Tempestuous teaching!

This may be exaggerating Johnson's teaching experience yesterday (with apologies to the actor Greg Hicks) but at times he certainly having to fight the elements.

This may be exaggerating Johnson’s teaching experience yesterday (with apologies to the actor Greg Hicks) but at times he was certainly having to fight the elements.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!

                        (Shakespeare – King  Lear)

I had the better part of the day for teaching here in Bangalore yesterday. Spending the morning engaged in lively debate over various models of interpreting behaviour with an enthusiastic and reflective group of students. Biological, psychological and social models were discussed, with the various merits of each interpretation being related to children known to the group. Arguments about the applicability of teaching approaches were high on the agenda, and a profound discussion of attachment led to some high level critical thinking. Our students participated willingly in all of the activities we had prepared, questioned their own beliefs and those of others and postulated theories and ideas in relation to their various classroom situations. This was quite literally the calm before the storm.

After another delectable lunch, Johnson took the reins and began the afternoon session by showing a video-recording of a classroom in Kerala, in a Malayalam media school. His session was well prepared with a series of questions and tasks and he had been looking forward to a vibrant lesson. He could not possibly have anticipated exactly how exciting it would become. No sooner had he begun this process than the heavens opened and rains lashed against the windows of the classroom. I should perhaps explain that we teach on the fourth floor of a building with windows on all four sides of the room. It can be noisy on a quiet day – but this was not a quiet day!

Heavy rain is not unusual in Bangalore, but what then followed was unprecedented in our experience of teaching here. Within minutes sizeable hail stones were cracking against the glass, the wind had picked up to gale force, and the eucalyptus trees behind the screen being used by Johnson, were threatening to smash their way through the windows. Johnson continued manfully, with the determination of Captain Oates going forth into the teeth of the blizzard, he raised the volume of both the video and his voice in a determined effort not to be defeated. In response to Johnson’s strategy the tempest grew fiercer building into a crescendo of rage as if to spite his every effort.

As Johnson continued, we noticed water seeping through windows, and before long two willing ladies appeared up the stairs with cloths, mops and buckets and with great gusto began to address the deluge that was fast building around Johnson’s feet. As a small lake developed in the classroom, Johnson waded forth, set on his mission and not to be distracted. I must confess to seeing an element of the old silent movie comedies in the session as with the determination that befits a seasoned professional Johnson ploughed on with increased resolve.

Fortunately the video had been concluded when the power cut arrived, and as I would have expected, ignoring this adversity Johnson fought his way stoically to his conclusion. Bravo man, what a sterling effort! The students I am sure were as full of admiration for this intrepid performance as myself. Furthermore they maintained their high level of performance and continued to complete the tasks set with gusto.

One of the saddest features of yesterday’s furious storm was the number of mature trees we encountered felled across the roads of the city in the evening. Today’s Hindu newspaper reports that more than 90 trees came down. Travel became an arduous process, and what should have taken fifteen minutes involved a journey of more than an hour. I would like to think that these wonderful giants of the city would be replaced with new planting, but I suspect that this may not be the case, as too many motorists, – these are now the dominant species in Bangalore, – see trees as taking the valuable space that could be given over to tarmac and new potholes.

We are hoping for quieter weather today as students begin to consider the assessed elements of the module. However, just in case things deteriorate further we will be armed with buckets and sponges and plenty more of Johnson’s fortitude!

Appreciating context; a first step towards respectful teaching?

Come and visit my school. You'll have seen nothing quite like it in England.

Come and visit my school. You’ll have seen nothing quite like it in England.

I have always believed that in teaching an understanding of context is important. I think that to some extent this belief was instilled in me during my first year of teaching when I worked in a school located in a coal mining area of England. It was soon apparent that the life experiences of people in this community, and therefore the children in the school were very different from my own. If I was to work in this school, I needed to gain some understanding.

I still find it difficult to imagine the dangers faced by the men who went every day, miles underground to toil in the heat, noise and dust of the coal seams. Mine was a very comfortable life and profession by comparison to theirs. I soon came to appreciate that with mining came a distinct culture and pride, built upon a close knit community that experienced similar dangers, and had bonded through times of hardship, pit accidents, respiratory disease and a common identity. To be a miner was to wear a badge of honour, and those outside of the immediate pit community could not easily gain access. But alongside a shared adversity, the local miners amongst whom we briefly lived had forged a positive life through the miner’s welfare clubs, a significant commitment to charitable work, and the rightly acclaimed music of the brass bands, a well-respected feature of many British mining communities. I still find it difficult to watch Mark Herman’s film Brassed Off without the occasional tear coming to my eye.

If context is important in shaping  lives and attitudes within communities, then it is surely necessary that we as teachers try to gain an understanding of the experiences of those we teach. This is a major challenge for those of us who come from the UK to teach on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme in Bangalore. Whilst it is fair to say that having worked here over the past fifteen years I find that there is much that teachers in England and India have in common, and that I see similar aspirations for children in the families I meet, I am always conscious that there are phenomena here that I don’t fully understand. I am sure that a lifetime here as an outsider would not be enough to enable a full understanding of the complexities of this context.

The modules that we deliver here have been developed in close partnership with our Indian colleagues who work with us on this course. We have worked hard to ensure that each session is relevant to teachers working in Indian schools and have gathered resources and teaching materials developed by Indian teachers working in a range of schools in Bangalore and beyond. None the less there are still issues arise during teaching or the assessment of student’s work that require careful consideration, analysis and discussion with our Indian colleagues in order to ensure that we are able to fully interpret a range of situations.

I have become increasingly concerned that there are professional educators, many from well-respected universities who are working outside of their own countries with very little regard for local traditions, beliefs and culture. This came to mind yesterday as I read about the introduction of an assessment procedure, commonly used in western countries for the assessment classroom management procedures, to schools in a northern Indian state. No effort had been made to modify the instrument being used, or even to discuss its relevance with local teachers or education administrators. It would appear that an assumption was made that because this procedure had been developed by “experts” in school management in a distinguished institution, that it should be suitable for use anywhere in the world. I am reliably informed that the two academics who delivered training in the use of this assessment tool had not previously visited India, and had certainly not spent time in schools. I assume that someone in this north Indian state had paid for the services provided, and maybe too they are in part culpable for not investigating the appropriateness of the materials on offer.

The creation of cultural dissonance increases with globalisation, and the imposition of a set of values previously alien to those particularly in countries of socio-economic disadvantage, who are working hard to improve the lives of children may well be a future source of tension. Internationalisation in education brings with it great opportunities for shared learning and understanding, but the right conditions must be created in order to ensure that the advantages gained are of benefit to all parties. Establishing a partnership of equals and challenging imperialistic models of benefice is essential. Taking the time and effort to get to know something of a country, its culture, influences and the aspirations of its people should be a requirement of anyone embarking upon such work.

Celebration follows all the hard work

Activity and debate. Active learning is alive and well in Bangalore.

Activity and debate. Active learning is alive and well in Bangalore.

Some of our students here in Bangalore are still high on the celebrations of their graduation last week. I have met several of them since and it is obvious that the occasion meant a great deal to them, as it did to their tutors, and they continue to savour the moment when they were awarded their degrees. This is just as it should be and I hope they continue to wear the aura of success for some time.

In conversation with one of our recent graduates this week, she told me:-

“When we first started on the course, for a few days I thought, why do we keep debating and analysing everything? Why don’t the tutors simply tell us what to do? It took us a while to adjust to a new way of learning, but now we realise how much more effective this approach has been. I now find myself questioning everything I do as a teacher in order to improve my practice. I also find myself reading more and wanting to know more about children and teaching.”

Such conversations are always reassuring, because whenever we embark upon teaching a new group of students we have our own apprehensions about how they might react to our approach. We spend the first few sessions closely observing our students for any positive signs in the hope that they are coming together as a group, and that they are prepared to challenge their own practices as teachers. So far, whilst teaching in Bangalore it has taken no more than a couple of days for our groups to become cohesive and to feel comfortable in debate and willing to engage in critical discussion about classrooms.

Watching from the side-lines yesterday as John and Johnson worked on a practical task with our third cohort of students, I was particularly interested to see how they moved around the room, sharing ideas with others and discussing aspects of behaviour management with children. Something that we have observed in all three of our cohorts to date, is that they do not form cliques or have a tendency to sit in the same place during sessions. Their movement is much more fluid than this and they seem content to work with any colleague during the activities that we present. This contrasts greatly with our experience of teaching in England, where students appear to seek the security of familiar working partners and are sometime loathe to explore ideas with someone less well known.

Today we will welcome visitors to the course. Individuals who think they may wish to join our new intake of students but wish to see just what we are like. I know that they will receive a warm welcome from our students and will soon detect the friendly atmosphere that they have created. We do not let these visitors sit on the periphery of the group, but rather engage them fully in the day’s debates and activities. Hopefully by doing this alongside friendly well established colleagues they will soon feel at ease and get a flavour of the ways in which we work.

We have been fortunate that those students who have chosen to join this course since it began in 2012 have without exception been full of enthusiasm, eager to learn and willing to become a part of a group committed to debate and practical learning. I am sure that amongst our visitors today there will be others who can also make a significant contribution to the promotion of more inclusive teaching and learning here in South India. I look forward to sharing in their celebrations as they graduate in the not too distant future.

More things in common than might be expected

 

Teachers from a mainstream and special school working together find that they can plan for their children to learn together

Teachers from a mainstream and special school working together find that they can plan for their children to learn together

Working with teachers in their own environment has a very different feel from that experienced when running courses at the university or on neutral territory. Being familiar with the surroundings and comfortable with each other, often means that those tentative minutes of beginning a training session are dispensed with, and teachers quickly become relaxed. Thus was the situation at Vydehi school today in the Whitefields district of Bangalore where I had been invited to conduct a session by Anita, one of our MA students here in the city. However, an interesting dimension of today’s training was that it brought together teachers from a special school alongside those from mainstream with a specific focus on creating an inclusive learning environment. This situation raised a number of questions in my mind about the expectations that teachers from these two respective establishments might have, and the ways in which they might interpret inclusive schooling. Would the special school teachers feel that they had a monopoly of expertise in respect of children with special educational needs? Would the mainstream teachers see these children as a problem? The session was approached by examining a model of assessment and planning to create opportunities for children to learn together in one classroom. Examples were presented from schools where these approaches had succeeded, and discussions of pupil “deficits” avoided. My idea was to provide examples that could encourage and enable children of all needs and abilities to learn within the same lessons. An emphasis was placed upon the proposition that within the same lesson children could be given many learning opportunities, and they do not in fact all need to learn the same thing, or work at the same pace.

It is always interesting trying to gauge the reaction of a group when addressing what I know to be, for many teachers, a series of challenging concepts. Nodding heads and smiles are always a good sign, furrowed brows and folded arms can be slightly worrying, a firm shaking of heads and reddening faces are disturbing to say the least. I recall one occasion when an audience member sitting immediately in front of me, at the outset of a session opened to its full width a broadsheet newspaper, thus concealing himself from me, and vice versa. This all before I had uttered a word.  I must confess that this rather pointed protest made me smile at the time, and I believe I saw the man behind the newsprint as ripe for conversion. Many of his surrounding colleagues objected to his behaviour, forcing him to lower his newspaper. In a way I was disappointed, having calculated that he would be unable to maintain his pose for more than a few minutes before his arms tired and he was forced to retreat. Fortunately today, there were far more smiles and nodding heads than otherwise, and nobody undertook any form of protest. Most reassuring was that teachers from both the mainstream and special schools appeared to be in accord with the principles that I was merrily espousing.

Towards the end of the session I became slightly concerned that they had all reached saturation point in respect of the information received and the ideas discussed. However, Anita suggested one final activity to end the event, and I was happy to comply. Teachers from both schools worked together in groups to plan a lesson in one of the formats presented during the session. They were asked to demonstrate how they might ensure that the needs of children from both of their schools could be incorporated into the lesson and their needs met. I was not surprised to find that these professionals rose to this challenge admirably and that they soon settled into devising differentiated approaches, and the implementation of resources that would support inclusive learning. When they presented back their ideas it was clear that they had identified a means of planning whereby all children could work together in an environment of mutual respect and understanding.

Whilst the teachers in today’s session are used to working in very different situations, it was evident that they have far more in common than they do differences. It became clear during the morning that these enthusiastic teachers also recognised that this was equally true of the children with whom they work.

Releasing the inner writer.

Enthusiastic writers sharing their ideas and getting them down on paper

Enthusiastic writers sharing their ideas and getting them down on paper

Why do we find writing so difficult? Even some of the great writers, such as George Orwell and Thomas Hardy have described the fear invoked by the blank sheet of paper; more likely replaced today by the flickering computer screen. No matter how experienced we continue to struggle with words and prefer to find ways of avoiding the difficult task of composing our thoughts. Prevarication is one of the writer’s closest familiars, and often his greatest curse. If this is true of those who have become successful authors, how much more difficult might it be for those of us who merely dabble in the shallow waters of writing? There are more good reasons not to write than to commence this arduous process, yet in some of us there is a compulsion to proceed. How dangerous might this addiction be? Few who have achieved a modicum of success would honestly seek a cure.

More than thirty friends and colleagues, each with a commitment to write, came together today in Bangalore for a workshop. At the beginning of the day it was possible to discern a range of tensions and confidences. How will I cope if I am asked to write and can think of nothing to say? Will today’s tasks be difficult and make too many demands upon me as a neophyte writer? Hopefully these apprehensions were soon allayed, as participants began to share in writing activities and found their peers supportive.

As university tutors we are cruel and unthinking  in our approach to student’s writing. Mature students enter courses, quite possibly having written nothing more complex than a shopping list for twenty years. Within weeks they are being asked to produce essays of 5,000 words and in a style with which they are largely unaccustomed. For some this is akin to being asked to work in a different language, yet this procedure has become standard in many academic institutions. Ask the tutors who run these courses, how much writing do they do, and how easily does their pen flow? I wonder how honestly they might answer?

If you decided today that you wanted to run a marathon it would be foolish to believe that you could do this tomorrow without having undertaken any training. Yet with writing we fail to recognise that this is not only an intellectual activity, but also one that makes physical demands. It takes time to become accustomed to sitting before a screen and trying to write for prolonged periods of time. For most of us it may be far better to begin with shorter and easier exercises rather than to decide to launch straight into a novel.

In too many schools writing has become a chore. Unfortunately there are teachers who are more concerned with the technical aspects of grammar and punctuation than they are with creativity. Grammar and punctuation are, of course important, they provide the structure around which fine writing is constructed. But let’s encourage children to enjoy the writing process first and once they recognise that writing can be fun, we can then shape and perfect the techniques that will help them to become proficient in using the written word for a range of purposes.

Participants in today’s workshop worked hard. They explored writing in different styles and for different purposes. They shared in their writing triumphs and admitted to a few difficulties. The learning that was in evidence assured everyone that they can write and that with practice they can write well. The concentration on a range of activities was sustained over several hours, tasks were taken seriously but there was much laughter. Interesting, often amusing and in some instances profound work was produced, but above all everyone agreed that writing had been an enjoyable experience.

Who knows, maybe the next J.K. Rowling, Agatha Christie, Vikram Seth, or Anita Desai could have been our midst. Even if this is not to be, I hope that at least some of today’s workshop participants will have been inspired to continue writing and shaping their ideas in words.

 

 

Happy endings.

 

A proud group of new MA graduateswith tutors and representatives of the University of Northampton

A proud group of new MA graduates with tutors and representatives of the University of Northampton

All of the stresses of recent days are past. Today was a great day of celebrations with a proud and well deserving group of students receiving their MA degrees in special and inclusive education after two years of dedicated endeavour. I must confess to feeling quite emotional as each student in turn was called to be awarded their degree certificate. Each one has a personal story to tell. Along the way several have encountered challenges which would have thwarted lesser individuals, but this group supported each other throughout the course and demonstrated commitment to achieve that was truly inspirational.

Working with these colleagues over the past two years has been a remarkably rewarding experience. They have produced work of outstanding quality, have debated and discussed issues with intelligence and enthusiasm, and have shown a willingness to deploy their learning in classrooms and to report on their many successes and the obstacles they have faced, in a reflective and professional matter.

The contribution that these teachers are making in their schools is significant. They are supporting children and their colleagues by developing more inclusive approaches to assessment, planning and teaching, and have become real advocates for inclusion, and leaders in the field of education. It will be interesting to watch their careers develop over the coming years as they become increasingly influential and establish themselves as leading professionals.

In offering a vote of thanks at the end of the graduation ceremony, one of our students, Samina, emphasised that whilst graduation signalled the end of a course of study, it was in many ways the beginning of a new phase in the lives of all who were graduating. The challenge ahead lies in applying their learning and taking others along with them on a journey towards more equitable teaching and learning.

Watching these new MA graduates today I felt immensely proud of what they have achieved, and I was pleased that their successes were witnessed not only by their families, but also by many people who have been influential in ensuring the success of the course, and who have taught me so much along the way. I was also filled with a sense of how fortunate I am in working with tutors of the quality of Mary, Jayashree, Johnson and John. It is undoubtedly true to say that working in Bangalore has not been without its challenges and occasional frustrations. But these are far outweighed by the rewards that have come through engagement with a group of committed students and tutors who have been willing to take on new ideas and consider their application in a diverse range of teaching situations.

Today was indeed a day for celebration. I do hope that the excitement of the day carries on for many weeks to come, and that each individual has an opportunity to reflect upon their great accomplishments and the value of the efforts that they have made during the past two years. They take away with them not only those skills that will enable them to develop inclusive classrooms, but also a set of principles for the promotion of a more equitable education system and society. I have every confidence that the children and staff with whom they work will reap many benefits from the work that they have put into their studies. I am both proud and humbled to have had an opportunity to share in a great learning experience and to be associated with such a fine group of individuals.

Many thanks to all involved
Photographs courtesy of Varsha Rajanahally and Time Loop Photography

I hadn’t anticipated the taking of hostages!

Somewhere within lies a symbol of academia!

Somewhere within lies a symbol of academia!

I am not sure why it is that sometimes those things that one had assumed to be straightforward become complicated in India. Whatever the reason, it is certainly true to say that there are occasions when this beautiful and welcoming country develops a carapace of such complexity that one is driven to the brink of insanity. Fortunately I have experienced far more good days here than bad, but yesterday was certainly one that I am pleased to put behind me.

My journey from England to Bangalore, though long and at times tedious passed by without incident. Both flights were on time, the cabin crew worked hard to ensure our comfort within the confines of economy class travel, my luggage appeared on the carousel and having completed the several forms necessary to escape the boundaries of the airport, an awaiting friendly taxi driver commenced the customary negotiation of the chaos that constitutes the Bangalore streets without difficulty. On arrival at my destination I was greeted by the familiar welcoming smiles and embraces of friends, and all was well. Things remained thus for the next hour, and I was soon settling well into customary routines; but this situation of calm was not destined to last. The several hours that followed can best be summed us as Kafkaesque in nature, (though even Kafka had limits to his imagination),and will be lodged firmly within my memory for the rest of my days. I am sure that in years to come I will awaken in the night, drenched in cold sweat as I recall the events of the last several hours.

One might be excused for believing that things should have been simple. But please, have some patience as I try to explain. I write this with an addled brain and a body that is uncomfortably fatigued, so the story may deteriorate as it progresses. The situation is thus. In two days time a group of deservedly proud and highly accomplished students are due to graduate with their masters degrees in special and inclusive education following two years of concentrated labours and focused study. This is a keenly anticipated event for all concerned; students and tutors alike. Graduations are immersed in an element of pomp and ceremony heightened by the colour and grandeur of the academic gowns, hoods and formal head gear that has characterised such events for many centuries. Representatives of the university’s chancellor and the Dean of Education, arriving today will officiate at the ceremony. On arrival at a hotel here in the city yesterday, I had anticipated that two large parcels containing academic gowns couriered from the UK would be awaiting me in readiness for this important event. Here began a chain of events that eventually left me frustrated and sleepless for more than thirty hours.

The good news was that the academic costumes had indeed arrived at Bangalore airport. Less than assuring was the message awaiting me that they had then been duly impounded by customs and excise and were not being allowed to progress beyond the confines of airport storage. In effect two parcels were being held hostage by officialdom and a large ransom demanded before they could be released.

One of the worst impositions of the long defunct British empire in India was the creation of dense layers of bureaucracy, undoubtedly intended to increase the efficiency of administration. However, it could never have been anticipated that Indian officials could take this burgeoning bureaucracy and turn it into a surreal art form. This kind of officialdom has been likened to an onion, which has layer upon layer of paperwork and obfuscation. The illusion is a false one, because at least with an onion it is possible to penetrate the final layer.

The release from incarceration of a collection of academic gowns it would appear, could not be negotiated over the telephone, but would necessitate a series of face to face meetings with men (they were noticeably all men), armed with sheaves of paperwork, official memos and rubber stamps. There was no choice but to make a return journey of an hour to Bangalore airport to begin a new and frustrating role as hostage negotiator.

I really do not wish to bore you with the complexities of the next five hours of this story. Or perhaps it is rather the case that the painful memories of unfolding events leaves me anxious and considerably aged! Suffice to say that having sat in several offices in different locations around the airport periphery; having completed endless forms, written official letters, made a dozen or so telephone calls to the UK and worn out my fingers with texts and emails, by late evening only minimal progress had been made. The gowns remain beyond bars, not even permitted a visitor and for all I know mocked and intimidated by jailers.

After four hours of seemingly fruitless negotiations and ransom demands, along with my colleagues I descended into hysteria. Much of the time the conversations and urgent phone calls made by my fellow negotiators veered from English to Kannada, leaving me totally in darkness and with a growing sense of dystopia. In desperation I found myself hatching a cunning, and completely bizarre Gandhian plan. This involved calling upon all of my many dear friends here in India to dust off their spinning wheels and work through the night to produce thread. Tomorrow, I thought, I will find others who can weave a set of perfectly formed khadi gowns. Thus attired our deserving students will make a fine statement of their independence. It will be a triumph for the emancipation of Indian academia and will announce the launching of a national “quit the customs” campaign. Such was the state of desperation experienced that we resorted to this kind of humour to address our frustrations.

Leaving the airport, minus gowns, but having acquired a new range of Indian friends and accomplices, was far from easy. Certain assurances had been given, but the outcome remains far from certain. I had not previously understood that the role of hostage negotiator would demand such sleepless nights, but now, as the first tentacles of light creep into the dawn, I sit and anticipate a further chapter in this desperate saga.

Somehow, amidst a full schedule of previously planned events for today the bargaining must continue. My pen is well charged for a further day of form filling, the bank alerted that a heavy ransom may soon be required. Expecting yet more complications, a team of friendly commandos have commenced digging a tunnel under the wires of Indian customs and excise in anticipation of the possible need for a more dramatic (non-violent) intervention. A colleague has baked a cake containing a file to be smuggled through prison bars, and my own personal nightmares continue.

I remain hopeful of a happy ending, but realistic about the paper driven monster that governs Indian procedure. Armed only with a pen and an unnatural level of optimism, I will sally forth into this brave new world. Now then, where was that phone number for amnesty international?

 

Small isn’t always beautiful.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The responsible education researcher

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Raising standards – hopefully for everyone.

 

Will all children receive a seal of approval?

Will all children receive a seal of approval?

Over the weekend I received an email from a colleague who teaches in a school in a county in the north of England. A few months ago this teacher, who I have never met, contacted me and asked if I would be willing to run a one day workshop in the primary school where she works. The focus of the workshop was to be on enabling pupils with special educational needs to be involved in planning for their individual education plans. Having negotiated a suitable date I was very happy to agree to this request and had begun a little planning for how I would organised the day.

I was somewhat surprised and a little disappointed on Sunday morning to find a message in my inbox from the teacher who had negotiated these arrangements, informing me that the event would have to be cancelled. In one sense, this is not a problem, it relieves a little time in my diary, but I was none the less somewhat disturbed by a part of this colleague’s message. Having made a number of apologetic opening remarks, hoping that I had not been inconvenienced and that I would understand that the decision was not her own, this obviously stressed lady went on to explain:-

“At a staff meeting on Thursday the head teacher informed us that special educational needs was no longer on the priority agenda, and that all of our focused training for the next year would be on raising standards, particularly in mathematics where we need more children reaching the highest grades. Therefore any work involving SEN would have to be shelved until a future date”

I could feel this teacher’s frustration and anxiety leaping at me from this email, and have the feeling that she felt somewhat embarrassed to have to cancel the event. Naturally I wrote back to her telling her not to worry and that I was in no way inconvenienced. Trying to reassure this colleague I emphasised that I recognised the situation and explained that I fully understand the situation. But do I?

What does the expression “special educational needs was no longer on the priority agenda” mean? More particularly, is the implication here that raising standards in mathematics does not have implications for children with special educational needs? Is it possible to raise standards in a school without considering this section of the population? Can standards across the board be raised by looking at the performance of one section of the school population whilst ignoring others?

I have no difficulty with the notion of raising standards in mathematics in a school. The teaching of the subject is obviously important, and we would hope that all children are enabled to achieve mathematical competence according to their need. But surely this is the point, we should be enabling all children to achieve. It is essential that all teachers feel competent and confident in teaching mathematics and that they should therefore receive professional development in this area. However, I would hope that somewhere in this training there might be an emphasis upon supporting those children who have particular difficulties with learning mathematical concepts and applying these in a range of situations.

I have long held the belief that if teachers learn the skills of planning and differentiating to ensure that pupils of all needs and abilities can be included in lesson, this is a major step towards raising standards for all children. Teachers who think carefully about how they can provide effective access for those who have difficulties with learning, usually develop strategies that benefit all learners.

I hope that in reading the email received on Sunday, something was lost in translation. Perhaps the head teacher meant to say that the focus of training for the coming period will be on raising mathematical standards for all children, including those who find the subject particularly difficult. Some of these children are probably not destined to reach “the highest grades”, but yet may make significant progress if provided with the right kind of teaching and support.

I would like to think that this time next year the achievements of all children in this school in mathematics are significant, and that the performance of both the most gifted mathematicians and those who have made progress with more basic concepts, is recognised and acknowledged. I would also hope that my colleague who has clearly been made to feel uncomfortable by the decisions made in her school, is fully involved in speaking on behalf on the pupils for whom she clearly feels responsible.