Punitive measures alone will achieve nothing

These children in Bangalore attend a government school in one of the most deprived areas of the city. However, the commitment of teachers is great because of the respect and esteem in which they are held.

These children in Bangalore attend a government school in one of the most deprived areas of the city. However, the commitment of teachers is great because of the respect and esteem in which they are held.

I am seldom convinced that punitive measures in education work. I am even less well disposed towards these when they are applied in poor situations which have, to some extent, been created by those who would inflict punishment.

A number of news reports from the state of Bihar, one of India’s poorest districts have lately caused me to reflect on how a dire educational situation there could be improved. For many years there have been major difficulties in recruiting teachers to work in this deprived area of the country, which has often been singled out for the poor quality of its education and social provision. A few years ago a significant recruitment drive was conducted in order to fill the many teaching vacancies in Bihar, and with a stated intention of improving both school attendance and levels of pupil attainment. At one time, this was reported as a success story, with an increase in school attendance and progress being apparently made towards increased levels of literacy. However, in recent months all of this good news appears to have evaporated amidst scandal and intrigue.

Recent reports (see for example http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-28190261) indicate that more than 20,000 teachers recruited under a state scheme had forged their degree certificates in order to gain employment. It is claimed that almost 800 of these teachers have recently been dismissed from their posts and that others are to follow.  Furthermore, more than 60,000 primary schools lack principals who could provide leadership and direction for schools where the average pupil teacher ratio is currently one teacher for every 63 pupils (India’s national ratio is about one teacher for every 40 pupils).

All of this makes for depressing reading, but I believe that the information is not easily interpreted. Those unqualified teachers, many of whom are described as incompetent, who are currently working in Bihar’s schools, were presumably appointed by authorities who made very little effort to check their qualifications prior to appointment. One also needs to ask questions about why it is so difficult to appoint teachers to work in this area, whereas in some other parts of India this does not seem to be such a problem?

Part of the difficulty in this situation appears to be the low status afforded to teachers in India, particularly those who work in government schools. Having visited several of these schools (though not in Bihar) I am always aware of how poorly resourced they are when compared to the private schools in the same vicinity. The teachers working in these schools are often less qualified than their counterparts in the “elite” schools, and government schools regularly report difficulties with recruitment of staff. The majority of teachers working in government schools are women and many have second jobs in order to make a living sufficient to feed their families. Recruitment of men to the teaching profession remains problematic because of the low esteem in which teaching is regarded as a profession. In Bihar, which is regularly reported as one of the poorest Indian states, there are major difficulties in attracting a skilled and educated workforce. I am for example, aware of many migrant workers from Bihar and other deprived states such as Orissa, working on the building sites of Bangalore because of the difficulties of finding well paid employment at home.

Children need well qualified and competent teachers and it is quite right that the state officials in Bihar and those at national government level, should be not only expressing concerns, but also identifying those individuals who are working under false pretences and with forged qualifications. However, punitive measures alone will not alleviate this dire situation and it is surely essential that these same authorities address the situation, by enhancing the status of teachers and providing more effective training for those who have ambitions to teach. There are many examples from other countries, including my own, of the development of incentive programmes to encourage teachers to work in poor areas. The provision of assistance with housing is just one of the benefits that have been used to entice well qualified teachers to work in areas where there have been difficulties with recruitment.

I am not suggesting that this is an easily solved problem. However, I do wonder if those teachers who have illegally falsified their qualifications might also be the source of a potential solution to the current difficulties. Presumably some of these individuals have demonstrated a commitment to work in situations that other more qualified persons have avoided. Perhaps an initiative to raise their skills and support them to gain the necessary qualifications might be one part of the answer to the challenges of recruitment in this area.

I have witnessed in many government schools, even those that are poorly resourced and where class sizes are above sixty students, dedicated, highly motivated and competent teachers who are affording children learning opportunities that were denied to previous generations. At one such school, the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan BBMP school in Bangalore, which serves one of the most deprived areas of that city, I have seen enthusiastic and skilled teachers making a significant contribution to the lives of their students. This has been achieved because of the ethos of respect and appreciation created by the school principal and the gratitude of the community served. Whilst I am sure that many of the teachers working in that school could obtain better paid posts in private schools elsewhere in the city, their dedication to their students and the recognition they receive for the progress that these children make, ensures that they have status in their community and feel appreciated for their professionalism.

I do hope that the authorities in Bihar take the appropriate action to address the serious fraud that has characterised many of the schools in that state. But I would also urge them to look in more detail at the underlying situation that has led to this problem, and find ways of enhancing the position of teachers who would provide a commitment to the children in that area.

 

 

Poverty: a consequence of inactivity

poverty-no-accident

Contrast these two excerpts from recent news reports, both of which refer to the current situation in the UK.

Despite the financial crisis, the total number of millionaires in Britain has risen by 50% over the last four years (The Week May 16th 2014)

3.5 million children will be in poverty by 2020 (BBC News Website June 9th 2014)

How are we supposed to interpret these two contrasting statements? Should we be concerned? I suspect that this depends on your point of view. Possibly, if you find yourself in the category of those individuals mentioned in the first report you may feel comfortable and even satisfied with your situation. By contrast, if you are the parent of one of the children referred to in the BBC report you are likely to be anxious, worried and possibly angry. However, we should not assume that those who find themselves in a position of affluence are not concerned for the welfare of those in poverty, or that those struggling to survive don’t in some ways feel sorry for those who are most wealthy (this is a serious point). Fortunately there are many wealthy individuals in this country, as in others who are challenging the moral status of a society in which these starkly contrasted situations co-exist.

Of course, the disparities between individuals living in wealth and poverty can be found in all countries, but today I am most concerned for the situation here in the UK. In 2010 the then Labour government passed the Child Poverty Act and put plans into place to challenge those conditions that lead to deprivation and social exclusion. A target was set to reduce the number of children living in absolute poverty (a measure related to median income levels) to below 5%. It has just been announced that this target is now seen not only to be unattainable, but for the first time since the 1960s there will be no reduction in child poverty this decade.

I asked if we should be concerned about this trend. We most certainly should if we recognise the consequences of such levels of societal inequality. Evidence suggests that as poverty increases so does the potential for social tension, increased disaffection and decline in standards of health. Poverty can be a significant cause of disability as a result of malnutrition, poor access to health care and inadequate housing conditions. All of these factors have significant impact upon the stability of communities and the overall economic welfare of the nation.

It will, quite rightly, be argued that the levels of poverty in the UK cannot compare to those seen in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, or some South American or Asian countries. Poverty may well be a relative term and clearly manifests itself at different levels from country to country. However, when poverty is set to increase in what is still seen as one of the world’s most stable economies, there is surely cause for us to be worried. In particular we should be concerned that in a nation with such affluence our political leaders appear to be either unable or unwilling to tackle an issue that is set to blight the lives of so many children. The inactivity of policy makers in this area results in the apportioning of blame to those very individuals most at risk of falling into poverty, and places an additional burden of care upon those charities, agencies and concerned professionals who express concern. Of course, a realignment of current socio-economic policies could do much to arrest this decline in the nation’s status. Unfortunately I see little evidence that this is likely to happen and suspect that before long it will fall to the lot of teachers, social workers and medical professionals to pick up the pieces from the fallout resulting from increased child poverty. I am normally a very optimistic individual, but both of the news reports cited above left me somewhat depressed.

Is there hope for society’s soul?

Long days and nights on the street - an essential factor in feeding a family

Long days and nights on the street – an essential factor in feeding a family

When Nelson Mandela stated that “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children,” he was acutely aware of the vulnerability of childhood. Children feel secure and develop confidence when they are loved, cared for and feel wanted by the significant adults in their lives. When these conditions break down their situation can rapidly deteriorate and even reach a position of crisis. It is of course, easy to apportion blame when such circumstances occur and indeed there are times when the negligence or abuse of adults is abominable. However, a story in today’s Indian Express demonstrated how poverty often makes victims of whole families and creates situations that challenge our usual reactions to tragic circumstances.

Under a banner headline that read “Mentally ill boy tied to Mumbai bus stop is rescued, (and) taken to children’s home” the newspaper reported how a child with cerebral palsy and epilepsy was taken into care after having been tied to a bus shelter. He had been fastened in this manner by his grandmother, described as a “pavement dweller,” in order that she could leave him safely to make money by selling toys at nearby Girgaum Chowpatty. This is the only way she can ensure that the nine year old boy and his twelve year old sister, both of whom are in her care can eat and survive on the streets.

After being photographed chained to the bus stop, action was taken by the police and social workers and the boy was admitted into care. A shortage of places for destitute children meant that it took twenty four hours to find an appropriate placement for the young victim of this tragedy. Hopefully, having found a place this means that he will receive professional care and attention and maybe his life chances will improve.

However, the young boy, described as mentally ill, though I suspect that learning difficulties may have been more apposite, is not the only victim in this story. The article describes how his grandmother was fearful for the fate of her grandson and grateful for the intervention of the authorities. Her greatest concern now is that she will be able to visit him in the residential care to which he has been admitted. She is reported as asking police officers “Will they let me meet him every once in a while?” Her anxiety and concerns for her grandchildren demonstrate her own vulnerability in this situation. Apparently the children’s father died in 2010 and they were abandoned by their mother within a few months of this. The grandmother had clearly done all that she could to support and care for her grandchildren for the past four years.

Presumably the grandmother and the little girl are still living on the streets and struggling to survive, as is the case for many others, not only in India but around the world, including here in England. We could, with some justification take the words of Nelson Mandela used at the beginning of this piece and substitute the word children” with those who are vulnerable”, because certainly the grandmother is as much a victim in this story as the child. I have no doubt that some who read the report in the Indian Express will apportion blame to the family at the heart of this story, but Mandela is right when he indicates that there is something wrong with the soul of a society that continues to allow circumstances such as this to exist. A child is taken in to care, but what support is being offered to the grandmother and the boy’s sister?

In India, as elsewhere in the world there are increasing numbers of people who have attained incredible levels of wealth in recent years. At the same time the gap between these individuals and those who live in poverty has grown greater. The quality of life improves for many, whilst many more see no prospect of change. Sadly I suspect that stories such as that reported in the Indian Express are more common than we may realise, indeed on days where there is no shortage of newsworthy stories this report may not even have made the inside pages. If society really does have a soul it is to be hoped that it is found soon and certainly before stories such as this become so commonplace that they are no longer reported.

Let’s hope that both the children and their grandmother find themselves in improved circumstances in the near future.

Thanks for your response.

Learning to play or playing to learn? Let them enjoy their brief childhood.

Learning to play or playing to learn? Let them enjoy their brief childhood.

When I started this blog, which I must admit I did with a certain level of cynicism (I’ve always been a bit of a Techno-Luddite!), it was with the intention that it might provoke some discussion and debate, particularly amongst students participating in the MA programme in Bangalore. Whilst this remains an important primary function I am not sure that it has been wholly successful in this regard, though perhaps it has served as a means of gauging the opinions of others who make up a wider audience. It is always reassuring when a response is posted on the blog, as at times it can feel a little indulgent, or appear like talking to oneself with an imminent danger of someone coming to find me with a straight jacket!

When individuals do post remarks they are generally thoughtful and make a significant contribution to my own thinking on issues around children’s rights and inclusive education. When this happens I try to respond positively to these comments in the hope that the debate may be continued. Sometimes the observations made are so powerful that they inspire me to write further on a topic and thus keep the discussion going. Such was the case yesterday when I read the comments posted by Saneeya from the UK and Tim from Canada.

I had written about Rooban, a child featured in the Hindu newspaper who rises each morning at 4.30 to deliver morning newspapers around Bangalore (Trying to deliver a better future May 20th). After two hours of working he goes home to collect his younger brother and prepare for a day at school. The money he earns from his job is aimed totally at ensuring that the two boys can obtain an education without becoming a drain on the family income. Whilst this young man is clearly demonstrating a noble commitment to self-improvement, I raised concerns that his childhood is fast disappearing and that society is failing in its duty to enable him to lead a balanced life. My own concerns when reading about Rooban were reinforced by the comment posted by Saneeya who wrote that:

“One of my main concerns, however, is that in shouldering such heavy burdens from young ages, so many children are robbed of the enjoyment of mundane childhood activities such as old-fashioned play time with their peers outside of school, reading for pleasure, and so on, which are so essential for the nurturing of their characters and personalities”.

Saneeya juxtaposes two interesting concepts here, firstly the acceptance of a burden of responsibility and secondly the nurturing elements of play. These are wise words indeed as they go straight to the nub of the issue. Whilst children certainly need to learn elements of responsibility and we should undoubtedly encourage them to recognise their duty of care towards others, this should not be at the expenses of their own development through engagement in play with their peers. Childhood is short and should be recognized as a critical phase of life during which children learn to form relationships, explore materials and their environment and understand how to utilise the skills acquired through play for the benefit of themselves and others.

Tim takes these concern further by citing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which he rightly says emphasizes that:-

“The child shall have full opportunity for play and recreation, which should be directed to the same purposes as education; society and the public authorities shall endeavour to promote the enjoyment of this right.”

Of course, there will be many who argue that through his work Rooban is learning to explore his environment, co-operate with others and develop a broad range of generalizable skills. This is undoubtedly true, but at what cost? The importance of play in the formation of well adjusted, inquisitive human beings has been well researched. Children deprived of these opportunities often have difficulties adjusting to social mores, in forming lasting relationships and knowing how to solve problems.

Both Saneeya and Tim express concerns that appear to be debated less today than might have been the case a few years ago. In many quarters it is now simply accepted that childhood is a necessary period of high dependence and economic demand which needs to be endured prior to individuals becoming effective workers to support national economies. If you think that this is an exaggeration, I would urge you to read the recent UNICEF report on progress towards the Global Education for All Goals that recognises child labour as one of the greatest obstacles to achieving universal education.

In posting his remarks on the flouting of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Tim is careful not to apportion blame. He highlights that addressing these issues is the responsibility of “society and the public.” He then closes with a perceptive comment:-

“I think ‘society and the public’ means us. We have some work to do!”

Well said Tim, and Saneeya and thank you for responding.

Trying to deliver a better future.

All kinds of goods are delivered on bicycles around Bangalore

All kinds of goods are delivered on bicycles around Bangalore

In today’s edition of the Bangalore edition of the Hindu newspaper there is an article that appears as part of a series about the “men and women who make Bangalore what it is.” The article features a boy named Rooban who describes, with considerable pride his work as a newspaper delivery boy working in the city. Rooban states that:-

“I have been delivering newspapers to people’s homes in Malleswaram every morning for over a year now”.

He describes how each morning he rises at 4.30 to cycle to pick up his newspapers and deliver them to local houses and flats, a task that takes him about two hours.

When I read this article I recalled my own experiences as a morning paper boy, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, delivering daily newspapers to houses near where I lived in order to gain some pocket money. There is a long established tradition of paper boys and girls delivering the daily news to houses in most towns and cities across England. It was this initial recollection that attracted me to the Hindu article, but as is often the case when considering my own experiences and those of individuals in India, I found myself pondering on the totally different circumstances that surround a seemingly familiar situation.

For a start, my paper round usually commenced at around 7.00 am. and took at most an hour to complete. But this is not the main difference between Rooban’s experience and my own. Whilst my paper round was undertaken purely to provide me with pocket money to support my hobbies and interests, Rooban says that:-

“I wanted to be able to pay for my own education and that of my younger brother”.

He goes on to say that:-

“My parents don’t want me to work. But I want to, so that I can help them and they can save their money for our everyday needs”.

Rooban describes how after completing his paper round, he cycles back home so that he and his younger brother can get ready for school. This is a well-established routine and it is with evident pride that Rooban reports that he doesn’t miss a school day, even when there are exams.

Like Rooban, I used to return home from my paper deliveries, and after a good breakfast would make my way to school, sometimes I suspect with less enthusiasm than that exhibited by Rooban. I wonder now if I should feel slightly guilty about this, because it is the clear commitment towards his education, and that of his brother, that motivates Rooban to get up before dawn, to pursue a task that might just enable him to have aspirations towards a better quality of life. His recognition that by fulfilling this role he is supporting his family and enabling everyone to have their everyday needs more readily addressed, indicates a maturity of thought that we might not always expect of someone so young.

How, I wonder, does Rooban cope with the expectations of a school day after having risen at 4.30 am. in order to complete his day’s work? In England concerns are often expressed about children who arrive at school having had insufficient sleep and possibly missing breakfast. There is a plethora of evidence to suggest that such circumstances have a detrimental impact upon the ability of children to concentrate and learn. Yet it would appear from the Hindu’s reporting of this boy’s life, within a column celebrating the lives of “men and women who make Bangalore what it is,” that the editor sees this as part of the normal expectations that enable the city to function.

When I did my paper round I did so out of choice. Had I chosen not to take on this job I suspect my life would not have been greatly different. I suppose it may be argued that even this rather trivial task taught me something about responsibility and self-discipline. I had to get myself to work on time, deliver the right newspapers to the correct houses, keeping them dry when it rained, and learn how to fend off the occasional nasty tempered dog (it lived at number 16 and is permanently etched in my memory!) For Rooban, the choices he has made are very different from my own. He has reasoned that delivering newspapers can help him to secure a better education for himself and his brother, and make life easier for his parents. I look back on my experiences as a paper boy with quite fond memories as a task that enabled me to do some of the things that I might not have been otherwise able to do. In the future, Rooban may recollect his days delivering newspapers as a critical factor in enabling him to gain a more secure position in life, that enables him to provide a better childhood for his offspring than he has experienced in his youth. This is the wish that I have for him and thousands in similar situations in Bangalore, let us hope that his dreams are realised.

 

 

 

Blame the teachers, they’re an easy target!

How do the life chances of these children compare to those in your neighbourhood? Not very well - then go out and see if you can find a teacher to blame!

How do the life chances of these children compare to those in your neighbourhood? Not very well – then go out and see if you can find a teacher to blame!

A recent edition of the Pakistan national newspaper Dawn (May 4th 2014) carried a headline “For child labourers, education still a distant dream.” This headline pretty much captures the tenor of the article, describing how children of families trapped in poverty have fewer opportunities to acquire a good education and enhance their life opportunities than those from wealthier communities. This of course, comes as little surprise, as the link between poverty and poor life chances has been recorded for more than a century.

Articles about the devastation wrought by poverty are plentiful, and the arguments about the causes of poverty and the challenges facing its eradication have been well rehearsed. So why was I moved to respond to the headline from Dawn which in itself tells us nothing new? After reading the brief account of the struggles of families in Pakistan and the raw conflicts that plague their lives, when making choices between sending children to school or earning enough money to eat, I was reminded of the words of Jeffrey Sachs the economist and Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University who wrote that

“History is written by the rich, and so the poor get blamed for everything.”

This quotation has been running through my mind over the past two days as I have read several articles by journalists who have all adopted the same stance, in claiming that teachers are using poverty as an excuse for educational failure. Typical of these was the piece published in the English Daily Telegraph by their columnist David Barrett who suggests that “Teachers are failing pupils by blaming poor achievement on poverty and social inequality.” This article is one of several in similar vein to have appeared in the English national press in recent weeks. Often these statements have been made by politicians, or those commissioned and promoted by ministers or government agencies to endorse a particular policy or dogma. They are then reported in the press as if they are factual, when in reality they have little substance and are seldom supported by evidence. Sometimes they are couched in half-truths, such as that contained in a recent poorly constructed and ill-researched report published by the “think tank” Civitas (think tank is usually a title given to an organisation that feels the need to tell you what to think) which states that “The relationship between child poverty and educational failure is a broad correlation, not a mark of certain destiny.”

There is, inevitably an element of truth in this statement. Most teachers can recall instances where children from poor situations have performed and achieved at the highest education standards. Such achievements need to be lauded and used to inspire others from similar circumstances. However, the naivety, or in some cases mischievousness of those who use these examples, is in the way they convey their message, whilst ignoring the fact that in order to achieve, these children must first be provided with opportunities. It is indeed true that afforded the chance to gain an education there is no reason why any child should not succeed. The question that needs to be addressed is how do we create such opportunities?

A recent report from the State of Alabama, one of the poorest in the USA recognised that:-

“Poverty disrupts education and most students who live in highly stressed environments, without a secure place to sleep or enough good food to eat, will not be ready to learn at a high level.”

Herein lies an important factor that many who choose to blame teachers for the “under performance” of children tend to ignore. When a child arrives in school undernourished and possibly from a home where there are tensions caused by unemployment and financial hardship this is not a situation conducive to effective learning. This is an issue that has been debated at some length in several American States over recent months, as reported in the Morning Sentinel (April 28th), a newspaper from Maine which makes the observation that

“We can address the underlying causes of low-performing schools, or we can identify scapegoats, pat the wealthy communities on the back and accept another generation of poverty.”  

The article recognises that “low-income families need more support so their kids come to class ready to learn” and that apportioning blame to schools is little more than a means of appeasing the failures of politicians of all parties and persuasion.

Sadly politicians from all parts of the political spectrum have adopted a solipsistic approach from their elevated positions of comfort and security. When systems are failing we all look to find someone to blame and in the poor and those in schools who are trying their hardest to support them, the politicians and media have found an easy target. So it is that the words of Jeffrey Sachs that I quoted above have been ringing in my ears.

I opened this piece by referring to an article in Dawn, and I am of course, aware that the levels of poverty in Pakistan are far greater than anything I have seen here in the UK. Yet the words of a father reported in the Dawn article provide us with an indication of why, because history is written by the rich, we need to listen to the voices of the poor.

“I have no other choice except sending my child to work. We are poor and cannot afford education which is for the rich people. We have to work daily to earn the bread.”

Increasingly in many societies, and I fear this is beginning to apply to my own country, educational opportunity comes readily to those who have the wealth to acquire it, whilst many others are left to struggle in order to gain a foothold on a ladder that may lead to greater advantage. In my experience those who live in our poorest communities see teachers as being amongst the few who appear willing to offer practical support. If only we could find politicians who could equally command such respect.

Looking beneath the surface

This child has responsibilities but will he receive an education

This child has responsibilities but will he receive an education

I was not surprised when a colleague approached me making horrified noises about the contents of the Human Rights Watch report “They Say we’re Dirty” about which I wrote yesterday. The issue of bullying of children by their peers, and even more disturbing, their teachers, is clearly distressing and I would have anticipated that any of my colleagues might have had the same reaction. “Why”, she asked me, “don’t parents get together and do something about this?” This is a natural reaction, but I think we should try to see this situation from a number of perspectives.

In many instances parents in any education system can feel intimidated by what seems like a fairly alien and intimidating environment. In England I suppose it is easy to believe that because parents themselves went to school, they will feel comfortable in their dealings with teachers and in visiting classrooms. Yet those of us with experience of working in schools know that there are many parents who feel anxious in meetings with teachers. How much more intimidating might this situation be for parents who had a bad experience of schooling, or even more so for those who have never attended school?

It is evident from the Human Rights Watch report that there are many parents who do not know how to approach schools or to work with teachers, even when those teachers are keen to involve them. There may be many reasons for this, but one in particular stands out for me from this document. For many of the families living in the Indian communities discussed in this text, existence is a hand to mouth business. In order to feed their families and maintain any form of reasonable livelihood it is necessary to make the most effective use of all available labour. One of the children interviewed for the Human Rights Watch report states:-

“My mother stopped my studies and asked me to look after cattle. We have goats, sheep and two cows. I feel like going back to school. My parents are not ready to send me to school but otherwise I would go. Earlier they had asked me to stop going to school when my elder sister had a daughter. I like going to school a lot.”

For many of us, as parents as well as teachers it is hard to imagine the dilemma that exists in some of the poorer communities around the world. Caring for cattle or looking after a baby so others can work and in order that everyone can eat is a reality for many children, whose families live within or close to poverty. Whilst we might say that it is irresponsible of parents not to send their children to school, it may equally be said that it is negligent of a society to allow such a situation to persist. Who am I to criticise the mother cited above until I know more of the pressures under which she lives?

Maybe we need to be more sympathetic to the needs of families and to listen to their reasons for dropping out of the education system. Even more important might be the efforts that could be made to design learning opportunities that sit more comfortably with the life patterns of people living in poverty. Rather than creating education systems and expecting children and families to adapt to these, we might consider examining the life styles of these families and building education provision to support them. This of course demands thinking in a different way about schooling, but as professional educators isn’t this what we are supposed to do?

Many platitudes are voiced about education being the route out of poverty. There is, of course, much evidence to suggest that obtaining a good education improves life chances. However, education takes time and does not address the immediacy of families in need. Suggesting to a mother than her child’s schooling will have benefits in ten years time may appear meaningless when she is struggling to find the resources to provide today’s meal. There is no easy solution to this problem, but I am concerned that whilst reports such as “They Say we’re Dirty” serve an important purpose in raising awareness of the many injustices that limit opportunities, there is a danger of resting on indignation rather than seeking reasons and solutions. We need to look beneath the surface of these issues rather than taking a simplistic view.

For many parents their aspirations are for maintaining their current living standard, even when these are far from satisfactory. Some even fear that if their children receive an education they will leave their community to seek better paid employment and opportunities away from home. Perhaps the challenge for educators is to identify the ways in which to communicate to families that their lives may be improved by a generation of educated young people, whilst campaigning to ensure they receive the support that they need today. There are no easy answers, but I would be interested to hear what you think.

To have and have not

“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”

― Mark Twain

 

Is there genuine grounds for optimism that these children will have a life so much better than that of their parents?

Are there genuine grounds for optimism that these children will have a life so much better than that of their parents?

A recently issued survey conducted by IPSOS MORI reveals that, the majority of adults in countries that have been at the forefront of economic development in the latter half of the twentieth century believe that the next generation of young people will experience a worse life than their parents and previous generations. By contrast, those from the so-called BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) as well as Turkey who have experienced considerable economic growth in recent years feel that there is an optimistic future ahead of their children.

In the survey 16,000 adults were asked: “To what extent, if at all, do you feel that today’s youth will have had a better or worse life than their parents’ generation?” 42% responded that life would be worse, compared with just 34% who thought it would be better. A further disaggregation of the statistics indicates that in China there is a high level of optimism with 81% of respondents believing that the lives of the youngest generation will be better than their own. This contrasts with countries that have experienced negative growth rates and continuing austerity measures in recent years, where positive responses fall to as low as 16% in Spain, 13% in Belgium and just 7% in France. In Britain, a country similarly gripped by economic difficulties just 20% of today’s adults think that the next generation of adults will have a better life than their parents, with  54% believing that their situation will be worse.

Statistics can, of course, tell us a great deal, but the interpretation of such figures is always a challenge (at least I find them so). Perhaps we should consider how lives have changed in the various countries mentioned in this report in order to ensure that we can reflect properly on what is being indicated. In my own country I have no doubt that my  life has been far more comfortable than that of my parents and certainly significantly improved on that of my grandparents or great grandparents. Like many of my generation I was the first member of my family to benefit from the opportunity to obtain an education beyond the age of 16. I was brought up in a period of unprecedented economic growth with significant developments in health care and national infrastructure and in a country which was largely peaceful and secure. By contrast my grandparents’ generation lived through two world wars, a great depression and a period where disease such as tuberculosis and rickets was still relatively common. In the UK life expectancy is now 81 years and rises to 83 years in Australia and as high as 86.4 years in Japan, figures which indicate a marked rise from the beginning of the twentieth century when in the UK these were 47 years for a man and 50 for a woman.

In the BRICS countries we can see unprecedented economic growth, though some indicators of prosperity remain relatively low. Life expectancy figures in these countries are 76.2 years in Brazil, 70 in Russia and India and 73.4 in China. According to figures from UNICEF in India 90 million females remain non-literate and around 20 per cent of children aged 6 to14 are still not in school. UNICEF figures also show that in India 56 children in every 1,000 born does not live beyond the age of 5, in Brazil and China this figure is 14 and in Russia 10. This contrasts with Australia and the UK with 5 children in 1,000 failing to reach the age of 5 years and Japan where the figure is 3.

Of course we could play around with statistics all day and behave like politicians in being selective about those we choose to use. It does seem to me, however, that there are two important considerations we should take. Firstly, it may be appropriate that those countries that have suffered social and economic hardship for so many generations now have an opportunity to prosper. When matching the optimism of adults in the BRICs nations to the apparent pessimism elsewhere perhaps we need to recognise that comparisons are invidious when not all are coming from the same baseline. A marked improvement in the lives of people in many countries may still leave them falling well short of the life style and opportunities that those of us living in more wealthy nations have experienced. Secondly, I wonder to what extent the reported optimism of people in the BRICS nations is truly representative of these countries as a whole. As an occasional visitor to India (I have never been to the others on this list) I have certainly seen over the last 15 years many people who have become richer and significant improvements in housing, health and infrastructure. However, I still see individuals living in abject poverty and now fear that the gap between the wealthiest and poorest in the country is growing rapidly.

I do hope that the IPSOS MORI poll provides a justified cause for celebration that the lives of people in socially and economically disadvantaged situations are now improving. Whilst I would obviously hope that my own grandchildren will have opportunities as great as those that I have experienced, it may be that a balancing of the distribution of wealth is about due. Is it right that we should remain in relative comfort and not wish for those who continue to struggle for the most basic day to day necessities of living to see improvements in their lives?

Commenting on the IPSOS MORI poll, Ángel Gurría, secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) stated that:

“Nothing is more explosive, more dangerous and more destabilising than having a whole generation of frustrated young people.”

Is it not strange that such statements are being made only now when this is perceived as a problem faced by those countries that have been economically advantaged for so many years? Was this not a factor in those countries which for so long were denied an opportunity to enjoy the benefits that we have come to expect? Perhaps the young people who have lived so much of their life in hardship have been compliant for too long.

 

Hungry to learn?

The Trussell Trust, a major charity providing food banks, has recently stated that between April and December last year, around 500,000 people were given three days’ worth of food at its banks. This figure suggests that 8 per cent of the population have had to resort to charity food hand-outs.

The Trussell Trust, a major charity providing food banks, has recently stated that between April and December last year, around 500,000 people were given three days’ worth of food at its banks. This figure suggests that 8 per cent of the population have had to resort to charity food hand-outs.

According to the Global Prosperity Index when last issued in 2013, the UK ranks number 16 in a table of 142 of the world’s most wealthy and stable countries. This places the country just behind Germany and Austria, and a little ahead of Belgium and Singapore. Topping the table is Norway, closely followed by Switzerland, whilst at the opposite end of the figures we find the Central African Republic and Chad. India incidentally is ranked at 106, with China at 51. The widely respected Legatum Prosperity Index uses eight equally weighted sub-indices to achieve an overall ranking of a country’s relative prosperity. These are the state of the country’s economy, security of governance, entrepreneurship and opportunity, education, health, safety and security, personal freedom and social capital and when combined these are said to be a fair indicator of what it is like to live in each country.

I have no intention of focusing solely upon statistical data for this posting, but having used the Global Prosperity Index a few times recently when teaching I decided to return to the document yesterday after reading an article in the Independent, a UK national daily newspaper. The headline above the article stated –

“Liverpool’s next Archbishop, Malcolm McMahon warns of child poverty problem.”

In the article the Archbishop designate describes the superficial nature of wealth that is evident in the country. He warns against viewing the dangers of seeing things at only surface level and recommends that we should be taking a more analytical view. There are indeed many wealthy people living in the UK and maybe the image we would like to portray as a country is that these are typical of the population as a whole. But Dr. McMahon suggests that what we see is a veneer that masks many of the problems that exist for families and children today. Writing of the schools which he sees in many of our cities he states that:-

“There is a poverty which we witness every day in our schools,”

and he expresses a concern that,

“Children come in and we know that they’re not nourished properly, they can’t keep up with the other children, with their lessons.”

Other religious leaders in the UK, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, and the Methodist Church’s public policy adviser, Paul Morrison have been joined by the leaders of charitable organisations such as Alison Worsley from Barnardo’s, in voicing anxiety about increasing child and family poverty in the UK.  Adding her input to the debate Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner for England warned that young people were hit very hard by the current Government’s austerity programme, stating that:-

“the poorest families, and therefore their children, are paying the price now.”

If the UK is rated as 16th in the league table of the world’s most prosperous countries how is it that these eminent and knowledgeable individuals are expressing such concerns? When walking around many of the UK’s cities today, and particularly in London, it is evident that there are huge investments being made in infrastructure, with significant projects aimed at improving transport systems, new retail centres and hi-tech offices in many of these areas. At the same time we hear that the leaders of our major banking and utilities corporations along with many other captains of industry are performing at a level that justifies million pound bonuses, on top of their already substantial salaries. It was recently announced that an English footballer was to be paid £300,000 a week, that is £1,785 every hour and just under £30 every minute in order to retain his services at his football club. Whilst I am not questioning the undoubted talent of these individuals, I do think that that there are serious questions to be asked about the situation that we have allowed to develop in this and other western countries. All of this affluence seems to be in contrast with the reality reported for many families who are currently struggling to maintain a basic standard of living.

Leicester is a city about  25 miles from where I live here in the English Midlands, it was recently announced that 23,000 children, that is 29 per cent of the city’s total are currently living in poverty.  Leicester is typical of many UK cities having received considerable investment in its development over the past five years. It appears to be the case that the investment made, whilst undoubtedly welcome in creating a more pleasant environment, is adding yet another layer to the veneer identified by Dr. McMahon. Can we really have created a society in which we value bricks and mortar above the well-being of our children?

Perhaps today’s blog may sound like something of a rant. That was not what was intended when I started writing. I am, however aware that I will be visiting a school later this week where more than 60% of the children come from families dependent upon local food banks run by volunteers to ensure that they can have at least one meal a day. The teachers in this school ask the hard questions every day about the kind of society in which these children are growing up and the dangers of a resentment that they may eventually hold towards those whose life is so different from their own.

Teachers in schools can only do so much to teach children about social justice. A stronger lead must surely come from our politicians. But in the meantime as teachers we must ensure that we do not remain quiet in respect of issues such as this which are a blight on the lives of the children for whom we claim to have accepted some responsibility.

If this is the situation in the 16th most prosperous country, it is hard to imagine the lives of children far lower down this list.

The Legatum Global Prosperity Index can be accessed at the link below:-

http://www.prosperity.com/#!/

 

Reasons to be cheerful!

 

This teacher at the BBMP Public School in West Bangalore was full of fun as a consequence of which her class loved learning.

This teacher at the BBMP Public School in West Bangalore was full of fun as a consequence of which her class loved learning.

Two of my doctoral students today quite independently told me that they had been reading this blog and had observations to make. The first commented on yesterday’s piece (Life on the Education Production Line. 17th March) telling me that it’s not only schools that have become obsessed with targets and paperwork. The university, she informed me, is just the same. I hope that she is not blaming me!

The second student commented that the over the last few days my writings had been rather gloomy, consisting largely of forebodings of a “coming educational dystopia,” (I rather like that expression – the wording not the implications that is, so I’ve used it verbatim here). I tried to reassure her that I remain at heart an optimist, though she seemed unconvinced. “I like it”, she said “when you write about the good things you see in education, like the piece on World Book Day. If you carry on like this we are all going to sink into a trough of depression. Why not write something to cheer us all up?” Well, maybe she had a point, so here goes.

Visiting schools and seeing teachers in action often equates to taking a tonic. If it works for me, maybe it will for you too. So taking up the challenge let me tell you about a school I visited a while ago with my colleague Mary.

The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (BBMP) Public School is located in the Srirampuram district of West Bangalore. This is an area with an unfortunate reputation, many of the district’s inhabitants live in poor quality housing in badly maintained streets and the reported crime rate is high. Walking around the area one is immediately confronted by all of the familiar characteristics of poverty and could quite easily understand if the people living here had chosen to turn their backs on a society that seems to have neglected their needs. But the BBMP school is beginning to make changes here and if the example of the teachers we saw working there can be followed then things are bound to improve.

The Bangalore edition of The Times of India quoted a good friend and colleague Vijaya Mahadevan who works for the Brindavan Education Trust in supporting teachers in the school. Vijaya says of the pupils:-

“They come from difficult, unpleasant backgrounds. Sometimes we have to counsel them to make them happy. If they cry in the morning while coming to school, by afternoon they forget the sorrow back home. They love the atmosphere here and parents have also been encouraging,”

We had been told about the school before we visited, just as we had been advised about the area in which it is located. But nothing could have fully prepared us for the morning we spent in classes at the BBMP school.

We were greeted at the school gates by a group of excited, smiling pupils eager to show us into their classrooms. The school principal and staff proudly led us on a tour of every classroom, introducing us to enthusiastic teachers and a cacophonous welcome from children, all wanting to shout hello and greet us in their well-practiced English. During the morning we observed teachers working with minimal resources, compensated by boundless energy and a determination to give every child an exciting learning experience. Classes of 60 children all wanted to show us their books, sing to us familiar English songs and generally overwhelm us with their enthusiasm for learning.

This school is a haven for children whose circumstances are often grim, but who are being afforded an opportunity to learn and eventually to make better life chances for themselves and their families. The teachers at the BBMP School demonstrate all that is noble in the teaching profession. Their compassion, dedication, attention to individuality and determination to make the most of what few resources they have for the benefit of every child represents the fine ideals with which most of us entered the profession. Visiting this school was both memorable and inspiring and I hope to have further opportunities to return.

Writing this and recalling that visit has certainly reinforced my belief in what education can achieve. I hope that my research student also find this suitably cheering. I will say no more but urge you to look at the smiles on the faces of both teachers and children in these pictures in order to be assured that there is much that is right in this part of the world.

The smiling faces of happy learners. School is the highlight of their day - just as it should be.

The smiling faces of happy learners. School is the highlight of their day – just as it should be.

The children are keen to share their work with Mary, and rightly proud of what they have achieved.

The children are keen to share their work with Mary, and rightly proud of what they have achieved.

When Vijaya Mahadevan visits the classroom everyone knows she is there to support and praise the work of teachers and children, thereby assisting in the development of the school.

When Vijaya Mahadevan visits the classroom everyone knows she is there to support and praise the work of teachers and children, thereby assisting in the development of the school.

Many thanks to all of the children and staff at BBMP School and to Vijaya for always wearing a smile!