Poetry with a hint of Eastern promise

"It's certainly difficult to think of a better symbol of civilization" Philip Larkin - On Books

“It’s certainly difficult to think of a better symbol of civilization”
Philip Larkin – On Books

I have just returned from the far east. You need to understand, that in making this statement I am not referring to an exotic far away location such as Myanmar or Indonesia, countries often referred to as eastern lands. No, the place to which I refer is still within the bounds of the UK, though the convoluted route to attain this far flung destination makes one feel that it could be far removed from here.

Having thought about this recent journey I realised that the time taken to travel from my Northamptonshire home by train to Hull, on the eastern coast of England, was marginally longer than a recent flight I made to Istanbul. It is hard to find similarities between the magnificent former stronghold of Constantinople that so elegantly forms a link between Europe and Asia, and a far flung English city which takes its name from the river upon which it is located near the mouth of the river Humber. Nevertheless, Hull was my destination and one of the great advantages of spending several hours on a train is the time that can be devoted to working and reading.

Hull and back in a day would normally be a prospect that would fall some way short of filling me with joy. As it happens, on this occasion I was delighted to make the journey to examine a PhD written by an enthusiastic, articulate and interesting young lady from Saudi Arabia, who had conducted an interesting piece of research. The satisfaction of seeing her leave the viva voce examination with a beaming smile and dashing off to telephone her husband and children ensured that I began my return journey in good humour.

I do, however, have to make one small confession about my visit to the University of Hull. This is not an institution with which I am particularly familiar, and one that I am not likely to visit on a regular basis, but having been invited to undertake this particular task, I was eager to arrive early. Thus it was that for a 12.00 pre viva meeting, I arrived at 11.00am in order to fulfil a particular mission.

My interest was not specific to the university building, though if ever the term red brick could be applied to a university, Hull would certainly provide the finest example. I was in fact drawn to the university campus inspired by probably its most celebrated previous member of staff. I refer here not to an eminent researcher or academic, but rather its famous longstanding librarian. Philip Larkin, one of the most respected English poets of the twentieth century was appointed librarian at the University of Hull in 1955 and remained in the city until his death in 1985. Whilst the library at Hull is named after a former Vice Chancellor of the university, there is now a Larkin building on the campus.

So it was that on reaching the university my innate curiosity led me straight to the library where Larkin worked for so many years. In all honesty it does not differ greatly from university libraries elsewhere around the world, but there is something about writers and their locations that I cannot resist. This after all is a place where Larkin looked for and found so much inspiration. He was reputedly a somewhat curmudgeonly man, but surely anyone who loved words and books must also have had a gentler side to his soul. Whilst much of his slightly irreverent poetry captures images of people and events, I could not avoid thinking about his Whitsun Weddings collection and the journey that he commenced and describes so vividly from Hull railway station. It is then fitting that on this station today thirty one years after his death, there is a statue (shown at the head of this posting) of Larkin which sees passengers away from Hull just as he departed from that platform so many years ago.

It may be a pointless and rather trivial occupation, visiting places associated with writers, but perhaps there is something in all of us who love words that inspires a nugatory hope that such time frittered away may result in a modicum of talent rubbing off on ourselves. The Indian writer and diplomat Navtej Sarna in his amusing book Second Thoughts: On Books, Authors and the Writerly Life, describes how a “desire to understand the mind of the writer and the process of literary creation” has driven him to search for the grave of Boris Pasternak, drink in a favoured haunt of Dylan Thomas, seek out a café in which Naguib Mafhouz regularly passed his mornings and see the words from Ruskin Bond’s Landour Days etched in the landscape of Musoorie

I now discover that a much earlier poet, Andrew Marvell (1621 – 1678) also lived and spent his school years in Hull. Perhaps there is more of the exotic about this far flung corner of the land than I had previously realised.

Philip Larkin, Librarian and Poet

Philip Larkin, Librarian and Poet

Click on the link to hear Philip Larkin Reading The Whitsun Weddings

 

Indian colleagues, leading the research agenda

Researchers experienced and novice work together to develop an understanding of educational issues.

Researchers experienced and novice work together to develop an understanding of educational issues.

 

In recent months an exciting new venture for our work in promoting inclusive education in Bangalore, has been the development of a small cohort of research students who are registered to study for a PhD with the University of Northampton. These are, for the most part, students who have completed their MA programme with us in Bangalore and have already produced work of exceptional quality for their postgraduate dissertations. Indeed, some of their work has been published in reputable research journals and their investigations have attracted interest beyond India. These enthusiastic investigators have been busy of late generating formal research proposals and submitting these for the scrutiny of university committees that oversee research quality and ensure ethical practice.

For those of us involved in supervising the work of these students and providing an appropriate training programme, both during our visits to Bangalore and at a distance, this development brings new opportunities and challenges. It has always been our intention to support colleagues in the promotion of a new generation of skilled researchers who can assist in moving inclusive education forward in this part of India and we are delighted to have recruited colleagues of such outstanding quality. However, we are also aware of the currently limited opportunities that exist for these colleagues to become fully immersed in an education research culture such as that which exists in the UK and much of Europe. We are though, fully committed to the process of assisting our students to change this situation, and have every confidence in their abilities to play a leadership role in the near future.

I have been thinking about these challenges over the past couple of days, my attention having been drawn to an article written in an Indian financial magazine called Mint, by Anurag Behar who is from the Azim Premji Foundation. Under the headline Researching Education, Behar argues that there should be both an increase in educational research in India, and a realignment of focus to ensure that we can gain greater insights into both the role and effectiveness of the teacher, and a deeper understanding of education in a social context. The article is clearly written for a lay audience, but makes a number of astute observations about the current lack of understanding of education provision in the country and the ways in which it may promote positive social and economic change.

A number of expressions in this interesting piece of journalism provide evidence of the thoughtful approach adopted by Anurag Behar. At one point he suggests a specific role for educational research when he states that:-

“with experience and rigorous reflection, one can arrive at relevant (let’s call them) operating principles that can help in flexibly responding to multiple contexts and situations. Given our dynamic social reality, even these need constant critical interrogation”.

He then goes on to suggest some quite specific questions, listing some of what he sees as being current priorities:-

“how can the capacity of our 8.5 million teachers, who have a full-time job, be improved within the constraints and diversity of our education system and social reality? How does community engagement with schools become effective? How can schools foster constitutional values? How should schools be governed, recognizing fully that simplistic, industrial-mindset governance mechanisms are not only ineffective but also harmful to good education? How do we deal with the rot in the pre-service teacher education system?”

As I read Behar’s short article, I wondered how many colleagues working within schools and universities in India would agree with the arguments he puts forward. Those of us who endeavour to keep abreast of educational research in India, are often frustrated by the apparent belief that large scale surveys are the only means of providing useful data. Such work requires significant funding which is not available to either the practitioner researcher, or to many who would wish to engage with the kinds of questions that Anurag Behar would have prioritised. The value of smaller scale studies focused upon the specifics of pedagogy and classroom management is largely denied by those in positions of authority and power in the Indian education system. In concluding his article he suggests that:-

“Research in education must focus on the real and important issues within education. This requires educators themselves to become adept at asking and answering research questions, rigorously and systematically. If educators take responsibility for research, it will definitely cause a quiet revolution in education research and education itself”.

I find myself totally in agreement with this last statement, and hope that Behar’s views may be heeded by those who oversee educational research in India. Our young enthusiastic researchers in Bangalore have already proven themselves, along with many of their peers who have completed small scale research for a post graduate qualification. They have developed research skills and utilised these as they have investigated the realities of classroom life, and the challenges faced by teachers, students and families. Their commitment to the promotion of change and the development of a more equitable society is one of the most important stimuli that encourages myself and my colleagues in our work in Bangalore. In reading the article from Anurag Behar I am heartened to see that others are recognising the importance of fostering a research culture that is clearly focused upon schools, teachers, children and families. Such arguments further justify the work being undertaken by our excellent students and will, I hope encourage them towards ever greater achievements.

A Bard for Every Nation

Othello and Desdemona. Kathakali artistes perform Shakespeare

Othello and Desdemona. Kathakali artistes perform Shakespeare

I had anticipated that being in India on Saturday 23rd April this year would mean that I would miss all of the events and interest surrounding the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. I would however, imagine that  if anyone from outside of the UK was asked to name the most significant literary figure from our country, Shakespeare would, quite rightly, appear at the top of the list. As someone who loves theatre, literature and language I would most certainly concur with this judgement. However, in believing that this most quintessentially English of playwrights might have been pushed to the sidelines in India, a country that is the birthplace of more than a few excellent dramatist; Ramavriksha Benipuri , Rabindranath Tagore and M.Gopala Krishna Iyer  to name but three,  I was most definitely underestimating the reverence afforded to Shakespeare in this country that has such a fine literary heritage.

Unlike my previous trips to India, I can honestly say that to my surprise, Shakespeare has featured significantly during much of this most recent journey. This immersion in the works of the great bard began even before my arrival in the country. To my delight, on perusing the entertainment system on board the flight from Birmingham, I discovered a number of recordings of Shakespeare’s plays performed at the Globe Theatre in London and available to help with overcoming the tedium associated with a long haul flight. Between Birmingham and Bangalore, and then again on the return flight I was able to enjoy performances of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and even Henry VIII, this latter being a play I had never previously seen performed.

Once in Bangalore the Shakespeare theme continued as I noted that there have been several performances of the great man’s work in Indian cities to mark this anniversary of his demise. On the actual day of celebrations, the Hindu newspaper carried a number of articles about Shakespeare, including reports of events planned to be held in London, Stratford-upon-Avon and in various parts of India. There was also an article about an Emeritus Professor in Mysore who has a great passion for the Elizabethan dramatist and a huge collection of books and other artefacts associated with the great man and his story. During the evening of the 23rd April, a filmed version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was broadcast on an Indian television channel, and international celebrations were reported on the television news. The respect in which Shakespeare is clearly held in India was fascinating to see and is perhaps one of the most positive aspects of English influence upon the country.

I suppose I should not have been so surprised to find this important Shakespearian anniversary being acknowledged here in Bangalore, having once seen an entertaining production of Macbeth at the Valley School near here, and also in company with my young friend Varsha having attended a somewhat surreal and satirical one man show called “Nothing Like Lear” performed in a Bangalore theatre.

Having noted that the Shakespeare commemorations would coincide with my April visit this year, I had planned a small celebration of my own to enjoy with students on our MA course. Thus it was that on this most auspicious occasion, after my far from professional efforts at reciting what is probably Shakespeare’s most celebrated sonnet (number 18), which begins with the oft quoted line “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”  we all indulged ourselves by consuming a magnificent chocolate cake. My audience were evenly divided between those who loved Shakespeare when encountered in their school years, and those who found the archaic English language impenetrable.  I am far from convinced that my own inadequate rendition of a Shakespeare sonnet will have done much to change the minds of the detractors, but I do know that the provision of chocolate cake was popular with all in attendance.

And should you think that Shakespeare and a chocolate cake are too much of a distraction from the serious business of study for a higher degree, I will call up the great bard in my defence:

                                                     “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

Sir Toby Belch. Twelfth Night. Act 2, Scene 3.

 

Whilst my performance of Shakespeare would not have won any plaudits, the quality of the chocolate cake was greatly appreciated by all!

Whilst my performance of Shakespeare would not have won any plaudits, the quality of the chocolate cake was greatly appreciated by all!

 

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO HEAR HOW SHAKESPEARE’S SONNET XVIII SHOULD BE RECITED, DO CLICK ON THE VIDEO CLIP BELOW

 

Heat, humidity and virtuosity

 

An evening with some of India's finest musicians gives welcome respite from a busy schedule

An evening with some of India’s finest musicians gives welcome respite from a busy schedule

It felt like standing before an open over door. That is my recollection of first arrival in Chennai in the year 2000. Though we soon came to realise that it was probably the humidity more than the heat that quickly became oppressive. I have returned to the eastern coastal city several times since then, and still I find the sticky atmosphere to be at times uncomfortable. So with Bangalore in the grip of a heatwave, I had anticipated my brief visit to Chennai with mixed emotions. Excited by the opportunity to work with new colleagues and students, I was none the less, not looking forward to a climate that is challenging to those of us from northern climes.

In reality the day was well planned to avoid the worst of the oppressive heat and humidity. Picked up by the driver of an air conditioned car very early in the morning and deposited at the door of an equally comfortable airport, I boarded my flight for the short journey across the country. It was not until my arrival in the city that fronts the Bay of Bengal that I was in a position of having to confront the heat. A short walk across the airport car park confirmed what I had known all along and within a minute I was drenched in sweat.

Fortunately, much of the ensuing day was spent in doors in meetings with colleagues from Tamil Nadu Open University and the National Institute for Empowerment of Persons with Multiple Disabilities (NIEPMD), and later in the day teaching a group of undergraduate students. Apart from a brief period of planting a palm sapling in the coastal grounds of the NIEPMD, the day was largely spent under cover.

A feature of the day was the time spent with teachers and therapeutic professionals who were working with children with a range of complex needs and disabilities. Their enthusiasm and commitment to the children and their eagerness to discuss the work that they were doing, reinforced my long held belief that India has many consummate professionals dedicated to ensuring that children, often from the poorest communities, receive a good education. Sadly, there are still many young people here, and particularly those with disabilities, that continue to be denied access to such facilities. However, time spent with colleagues today was affirming in providing an opportunity to see their determination to change this situation.

Arriving towards midnight back in Bangalore, the air was still balmy, though nowhere near as steamy as that in the city left behind. Teaching here is always tiring because of the heat and noise that are an ever present feature, but even in a heatwave, the high thirtys of Bangalore are easier to manage than the furnace of Chennai.

After seven days of teaching and with only one remaining before we return to England, it was good last night to attend a concert which forms part of the 78th Ramanavami Music Festival that runs throughout April in Bangalore. Pravin Godkhindi who plays bansuri flute and Kumaresh Rajagopalan on violin are two of India’s most accomplished classical musicians, and were here accompanied by outstanding percussionists and a tanpura player. The virtuosity of the musicians and their skills of improvisation made for a memorable occasion. Equally impressive was the obvious joy that they gained from their interactions with each other and the audience. At the end of another hectic day, it was a great pleasure to be able to relax and absorb the atmosphere that pervaded an auditorium filled with enthusiastic music lovers of all ages.

Whilst the conditions here can often make teaching difficult, the fact that we work with such excellent students and colleagues and have the opportunity to engage with local culture is a privilege that we should never underestimate.

Rowing boats and navigating a safe passage

Look carefully. There's some serious learning going on here!

Look carefully. There’s some serious learning going on here!

Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

Life is but a dream!

         (Traditional Children’s rhyme)

Between teaching two cohorts of students and running a training day for our research students here in Bangalore, we like to make the most effective use of our time. This sometimes means providing training sessions in either the schools where our students work, or in those of colleagues who provide support to our work here in the city. We are dependent upon the goodwill of so many friends in Bangalore and we are therefore always pleased to be able to give something back in kind to them and their schools.

Thus it was that yesterday a group of teachers and parents found themselves seated on the floor, rocking to and fro, whilst chanting the children’s rhyme that appears at the top of this posting. Later in the morning, the same group were playing a simple traditional Indian game of hop and catch, though restricted space somewhat limited the scope of this particular escapade.

If having read the above you are wondering what this has to do with the professional development provided to a school staff and parents, I probably owe you an explanation. Latha, who was one of the first students here in Bangalore to graduate from the MA programme, had asked that we visit her school to work with parents and colleagues to consider how early educational experiences can help children to become confident learners. We were more than happy to oblige, and suggesting that formalisation of education is being increasingly imposed upon children at an ever younger age, we decided to demonstrate the value of informal learning and to explore the uses of play.

Great fun was had by all as they experienced the kind of activities that we would hope all parents enjoy with their children. This was accompanied by more serious discussion about early years learning, the promotion of healthy child development and the importance of providing secure relationships between children, and for children and adults. We examined in some detail the many learning opportunities that exist outside of the classroom, and the importance of acknowledging that children learn much from people who are not formally designated as teachers. By the end of the day we had all reflected upon a unique learning experience, and promised to go away and encourage the children and adults in our lives to learn by being more playful.

Today was rather more formal, though also involved a number of enjoyable learning experiences. My good friend Savitha, who has been so supportive of our work in Bangalore, and is a fine example of someone committed to running an inclusive school, invited me to assist her staff in developing inclusive classroom planning strategies. Knowing of the great enthusiasm always exhibited by the staff of Pramiti school, it was easy to facilitate a range of practical tasks focused upon the children with whom they work.

Both of these days were not only rewarding, but were important to those of us who come here to offer the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme. Having rowed boats across very smooth waters, and navigated a route through classroom planning, we will now hoist sail and sally forth to work with our next group of students.

The teachers at Pri. .miti School are amongst the most inclusive I have ever met. Not just in India, but anywhere

The teachers at Primiti School are amongst the most inclusive I have ever met. Not just in India, but anywhere

Staying focused as we approach the finishing line.

Everyone assumes a role as we learn together on the MA programme

Everyone assumes a role as we learn together on the MA programme

Supporting our MA students in Bangalore as they work on the preparation of their dissertations is always interesting and at times challenging. At present we are working with a very enthusiastic and able group who have generated excellent research proposals and piloted one of their data collection instruments. At this stage of their progress they come back to us with many questions and a few anxieties about aspects of their piloting that maybe didn’t run as smoothly as might have been wished for. At the moment our job is not simply to give answers, but to give them opportunities to find solutions.

As part of the proceedings we encourage these neophyte researchers to bring their issues to sessions in order that we can help them to think these through, and learn about managing their projects. This invariably leads to lively debates and results in a stimulating learning environment from which we all benefit. Today was no exception.

This afternoon started with one of our students showing a brief clip of video recording of her work with parents of children from a village community near where she is based. Many of these adults are parents of first generation learners and our student wishes to gain data from them to inform her research, which is examining the effectiveness of the school provision made for their children. This is an exciting project which demonstrates the commitment and impact that some of our students are having in fostering more inclusive learning opportunities.

In order to gain the data that she requires this keen researcher is planning to use focus groups, but like many at this stage of her research development, she is apprehensive and has questions about how best this should be managed. What are the difficulties in collecting data from parents who cannot read and write? How do I manage a group when they don’t follow the conventions of taking turns to speak? These and other similar concerns were brought to the table. So this afternoon, much of the time was spent in role play, with students taking  the part of participants, researchers, recorders and observers. Everyone took the role they were playing seriously, and the action was followed by a lively discussion, with an exchange of ideas and suggestions that helped in the development of a set of principles for focus group management. Hopefully our student feels more confident and many of her questions will have been addressed. I look forward to her reprting back after the next stage of data collection.

Sessions such as these, led largely by the students themselves, and often involving friendly banter and laughter, can only be conducted when they feel at ease with each other, respecting their classmates and demonstrating a willingness to share ideas. I am sure that as these students begin the last leg of their journey towards achieving their MA degrees they are forming friendships that will endure, and have gained new skills and knowledge that they will take forward for the benefit of the children and teachers with whom they work.

Days like today reinforce the fact that it is a privilege to work together with such committed professionals.

 

 

Good news about teachers just doesn’t sell newspapers!

 

When this teacher does her job well nobody will notice

When this teacher does her job well nobody will notice

Sometimes it feels like the opinions of teachers count for very little when judgements are being made about the quality of education provided for children. It is often the case that when children are perceived to be under performing in schools, or there are media reports about discipline issues, fingers are quickly pointed at teachers as the sole cause of the problems reported.

Here in England there was a time when the views of teachers were eagerly sought by education policy makers at local and national levels. Politicians and administrators were keen to obtain the opinions of those who were working in classrooms in order to inform their ideas, influence policies and bring about change. Sadly, in recent years this has become a less common approach, with a great deal of educational policy made by politicians without recourse to the opinions of teachers, who are often then seen to be held responsible when things don’t quite work out as intended.

It was therefore heartening yesterday to read a research report titled “The Voice of Teachers” which within its introductory pages states that it :-

“aims to move beyond cliché and misrepresentation, bringing to the fore teachers’ own perceptions regarding the education universe they inhabit”.

Perhaps at last, I thought, we have a report that will respect the views of those who work most closely in classrooms, and can provide insights into their professional lives, with all of the concomitant successes and challenges that typify every day school life. Indeed, within a very short time of commencing my read I found that the experiences of the 823 teachers and 441 head teachers interviewed for this research were being presented and discussed in a manner that was respectful, empathetic and realistic in interpretation. There was little evidence of rose tinted glasses in the report’s presentation of facts and figures, but neither was there an apportioning of blame where specific difficulties were identified and shortcomings discussed. Overall the document presents an honest appraisal of school life, drawing upon the perspectives of experienced school professionals alongside a review of significant facts and figures. On reaching the final pages of the report I found myself wondering, why more reports should not draw upon this rich seam of data, provided by teachers and presented in a well-balanced and lucid manner. If only I could find such a document within my own country!

Ah yes, you see, the report in question adopts an approach seldom seen in today’s English education system and comes in fact from Pakistan.

Alif Ailaan is a campaigning organisation in Pakistan that encourages public discourse around education in Pakistan. Interestingly, it is in part funded by a grant from the UK Department for International Development. The organisation has a stated goal to “get every Pakistani girl and boy into school, keep them learning and ensure that they receive a quality education”. This is the kind of statement that is made by many government and non-government agencies across the globe. However, in the case of Alif Ailaan the approach to achieving such a goal appears to be considerably different from that adopted by many others. They are certainly not afraid of being critical of teachers where they feel that this is necessary, but rather than simply apportioning blame, they are committed to looking beyond the headlines to understand the conditions in schools, and how teachers can be supported to address these. This is apparent early in “The Voice of Teachers,” which reports the research commissioned by them in which a clear and balanced statement is made:-

“The teacher is at the heart of the education system. In Pakistan, however, the discourse on education often attributes to teachers virtually everything that is wrong with the system. There is little doubt that teacher performance in the classroom is below par, considering the consistently low learning outcomes recorded through examinations and assessments at all levels of schooling. But is the teacher entirely to blame for this situation?”

The research that informed this report provided data from both questionnaires and interviews, and identified examples of both good practice and shortcomings in classrooms. Among the issues which were identified as problematic in Pakistan’s schools, were overcrowded classrooms, poor quality textbooks, a lack of facilities and equipment, and inadequate professional development opportunities for teachers. The report does not overlook the impact of poverty, stating quite clearly that there are many children attending schools who are malnourished and therefore lack the energy to learn effectively.

Despite the many challenges faced by teachers, the authors of the report described them as being willing to learn and improve their performance, and certainly not lacking in motivation. Many express the opinion that they gain great satisfaction from enabling their students to learn.

The researchers identify many shortcomings in the education system within the country, but at the conclusion of the report they state that:-

 “If there is one clear message from our study, it is that responsibility for the failure to deliver high-quality education does not lie at the doorstep of teachers alone. In fact many of the challenges that teachers face daily have as much to do with their own capacities as with policies and procedures far removed from ground realities and in dire need of an overhaul. It is up to provincial governments to take on this challenge”.

Having read what I consider to be a fair and evenly presented report, which judging from the data that is clearly presented within its pages gives an honest appraisal of schools within Pakistan, I found myself wondering how it would be reported in the press. Dawn, the influential Pakistan national newspaper, often provides well written and interesting articles depicting life within the country. Surely then I would find a report within its pages that would praise the efforts of teachers, whilst discussing the poor resourcing of schools, inadequate training opportunities and large class sizes. I suppose I should not have been surprised, but sadly I found only one article discussing this report and far from praising the work of teachers, this reported that:-

“Over 70 per cent of teachers in Pakistan agree with the statement that corporal punishment is useful.”

This was indeed a finding from the research, and I should not have been surprised that it was singled out for attention by the media. I too was appalled that corporal punishment continues to be seen as a legitimate means of maintaining order in Pakistan’s schools, but just for once it would have been good to see a report that emphasised some of the more positive characteristics of teachers working for the benefits of children, often under the demanding of circumstances. Reporting fairly on the findings of this research could well have provided a much needed boost to teacher confidence – but then, good news rarely makes for attention grabbing headlines!

 

It sometimes takes extraordinary courage to be a teacher

 

Dr Sakena Yacoobi, a real life educational heroine

Dr Sakena Yacoobi, a real life educational heroine

I don’t suppose I should have been surprised, but I was a little disappointed yesterday when having mentioned the name Sakena Yacoobi to a group of students, I found that none of them had ever heard about this amazing lady’s work. As they had not heard of Dr Yacoobi or her commitment to education, it was hardly likely that they would have been aware of The Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) which has achieved so much in that desperately poor country.

Dr Sakena Yacoobi is a formidable lady who has, for many years campaigned for the rights of those from poor communities, and especially girls, to receive an education. Having determined to take affirmative action to secure educational opportunities, she has on more than one occasion put her own life at risk and found herself under threat from powerful organisations and terrorists. However, her own personal educational experiences – she was the first member of her family to receive a formal education beyond the early years of schooling, and then found herself living as a refugee outside of her native Afghanistan, has reinforced her commitment to support others to achieve their potential.

As a refugee in the USA, Dr Yacoobi worked to gain degrees in biological sciences and public health. Her academic work was highly regarded and eventually she was made professor at an American university. Such is her commitment to the people of Afghanistan, however, that she decided to return home and develop a number of schools for children in some of the poorest areas of the country. At a time when the Taliban were in power, Dr Yacoobi founded the Afghan Institute of Learning, which supported underground schools with a specific intent of ensuring that girls received a good education. This was a brave action which she entered into fully aware of the risks she was taking.

There are a number of stories about the courage of this extraordinary lady. In particular, reference is made to the occasion when armed members of the Taliban came to a school she was running and tried to impose their narrow beliefs upon her and her staff. With considerable courage Dr Yacoobi invited these armed men into her school and served them tea, whilst arguing in defence of the education of girls, quoting freely from the Quran in justification of her actions. She admits that she thought that the men would kill her, and possibly others within the school, but eventually she persuaded them to leave and went calmly back to providing lessons.

During the period of Afghanistan’s Taliban occupation it was estimated that underground schools organised by Dr Yacoobi and her colleagues were educating up to 3,000 girls. Many have since spoken of the opportunities that these schools afforded them and the gratitude they feel towards this courageous lady.

In 2011 The WISE Prize for Education was established to recognise the services given by outstanding individuals. This prize now has an important international status and is awarded only to people who have made a significant contribution towards changing the lives of others through education. This prestigious award has just been presented to Dr Sakena Yacoobi by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, chair of the Qatar Foundation. On receiving the prize Dr Yacoobi emphasised that many in her country still live in extreme poverty, and are certainly not free from terror. She further indicated that many of the people in Afghanistan continue to suffer and have feelings of helplessness. However, she sees increased educational opportunity as one part of the equation that can assist the inhabitants of Afghanistan towards a better life.

Whilst Dr Sakena Yacoobi remains largely unknown here in the west, there are certainly many in Afghanistan who are indebted to her for her courage and determination. Let us hope that life for those who continue to suffer in that country improves in the near future, with the inspiration of Dr Yacoobi this must be a possibility.

Details of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) can be found at the link below.

http://www.afghaninstituteoflearning.org/

Do please take the time to watch the brief video below in which this extraordinary lady tells part of her story

 

An adventure in learning – “because it’s there!”

It may be tough getting to the summit, but when you are there the view is magnificent

It may be tough getting to the summit, but when you are there the view is magnificent

“Why would anyone put themselves through such stress and hard work?” This was a question asked by a very competent and accomplished teacher and post-graduate student at the university on Friday afternoon. The question was directed towards another student who had just completed a week of induction activities for research students embarking on their studies towards hopefully gaining a PhD. Listening in to their conversation a part of me wanted to hear those immortal words uttered by the great mountaineer George Mallory when asked why he wanted to climb the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest – “because it’s there!” However, the answer I heard was equally profound and gives me great cause for optimism that this young lady has set out on a journey with exactly the right approach. “Because I want to test myself, and in so doing try to make a difference,” she said. “having finished my master’s degree I can see that it has enabled me to improve my teaching and I hope that the PhD will take my teaching and learning on to another level.”

Having received this response I am not sure that her friend was totally convinced that this would justify the many hours of hard work and occasional anxiety that characterises the research degree experience of most students. However, I am sure that this neophyte researcher is commencing her journey with exactly the right spirit and attitude to enable her to succeed.

Progression to study for a research degree is certainly not the best path for everyone, and those who enter such a course of action need to be fully aware of the personal sacrifices, doubts and apprehensions that will most certainly lie ahead. However, for those who complete the path there will undoubtedly be feelings of accomplishment, satisfaction and hopefully a renewed sense of commitment to their subject and the opportunity to make a difference. It is therefore always a pleasure to be amongst enthusiastic students about to launch forth into their doctoral studies and to share with them in discussions about their interests and passions.

On Friday afternoon I spent a little time with around forty such keen individuals each of whom was coming to the end of their induction period and were now about to cast off from the harbour upon their academic adventure. Some will conduct their studies in areas associated with education, and I hope to get to know these students well over the next few years, others working in the sciences, arts, business, history or technology are less likely to come into my immediate purview, but it was a pleasure to be amidst their enthusiastic banter as they discussed their areas of interest with enthusiasm and authority.

Such occasions invariably bring questions to the forefront about why students give such a commitment and make personal sacrifices for learning. Their motives may be many, but it is clear that somewhere along the line they have been inspired to learn, imbued with a spirit of curiosity and encouraged to think critically and develop their own opinions and ideas. I like to think that they have, in part at least, come to this position with the aid of teachers who have committed themselves to their students, whilst demanding excellence and encouraging an enthusiasm for investigation and learning. I am quite sure that if those teachers who had thus inspired these new doctoral researchers in this way had been in that room alongside their former students on Friday, they would have been assured that they had done well by their charges.

In the vanguard of research developments

Getting to grips with the challenges of sampling. Three keen researchers in discussion with Dr David Preece

Getting to grips with the challenges of sampling. Three keen researchers in discussion with Dr David Preece

Throughout this week three students who recently studied for the MA in Special and Inclusive Education which is managed by the University of Northampton in Bangalore have been here in England. Having proven to be outstanding students on the MA programme they have now advanced to enrol as research students working at PhD level. This is a moment of considerable pride for them, for their families and also for the university.

A common concern expressed by students studying on the Bangalore based programme, is that there is a limited corpus of research literature related to special and inclusive education in an Indian context. Students inevitably find themselves referring to journal articles, books and research reports from outside of India which presents the added challenge of having to critique this work in relation to an Indian education system. It should be obvious that some of the approaches to teaching and learning adopted, for example in the more affluent areas of Europe or the USA, will not be easily applied in rural Indian schools. Issues of resourcing, training, expectations, attitude and understanding all need to be interrogated before any confidence can be gained in the application of ideas from socio-economically advantages countries. It is therefore critical that the research capacity in this area in India is increased, and that more Indian researchers make a contribution to the research literature. Data in relation to inclusion and exclusion is at a premium at present, and it is essential that local researchers address this shortfall in order that teachers, parents and children can move towards a more just education system with confidence.

The three colleagues who have joined the PhD programme here in Northampton this week have already begun to address some of the limitations in research in special and inclusive education in their country. Two have recently published papers in peer reviewed journals based upon their MA dissertations, and all are developing proposals to address critical areas related to the teaching of previously marginalised children in their communities. Their research will of necessity require them to engage with teachers, parents, children and policy makers in India, thereby broadening understanding of the complex issues that they are proposing to address.

As all teachers in India are confronted with the challenges of meeting the requirements of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act introduced in 2009, they are increasingly seeking the support of colleagues who have begun to consider how first generation learners, or those from scheduled tribes or scheduled castes, along with others with disabilities and special educational needs can be included in Indian classrooms. I am sure that in this regard our students in Bangalore will make a significant contribution to the support of their colleagues, and these new and enthusiastic researchers will provide data with which they can inform change.

Meeting with these three new research students this morning they described the journey upon which they are embarking as “exciting”, “scary”, “daunting”, and “challenging”. I am quite sure that all of these words are apt, but also convinced that in the near future they will be making a significant contribution to a growing body of research literature in India. We are fortunate in having these students here with us for a few weeks in Northampton and I am sure we are going to enjoy working alongside them in India over the coming years as they progress towards their doctorates. I look forward to reporting their progress over the years ahead.