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!

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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.

 

Hungry to learn but starved of opportunity.

Kerala - a State that Prides itself on the quality of its education

Kerala – a State that Prides itself on the quality of its education

In The hands of Gandhiji, the hunger strike was often a potent weapon, and one that he used  to highlight the injustices created by British officialdom during the Quit India campaign. In addition, he and many other satyagrahi deployed this very personal and potentially fatal tactic during times of community sectarian violence in order to bring parties to a greater sense of personal responsibility. Many have been the debates about this extreme tactic, and not all have endorsed the hunger strike as a legitimate means of protest. It was undoubtedly a powerful tool when deployed by Gandhi, in part because of the reverence with which he was held by much of the Indian population at the time. In the hands of others, including for instance the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in England, or Palestinians protesting the Israeli occupation of their lands, success has been at best limited. The ten nationalist hunger strikers who died in prison in Ireland in 1981 also had little impact on change  because they commanded the respect of only part of their community, and as a result of their real or perceived association with violence perpetrated during the “troubles” in Northern Ireland.

The difficult history of hunger strikes is one that I still find challenging in terms of understanding its legitimacy as a form of protest. It undoubtedly takes a passion and commitment on the part of the individual that is not to be found amongst the average protester, but at times it can also appear as a selfish act which impacts as much upon loved ones as it does upon those who are the intended focus of demands. Gandhi, who was a great man, and shrewd politician but not a saint, was only too well aware of the importance of his persona as a critical part of his protest.

It was then with some disquiet that I read an account in today’s Indian Express newspaper of a group of children who have commenced a hunger strike in Mamalakkandam, in the Ernakulam district of Kerala. These young people attend the government high school in their small remote town, the next nearest equivalent school being 30 kilometres away. Their school was upgraded to high school status only last year, an important move that should create better education and employment opportunities for young people from the local community. However, having proudly announced the opening of this important new establishment, the government have failed to provide any teaching staff to ensure  the promised education. Bricks and mortor alone cannot afford an education, but do provide useful photo opportunities for politicians.

With the support of parents groups and other locals, a group of students protested at the district educational offices at Kothamangalam earlier in the week, but it appears that their not unreasonable demands that their school requires teachers, fell on deaf ears. As a result of this lack of positive response, the student body have intensified their protests, and two students have taken the desperate measure of commencing a hunger strike in the hope that this may spur the authorities into action.

On reading the news report I found myself experiencing a very mixed set of reactions. I certainly feel the need to commend the students and parents of Mamalakkandam for demanding their rights to a quality education, thereby enhancing their future prospects and potentially the prosperity of the community. Kerala has long prided itself on being the most educationally advanced state of India, even boasting almost 100% literacy across the region, but it seems to me that situations such as this says much about the state of a nation that is being heralded for its speed of development and economic power. As in most parts of the world which lay claim to advanced “development” there is evidence that whilst some individuals benefit from increased wealth, others get pushed further towards the margins of society. If education has a role to play, which as a teacher I most certainly believe to be true, it must be supported at all levels and for the benefit of all people.

Whilst empathising with the students and wishing them every success with their protests and legitimate demands, I do however have a number of concerns. Acts of protest should never be undertaken lightly, and where they involved putting the health, and possibly even the lives of children at risk, we must become alarmed. The courage of the students, the desperation of the parents, and the demands of a community must surely be acknowledged and respected by anyone who claims to see education as a universal right. A failure to act on the part of government education officers could not only result in personal tragedy for the young hunger strikers and their families, but would also be an act of injustice perpetrated against a whole community, and would destroy the credibility of the State Government and the image of Kerala as a focus for educational excellence in India.

The outcomes of this situation could have implications well beyond Mamalakkandam. The response of education administrators will say much with regards to the way in which they perceive their responsibilities. Along with many others, I will be following this story with hopes of a happy outcome.

Disputation: an essential part of teaching and learning.

Teachers engaged in friendly debate and sometimes letting me express an opinion too!

Teachers engaged in friendly debate and sometimes letting me express an opinion too!

I enjoy working with groups of teachers. They are generally eager learners, keen participants in activities and tasks, and ready to discuss issues related to their practice or the lives of children. In India many of the teachers whom I meet thrive on debate and whenever I am engaged in sessions with them Amartya Sen’s entertaining and profound book “The Argumentative Indian” comes to mind.

Yesterday morning I worked with such a group of enthusiastic teachers in the HSR District of Bangalore (I’m not sure why it’s called HSR, perhaps someone could enlighten me?) As is often the case in these situations, the session started with a high level of decorum and a respectful silence that often makes me slightly uneasy. The reverential respect afforded to “The Sage on The Stage” (an expression I first heard here in Bangalore and have never encountered outside of India), is so different from what might be expected in a similar situation in Europe. I always feel that it is important to get a class of teachers or children actively involved in a lesson as soon as possible. Therefore, a few deliberately provocative statements (some of which I did not subscribe to myself) were used to encourage a more lively response. Once this was achieved I felt that the session was more truly under way.

As is typical of these school based professional development sessions here in India, it did not take long to reaffirm Sen’s belief that Indians love nothing more than disputation as a friendly, if somewhat heated debate emerged. I must confess to being the guilty party in having lit the fuse for this minor spat. In an attempt to provide an example of children who are currently being denied opportunities for appropriate schooling in India, I presented figures related to those of migrant families, many from the poorest states of India, such as Bihar who can often be seen on the building sites of Bangalore. Many of these children speak neither English or Kannada, and a significant number spend their lives moving from site to site, living in tented villages and never attending school. Within half a mile of the school where I was working I had passed just such a community and watched children making a playground from heaps of sand, cement and rubble as their parents began a day’s labour to lay drainage pipes. These children, I suggested, are trapped in a cycle of poverty, living in dangerous conditions, with little health care and excluded from much of society. Expanding my point and expressing an opinion I stated that whilst education alone could not solve the difficulties faced by these children, teachers and education administrators have some responsibility to ensure that they are included in the education system.

I found general consensus in the room, with nodding heads and affirmative expressions. Several teachers in the room made positive suggestions regarding the actions that could be taken to improve the lot of the children under consideration. However, it was the response from one young lady that took me a little by surprise and caused a certain friction in the room. Her theory was that by putting these children into formal education we may be raising their expectations and those of their families in a way that is unrealistic and destined to fail. Furthermore, might we be denying such children an opportunity to learn all of the life and survival skills they need, and which will hold them in good stead as they lead their future lives on the building sites of India?

I was not surprised that at this point a certain cacophony of objections were raised around the class as the sixteen gathered teachers expressed at least twenty opinions! Having decided that discretion was the better part of valour (or was it pure cowardice?) I was content at this time to adopt the role of an observer from the fringes and to let the argument run its course.

When the time seemed right (and I felt safe) to intervene. I drew the debate to a temporary halt, summarised what I felt to be the many facets of a complex issue and having expressed my own opinion about what I had heard, moved on with the session. However, I have been reflecting on this interesting discussion ever since its conclusion.

For those of us who seem to have been immersed in debating, researching and teaching about inclusion and children’s rights for a long time now, it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that we can reach consensus on the need to provide access to schooling. However, I do believe that the originator of today’s contestation did have some valid points to make. The life experiences of a child who lives on a building site must be considered and respected by those who would provide formal education. His or her culture and expectations and those of their family are likely to differ greatly from their peers. The ways in which we value these experiences will inevitably shape the ways in which children respond to teaching and learning.

Time was limited otherwise I would have welcomed an opportunity to discuss this issue with greater depth and breadth. The one conclusion that we did reach, and upon which we were all agreed, was that inclusion is far more about changing schools and teaching, and reshaping the ideas of educational policy makers, than it is about changing children.

 

Never too late to learn!

Learning: a shared experience

Learning: a shared experience

A short article in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper here in the UK reports the sad death of a school pupil in the Nigerian city of Kano. Whenever a school student dies it is a cause for grieving, but perhaps on this occasion the reason to be saddened is rather different than it might have been with others on the school role. The demise of this pupil may not have come as a shock as it might well have done with other students, though he will undoubtedly be missed by his classmates.

Mohammud Modibbo, the student in question, was described by his teacher Abdulkarim Ibrahim as an “easy going and jovial learner”, whose dream of going to university was sadly not to be realised. He recalled how this keen student was “very attentive, and asked questions when he didn’t understand.” He was seen by this teacher as an excellent student who had the potential to progress much further with his studies.

Mohammud Modibbo was clearly a model student, but perhaps what made him stand out from others in his class was his age. You see, this latecomer to school has died at the age of 94 years, having begun his primary schooling in his mid 80s. He was clearly not a typical secondary school student; had he been a fifteen year old, I suspect his demise would not have been reported in the international press. His thwarted ambition to gain university entrance is a matter for some regret, though we should take many positives from this otherwise sad story.

The most heartening aspect of this news report is a recognition that one is never too old to learn. Our current obsession, at least here in western countries, with age related norms and expectations that learners travel a journey at a similar pace, is given the lie by stories such as these. The fact that a primary school was willing to enrol a pupil aged eighty years plus, is both commendable and spirited. Even more remarkable is that this gentleman, whose life experiences were clearly significant, was willing to enter school and learn beside pupils who might well have been his great grandchildren. I am sure that many of his fellow pupils will have benefited from the wisdom and sagacity that he brought to school. Both the school teachers and Mohammud Modibbo should be applauded for this positive and inclusive attitude to learning.

If there is a truly sad aspect to this story, it must be that Mohammud had to wait for so many years to be given the opportunity to become a school pupil. I have no doubt that he will have learned much throughout his life, and that this will have enabled him to contribute greatly to the learning of his far younger classmates. He clearly grasped the opportunity to engage in formal learning with alacrity, and relished the opportunity to accept new challenges and greater insights into the world.

The article reports that acceptance of more senior citizens into schools is not uncommon in several African nations. A great-great- grandmother by the name of Priscilla Sitienei reportedly enrolled in primary school in Kenya at the age of 90 years. I have no doubt that there are other such stories to be told not only from Africa, but elsewhere in the world.

These students, and the schools who have opened their doors to them provide us with inspiring stories of inclusive approaches to education. There is much that we can all learn from the teachers who have welcomed these mature students.

Perhaps when my grandchildren begin school I might be permitted to re-enrol alongside them in order to gain all the exciting learning that I missed first time around!

 

Far from ideal; but thank goodness for a dedicated head teacher and her staff

School entry requirements - designed to exclude a visiting professor!

School entry requirements – designed to exclude a visiting professor!

The end of school term is almost upon us, and yesterday I visited a school to meet with a head teacher colleague who has given more than forty years’ service to teaching. This week she will retire from her post and should look back with immense pride and satisfaction at the contribution she has made to the lives of so many children and families. Typical of so many committed retired teachers I meet these days, she has decided that she cannot simply walk away from some of the challenges that she sees in education, and has therefore decided to continue supporting the school in a new role, which will enable her to assist with researching the effectiveness of teaching and to identify the professional development needs of staff.

As I arrived at the school today I was confronted with an obstacle that has sadly become a feature of most schools in England today. In order to enter the premises I was required to press a button outside the school gate that should have connected me via an intercom device to the school office. The theory is that once I had established my bona fides, and proven that I was not a risk to be repelled, I could be admitted under the control of the school staff. Having made several hapless attempts via the ubiquitous button to gain the attention of anyone in the school, I was beginning to wonder whether I had been seen on the school surveillance cameras as an undesirable character most definitely to be refused entry. Eventually a boy who I would guess to have been around twelve years old, and who happened to be crossing the school playground noticed my dilemma and came to investigate me through the safety of the gate. Looking at me rather as he might have done a chimpanzee in a cage he began a brief conversation:-

“Who are you mister?” he enquired. “Can’t you get in?”

Having confirmed that this was indeed my predicament he shrugged his shoulders and after a brief stroll across the playground entered the school. A couple of minutes later the intercom crackled into action, I announced my arrival and was granted entry. Arriving in the school entrance hall I once again encountered the boy from the gate and thanked him for his assistance.

“It wasn’t me that did anything,” he said. “you must have just got lucky.”

With a cheeky grin he turned away and disappeared along a corridor. I wasn’t quite sure whether this lad had actually spoken to someone in order to have me admitted or if he really had enjoyed my situation as a visitor struggling to gain access. Whichever of these scenarios was true, I decided that rather than pursuing the issue further it was better to be grateful that I was now where I needed to be, and let the moment pass.

I suspect that my morning experience would not have come as a surprise to many of the staff at the school yesterday. As the head teacher explained to me, the end of the school year and the approaching summer holiday is often a period of tension for many children within the school. Unfortunately at this particular establishment, for too many pupils school offers the only real stability in their lives. When they are in school they are managed consistently, treated with respect and provided with a wide range of interesting learning experiences. Such a situation may well not be replicated in their lives outside of the school, and therefore the impending school holidays are not universally greeted with joy.

The school I was visiting is a special school for children who have been labelled as having social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Many who attend have been excluded from mainstream schools on grounds of their poor behaviour, and a significant number come from dysfunctional homes where parents and siblings are under stress and family life is far from stable. When I speak to the pupils here, they are usually full of praise for the staff who work with them, admit (though sometimes a little begrudgingly) that they enjoy school and see this as a safe haven where they have friends and a consistent environment.

In an age when we would ideally wish to see all children included in mainstream classrooms, special schools such as this may be seen as a dilemma. However, there are factors at play here that need to be understood and which suggest that a simplistic view of educational provision is not helpful. The same pupils who tell me that they feel secure and enjoy attending this school, often report a very different story about their experiences in mainstream schools. When pressed on this point, it is common for them to single out the attitudes of teachers, who see them as problems rather than people, as the single most critical factor of difference. At the special school they feel valued and respected, and sadly this has not always been the case elsewhere.

Talking to a couple of boys about the forthcoming school holiday it was evident that whilst for many children this is seen as a welcome period of freedom and relaxation, this is not necessarily the case for pupils from this special school. Here they told me, we have things to do and people to help us get organised. Outside of school there is a lack of direction which sometimes results in boredom and at times ends in trouble.

As I left the school, saying goodbye to a head teacher whose dedication and professionalism I greatly admire, I found myself asking how long it would be before the children with whom I had spent a morning would not be labelled as problems, and if they would someday be welcomed back into mainstream schools. I am quite sure that this is a situation towards which we should all be working, but I am equally concerned that far too many schools are ill-prepared to accept this responsibility. This being the case, I am relieved that there are professional colleagues who are concerned to ensure that those pupils who others reject are given opportunities for learning. This is far from an ideal situation, and will I suspect continue to challenge teachers and policy makers for the foreseeable future.