It is surely the politicians who are proving to be feckless, not those living in poverty.

Poverty will not be eradicated by simply blaming the poor for their own circumstances.

Poverty will not be eradicated by simply blaming the poor for their own circumstances.

Discussions of poverty are always difficult. In part this results from the somewhat vague notions that we appear to have developed around the measurement of poverty and the use of the term as a relative concept. Last week I had a conversation with a couple of students who had read a newspaper article describing the latest UK government “initiatives” around children. Within the article was a section discussing how the government has abandoned an earlier target whereby they accepted a duty to end child poverty by 2020. The suggestion being made was that this target cannot possibly be achieved in the current economic climate and therefore no longer has value and has become a redundant idea.

Ministers in the government have been heard recently using a new term – “worklessness”. This expression, every bit as ugly as it sounds,  is fairly self-explanatory, being used to indicate families where unemployment results in limited income and therefore places them at risk of poverty. The notion is that employment is the key to tackling poverty. Various government ministers espouse the view that cutting welfare benefits will provide greater incentives for families to find employment and thereby enable them to improve their income and become less dependent upon the state. I suppose it is possible to detect an element of logic in this, and in an ideal world we would hope that families have secure employment providing sufficient income for them to provide all of the material essentials for living. But thereby lies the problem. The government’s own figures indicate that around two-thirds of the poorest children in British society already live in “working” families, yet their income is so low that they are unable to provide all of the necessities for a healthy life.

Part of the difficulty with what is basically a very crude approach to tackling poverty, is the naivety of assuming that employment always provides sufficient income for the maintenance of a secure lifestyle. The proliferation of zero working hours, a system of tying an individual into employment contracts with no guarantee of how many hours will be available, and therefore failing to provide a secure income, and in some employment sectors the irregular availability or seasonal nature of work, makes for unstable opportunities for many families. Even when families are able to secure an income, this alone is not always enough to improve their tenuous grip on security.

The two students who had involved me in their conversation suggested that poverty was, of course, relative. In the UK they proposed, we do not see poverty such as that which may be found in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, or parts of Asia or South America. They were, of course right in making this assertion, but I would suggest that this is a very narrow way of looking at the issue. I am not convinced that telling a mother in England who is anxious because she is not sure that she will be able to provide food for her children tonight, and who may be forgoing meals for herself in order that her children can have shoes to wear, that people in Africa are often less well off than she is, will make her feel less worried about her family’s situation.

Being in employment is no guarantee of security. Furthermore, simply using income as a means of assessing poverty also has its limitations. Crude measures, such as poverty being equated as surviving on less than 60% of median national income, and absolute poverty less than 40% may not always be helpful. (Incidentally I find myself frustrated when the media interprets this as less than 60% of average income – there is a significant difference between mean and median income). However, we do need some form of measure that will enable concerned parties to assess how families in any particular country are being supported.

Such an instrument does exist and has recently been updated to recognise those prevailing political and socio-economic factors which impact so sharply upon people moving in or out of poverty. The multidimensional poverty index (MPI) is being adopted internationally with the support of leading organisations such as UNICEF. This instrument identifies both where people are living in poverty, and the factors that cause this problem. The suggestion is that MPI measures should enable policymakers, politicians and NGOs to allocate their resources and tackle poverty more effectively. The MPI identifies difficulties faced at the household level across three dimensions (living standards, health, and education) and provides an indication of the number and distribution of poor people in a population and the deprivations with which they contend.

The MPI operates on the basis that measuring child poverty simply through family income is an imperfect approach and will lead to groups of deprived and vulnerable children being excluded from the support that they most urgently need. The notion that income alone can be used as a means of assessing poverty is largely spurious and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that having a secure financial base does not always guarantee positive psychological or social outcomes for children. For example, having a reasonable income but living in an area where this is still insufficient to provide safe and healthy housing can contribute to the kinds of deprivation that lead to poor child health and other welfare issues. Furthermore, those households that may have responsibility for a disabled or elderly infirm family member may well experience increased pressures that prevent them from seeking employment and requiring specialist help that is beyond their financial means.

Current policy in the UK is both iniquitous and misguided. It seems at times that we are returning to a Victorian blame culture where terms such as the “feckless poor” were in common parlance and quite rightly raised the hackles of Charles Dickens and other social reformers of the day. The focus of blame for poverty has shifted entirely towards families who find themselves in difficulties, a situation that overlooks the complex factors that determine whether or not a child may thrive, and places the responsibility for tackling child poverty entirely upon those families least likely to be able to fend for themselves. Whilst improved opportunities for employment would undoubtedly contribute to the eradication of child poverty, it is irresponsible to believe that this measure alone will solve our current problems. The use of income measures is important, but must surely be complemented by non-income indicators, and a more critical analysis of those wider societal factors that lead families into poverty. Playing the current blame game in which families are seen as wholly responsible for their own situations is not only mean spirited, but is also an abdication of moral responsibility.

Two wheels good!

Well laden bicycles are a common feature on the roads of many countries. But in some they are put to educational use.

Well laden bicycles are a common feature on the roads of many countries. But in some they are put to educational use.

As someone who is a keen cyclist, I am seldom surprised when I hear of the accomplishments that can be achieved by individuals riding on two wheels. However, when these achievements impact positively upon the educational experiences of children I am always pleased to read reports from the press or hear about these from colleagues.

I recall a couple of years ago hearing an interesting presentation given by two members of the academic staff from the Faculty of Education at the University of West of England in Bristol, at which they described the support provided in the development of a library in rural Zimbabwe. Through various donations and fund raising events, these colleagues have regularly sent shipments of books to the country where volunteers have catalogued them and organised a library for the benefit of local people. Amongst the thousands of volumes that have crossed from the UK to Africa are many children’s books that are being used by both schools and individual children.

There is a challenge in rural Zimbabwe with regards to accessing a library, so this intrepid team have come up with an innovative solution. By providing a bicycle and panniers to the library, they have ensured that books can be delivered on a regular basis to outlying schools. A volunteer simply loads the panniers with books requested by children or schools, cycles to the venue and exchanges these for those delivered on a previous occasion. The schools and children get their books, the library has satisfied customers, the volunteer gets some exercise and everyone benefits. What could be better?

I was reminded of this situation by an article in this week’s Times Educational Supplement written by Adi Bloom. This describes how a project managed by the Agastya Education Foundation is supporting government schools in eight Indian States. Fifty nine motorcycles have been equipped with mobile laboratories containing science experiments which teachers can use with their pupils. These motorcycles, ridden by skilled pilots are able to weave their way along tracks and rough roads to ensure that science is delivered to the doors of schools where facilities are generally very poor. This superb initiative has been shortlisted for a prize from the World Innovation Summit for Education. I hope that we may hear more about their successes in the coming months.

Both of these projects demonstrate the determination that individuals have, to ensure that children who live in difficult circumstances or remote locations gain access to meaningful education. Such schemes require co-ordination and dedication, but above all they are dependent upon individuals with imagination and the drive to start projects that may at first appear unusual. Without such people there would still be children in Zimbabwe with very little access to books, and others in India unable to conduct the kind of experiments that may enthuse the next generation of scientists.

The next time  I am on my bicycle pedalling around the lanes of Northamptonshire, I will think of those committed librarians who are delivering knowledge and enthusiasm to children in remote schools. I have never had a two wheeled vehicle powered by an engine, far preferring to use my own legs to propel me forwards (even if rather slowly these days!)but I will similarly reflect upon the potential for scientific development in rural India being supported through the Agastya Education Foundation. Children are being included in learning as a result of the actions taken in these two countries. Those creative individuals who have developed these schemes provide a lesson to all of us by demonstrating that many obstacles can be overcome with determination and in these instances – the help of two wheels!

 

Hoping for more than a declaration of intent.

Expressions of good intent. Let's hope they come to fruition

Expressions of good intent. Let’s hope they come to fruition

Last week in Incheon, in the Republic of Korea, government ministers from more than 100 countries, along with representatives of non-governmental organizations and youth groups met at the World Education Forum. The focus of discussions at this meeting was for the most part upon how the right to free and quality education can be provided for all the world’s children, including the 58 million who currently have no access to school.

Speakers representing august organisations such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Bank Group took to the stage to assert their commitment to improving the lives of children and keeping education high on the world development agenda, until such time as all children have gained the right to go to school. The sentiments expressed were sincere and I have no doubt that the conference delegates will have returned home fired with a new determination to bring about change. Ringing in their ears will be the latest declaration asserting the intention to ensure “equitable and inclusive quality education and lifelong learning for all by 2030”.

I describe this Incheon Declaration as the “latest” as it follows hot on the heels of previous such statements including Jomtien, Thailand (1990), Salamanca, Spain (1994) and Dakar, Senegal (2000), all of which have been signed with due solemnity and good intentions by world leaders with the intention of improving the plight of the world’s children. The Education for All goals, with clearly defined targets towards achieving universal primary education have provided an important focus for education policy makers, children’s rights activists and politicians around the world. But I can well understand those who on reading the Incheon Declaration will ask whether by simply writing yet another aspirational document progress will be assured.

One delegate at the Incheon forum who has greeted the new declaration with words of both encouragement and caution is the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and children’s rights campaigner Kailash Satyarthi from India. Speaking to the gathered audience he reminded them that when they met in Dakar fifteen years ago they established goals that were then seen as attainable, but he reflects upon the intervening period with mixed feelings. Satyarthi described how new opportunities for education has transformed the lives of some individuals in his own country, but he also reflected on the fact that it is already too late to transform the lives of many children who are  trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and gruelling child labour. One of the most powerful statements that Satyarthi made to the forum was that he refuses to accept any of the excuses that continue to be made in defence of denying children access to school and that others should do the same.

Whilst Kailash Satyarthi demonstrated a great deal of frustration at the failure to deliver on previously expressed goals, which should by now have benefited millions of excluded  children, he still believes that a concerted effort on the part of those who are concerned could result in educational opportunities for all. Whilst praising the intentions of those world leaders who have supported this latest international declaration, Satyarthi leads by example through his recognition that if progress is to be made it will be on the basis of actions taken by individuals as much as through legislation. We could all do worse than follow in his footsteps.

When reading about events such as that held in Incheon it is easy to become cynical and to believe that this is yet one more talking shop from which little of substance will emerge. However, if just a few individuals are inspired by the words expressed with such passion by Kailash Satyarthi, and decide to take affirmative action on behalf of children, the World Education Forum will have been worthwhile.

You can hear the presentation given to the World Education Forum by Kailash Satyarthi here

 

A matter of contrasting fortunes?

Picasso's Les Femmes d'Alger, when will we see this work again?

Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger, when will we see this work again?

There are occasions when the juxtaposition of articles in a newspaper gives me cause for thought. Such was the situation yesterday evening as I sat with a cup of tea and perused the pages of The Guardian. On page three, there covering almost half of the page was a colourful reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s painting Les Femmes d’Alger (Women of Algiers). Painted in 1955, this picture captures the essence of the 19th century artist Delacroix’s painting of the same title, bringing it into the twentieth century through modernist representation and the bold use of colour. It is a truly magnificent work, and as someone who is an admirer of the Spanish painter’s work, I was pleased to see it presented in my daily newspaper.

The reason for the presentation of Picasso’s image were not related to its quality as a work of art, though it is undoubtedly a masterpiece. Indeed the accompanying article told the reader little about the painting’s history, the techniques deployed by the artist or its place in relation to other works from this period. Instead, the piece written by journalist Mark Brown was wholly focused on the astounding fact that Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger sold at Christie’s auction rooms in New York for a staggering £114 million pounds ($179,365,000), a record for any work of art. Both the seller of this work and the purchaser remain anonymous, but I suspect that their pulse rates quickened at the announcement of the astounding monetary figures involved.

By contrast, on page 40 of the same Guardian edition, Patrick Butler, the newspaper’s social policy editor, always a thought provoking writer, presented a piece in which he discussed the situation of children and families living in poverty in the UK. Just to be clear, the definition of a family in poverty used in this country, is those living on less than 60% of median national family income. In a well considered article, Butler suggests that the UK government target of reducing child poverty to less than 10% of the overall population by 2020, is unlikely to be met. The  government policy of austerity, which is set to continue following the recent general election,  appears likely to make this target unrealistic and may well exacerbate the situation to previously unrecorded levels. Indeed, he reports that the well-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that child poverty, currently recorded at 17% is likely to rise to 21% by the end of the decade. A figure that should make anyone who has a concern for the welfare of children stop and think (or better still protest against this appalling situation).

In contrasting the two articles, I must make clear that I have no difficulties in accepting that an anonymous purchaser can afford to pay such an eye watering sum of money for a painting. (Though I do hope that we will all have the opportunity to see Les Femmes d’Alger hanging in a public gallery and that it will not simply linger in a secure bank vault from now on). The reporting that we have such wealthy individuals in society is simply a fact of life that we have recognised for many centuries. I do however, have major concerns that whilst the sale of a work of art for a huge amount of money is celebrated and features high on the world’s media agenda, we confine the report on child poverty to a few column inches at the foot of page forty in a single newspaper.

In considering the two articles in the same edition of the Guardian, there was one word that remained in my mind for some time after reading both. Anonymity appears to be a feature of both pieces. The vendor and buyer of the great Picasso picture both remain unknown. They have presumably chosen to remain anonymous, shunning personal publicity in part for their own protection from the media and possibly those who might target their wealth. In Patrick Butler’s article, those children who are currently living in poverty, and those likely to be in this situation in the very near future, are also unnamed. This is not a criticism of the journalist, who can do no more than report the facts as he has obtained them. I suspect that many such children and families would also wish to retain anonymity in order to maintain their personal dignity and in the hope that their circumstances might change.

It seems to me strange that what I would see as excessive wealth, and abject poverty are both seen as a legitimate cause for anonymity. I wonder what the underlying purpose of this secrecy may be? Could it be that there  are elements of guilt or shame associated with these situations? Might it be that anonymity ensures that we do not see these phenomena in personal terms and therefore feel more distanced from them? Certainly I find it difficult to relate to a situation in which I could spend £114 million on a painting (or anything else for that matter!), but I am sure that I probably also have only a vague understanding of what it must be like to live in poverty. By anonymising these situations I am protected from having to understand the personal experiences of others.

Perhaps it is one of the great virtues of newspapers that they can provoke this kind of thinking by publishing such contrasting articles on the same day. Both Mark Brown and Patrick Butler have presented us with facts, but it is for us to determine how we interpret these and to consider our emotional responses. I do hope that the new owner of Les Femmes d’Alger enjoys this Picasso masterpiece, and that he enables us to share in his pleasure. I also hope that Patrick Butler and the Institute for Fiscal Studies are proven wrong in their predictions and that life will improve for the many families suffering hardship and penury.

ECP Colour logo

Can dreams of a better future become reality?

 

How will children growing up here view the world in the future?

How will children growing up here view the world in the future?

“It has always been my dream to give my children a better education than me. I had to leave school at 16 because my mother was sick and needed me to look after her.” These are the words of Avine Hassan, but the sentiments expressed could be those of any parent with aspirations for their children to do well at school. Sadly, in Avine’s situation, the opportunity to provide such an education has been severely impaired and this is just one of many stressful factors in her life.

Avine’s words are taken from an article published in The Guardian newspaper (11th April 2015) under the headline “I Never Imagined I’d Bring Up My Children in a Refugee Camp,” in which she recounts the tragic tale of fleeing from Syria with her husband and four children, leaving behind her home, business and all their possessions. Fighting outside of her home and finding a bullet embedded in the window frame of her house, led Avine and her husband to make the heartbreaking decision to leave a home that they loved. Having paid £2,000 pounds to a man who is clearly making a lucrative profit by assisting families like this to cross the border into Iraq, Avine arrived barefoot in a refugee camp containing 50,000 people, though it was built with facilities for half this number.

Understandably, Avine’s children spent a long time tearfully asking when they would return home, and why they were now living in a tent. Their mother now knows that they can never return to the life they had before, as it is reported that their former home and all of its contents have been completely destroyed. It is now four years since they fled the conflict, and Avine’s children have ceased asking about a return to their former lives. They have clearly become reconciled to the fact that life will never be the same again.

In Syria, Avine had run a successful bridal make-up service, and her husband was a qualified accountant. They have gone from a comfortable middle class existence, to one of penury and fear. Their future remains unknown and precarious, but amidst all of this, they continue to see education as a critical factor in enabling their children to find a better path in life. After a period when it seemed unlikely that formal schooling would be possible, things began to improve. The charitable organisation Save the Children opened a support centre, and now there is schooling available for children for six half days a week. In addition there are now resilience workshops established to support children in learning to cope with having lost their homes, possessions and in some cases family members. I am sure that such a centre will provide an invaluable service, but I suspect that many of these children will carry a heavy burden for the rest of their lives.

I find it almost unbearable to read accounts of families such as Avine’s and of the appalling circumstances in which they find themselves. These are innocent people who have worked hard and have ambitions for their children, that have been destroyed through acts of violence and political ineptitude. As is typical of mothers everywhere, Avine’s concerns are not for herself, but primarily for the welfare and futures of her children. She continues to dream and has not given up hope that in the times to come her children may have better lives than they have now. She recognises that education can play a significant role in enabling these improvements to come about. However, it is evident that education alone will not lead to greater stability, and cannot tackle the appalling levels of poverty that have been created through this conflict and many others like it around the world.

Avine’s husband is currently seeking opportunities for the family to relocate to Germany, where his skills and those of Avine could be put to better use. Such a move would also increase the educational and social opportunities of their children and bring new economic opportunities. However, Avine is realistic and knows that if they are granted entry into Germany, which is by no means certain, this will involve a long and complicated process. She may be less aware of the levels of anti-immigrant sentiment that exists at present across Europe, perpetuated by those who cannot begin to imagine the trauma experienced by families such as this.

It is hard to believe that anyone reading The Guardian report could not be moved and indeed angered by the dreadful situation that exists in the lives of so many refugees from Syria. It is to be hoped that the rest of the world recognises the unfolding tragedy and accepts some responsibility to provide whatever support can be mustered. Their own government and those who perpetuate the tragic war in Syria have turned their backs on these long suffering families. There is a strong possibility that the rest of the world may do likewise. Let’s hope that Avine’s children receive the education that they deserve and that their experiences help them to shape a more caring future. The alternative hardly bears thinking about.

 

 

Small isn’t always beautiful.

 

The romanticised image of the rural school may be somewhat distanced from the truth.

The romanticised image of the rural school may be somewhat distanced from the truth.

I am quite sure that some people, including more than a few teachers, imagine that teaching in a small rural school in a beautiful environment would be part of an idyllic lifestyle. It certainly does have its attractions. The economist E.F. Schumacher in his thought provoking book Small is Beautiful contributed positively to the education debate when he suggested the need to ensure that learning values local communities and contributes to regional economics, a focus best achieved through locally based provision. For many, his economic theories have been interpreted as ensuring that schools remain small, locally based and committed to the espousal of ethical and sustainable living.  Such schools should enable communities to maintain their own identities and enable the maintenance of  family cohesion. This idea has at times been fostered through fiction, as was the case in the 1950’s when Miss Read (the nom de plume of Dora Jessie Saint) wrote her idealised accounts of life in the mythical English villages of Fairacre and Thrush Green, including the best-selling Village School.

It is still possible in some of the more remote regions of the British Isles to find single teacher schools serving tiny child populations, though in recent decades many of these have been closed and amalgamated with others to provide for a larger pupil group. The loss of a school from any community is sad and can be traumatic for those who live there, but the notion that these were ideal establishments in which to work was often far from the truth.

Teachers in small schools are responsible for delivery of the same breadth of curriculum as their counterparts in larger establishments. The demands made upon a single teacher to provide a thorough foundation in all subjects are considerable and daunting to all but the most versatile of professionals. There are often difficulties in maintaining classes if the single teacher falls ill, and even greater challenges for any pupil who doesn’t relate well to the teacher, when there is no alternative. So, whilst a romanticised image of the small school will persist, they are certainly not institutions free of difficulties.

These thoughts came to mind today after reading an article in the Hindu (Here Dalits denied basic education, by R. Sujatha, April 1st 2015) which tells of  the apparently parlous state of education in some rural areas of Tamil Nadu. This reports a campaign by educational activists (it is not explained exactly who these are) and a non-governmental organisation called Samakalvi Iyakkam to appoint more teachers to what are currently single-teacher schools. I would imagine that at this point readers in England and other European countries who have an image of single teacher schools in their minds, may be thinking of a  class of perhaps 15 to 20 children. However, the focus of the campaign from Samakalvi Iyakkam is upon providing additional staffing to single teacher schools with a population of more than 115 students. I think that most of us would accept that one teacher with 115 students of mixed age, needs and ability is far from the idyllic situation that readers of Miss Read’s novels might have anticipated!

The Hindu report, which draws heavily upon budgetary figures prepared by Adi Dravidar Welfare Department, identifies the poor staffing ratios in school as just one of the critical factors limiting school attendance. Even where there is a reasonable supply of teachers, the lack of expertise in some subjects such as science and mathematics, is inhibiting effective curriculum opportunities. The article reports that less than one third of students completing primary education in six districts of Tamil Nadu (Chennai, Kancheepuram, Tiruvallur, Tiruvannamalai, Vellore and Villupuram) progress to secondary schooling. In addition to poor staffing levels other factors such as poor toilet facilities, the lack of safe drinking water in 33% of schools and 58% of schools having no playground facilities, are also seen as contributing to this sorry situation.

The Right to Education Act is one of the most progressive and imaginative pieces of legislation to promote inclusion, to have been put into place in any country. However, this is most certainly destined to fail if attention is only given to the development of school facilities in urban areas. Furthermore the lack of professional development for teachers and the low esteem in which they are often held, particularly in government schools in rural areas, is a major obstacle to progress.

I don’t believe that many teachers are really expecting some form of Shangrila in their teaching situations. We all know that teaching is a challenging profession, but equally one that can be immensely rewarding for teacher and pupil alike. It is unlikely that an education system that places an excessive load upon teachers by putting them in front of ridiculously large classes, or denies pupils and teachers access to the most fundamental of resources, and basic necessities, will aid the significant progress that is articulated as a desirable outcome in current Indian legislation.

As is almost invariably the case, those who are struggling most with the challenges outlined by the Adi Dravidar Welfare Department, live in the poorest communities of Tamil Nadu. I am quite sure that a similar situation pertains in other states across India. The willingness to implement change is in evidence throughout the Indian education system. I see this regularly in the commitment of the teachers with whom I work whilst visiting the country. There is, however, a persistent difficulty in achieving the levels of co-ordinated response that can bring about the change that everyone wishes to see.

 

 

 

Children: victims in a war not of their making

Will a whole generation of children miss an education in Syria?

Will a whole generation of children miss an education in Syria?

A Report just issued by the charitable organisation Save the Children, which draws upon research evidence from several reputable international agencies, highlights the devastation caused by the current conflict in Syria. The report, titled, The cost of war: Calculating the Impact of the Collapse of Syria’s Education System on the Country’s Future, documents the disaster for children caused by the appalling conflict that has been a regular feature of news programmes on our television schools for the past four years. It makes for harrowing reading and says much about the lack of care given to protect the innocent during times of conflict.

The report states that before the start of the war, the majority of Syria’s children were enrolled in primary school, and there was a significant commitment to education on the part of the government and families. Literacy rates at this time were at 95% for 15–24-year-olds. Today, almost 3 million children are out of school and the country has one of the lowest enrolment rates in the world. The example of the city of Aleppo is given where the enrolment rate is shockingly low at around 6%. Furthermore, half of the Syrian children currently in refugee camps are not receiving formal access to school. The report estimates that the cost of replacing damaged, destroyed or occupied schools and lost equipment could be as high as £2 billion ($3 billion). Many of the country’s teachers have been killed or are directly involved in the conflict, and even if peace returns soon, it will take many years to restore education provision to more than a minimal level within Syria. The danger is that there will be a lost generation who have not had the benefit of formal schooling.

Syria is a nation renowned for its literature. I recently read Rafik Schami’s excellent and moving novel The Dark Side of Love, and I similarly enjoyed Fragments of Memory: A Story of a Syrian Family by Hanna Mina. These writers are articulate and educated individuals who drew attention to Syria for the most noble of reasons. They represent a rich and proud artistic heritage and provide insights into the emotions and passions of an educated and cultured Syrian people. One wonders from where the next generation of Syrian writers, artists, scientists and engineers may emerge. Probably not from a land where the infrastructure, and in many instances the will of the people has been so clearly destroyed.

All sides in the Syrian conflict make claims about fighting for justice and freedom, yet what they have currently caused is chaos and hatred. In the midst of all this, as in all conflicts, there are children who are powerless to effect change, who are denied an opportunity to receive even the most basic education. If as the United States senator Hiram W. Johnson, stated in 1918, “the first casualty of war is truth,” then the second is surely those women and children who will be expected to rebuild families and homes when the conflict is over.

The Syrian writer Maram al-Massri sums this up well in her poem Women like me, where she describes the disenfranchised nature of the innocents amidst conflict.

 

Women like me

do not know how to speak.

A word remains in their throats

like a thorn

they choose to swallow.

Women like me

know nothing except weeping,

impossible weeping

suddenly

pouring

like a severed artery.

Women like me

receive blows

and do not dare return them.

They shake with anger,

they subdue it.

Like lions in cages,

women like me

dream . . .

of freedom . . .

Maram al-Massri

 

The Save the Children Report: The cost of war: Calculating the Impact of the Collapse of Syria’s Education System on the Country’s Future can be found at: Save The Children 2015

 

Perhaps it is the system that should be examined!

A perilous way to climb to the highest grades, and not one to be condoned!

A perilous way to climb to the highest grades, and not one to be condoned!

I share an office with a colleague who is an enthusiastic rock climber. In my younger days I too enjoyed the challenges that came with scaling the vertiginous cliffs of the mountains in Wales, The Lake District or Scotland, though in recent years I have been less inclined to seek the thrills of dangling above empty spaces; though the quiet of the mountain landscape still holds great appeal. You might then think that we would admire the chutzpah of individuals clinging to a sheer wall and shimmying along narrow ledges fifty feet above the ground. But yesterday we stared in disbelief at images that were being beamed around the world from Bihar State in India, not a region normally associated with mountaineering.

Under headlines such as “ 300  Arrested Over Bihar Exam Cheating Scandal,” (Indian Express) and “Bihar Exam Cheaters Inspired by Bollywood” (Times of India) pictures such as that above, have been shown, of parents grappling their way up the steep walls of school buildings and passing the answers to examination questions to their awaiting offspring through windows. Other reports suggest that parents have propelled the answers concealed in paper aeroplanes through open windows. (This seems highly unlikely as anyone who has ever tried to achieve accuracy with a paper aeroplane will attest). This is examination cheating on a mass scale. Arrests have been made (some news reports say as many as 900) and the inquest into the demise of the Indian examination system has begun.

This behaviour is clearly scandalous, but it is suggested by some reporters that it is not uncommon and has been taking place over many years. Understandably, the majority of journalists reporting this outrage have expressed their opinions in terms of disgust and horror, in many instances they are unsure about who is at greatest fault, the parents, the students, the teachers or the school authorities? However, a few reports have made an effort to understand how this bizarre situation has emerged in a nation so determined to demonstrate educational excellence.

Amongst all the anguished wringing of hands that has typically characterised the reporting of this incident in the press, there have been a few efforts made to understand the causes of this problem. One of the more thoughtful commentators to publish his thoughts is Sanjay Kumar, himself a Bihari, who is currently a Fellow at Harvard University in the USA (NDTV 23rd March).  Kumar reports that cheating has been endemic in the Indian education system over many years, and that this results from the extreme pressure put on students to achieve high standards, despite often receiving poor quality teaching in under resourced schools. The blame for this situation he suggests, should be distributed amongst a host of interested parties.

Firstly, he is critical of an education system that is wholly focused upon academic attainment, but fails to provide well trained teachers capable of delivering the excellence that is sought. In part, this comes from an education administration that perpetuates inequality, with wealthy families sending their children to private schools that are well equipped, and where the nation’s best teachers at to be found. Those attending government schools by contrast, often work with poorly trained teachers and limited facilities, but are expected to compete with their more fortunate peers. Much sought after places in further and higher education are at a premium and these students already start at a disadvantage, the temptation to find ways around the examination process is therefore considerable.

In an examination driven education system, where teachers and schools are judged on their performance, Kumar suspects that corruption is inevitable. Schools are being run as businesses, advertising their quality according to examination results and determined to do all in their power to ensure that these remain as a focal point that enables them to sell places to parents. This, he believes, is unsustainable.

“The teachers will have to be responsible and understand the fact that education is not a business. This is the backbone of our progress and prosperity. They are building the future of the society and thus should be committed to the role they are supposed to play”.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of the education system given by Sanjay Kumar relates to the attitudes of parents. Reflecting on his own school days in Katihar, a city in the same  Bihar State, Kumar recalls that in his school day:-

“Parents were never bothered about the quality of education, but were only concerned about the output and their expectations of us”.

Having made this comment Sanjay Kumar proposes that change will come only when parents take more responsibility and become directly involved in the activities of the school. He believes that many parents feel that the responsibility for passing examinations lies entirely with children and their teachers. Parents need to support their children, rather than simply applying pressure and expressing anger and disappointment when they do not attain the highest grades.

Whilst Kumar condemns the actions reported in the Indian press, he states that:-

“Many students who have gone through this type of education process including myself could well empathize with the circumstances which lead students to get into cheating.”

Cheating of any kind is wrong and needs to be condemned in the strongest terms. But Sanjay Kumar is right to suggest that conditions need to change if such behaviours are to be avoided. Let us hope that the adverse publicity given to state education authorities in recent days leads to positive action that improves the lot of teachers, students and parents.

Incidentally, the rope handling skills of some of the pictured erstwhile mountaineers are quite appalling. I would refer them to the excellent British Mountaineering Council guidelines on safe management of belays!

Educating ourselves in order to understand the lives of others.

 

Let's not give up on the world's poorest children

Let’s not give up on the world’s poorest children

“Education is a fundamental right and the basis for progress in every country. Parents need information about health and nutrition if they are to give their children the start in life they deserve. Prosperous countries depend on skilled and educated workers. The challenges of conquering poverty, combatting climate change and achieving truly sustainable development in the coming decades compel us to work together. With partnership, leadership and wise investments in education, we can transform individual lives, national economies and our world.”             

 BAN KI-MOON, UNITED NATIONS SECRETARY-GENERAL

This week could prove to be important in the lives of many of the world’s poorest children. I have written several times on this blog about the Education for All goals, established to improve the lives of children and families around the world. At times I have discussed the alarming statistics, such as those contained in the 2014 UNESCO Global Monitoring Report, that suggests that whilst progress has been made, this is at an alarmingly slow rate. Too many children continue to live in poverty, have no opportunity to go to school and are subjected to hunger, violence and a lack of adequate health care.

In New York in the coming days, representatives of United Nations member governments will be coming together to discuss the updating and future monitoring of the EFA goals. National governments are being asked to identify their own priorities and the actions they plan to take towards implementing change. High on the agenda is the development of universal education and  an assurance that all children have an opportunity to learn and acquire the skills, knowledge and understanding to contribute to the lives of their families and countries.

Education alone cannot address the ills of the world. Natural disaster, conflict and political instability are all factors that impact upon the potential for improving children’s lives. However, without education the task is so much greater. A new publication from UNESCO, Sustainable Development Begins with Education: How education can contribute to the proposed post-2015 goals, provides both interesting statistics, and evidence for the ways in which the provision of education can impact upon a vast range of issues. These include the rights of women, environmental stability and climate change, economic well-being and poverty reduction, all of which are so dependent upon an educated population to ensure progress.

It is, of course easy to become cynical and to sink into despair when considering the state of the world, and the apparent indifference often shown to such overarching issues. However, if change is to occur, we must surely begin by educating ourselves about the current situation and the impact upon the lives of those who either receive an inadequate education, or no education at all. Whilst many of the  EFA goals have not been achieved, we should acknowledge the tremendous commitment made by some governments, non-governmental organisations and dedicated individuals that have resulted in positive change for many children.

A few days ago a colleague proposed that the setting of new post 2015 goals would have little impact and that some countries will sign up to these with no intention of effecting change. In ten years time, he suggested, the same countries will be in the same decrepit state or even worse.  He may be right, but the alternative is simply to ignore the challenges, claim that this is not our responsibility and to remain in ignorance of what needs to be done.

Change through education begins when we educate ourselves, and recognise the significance of the difficulties faced by many of the world’s children. It must obviously not stop at that point, but unless we equip ourselves with this level of knowledge we remain unaware of the starting point for change and less likely to work towards improving the lives of those in the greatest need. There is a great danger in believing that the situation experienced by the poorest people in the world has little to do with us in our state of relative comfort. However, history shows that conflict that begins in those states where people are dispossessed or feel that they are oppressed by corrupt and uncaring regimes, quickly spread and impact upon the lives of those much further afield.

To suggest that this is not our problem is both disingenuous and naïve. If you also believe that educating yourself about the challenges faced by children living in poverty and without adequate education is important, you might take a few minutes to read the latest UNESCO document, and to watch the brief attached video recording.

Click on the link here to read the UNESCO document

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT BEGINS WITH EDUCATION

 

Click below to see a video made to publicise this issue

 

The responsible education researcher

 

Dr Marli Vizim (in the pink top) sharing her views on poverty and school exclusion with colleagues from Brazil and the UK.

Dr Marli Vizim (in the pink top) sharing her views on poverty and school exclusion with colleagues from Brazil and the UK.

 

Whilst working last week with colleagues from both the UK and Brazil I often found myself thinking that whilst we work in very different countries and have contrasting cultural backgrounds, there is much that we have in common with respect to the educational issues that we face. Everyone in attendance at this research focused event was committed to promoting more inclusive education and the establishment of social justice, and we all face similar challenges in achieving our objectives.

Listening to the presentations given at this three day workshop and more especially during conversations with researchers from both countries, it was evident that the usual anxieties about inadequately prepared teaching staff, poor resourcing and low expectations of students as obstacles to inclusion, formed the basis of discussion. Similarly, the disparity between urban and rural educational opportunities and the impact of economic difficulties was apparent in many of the sessions we shared. At times I found myself reflecting on the fact that these are recurrent themes that I have heard not only in the UK and Brazil, but during recent visits to China, India, Georgia and Ireland. I have no doubt that similar frustrations would be raised in most of the world.

Of all the issues of concern, one that certainly troubles me most was highlighted in an excellent paper given by Marli Vizim, who is committed to working with some of the poorest and most marginalised communities in São Paulo State. Clearly influenced by the work of the great Brazilian educator Paulo Friere, Marli describes how she has tried to work with whole communities, and in particular the leaders of these groups, in an effort to foster positive attitudes to schooling, and increased opportunities for children. In particular she has demonstrated the importance of gaining the support of community leaders in order to get children previously seen as ineducable into schools. The passion with which Marli speaks and her willingness to engage in discussion and debate was encouraging and heartening. The fervency that she feels for her work is something that cannot fail to touch anyone who has a social conscience and wishes to see the lives of children and their families improved.

In a discussion group comprising colleagues from both Brazil and the UK it was easier to find similarities in our areas of concern than differences. As Marli indicated the increasing gulf that exists between the rich and the poor in Brazil, so did colleagues from the UK provide examples of a similar concern in our own country. Several of us were also able to relate this worrying trend to work we have done in other parts of the world. Whilst I have seen this increasing distance created between the wealthy and poor in India, other colleagues spoke eloquently about the same situation seen in Colombia and elsewhere in the world. Working through an interpreter always has the risk of ideas being confused during translation, but there was no doubting the level of concern and frustration with regards to current provision made for children from poorer sections of society being expressed in these sessions.

The authors of the 2014 UNESCO Global Report on the Education for All Goals, discussed previously on this blog (Feb 4th 2014), were careful to emphasise the progress that has been made towards achieving universal primary education. However, it is clear from the report that one of the greatest obstacles to making effective progress is poverty. Whilst the poverty that we see in the UK is nowhere near as widespread and pervasive as that seen in many poorer countries, this does not justify a denial of the damaging impact that it has on families. Listening to Marli speaking about the continuous struggle that some of the families face in the areas where she works, emphasised the potential for social unrest that is ever present, and could worsen if the needs of the most disenfranchised members of society are not addressed.

During my brief visit to Brazil it was apparent, just as it is here in the UK or when I work in Ireland or India, that there are many businesses and individuals that are thriving and creating considerable wealth. The economies of these countries have clearly benefited from the evident entrepreneurship and hard work of these individuals and their employees. However, just as the opportunities for the most educated and socially well connected people in these countries have increased, so have the difficulties faced by the poorest communities multiplied.

Fortunately researchers such as Marli, who recognise that they have a responsibility beyond investigating the communities with which they are involved, are having an impact. The results from her research indicate that expectations are being raised and demands for improved educational opportunities made in the areas where she works. Slowly this action is  bringing about change, and hopefully the lives of the families to whom she has made a commitment will improve.

The responsible educational researcher is one who recognises, that unless their investigation focuses upon improvements in the educational opportunities for children, families and teachers, it is probably of limited value.