Monkey business and a critical campaign

A campaign that could make a real change in the lives of many children

A campaign that could make a real change in the lives of many children

In England if you wish to have good views of our native red foxes, the best place to seek them out is probably in the city. These sleek long tailed creatures were originally woodland and forest dwellers, and indeed many still live this lifestyle, but there are also large numbers that have become urbanised and have taken to living within our cities and towns. Indeed the foxes of Bristol have become so famous that they have featured in television documentaries as people have made them welcome in their gardens, watched the growth of their cubs, and walked along with them on the avenues and streets of that historic city.

The fox is a clever animal (often depicted as cunning in children’s stories) and may well have realised that he is less likely to be pursued by woefully sad people who take pleasure from chasing terrified creatures across the English landscape mounted on horseback, if he assumes a more urban identity.

In India I have often seen monkeys. Whenever I have visited the Valley school, surrounded as it is by forest, I have encountered troupes of these acrobatic mischief makers sauntering along the forest floor, sitting on rooftops or high in the canopies of the trees. I remember seeing monkeys sitting along the fence of a park as I travelled into the city from Delhi international airport, and I have caught glimpses of these creatures in Cubbon Park, here in Bangalore. But until today I had never met monkeys during my morning walk through Jayanagar. However, this morning, there they were marching down a lane towards me, all slinky swagger and mast high tails. Amongst their number was probably the most obese monkey I have ever see. The urban diet is clearly doing him no good!

This fellow should certainly go on a diet!

This fellow should certainly go on a diet!

Monkeys are not essential when it comes to finding interest on the streets of Jayanagar, where colourful posters and hoardings advertise everything from cosmetic surgery and ayurvedic health treatments, to website design and translation services. These often provide information overload, and in many instances their content passes me by without holding my interest beyond a few seconds. However, near Madhavan Park my attention was held by a large poster which announced a particularly important event.

I remember as a child that poliomyelitis, usually simply referred to as polio, was a terrifying disease causing terrible muscle weakness or even paralysis. I attended primary school with a boy who wore a leg caliper and had restricted mobility as a result of contracting this awful condition as an infant. In England now, instances of polio are fortunately rare, largely because of a national programme of immunization developed by the Polish immunologist Hilary Koprowski in 1950; if ever a man deserved to be lauded with honours and awards, it was surely this one.

The poster that arrested my gaze today announced two national immunization days and declared an intention to immunize every child under the age of five years. A second poster, with information in both English and Kannada, depicted a child being given the simple oral drops of the vaccine that will provide a life time of protection. Such posters provide a salutary reminder of the terrible health risks that still confront many children and families living in this country, particularly those from the economically disadvantages communities that form such a significant proportion of the population. The message conveyed is simple, but probably needs to be reinforced by education and other means of communication. However the word is spread, as I see many children and adults on the streets of Jayanagar who bear the scars of this disease, I hope that the campaign and its vital message has the desired effect.

DSC00347

As a postscript to this posting: For those of you who are regular readers of this blog, and have been kind enough to inquire. You will doubtless be pleased to hear that I am now fully clad in clean clothes, my laundry having returned from its extensive tour of the state of Karnataka!

Celebration from the Western Ghats to the Malabar Coast

 

Attending school is critical to the children of these Kerala fisherman. Raising the quality of their education may be a challenge that remains to be addressed.

Attending school is critical to the children of these Kerala fisherman. Raising the quality of their education may be a challenge that remains to be addressed.

Tomorrow in Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), Kerala University will host an event at which education minister P. K. Abdu Rabb will formally announce that Kerala has become the first Indian State to achieve 100% primary education provision. A drive by the state literacy mission (Athulyam) has been well supported by teachers and there is evidence of significant success in improving school attendance and the state literacy rates. This is indeed a cause for celebration, and is indicative of the commitment that I have seen amongst many teachers and education officials in this part of India.

I have been fortunate enough to visit Kerala on a number of occasions and have several good friends living in that state who work in education, and have contributed greatly to its development. Like much of India it is a region of extremes with wealthy suburbs of cities such as Trivandrum and Kochi, cheek by jowl with areas of poverty and deprivation. Tourism on the famous backwaters attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year to explore tranquil rivers, canals and lakes and to view an abundance of bird life in beautiful bucolic surroundings. Keralan cuisine, which makes superb use of local ingredients, including the ever plenteous coconut, finds particular favour with western tourists, and I can personally verify the excellence of the fish molly, appam and  payasam available in most of the coastal regions. This important industry has provided employment and supported the development of luxury hotels and resorts on a par with any to be found in Europe. However, within walking distance of many such developments are fishing communities where men continue to live a life of struggle with the seas in order to make a meagre living and support their families who live in the most rudimentary of accommodation and often eat a far more basic diet.

When visiting Kerala, I have had opportunities to observe lessons in a number of schools, where for the most part dedicated teachers work hard to ensure that the pupils in their charge receive a good education. As is the case elsewhere in the world, these schools vary considerably in respect of their buildings, resources, classrooms and those who staff them. I consider it a privilege to spend time talking to teachers in any school, and the enthusiasm and commitment that they demonstrate is a real tribute to their professionalism. This is as much the case in Kerala as it is here in Northamptonshire. However, I often find myself worrying about the disparity that I see across schools, and whilst this is an issue here in my own country, I feel this in India more than in many other places that I have visited.

I was thinking about this issue yesterday as I read reports of Kerala’s educational success. Let me say from the outset, that the achievement of universal primary education in the state is something to celebrate, and a matter in which the education policy makers should quite rightly take pride. However, I also found myself hoping that having hit this important target, these same policy makers do not rest on their laurels and that they recognise the need to avoid complacency. Getting children into school should be seen as the first, albeit critical stage of this development. Far tougher issues continue to challenge the education system in Kerala, as elsewhere in India. I have been to schools in the state where children are provided with the most modern facilities and resources, are taught by highly qualified teachers and learn in classes of twenty five pupils. These schools rival many that I have seen in the UK and other parts of Europe and are a fine example of what can be achieved in this, one of India’s wealthiest states. By contrast, I have spent time in Government schools in some of the poorer communities of Kerala where class sizes of 60 pupils are still common, teacher absenteeism is a problem and children share the most rudimentary text books and other resources. This level of inequity continues to be a problem, which unless it is addressed will perpetuate the social divide between a burgeoning Indian middle class and those who have limited opportunities to progress from their current impoverished condition.

Tomorrow’s announcement will, quite rightly be heralded with fanfares and celebration. It is certainly not my intention to rain on this all too well deserved parade. The foundations have now been laid for the further development of an education system that can be much more inclusive and afford greater opportunities for all children in Kerala. Within the state the challenge after tomorrow is to ensure not only that children are attending school, but that they have a chance to learn effectively and with access to the teachers and resources that they need. Where Kerala leads today, let us hope that the rest of India may follow in the near future. When this happens there will be a reason for even greater celebration.

 

Bringing colour to the lives of the people of Kabul

 

Street art from the detritus of war. Surely a better use for a tank!

Street art from the detritus of war. Surely a better use for a tank!

Until I read about her in the Guardian yesterday the name Neda Taiyebi was unknown to me, as I suspect it probably was (still is?) to most people here in the UK. I hope that it will soon be a name that is better known as this young lady is engaged in an activity that deserves wider attention.

Neda Taiyebi is an Iranian born artist who for the past year has been living in Afghanistan. At a time when many people have been fleeing from the war ravaged cities of that desperately poor country, Neda has chosen to travel in the opposite direction and believes that she has found a situation in which she is more able to express her artistic talents. Part of the motivation for her work is to be found in her commitment to enabling women to express themselves in an area that has been male dominated and asserts a bullish image to the world. She has commenced this task with enthusiasm and by taking advantage of the devastated landscape that surrounds her in the suburbs of Kabul.

Neda has noted the lack of public art within Kabul, and decries the fact that whilst efforts are being made to revive educational institutions within the city, these are seen as functional establishments with little consideration being given to the development of cultural or aesthetic well-being. Determined to begin to redress the balance, Neda Taiyebi has embarked upon a unique project to create areas of beauty amidst the rubble and chaos of the bomb torn streets of Kabul. A picture in yesterday’s Guardian shows a group of children playing on a piece of street art created by Neda Taiyebi, which is clearly bringing some joy into the lives of these youngsters.

Neda’s approach to creating public art is highly original, but has been achieved by seeking out some of the most potent symbols of violence and destruction to be found in the area. So far, she has created works of art by decorating the husks of three immobilised Russian tanks that have scarred the city streets for a number of years. These previously rusting shells of burned out vehicles have been assaulted with colour, patterns and images that could never have been imagined when these armoured beasts originally patrolled the streets of Kabul.

Taking inspiration from the domestic art that she had seen all around her in her home in Iran, including patterns from textiles and patchwork designs, Neda Taiyebi has demonstrated how symbols of death and ruin can be transformed into a colourful play station for local children. Drawing inspiration from such domestic items has asserted the contribution that women have made to creativity and design and has brought a more reasoned approach to interpreting the streets of the city. In so doing she has received some support from the Afghan government; though sadly, this has of necessity included the presence of an armed guard whilst she undertakes her work.

As we await the arrival of Christmas here in the UK, we have become familiar with the usual colourful lights and trappings that surround us on the streets of our towns, cities and villages. Whilst very little of this can truly be described as street art, it brightens our lives in the midst of winter, and brings pleasure to children and adults alike. Perhaps the work of Neda Taiyebi in Kabul will bring smiles to the faces of people of that once great city. Her assertion that more attention needs to be given to encouraging a cultural and aesthetic appreciation of the world undoubtedly challenges politicians and educators in a country which may see other priorities. However, the smiling faces of children playing on a decorated tank which in previous times would have probably terrorised them, is just one indication of the importance of her work.

Thank you and happy Christmas to Neda Taiyebi, may your work continue to bring joy to the streets of Kabul. And, of course happy Christmas and a peaceful new year to whoever may happen to read this blog.

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 start by putting our own house in order.

This report makes interesting and sometimes uncomfortable reading

This report makes interesting and sometimes uncomfortable reading

It has always seemed to me that my job requires that I keep up to date with current research and legislation in the field of education. As most of my work is focused upon issues of educational inclusion and those socio-economic, cultural and political factors that impede progress towards creating a more inclusive education system and perpetuate marginalisation, my reading often includes national and international data that reports the current situation. Documents such as the Global Monitoring Reports that assess the progress made in respect of the education for all (EFA) goals have always proven useful and have informed both my teaching and research. Usually, these reports provide an overview of the situation for children and families in some of the most economically challenged parts of the world, and indicate initiatives that have had a positive impact upon change. However, there is a distinct danger that in reading these documents, one begins to make assumptions that the greatest challenges facing education are to be found in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, or South American countries. Beliefs  are all too often held that suggest we have somehow got things right in “the west” and that others should simply follow our lead.

Anyone who really believes that we have addressed the obstacles to creating a more inclusive and equitable society here in Europe, might be well advised to read the recently published Education and Training Monitor Report produced by the European Commission. This document provides an overview of the progress made in respect of providing access to a high quality education for young people across Europe, and reviews those influences that are currently having an impact upon achieving positive outcomes. In his introduction to this interesting document, Tibor Navracsics, the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, identifies “investment in education and inclusion through education” as the most important theme that is threaded throughout its pages. The report does identify a number of positive developments that have been supportive of young people in recent years; however, Navracsics makes a bold statement in which he states that:

 “Millions of Europeans are at risk of poverty and social exclusion, inequalities continue to grow and unemployment remains unacceptably high, especially among young people”.

There are positive messages given within the report. Not least is the increase from 34.8% – 38% of the  young people who are now completing post compulsory education and gaining good qualifications. A well educated work force has long been emphasised as a necessary condition of maintaining socio-economic stability in Europe. Unfortunately, whilst there appears to be an increased appetite for education, the report provides evidence that “youth unemployment, poverty and marginalisation remain high and one if four adults in Europe is caught in a low-skills trap.”

Amongst the most alarming sections of the report are those that suggest that the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest people living in Europe is greater than ever, and has grown at an alarming rate. Education has always been seen as a means through which individuals and communities could improve their life opportunities security and stability. But this report suggests that education is a major victim of a Europe wide economic crisis and that the budget cuts that are being made across the continent have had a detrimental impact upon the lives of individuals, with the likelihood of alarming long term consequences. These will most certainly include greater numbers of people living in poverty, and at an extreme may result in increased disaffection and social unrest.

The authors of the report state that:

“Europe is not moving in the right direction fast enough. Educational poverty remains stubbornly embedded, with far too many disadvantaged students, and government investment – crucial to quality education – reveals worrying signs of spending cuts,”

It continues by identifying:

“The persisting determinants of underachievement are, inter alia, socio-economic status, immigrant background and gender.”

Individuals who have arrived in Europe as refugees, often displaced from their homes in the most traumatic of circumstances, along with those who struggle as a result of disability or illness, are seen as most likely to fall beneath the poverty line and live in the least desirable situations. This despite many of those arriving new into Europe, being well qualified and experienced and having held professional positions in the countries from which they have fled.

It is difficult at present to identify the kind of leadership within European countries that is prepared to accept the challenge of confronting these increasing levels of inequality. Sadly it would appear that the fact that some people are doing well and are far more comfortable than they may have been a few years ago, is being taken as an indication that inactivity is acceptable. Unfortunately, for those who are currently struggling to survive and becoming further separated from their neighbours, a lack of willingness to change direction will bring little by the way of relief.

 

“Are we there yet?” – Apparently not!

8bktgicp_400x400

I enjoy living in the relative peace and quiet of the countryside, and though I was born and lived all of my childhood and youth in cities, I now feel much more at home in more bucolic surroundings. However, whenever I am asked about how I would feel about returning to city life, I am quite confident in saying that I could settle down to this quite quickly, as long as the city was Dublin.

As a metropolis, Dublin offers all of the cultural delicacies of which I am so fond, art, music, museums and especially theatre, all confined within a city on a human scale and surrounded by mountains, sea and moorland. In other words it has much to hold one within the confines of the city boundaries, but with an easy escape route when in need of solitude or solace. Dublin and its environs has an additional attraction in being the home to a number of very good friends and colleagues.

Having been fortunate enough to work quite regularly in Ireland over the past twelve years and to have visited schools in most of its counties, I have always regarded this as a country that values education and celebrates the lives of children. The teachers I meet in Irish schools are invariably highly professional and committed practitioners with a clear focus upon providing an education system of the highest quality. It was therefore with some dismay that I finished reading this morning a report by the Children’s Rights Alliance, an organisation of around 100 organisations working for children and families. This document titled “Are We There Yet?” reports on the life experiences of children in Ireland today.

There are many positive facts within the report, and it is evident that the majority of Irish children have good experiences of care, nutrition and health, but it is the figures related to child poverty in present day Ireland that give particular cause for concern. It is reported that the incidence of child poverty in the country has almost doubled within a very short time during which the Irish economy was in recession. It is now estimated that one in every eight children in Ireland are recognised as being in poverty with 1,500 homeless children living in emergency accommodation. Equally stark is the revelation that Ireland has the highest rate of youth suicides amongst girls, and the second highest for boys within the European Union, a situation that cannot be helped by the fact that 3,000 children are currently on waiting lists for mental health care.

Early next year the Irish Government is required report to the United Nations on its current conformity with the requirements of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the report suggests that this may prove difficult.

“Are We There Yet?” makes for uncomfortable reading, and it is difficult to imagine how policy makers and politicians will react to this detailed report. Certainly, the austerity measures which were put into place in Ireland would appear to be one reason for this sudden decline in child welfare, and there may be a salutary lesson for other governments, including that here in the UK who have embarked upon a similar course of action. In times of financial difficulties it is invariably the poorest individuals who suffer most, and even in a traditionally caring country like Ireland it seems inevitable that those with the least are likely to have the worst experiences.

Is there any reason to be optimistic I wonder? What I do know is that those professionals who I have had the great pleasure to meet and get to know within the caring professions in Ireland have the professionalism to deliver a first rate service if they are given the necessary resources. Those teacher, health service executive professionals, and social workers with whom I have interacted over a number of years have already demonstrated that they know how to provide the quality care, education and counselling that is quite evidently needed to turn this situation around. The question must be whether there is the political will and know how to enable this to happen.

Ireland has a proud history of education and welfare and a record of valuing learning and encouraging independent thought. It is a country in which I have always felt privileged to be able to work alongside friends and colleagues who I value and respect. I know that they too will be concerned by the findings of “Are We There Yet?” and will already be considering how they can assist families and children to address this worrying situation.

Making a welcoming contribution

Kurdish art therapist Hassan Deveci, helping Syrian children feel at home in Germany

Kurdish art therapist Hassan Deveci, helping Syrian children feel at home in Germany

A former student emailed me today to ask if I had heard about the outstanding work being undertaken by a Kurdish art therapist named Hassan Deveci who is based in Cologne (Köln), Germany. I had to admit that I had never heard of Deveci or the work that he has conducted from his studio in that Germany city. Apparently Deveci having fled from Turkey, first applied for political asylum in Germany in 1994. Initially he lived in a basic camp as he waited three years for a decision to be made about his status. Having eventually been granted asylum in Cologne, he turned his attention and skills in the direction of helping others.

The German international news channel Deutsche Welle reports that in recent months much of Deveci’s attention has been focused upon helping traumatised children who have fled as refugees from the conflict in Syria. His own experiences at having to leave his native country and settle into a different culture, have clearly shaped his attitudes and strengthened the resolve that he has to help others. He reports how his own recollection of a traumatic time in his life has motivated him to make contact with Syrian families and offer his expertise to assist children in adjusting to a new life in Germany.

It is more than a year since Deveci opened his studio to a small group of Syrian children and encouraged them to express their feelings and experiences through art. It is hardly surprising that much of the work produced by the children with whom he works has a common theme related to war and death. Many of the parents of those with whom he works have expressed their own distress that the images produced by these children tell tales of horror and trauma. However, Deveci is sure that giving these refugee children an opportunity to express their feelings and emotions through art, will have therapeutic benefits.

The parents report that their children’s German language abilities are improving and that they are beginning to make new friends and adjust to their new and strange situation. Equally important is the statement made by a parent that her children are having fun and doing the normal things that others are doing.

Whilst this is certainly a heartening story, and an indication of the care and consideration given by this artist to a group of distressed children and their families, there are some serious questions surrounding the current situation. Deveci states that he is simply one of many volunteers who have come forward to assist children who have lost everything from their former lives in Syria. However, he is now struggling to maintain support at the level which he had hoped, simply because he is running out of materials and the ability to continue financing this initiative.

Reading about this extraordinary man who sees himself as only doing what any decent citizen would wish to do, a number of matters crossed my mind. Firstly, that this man, in taking an initiative has demonstrated a level of personal responsibility and care that is exemplary and provides an outstanding example of citizenship from which we can all learn. Secondly, that those in positions of power and leadership might well benefit by considering the example he has provided and ensuring him the necessary support and resources to continue this work. I also wonder if the personal contact that he is having with these children might be having a beneficial impact upon his own coming to terms with displacement.

Whilst some members of the public and a significant proportion of the media occupy themselves with inciting negative views of “migrants” and refugees, here is a fine example of a man who is more than repaying the hospitality of a country in which many continue to see him as an outsider. I would suggest that he is an excellent example of a good German citizen.

 

 

Inclusion: let’s not narrow the debate.

Tomorrow's nation builder?

Tomorrow’s nation builder?

A couple of undergraduate students stopped me in the carpark as I was leaving the university yesterday and having established that they had accosted the correct person (we had never met before) asked me to clarify a point about the successes achieved through the  Education for All goals. I was, of course, pleased to find these young students engaging with debates about children’s rights and enthusiastic about understanding the current discourse  surrounding the establishment of a new set of fifteen year goals at the United Nations. They were well informed about the review of the Millennium Development Goals and had clearly been following recent media reports on this issue. They had also read a couple of significant texts about current debates in education and thought about these in respect of their own educational experiences.

The conversation was going well, until one of these bright young women, almost inevitably, mentioned the word “inclusion”. She then commenced to talk about the continuing plight of children with disabilities in various parts of the world, and in particular sub-Saharan Africa, a part of the world where she has a number of friends and relatives. This young lady was clearly knowledgeable about this situation and in particular the work of a couple of non-governmental organisations who had established schools in two African countries. Quite rightly she reported the successes achieved by these NGOs, but also identified that there remained much to be done if the goal of universal primary education was to be achieved. At this point her colleague intervened, supporting the view that children with disabilities were still the victims of discrimination and that many teachers remained reluctant to admit them to their classes.

I suppose I should have known better, but I just couldn’t help myself. I found myself agreeing with these two students but also pointing out that inclusion is not simply an issue of disability, and that there are many other factors that inhibit access to education. In the countries for which they were obviously particularly concerned, I suggested that the issues of poverty and gender might also be a contributory factor in the exclusion of some children from school, and that whilst considerable progress has been made in this area, discrimination and lack of opportunity are persistent problems. Singling out disability without considering these other factors, I proposed, might be a naïve way of thinking about the problem.

Millennium Development Goal 2, which concentrated upon the achievement of universal primary education, is of course, very important. However, it would appear that on some university courses that are focused upon childhood, this specific goal is being debated in isolation from others. A brief conversation with these obviously committed and enthusiastic female students revealed that MDG 3 which is concerned with gender equality and female empowerment appears to have passed them by. Over the course of a ten minute conversation it was clear that these two recognised that there may be a correlation between gender and exclusion from education, but that in terms of the inclusion debate that had taken place in some of their lectures, the narrow focus upon special educational needs and disability had managed to by-pass this issue.

It is evident from much of the research conducted in this area that the education of girls can have has a positive effect on the communities in which they live. Women who have received a formal education make a greater contribution to the well-being and mental health of their families are likely to have increased financial stability and employment opportunities and are also more likely to send their own daughters to school.

Internationally governments have been encouraged to provide greater incentives for increased school attendance by girls, including the awarding of scholarships and the development of specific girl friendly schools. In some parts of India, the improvement of toilet facilities for girls has had a dramatic impact upon school attendance, and in Mexico a financial incentive programme in rural areas has increased female enrolment by 20%.

There remains a need to address issues for girls as they get older. Child marriage, and the necessity to manage household tasks or assist in manual labour, coupled with a pervasive poverty, and in some instances high levels of violence against women have all been shown to be major obstacles to retaining girls in school. Furthermore, it remains the case that in the most socio-economically challenged regions of the world, entry into post-compulsory education is a significant issue for would be female students.

During the course of our brief conversation I brought to mind one of my Indian PhD students who will be in England next week. Pooja is undertaking research into parental expectations in relation to the education of girls in an urban community in India. Her work is both original and important and is already highlighting significant difficulties faced by many female students in one of the world’s fastest growing economies. It would be good, I thought, to get these two young students together with Pooja to consider the importance of gender issues in relation to the inclusion agenda.

Taking my leave of the two young women in the carpark yesterday I was heartened that they were clearly reflective and concerned individuals eager to understand some of the obstacles that continue to prevent the development of a more equitable education system. Hopefully, the next time they are in a classroom debate about inclusion they may broaden the focus and thus engage their fellow students and tutors in a more holistic understanding of the inequalities that continue to hinder progress.

 

Ideas from the past which still resonate today.

Nehru and Gandhi, two great friends and leaders adorn a wall in Bangalore

Nehru and Gandhi, two great friends and leaders adorn a wall in Bangalore

Today is Gandhi Jayanti, October 2nd, the date on which Mahatma Gandhi was born in 1869. Celebrated as a national holiday throughout India, the streets have been quieter than usual. Most people here have a day free from work, though our course continued as normal. This was most certainly not a mark of disrespect for the Father of the Nation, indeed, some students wore the homespun Khadi as a tribute to the memory of this great man, it was simply a fact that we have too much to cover within a brief timetable with our students this week that prevented us from taking a break. I feel certain that Gandhi would have appreciated our dilemma.

Gandhi spoke often of the benefits that he had gained from receiving part of his formal education in the West, and he retained affection for England and many of the friends he made there throughout his life. Indeed during a formative period of his life in South Africa, when he was still shaping his thoughts on Indian Swaraj and the use of non-violent resistance, he was a firm advocate of English educational approaches. However, on his return to India in January 1915, and following a tour of the country during which he was horrified by the poverty and oppression of so many of his people, his thinking about the role of education in promoting freedom and democracy shifted considerably.

Reading from his writings around this time and the years leading up to the Quit India campaign, it is possible to detect an emphasis upon education as a means of promoting self-discipline and equal opportunities. His notions of schooling took on a much more practical leaning, with consideration given to the importance of manual skills as well as academic learning. Much of his writing focuses upon what today we would term “values education,” with an emphasis on the creation of strong character and service. We can also find many statements, such as the one below in which he challenged the prejudice against educating girls, and those from the dalit community.

The real difficulty is that people have no idea of what education truly is. We assess the value of education in the same manner as we assess the value of land or of shares in the stock-exchange market. We want to provide only such education as would enable the student to earn more. We hardly give any thought to the improvement of the character of the educated. The girls, we say, do not have to earn; so why should they be educated? As long as such ideas persist there is no hope of our ever knowing the true value of education.

Gandhi also had views about the teacher and student relationship, promoting the idea that the classroom should become an environment in which everyone is a learner. Speaking to Khadi Vidyalaya students at Sevagram Sevak in 1942 he stated that:-

A teacher who establishes rapport with the taught, becomes one with them, learns more from them than he teaches them. He who learns nothing from his disciples is, in my opinion, worthless. Whenever I talk with someone I learn from him. I take from him more than I give him. In this way, a true teacher regards himself as a student of his students. If you will teach your pupils with this attitude, you will benefit much from them.

This consideration of the teacher and student relationship informed much of our work today, as our students reviewed approaches to greater pupil involvement in planning and assessing their own learning.

Sadly, I meet many people here in India today who see Gandhi simply as a historical figure, an elderly man in a dhoti who is to be seen on the banknotes of India and who is commemorated by statues in every city of the nation. Working with teachers I rarely hear reference to the ideas that Gandhi expressed on education, and it is apparent that much of the formal schooling that is dominant in this country, as elsewhere in the world, espouses a westernised, elitist and materialistic approach to learning. Gandhi was not a saint, he was a political leader and a great thinker, who based his actions on clearly stated principles and commanded authority by adhering to these. He was often stubborn and sometimes intolerant of those who opposed his views. Many of his views seem impracticable to the modern reader, but above all he was a man who demonstrated respect even to those who opposed him.

Whilst Gandhi’s educational beliefs may be secondary to those of his political and philosophical ideas, his views in this area are certainly worthy of more than a cursory glance. It is always a pleasure to be in Bangalore, but especially poignant on Gandhi Jayanti when people across the country remember the man and the moral and political leadership he gave to a nation.

Whose development? Who benefits?

D.R. Nagaraj (1954 - 1998) a writer who never fails to challenge current thinking.

D.R. Nagaraj (1954 – 1998) a writer who never fails to challenge current thinking.

A few years ago I read a book called The Flaming Feet purchased here from Nagashree bookshop, that I found both inspiring and challenging. In this collection of essays the author D.R. Nagaraj, one of the foremost cultural and political commentators to have emerged from India’s non-English-speaking world, presented a critical interpretation of the pervasive Indian caste system, and its impact upon Dalit communities within the country. The book was in many ways shocking in its portrayal of poverty and repression in a modern country; it was also very well researched and written.

Last night I returned to Nagaraj’s work, this time reading from his book Listening to the Loom: Essays on Literature, Politics and Violence in which he provides unique insights into vernacular cultures and the tensions between modern society and those who live at its periphery. At one point in the book Nagaraj writing about the current pressures upon tribal peoples living in Karnataka State, very close to where I am seated now in Bangalore, expresses his concerns that there are assumptions made by those who claim to be promoting “development,” that everyone wishes to live the same kind of life as them. Nagaraj challenges this idea, arguing that the imposition of a homogeneous form of “civilization” is to deny and undervalue the culture of people who have long existed in their own manner, with well-established customs, and often a far more sustainable life style than those existing within modern society.

The arguments extended by this eminent writer were well constructed and I found myself in sympathy with much that he had to say. But there was one specific  sentence in the section of the book which I read last night, that gave me particular food for thought. Nagaraj suggests that:

        “The notion of the mainstream is carefully nurtured to serve as a frame of reference for minorities.”

He asserts that what society really desires from tribal peoples, or indeed others who do not fit in to our impression of the norm,is that they should conform to what we perceive to be “mainstream society,” leaving behind all that does not sit comfortably within our view of  modern life, in order to become like everyone else.

This assertion had particular resonance in relation to the sessions we had been sharing on the past two day’s MA programme in Jayanagar. During workshop activities our students had been encouraged to discuss how the individual needs of children could be respected, appreciated and addressed in an inclusive learning environment. Through the course of the last two days they had designed learner friendly teaching classrooms, examined the purpose of the curriculum and discussed why some learners feel alienated by the kind of schools we have created. They were thoughtful and reflected in analysing the challenges faced by children and teachers and presented a range of interesting ideas of how individual needs can be met.

Nagaraj makes a critical point in stating that we have a notion of the mainstream into which we expect everyone to fit. He raises important questions about the mainstream and challenges us to question whether this, as it currently exists, is a desirable place to be. Throughout this course we emphasise to our students that inclusion is not simply about placing children in mainstream schools. Indeed, I would suggest that there are some schools which I would certainly not wish to see children attend, as I know they would be subjected to teaching that is about as far removed from inclusive as it is possible to be. We also advocate for the retention of cultural diversity and respect for individuals and their heritage. However, we also believe that it is possible to create schools that are respectful of a wide range of learning needs and able to meet the needs of children from a wealth of backgrounds. Throughout our work with students we suggest that inclusion is about changing schools to recognise and appreciate diversity, rather than changing children.

Nagaraj in his writing always challenges my current thinking. He has much to tell us about the lives of those communities that have been disenfranchised, and encourages us to consider how the influence of the structures and systems that we have created impact upon those who are perceived as different from ourselves. He quite rightly asserts that we use the word “development” in a blasé manner, without any real understanding of what we mean. If justice is to be achieved, can we have economic development at national level, without ensuring that those in our poorest communities benefit? Where does social development fit into the current scheme of things? Is it right that the promotion of development has benefits for some, whilst others suffer as a consequence of its results?

These questions are important to those of us who are concerned to create a more inclusive and equitable society. Sadly it would appear that the voices of writers such as Nagaraj can be easily lost in the clamour to promote an impression that modernisation (a term that I do not see as synonymous with development) is benefiting everyone.

Listening to the Loom, written by D. R. Nagaraj is published by Prmanent Black.

Listening to the Loom, written by D. R. Nagaraj is published by Permanent Black.