is touched with artistry. Gage called upon teachers to look to research to inform their practice and observed that it is impossible to devise a single system that is likely to address the needs of all pupils. Teachers need to make decisions which are sometimes based upon instinct, to take risks and be inventive in the way they present their materials. Herein lies the creativity and the artistry of teaching. Nate Gage wrote his text more than 30 years ago, yet it would still resonate with many teachers today.

Sadly, politicians and legislators in England, having adopted a narrow and prescriptive view of education have done much to limit the creativity of teachers. In situations where teachers are required to work to formulae with an emphasis placed upon the measurement of a limited range of learning outcomes and where views of teaching approaches are restricted, artistry is diminished. A pseudo-science of education such as has emerged in recent years and which sees the purpose of teaching in only limited utilitarian terms has left many creative teachers feeling despondent and demoralised.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Both here in India, and at home in England I see teachers who have risen above the current trends and continue to exhibit exactly the kind of artistry that Nate Gage called for. Many of those teachers who have given a career commitment to finding ways to support young people who defy conventional teaching approaches have recognised that creative teaching is essential if progress is to be made. They innovate and shape their teaching environment in a manner that ensures that every pupil has access to learning. They do this, of course, by recognising that not all pupils learn from the same approach and indeed not all of them need to learn the same things. In some instances it takes courage to put your head above the parapet. Thank goodness that we continue to have courageous teachers.

As part of the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme here in Bangalore teachers are required to design an intervention for use with a pupil or group of pupils, to put it into place and then evaluate its effectiveness. They are systematic in their approach, rigorous in planning and thorough in their assessment of the intervention. Yet what shines through in so much of their work is the creative ways in which they have thought about issues and designed their approaches. Even on occasions when the intervention has not been as successful as they may have wished, they are able to find positivity from pupil responses and participation, and reward from the relationships they have established with each individual. Such is their enthusiasm that our own resolve as tutors on the course is heightened and helps us to increase our endeavours, as we continue to work in partnership with students, teachers and children who are so committed to the art of teaching. This really is why we are here.

One last note from today. Whilst walking the backstreets of Jayanagar yesterday we came across a blackboard outside a school which makes a statement about the Right to Education Act (RTE) and the recent requirement that all schools accept onto their roll pupils with special educational needs or from disadvantaged groups (see photograph at the top of this page). For those readers who may be unaware, this Act has provoked a certain controversy as it expects that all schools, state and private, enrol pupils who may not formerly have been part of the school’s population. Written on the board is this year’s quota and an invitation to potential applicants to be made before February 8th. The board intriges me. What does it suggest I wonder? A new found commitment to children or their reduction to a set of numbers designed to limit the impact of the Act? Only time will tell. Your insights may well be better than mine. – All observations welcomed, after all this is partly why we are here.