Education and business can be uncomfortable bed fellows

 

How can we be sure of the motivations of those who see education as a business opportunity.

How can we be sure of the motivations of those who see education as a business opportunity.

Dr Kishore Singh who is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, recently expressed his concern that universal access to education is in danger of being inhibited because of current proposals being considered in a number of African nations. Government authorities in several of these countries have recently been considering the delegation of fundamental education services to the private sector, in what Dr Singh perceives to be an effort to reduce spending on education.

Dr Singh, who has a background in law, is well versed in the challenges of working towards the achievement of the rights of all children to receive an education, having held a post of responsibility for overseeing the right to education at UNESCO for many years. He has been involved in a number of campaigns in this area, and has been recognised for being outspoken on issues such as the eradication of corporal punishment, and violence towards children. His experience and knowledge is such that we should be prepared to listen attentively when he expresses his concern that children are in danger of being denied learning opportunities because of poor governance.

Whilst expressing his apprehensions about current developments in Africa, Dr Singh was also aware of similar moves elsewhere in the world. The actions identified by this United Nations expert as being of concern, include those of  the Society of Unaided Private Schools of Rajasthan and the Independent Schools Federation of India, who have recently challenged India’s Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE), by suggesting that it violates their autonomy and places a strain upon their resources. There is, of course, an element of genuine concern in such arguments. In countries that are challenged by difficult socio-economic circumstances, where making progress in the provision of education is always going to be accompanied by tensions. However, as Dr Singh states:

“Education is not a privilege of the rich and well-to-do; it is an inalienable right of every child. Provision of basic education free of costs is a core obligation of States.”

Why should Dr Kishore Singh be concerned? If the private sector is willing to provide education for children, shouldn’t the state be encouraged to support such an initiative? It is certainly true to say that there are many excellent private schools, some run by NGOs, others by charitable trusts and even some by wealthy philanthropists, which are doing excellent work in this field. I am sure that Dr Singh recognises this, but he is right to express his apprehensions.

In particular there are concerns that once the state abdicates responsibility for the education of its children, it loses control of the ability to ensure that the quality of schooling is high, and that the curriculum and other procedures are fit for purpose. Where things go wrong, if the state has no oversight and no available sanctions, there is little opportunity for redress. There must also be questions asked about the motivations of those who choose to develop private educational institutions. There are many instances where such schools have been run purely on business lines, with a focus upon making profit, and others where they have been seen as the means of promoting a doctrine which may not always be in the interests of the children or communities which they claim to support. In countries where private schooling sits comfortably alongside that provided by the state, there are well established elements of quality assurance and control, overseen by national governments, to which all schools must adhere. Where such procedures are ignored, this can lead to major injustices and the exclusion of significant elements of the population from schooling.

Where schools are managed in order to make a profit, they are usually dependent upon contributions from the wealthiest sections of society. The children of affluent families tend to be warmly welcomed by the management of these schools, those who come from more marginalised backgrounds less so. When these schools have endeavoured to provide for a proportion of children from poorer communities, or those who have been excluded because of disability or special educational needs, they have often been faced with opposition from those parents who believe that this will be to the detriment of their children.  In talking about the importance of providing parental choice, the managers and owners of these establishments are almost invariably considering the right to choice of only a small and largely advantaged section of the population.

It may, of course, be the case that Dr Kishore Singh’s anxieties are ill-founded. It could be the case that a beneficent and selfless organisation takes responsibility for schooling in a state, and is prepared to accept the guidance of a democratically elected government with regards to how provision for all children can be achieved. Sadly, I think that in expressing his concerns, Dr Singh is right in suggesting that the forfeiting of responsibility for ensuring that all children have access to education is a measure of the lack of commitment to equity and inclusion on the part of some governments.

Ensuring that Education for All becomes a reality was never going to be easy. It will be made even harder if governments fail to accept that it is their responsibility to effect change that will benefit all children.

 

When looking for solutions to national problems, consult the students

 

Vegatables of this quality can improve the health of everyone, but it takes school students to make them available to all

Vegetables of this quality can improve the health of everyone, but it takes school students to make them available to all

Whilst India has developed rapidly in recent years, and a period of relative  economic buoyancy has brought benefits to many within the population, the many daunting challenges that remain within the country are all too evident. High levels of pollution, traffic congestion, poor infrastructure and a vast number of people living in poverty all continue to blight the country and challenge progress. At times these difficulties appear overwhelming, and as is always the case, the majority of people look to those in positions of authority to bring about improvements. The ministers of successive governments of all political persuasions have made bold speeches promising to deliver radical change, but behind closed doors I suspect that many of them would admit that they have failed to find satisfactory solutions.

Perhaps the expectations surrounding politicians and their ability to manage change are too great. Whilst they look for solutions on a national and global level, this possibly means that they are too far removed from the local situations that require attention. It may also be that those in high office have become so imbued in their ways of working that they are no longer able to maintain the kind of creative thinking that can have an impact on the lives of the populous. Whilst the answers to major problems may not come easily, perhaps there are other individuals or groups who can bring progress.

This thought came to mind yesterday as I read an article in the Mumbai edition of the Hindu, under the headline Mumbai students offer solutions to global problems. This reported a competition held under the banner of Happy India, which encouraged school students to identify some of the most significant problems they thought their country faced, and invited them to come up with the means to address these. I was not really surprised that they rose to this challenge with great enthusiasm and have already put into place a number of initiatives that are improving the lives of people in their cities.

A group of students from Podar International School in Mumbai recognised that many people living in the poorest conditions in the city, were unable to provide their families with the kind of nutrition that could improve their health and lifestyles. Seeking a solution that would enable them to change this situation, they came up with a novel business initiative in which they purchased vegetables from a wholesale market, and then sold half these to affluent customers at a price that enabled them to make a profit. They then used the profit to subsidise the sale of vegetables to people living in the poorest communities in the city at half the normal market price for good quality vegetables.

Poonam, one of the students involved in this initiative commented:

“I got this idea as I used to walk past a slum while going to school. I saw that the people there were very lethargic. For them, eating was only meant to fill their stomachs. They have no concept of nutrition, because they cannot afford nutritious food. So we came up with a cross-subsidised model to provide cheap and good quality vegetables to them,”

In another example of enterprise, students from Ryan International School developed a system to use waste plastic, of which there is certainly no shortage in India, to repair potholes in roads. They have since taken this initiative forward and have gained local authority consent to experiment with the construction of a thirty metre length of experimental road using the technique they have developed.

In providing local solutions to problems that are pervasive across India, these enterprising students will have learned much. Not only have they been required to produce business plans and experiment with design and production, but they will also undoubtedly have discussed social issues, the reasons why problems such as those confronted persist, and what their responsibilities to their local communities might be.

It may also be that there is an educational opportunity to be grasped by politicians here. Whilst the impact of the initiatives taken by these students may be small in scale, and there will undoubtedly be issues surrounding sustainability, it is clear that they have both the understanding and desire to bring about change. If there are lessons to be learned from this competition on the part of the students, I suggest that there may equally be a justification for politicians to discuss how the enterprise of students such as these may be harnessed.

It has always seemed to me, that even in a democracy, the ability of politicians to bring about sustainable change is impeded by party politics and factional interests. The young people who have set an example in Mumbai, and elsewhere in India, are currently untainted by narrow minded politics, and have demonstrated how local understanding when embraced within an educational context can yield positive outcomes. I hope that if any of these young people become politicians in the future, they will remember the value of lessons learned through the Happy India competition.

New Year’s resolution (or should that be revolution?)

A new year begins. What will it bring to the lives of children?

A new year begins. What will it bring to the lives of children?

I like to think that I am by nature an optimist. I tend to believe that problems exist to be confronted, and that people are generally good and willing to work together to improve the lives of others. But having said this, I must confess that I find that the newspapers at the end of one year and the beginning of the next can sometimes dent my otherwise sunny disposition. In many ways it would be a good idea to steer clear of the journalistic harbingers of doom for a few days, at least until the depressing review of the old year and predictions for the new are well out of the way. However, I think there may be a different way of dealing with the woebegone soothsayers of newsprint, so long as we are prepared to recognise that their apocalyptic auguries are not necessarily reliable, and  are entirely dependent upon the inactivity of every individual who can make a difference.

I long ago gave up on on making New Year’s resolutions. It seems to me that most of these were generally destined to be forgotten or discarded by mid-January, and that those which were maintained were often of no real substance or consequence. Here again the media do not help by informing us  of the new year pledges made by numerous “celebrities” as if their virtuous intent was something  with which we should be amazed. (Am I the only one for whom the term “celebrity” often refers to someone of whom I have never heard? – perhaps I should get out more!). However, the notion that we should occasionally stop and reflect upon our own situation, and that which  affects the lives of others, is of itself, no bad thing, and perhaps an indicator that we might do this more often. Whilst New Year appears to have been hijacked as a time for such activity, there is, of course, no reason why we shouldn’t undertake such cerebration at any time.

UNESCO have just issued a document titled Sustainable Development Begins With Education, which provides exactly the kind of reflection that I have in mind. I must admit that I almost put this document to one side, fearing that alongside the many other year end doom mongers, this might just push me over the edge. Fortunately I overcame my latent cowardice and found within this document a number of affirming statements, which whilst bold in their assertion, are founded upon evidence presented in a series of helpful vignettes. In a piece as short as this I cannot possibly do justice to the UNESCO document, neither can I highlight all of the statements made. But I can present examples here, along with a suggestion that may hopefully have more credence than most superficial New Year’s resolutions. The UNESCO document highlights examples of how:

  • Education prevents the transmission of poverty between generations.
  • Equity and inclusion in education are crucial for enabling the best possible learning outcomes.
  • Education helps women have a voice.
  • Equitable education service delivery is critical to tackle the roots of discontent in cities.
  • Education helps reduce political corruption.

As stated, each of these statements is accompanied by brief examples to illustrate the truths that they contain.

UNESCO suggest that the knowledge that education has an impact upon these, and other issues, should help to spur policy makers and professionals forward to create the conditions that enable progress to be made.

I suppose it might be said that everything suggested here is obvious, and that the people who read this blog are those who would share such sentiments, and already have a commitment to support the moves that would promote change. This is quite true, but maybe this is because of the limited way in which we conduct our professional conversations and actions.

Here then is the suggestion that I promised above. I suspect that on issues of education, equity, poverty and social justice many of us spend most of our time talking to other like-minded individuals. This is in part a result of the professional and personal circles in which we rotate and the fact that most of us belong to the tut-tutting classes who express our concerns for the state of the world. So perhaps we need to rethink our own behaviours and to consider the ways in which we commune with those who are less aware of the issues facing children, and the possible consequences of taking affirmative action on behalf of education. Maybe we need to find those channels, which far from preaching to the converted, may lead us to sup with the devil and increase his (or her) awareness of the difficulties faced by many children and the important role that education can play in improving their lives. After all, it is not individuals like you that are inhibiting progress, but it may well be others who are less aware or prefer to remain in ignorance of those issues that you are attempting to address every day in your classrooms, or elsewhere in your life.

For those of us working in academic institutions, this might present many new challenges. We are expected to attend the conferences, publish papers, write books and give lectures to those who are already likely to give us a sympathetic hearing. We may therefore need to find new means of communicating with those who may be less inclined to hear and more oppositional in terms of the ideas we wish to express. Such activity may afford us new learning opportunities and help us to become better informed in addressing those issues for which we claim to carry a torch.

I am not suggesting that I have the answer to how we might move forward. All suggestions for how such a task may be confronted will be gratefully received. Maybe we can review progress at the end of 2015.

A VERY HAPPY, PEACEFUL AND SUCCESSFUL NEW YEAR TO ALL FRIENDS

A copy of the UNESCO document Sustainable Development Begins With Education can be read at

http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002305/230508e.pdf

 

 

 

Good news shows how progress can been made.

These smiling faces indicate the educational progress being made in Bangladesh

These smiling faces indicate the educational progress being made in Bangladesh

 

Let’s report a positive story about children and education today.

In Bangladesh, the world’s most densely populated state, which spreads wide around the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta, an initiative from the World Bank, working with NGOs, including Save the Children has had a significant impact upon the educational opportunities of children. This project, known as the Third Primary Education Development Program (PEDPIII) was established with a specific aim of increasing participation and the number of children completing primary education, and improving the learning environment and resources available in schools across the country.

The World Bank has been supporting development and investing in education in Bangladesh since 1972, and their commitment has enabled a significant reduction in poverty levels, providing educational opportunities for many children. In particular a focus on the education of girls, has had a dramatic impact upon female literacy in the country. This initiative has similarly ensured that many children from the poorest sections of society have entered school, a significant number of them as first generation learners.

A recognition that the pre-school years are a critical time for learning has been an important factor in improving educational opportunities for children in Bangladesh. A year of publicly-funded pre-primary education has been provided for children who attend the country’s state funded schools, and has been seen to instil enthusiasm for learning that is being maintained into the primary school years.

The Work to improve education has not ceased with provision for the younger children. A project managed through the Bangladesh Female Secondary School Assistance Programme, has increased girl’s enrolment in secondary schools to 4 million in 2006 from 1.1 million in 1991.

The improvements in educational opportunities provided in Bangladesh have been achieved because of a number of factors. Firstly, a commitment from National and regional government and a recognition that education is critical to achieving a well trained workforce for a competitive future. Secondly, the financial support and investment provided by the World Bank. However, of equal importance has been the expertise of professionals, including teachers both from local communities and working through NGOs. Such collaborations, when clearly focused can have a dramatic impact on the improvement of children’s lives.

Bangladesh is in many respects an educational success story, though there remains much to be achieved and little room for complacency. UNICEF have identified particular challenges in respect of meeting the needs of children with disabilities or learning difficulties. Inclusive schooling remains elusive, though there are examples of good practice emerging. Teacher training is a critical factor in improving this situation and a number of recent initiatives are providing hope that the concept of education for all could become a reality.

The negative influence of poverty on educational opportunity is well known. Bangladesh remains a poor country with many socio-economic challenges. However, it does appear that models of working within this country might provide useful indicators of how others in similar situations can work towards the provision of a more equitable education system.

One man leading the way – will others follow?

Alberto Cairo, a brave Italian with a big heart, serving the people of Afghanistan.

Alberto Cairo, a brave Italian with a big heart, serving the people of Afghanistan.

If Afghanistan is ever mentioned during conversation here in England, it is almost invariably discussed in relation to the series of tragic wars that have blighted the country now for many years. Generally regarded as a failed state, one of those countries to which travel is most definitely not advised by the British Foreign Office (and the equivalent in many other countries), and a place where equality of opportunities appears very low on the national agenda.

Never having visited  Afghanistan I am not qualified to comment in any informed manner on the country, other than to make observations on what I have read or gained second hand from those who have been there. One of my brothers in law spent some time there with the British army and spoke with great affection for the people he met and the hospitality that he received from many of the local inhabitants. Similarly, a colleague recalls passing through Afghanistan on his way to a region of the Himalayas in the late 1960’s and was also treated with kindness and courtesy wherever he went. How sad then that it is now a country regarded in such negative terms.

An article in the Guardian newspaper colour supplement this weekend, written by Emma Graham-Harrison, reported how a number of foreign nationals have settled in Afghanistan and have come to regard it as their home. Despite the ravages of war and the inequalities that clearly create difficult living conditions in much of the country, these stoical individuals feel a commitment to Afghanistan, and more particularly to its people.

One of these interesting and determined individuals is an Italian physiotherapist named Alberto Cairo, who first arrived in Kabul in 1990 to work on the rehabilitation of war casualties. He says that:-

“To see all these patients coming with terrible wounds, it was quite tough, but strangely, I have felt since the beginning that I am in the right place. I realised that I was really useful.”

Having initially worked exclusively with the casualties of war, Alberto Cairo now provides support to anyone who comes to his clinic. His current clients still number amongst them the victims of conflict, but are equally likely to be those who  have been injured in car or industrial accidents or as a result of genetic disorders or difficult home births. He works incredibly long hours and often with minimal resources, yet he is totally committed and positive about his work.

Within the Guardian article one particular paragraph stood out for me. Alberto Cairo states that within Afghanistan life for disabled people is made harder because, whilst they are not rejected, they are subject to pity, rather than seen as having rights. This assertion, more than any other in the article made me think about the situation for disabled individuals in countries that have been so brutally used by warring factions for so long. Pity is usually reserved for the helpless, those whose situations are beyond hope. Fortunately Alberto does not see the condition of these individuals in this way.

With much of the country’s infrastructure destroyed, the national economy in melt-down and many of the population still living in terror, how does the government of Afghanistan determine its priorities? In Alberto Cairo the country has an individual who has established wheelchair basketball, introduced therapeutic programmes and dedicated his life to the improvement of others. Increasingly in poorer communities around the globe these kinds of initiatives are dependent upon the work and determination of individuals such as these. Whilst governments are so focused upon increasing the economic stability of their countries, there is always a danger that the most vulnerable members get left behind.

It is to be hoped that the people of Afghanistan experience a time of peace that has eluded them for so long, and that they will be able to make progress towards achieving a more stable and secure society. History appears to be against them, but there are many talented people in the country who given the chance can certainly make a difference. Sadly, the people with whom Alberto Cairo works are likely to remain very low on the list of national priorities until other issues are confronted and resolved. Thank goodness I say, for the professional dedication and compassionate example of people like Alberto Cairo and the countless others who are prepared to live in such difficult circumstances and put the needs of others before their own.

Will anyone come to the rescue of these heartless politicians?

Will these people reach safety? If they capsize will anyone help, or will we turn our faces away?

Will these people reach safety? If they capsize will anyone help, or will we turn our faces away?

Can you imagine the fear experienced by a child forced by violence to flee home with his or her parents who are equally terrified? Having existed (we can hardly call it lived) in a makeshift tarpaulin home for several weeks or even months, your parents announce that one last hope for a better future has emerged. It arrives in the form of a rusty, leaking boat, into which you scramble along with several hundreds of other similarly fearful and desperate individuals, all hopeful to escape the hell which has been their reality since being forced to leave their homes and possessions behind.

Setting out from the shore you head towards an unknown destination, suspecting that if you arrive safely you may well be given a less than friendly reception; seen as an unwelcome intrusion and a “problem” to be confronted by the host country. This is a potential challenge to be addressed if and when you reach the safety of dry land.

This scenario is the bleak reality for thousands of children and their families, distraught and helpless as they reluctantly depart the coast of North Africa in the hope of securing a better future. They flee the wars of Syria, Libya and Iraq, the terrors of Eritrea, Somalia and Northern Nigeria, without any concept of what might be ahead of them, but in a belief that it cannot be any worse than the situation from which they have fled. For a child, the decision has been made, their future shaped by the desperation of their parents. These decisions are not taken lightly and many sleepless nights must precede such dangerous departures.

For some, a successful passage to the shores of Europe enables them to begin a new life and gain a semblance of the security of which they could only previously have dreamt. This may be a first step towards a better life free from violence and fear. But for others the voyage will end in tragedy, with many drowned at sea as their overladen vessels fail to negotiate the hazards of the Mediterranean.

In recent years a fortunate few of those whose flimsy crafts have floundered, have been rescued from the sea through the combined humanitarian efforts of European nations working to provide an emergency service. Harrowing images of these petrified survivors arriving ashore have been seen on television screens around the world. A brief glimpse into the eyes of the children plucked from the sea makes one sure that they will never forget their ordeal. Sadly, for many others the journey ends in tragedy, and I suspect that nobody knows the numbers of those who have perished.

Imagine then how it might feel to be a child who has learned that the UK Government has now announced that it is withdrawing support for these rescue operations. This decision has apparently been made on the grounds that a belief that rescue might be possible will encourage others to make the perilous journey. Can this really be true? Will those parents who are so desperate to escape their violent and helpless existence in order to give their children a better life, really be deterred from what they see as their only possible route to safety by this draconian measure?

In the past the UK has prided itself on its humanitarian and caring attitude towards the oppressed and dispossessed peoples of the world. This week UK government ministers have made a significant departure from this proud tradition. In so doing they have chosen to turn their backs on those who are in greatest need. I cannot believe that this decision carries the support of the British public. If this was the case then I would certainly be feeling ashamed to be British. As it is I say shame on those politicians who feel that they are justified in ignoring the pleas for mercy of so many suffering individuals.

Strengthening the nation’s economy, but at what expense?

 

Campaigners for the eradication of poverty are beginning to despair. Will poverty in the UK ever become a historical concept.

Campaigners for the eradication of poverty are beginning to despair. Will poverty in the UK ever become a historical concept?

A head teacher describes how children in her school have pleaded with her that they are hungry, and how she recognises that they are getting so little to eat that it impacts on their ability to learn. Their parents cannot afford to purchase sufficient food to feed the family, so funds from the school are used to ensure that these children can have a decent meal. Another head teacher, expressing anxiety for the conditions that some children have to endure states that, “a hungry, worried, unsupported child doesn’t learn, behave or play well.” Schools increasingly have to provide basic support in order to protect the well-being of children. Three and a half million children are living in poverty, with a projection that they will be joined by a further 600,000 by 2016 with the total reaching 4.7 million by 2020.

Which country is being described here? You could be forgiven for believing that I have highlighted the conditions to be found in one of the poorer of the world’s states, possibly in Eastern Europe or one of the less affluent Asian nations. But no, these figures, taken from a report issued by a well respected organisation called the Child Poverty Action Group, refer to life in the tenth richest country in the world (according to International Monetary Fund Statistics) – that is, my country, the United Kingdom. It is not a situation of which we should be proud.

I am not totally naïve in my efforts to understand poverty. I have seen the conditions in which families live in some of the slum areas of India, and have spent time amongst people who spend their entire existence clinging to life and trying to survive whilst dwelling on the streets. Often these people live in situations surrounded by poor infrastructure and in countries where there are limited welfare systems and a long history of poverty and deprivation.  This is far from the case in the UK, where the strength of the welfare state has always been a source of national pride.

At a time when educational policy makers have emphasised the need to focus upon the raising of academic standards, we have increasing numbers of children who are in no condition to benefit fully from the schooling on offer. There is no doubt that those who live in poverty are less likely to succeed in school, are more likely to drop out of education and leave school with few qualifications. It is also the case that poverty impacts seriously upon the health of those who live in this condition, making them more vulnerable to disease, malnutrition and disabling conditions.

So, how can it be that the world’s tenth wealthiest nation allows situations such as those described above to occur? Have we become less compassionate than we were in previous generations? I suspect that this may not be the case, and indeed the British public have a record of being particularly supportive of charitable causes that work in support of vulnerable individuals. The cause of this currently worsening situation may well be that the priorities identified by national politicians in respect of growing the nation’s economy, are at odds with providing support for the most vulnerable in our society. Whilst taking a broad view of the country’s economic situation they have lost sight of the need to provide support for those individuals and families who are at risk of becoming increasingly disaffected as a result of poverty.

Schools are increasingly required to provide the kind of support that was previously available through social systems that ensured the welfare of those at risk. Of course, it is essential that teachers take a holistic view of the needs of children and families and provide for social as well as educational needs,  but for many families the message currently being received is that they are low on the list of priorities established by the current administration.

We should applaud those teachers and head teachers who see their responsibilities as going well beyond the school gates. But surely we must also question those who govern a wealthy country and appear content to see poverty increase and children struggling to thrive.

 

 

If it’s a choice between a toilet or a mobile phone, which will you choose?

This public sanitation block opposite the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan School in Srirampuram, Bangalore provides a basic facility denied to many others in India and elsewhere in the world.

This public sanitation block opposite the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan School in Srirampuram, Bangalore provides a basic facility denied to many others in India and elsewhere in the world.

I remember that during my primary school years many teachers imposed a simple rule in class that was no doubt intended to ensure a minimising of disruption to lessons. The order of the day was that if you wanted to go to the toilet during lesson time, you must raise your hand and ask permission. The implementation of this rule appeared to vary according to the interpretation or maybe in some cases the mood of the individual teacher. In my school experience most were sympathetic and would grant permission, often with a reminder to “wash your hands and hurry back”, though I do remember one particular teacher whose response was usually something along the lines of “it will be playtime soon – (possibly half an hour away) – you can wait until then.” This could have dire consequences, and I do recall an occasion when I found myself seated next to a very distressed friend who being unable to contain herself until playtime experienced the inevitable embarrassment attendant upon sitting in a puddle on her chair.

Hopefully today’s teachers in English schools are far more sympathetic to the natural needs of their pupils and no longer see these as an impediment to their teaching. Though I suspect that there may still be a few who see the discomfort of a child as being insignificant when measured alongside the importance of their lesson content.

This may seem an odd topic on which to reflect in this blog, but I have been moved to write after reading an article in The Hindu newspaper (September 19, 2014) and also reading extracts from a speech made by the United Nations Deputy Secretary General, Mr Jan Eliasson, in which he emphasised that 2.5 billion people still lack the “improved sanitation facilities” which were a priority established in the Millennium Development Goals in 2000.

It would seem to me that adequate sanitation, defined under the Millennium Development Goals as those that “hygienically separate human excreta from human contact,” should be seen as a basic necessity if reasonable standards of health and human dignity are to be attained. However, the article in The Hindu reveals that a survey conducted as recently as 2013, shows that “10 per cent of elementary schools (nearly 2 lakh schools) in India still do not have functional toilets.” This is clearly a concern in respect of the welfare and health of both students and teachers, but is also a critical factor as India strives to implement the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) as the leading legislation for achieving education for all children. This is a fact acknowledged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who vowed to improve this situation in his speech to teachers and children delivered this year on Teachers’ Day, 5th September.

There is a strange irony in the fact that some politicians and policy makers in India are cited by The Hindu newspaper as believing that “no correlation could be found between the presence of toilets and learning levels of children in school; therefore toilets are an unnecessary expense,” and that “since most poor rural children did not have toilets at home, they would not miss them in school either. What they needed was education, not toilets”. As the newspaper article rightly points out, the lack of even the most rudimentary toilet facilities in schools is a major inhibitor of school attendance and an affront to the dignity of students and teachers alike. To deny a correlation between the most fundamental sanitation and access to schooling demonstrates a significant lack of credibility amongst some policy makers.

Furthermore, where toilets are provided these are often inadequate and do not provide segregated facilities for girls, resulting in many students feeling vulnerable and at the very least embarrassed, when needing to fulfil the most basic of human functions. An examination of complaints made to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights in India over a two year period, indicates that a significant number related to the administration of corporal punishment concerned incidents where students had been subjected to physical chastisement following “toileting accidents.” Both lack of toilet facilities and corporal punishment have been identified as a major factor in the drop-out of girls from Indian schools.

It is to be hoped that Mr Modi’s speech may lead to some action. However, it would appear that at present  the three main government departments, the Ministry  of Human Resource Development (MHRD), the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) and the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS) who could make a major difference, prefer to spend their time arguing about who should take responsibility for improving this situation.

One could be forgiven for thinking that action in this area might be high on the agenda. However, a shocking revelation from Mr Eliasson in his speech is the fact, that in much of the world more people have access to mobile phones than to toilets. I wonder what this tells us about the priorities established in today’s society? If you had to make a choice between a mobile phone and a clean and easily accessible toilet which would you choose?

 

Picturing life as it is for others

Sometimes one picture can provoke ten thousand words. What (if anything)does this mean to you?

Sometimes one picture can provoke ten thousand words. What (if anything)does this mean to you?

 

It is the start of another academic year and for various reasons a moment in time that I always find unsettling. For a brief while we live in a period of great anticipation for the days ahead, coupled with scurrying activity to ensure that all is ready for coming teaching commitments, new students and a renewal of research activity, but amidst all this we exist in days which seem to be spent in isolation amongst the echoing space of empty university offices.

Part of the reason for this is the burgeoning conference season that erupts each September drawing academics from the UK to venues in various parts of Europe, to showcase their own work and hopefully to listen and learn from other researchers who are engaged in similar activity. Anyone who has read David Lodge’s excellent and highly entertaining campus novel Small World will have a fairly clear picture of the type of jamboree to which I refer. Lodge, himself a well-respected academic as well as an astute observer of human nature through his cleverly constructed novels, acquired a healthy cynicism about the “academic lifestyle” and its self-proclaimed pretensions of importance. In recent weeks colleagues, and some of my students, have been attending these international conferences in locations including Portugal and Crete in what has become an annual ritual to launch the academic year.

Sometimes these conferences provide an opportunity to hear new ideas and to engage in debates with colleagues who are working hard to move the agenda for children forward, though in my experience it is often necessary to go searching for the sessions where this might just be possible. Often the papers presented are simply recycling ideas and act more like a comfort blanket for those seeking reassurance that their work has some intrinsic value that might continue to justify their continued employment. As you might tell from my tone, I am at present far less enthusiastic about the large international conferences than I might have been earlier in my career.

However, last week, amidst frantic activity with colleagues from Ireland and here in Northampton, to finish writing a research report that was finally despatched on Friday evening, I took a day out to fulfil a promise to a good colleague from Cambridge University to attend one day of a conference in Bath. Being some 150 miles from home, it was just about manageable to drive to Bath, engage with colleagues as promised and then return home in one day. The conference, organised by the British Association for International and Comparative Education (BAICE) promoted a session to discuss some of the ethical and socio-political challenges of working with teachers and children in poorer communities around the world. There were papers presented by academics from universities working in countries in Africa and Asia alongside those from workers in Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and charities with a permanent presence on the ground working in communities to address challenges associated with health, social care and educational issues. Many of the situations faced by these colleagues place the work which I do in collaboration with associates in India firmly into perspective. A discussion about working in the ebola ravaged regions of Africa or in other war torn areas of that great continent makes one realise that the minor frustrations I occasionally feel in my work in South India are somewhat trivial.

The conference session that I attended, and hopefully to which I made a minor contribution, was both stimulating and thought provoking. I heard things that made me in turn angry, hopeful and thankful that there are organisations committed to improving the lives of others even when this places their own lives at great risk. Driving home I reflected on the value of this day, and also on various aspects of its organisation and innovations that added significantly to the experience. Often, after a conference it is possible to revisit the ideas discussed by reading the papers produced by those who have made the extra effort to contribute a written account to enhance the dialogue of the sessions. However, this usually means waiting some time and in many cases the papers, for a variety of reasons, never appear. The convenors of the session in Bath had come up with an excellent solution to this issue by recruiting a talented colleague who throughout the sessions was producing the picture at the head of this blog posting. Around the session theme of Politics of Disability and Education: Perspectives from the Global South, she had illustrated ideas discussed during and after each presentation, thus providing an immediate aide-memoire of the workshop.

Since returning home I have looked at this superb précis of the session on several occasions and have found it stimulating ideas and reminding me of some of the issues that we discussed. The struggles faced by disabled students in South Africa, so ably articulated by two colleagues from that country, the obstacles to achieving anything like universal education in Mali and Senegal with its many difficulties associated with health and social structures, and the gulf between policy and practice in an emerging education provision for the poorer communities in India are all illustrated in this work of art. Now that the term has begun I have printed a copy of this picture and have it close to hand as a reminder of why many of us entered the teaching profession in our callow youth. Hopefully as we get older it may still be possible to kindle the light that gave us direction during those formative years and to avoid the petty distractions that can easily divert us from this course.

What messages (if any) do you take from the picture? I would be interested to hear.

Should we simply accept “bad karma”?

Women rolling beedis and hoping to make enough money to send their children to school.

Women rolling beedis and hoping to make enough money to send their children to school.

I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.

B. R. Ambedkar

In preparation for a forthcoming visit to Bangalore to teach on the University of Northampton MA programme, I have been trying to catch up on the education news and articles that I missed whilst away on holiday. With a focus upon educational and social inclusion, it is essential that when working with students in India tutors have a reasonable level of awareness of the issues faced by teachers and children in the locality. I have therefore been ploughing my way steadily through media reports, newspaper articles and recently published research, that have a bearing upon the challenges which education professionals are attempting to address in a diverse and often disparate country.

Many of the themes that emerge from the Indian press are those that have been debated for many years; in some cases for centuries. It was therefore with little surprise that I read an article written by Akhileshwari Ramagoud in the magazine India Together (4th August 2014), which describes the plight of women from a lower caste community and their difficulties in obtaining an adequate education for their children. The women live in what was traditionally a community where the men worked as barbers or ‘mangali’ as they are often called. The community nowadays is generally referred to as ‘Nayibrahmin.’ As with many such people living in poverty, those in the Nayibrahmin comprise mainly individuals described as being from a “backward caste,” a grossly offensive term it always seems to me, that implies that members of a community are inferior to those from so called “higher castes”.

The article describes how, in what has been a traditionally male dominated society, and indeed one in which men continue to be in authoritative roles, there has been a significant shift in life styles based upon changes in employment opportunities. Fewer men can now make a living through their skills as barbers as the availability of modern shaving equipment and a desire to be seen to attend fashionable hair salons has depleted their trade. This means that many men have moved away to other districts, or even out of the country, usually to the Middle East, in order to seek employment. It is suggested that men continue to play the dominant family role and are seen as the bread winners for their families. However, the lack of employment opportunities means that many more women from the Nayibrahmin community are having to seek work. A significant number of these women find employment rolling beedis in Nizamabad city. (Beedis are thin cheap, and often in my experience as a non-smoker, foul smelling cigarettes). If they are fortunate, women rolling beedis can earn up to 1,000 rupees per month (approximately £10 UK or $17 US). In some instances this is the only income coming in to the family. However, where possible men continue to be seen as the primary earners with a responsibility to care and provide for their families.

It is this difference in the roles of men and women in the Nayibrahmin community, and reflected elsewhere in India, that gives much food for thought to those of us working in western countries who are trying to understand this context. A similar situation pertained here in England in the earlier years of the twentieth century when women played a traditional “home maker” role and men went out to work. However, this situation has now changed with many women seeking career opportunities and becoming the major earner in the family.

The women who roll beedis reflect upon their situation and see education as a key factor in improving their quality of life. As one woman reported in the article states:-

“I wish I were educated. I would have climbed mountains. But what to do? My karma is bad. My destiny is no good,”

It is not unusual for people from the poorest sections of society to recognise that education can be one of the most influential elements of moving out of poverty. However, this is a more complex issue than many would have us believe and the fatalistic statement made by the woman above is not difficult to comprehend. The women from the Nayibrahmin community quoted in the India Together article emphasise that despite the lack of employment opportunities for men, and the fact that women are often now the main providers of family income, their husbands continue to be expected to fulfil a role as the main financial support for their families. As a result of this expectation the priority for education remains focused upon their sons. Akhileshwari Ramagoud reports that interviewing mothers revealed that:-

“Almost every male child was in a private English-medium school, while the girl children were sent to government schools, if at all.”

One of the mothers pointed out that they pay fees of around 700 rupees per year to send their daughters even to a poorly resourced government school, whereas the fees for their sons at private schools are around 6,000 rupees per year.

The commitment to provide their children with a good education in order that their life experiences and opportunities will improve, is apparent throughout the interviews with women from this community. The inequalities that persist suggest that moving out of poverty remains a distant dream for many living here. The importance attached to the education of boys in preference to their sisters is brought into stark reality when considering some of the stories that Akhileshwari Ramagoud reports in her article

“The women, however, admitted that they were in fact harassed if baby girls were born to them. A woman, who had a girl for her first born, was told that she would have to leave the house if she did not bear her husband a son the second time round. When she got a son after 10 years, “he allowed me to stay,” she said.”

As I consider the nature of inclusion during sessions with students in a few weeks’ time, it will be essential to recognise that many of the socio-economic and cultural factors that inhibit progress in achieving an equitable education system, continue to provide impediments way beyond the classroom. It is quite evident that I have as much to learn and to try to understand as the students with whom I will be working