New beginnings

Writing biographical information of a new found friend. A different and interesting challenge

The quality of our students in Bangalore is such that we look forward to their continued study with us.

I am sure that tutors the world over who teach on post graduate degree courses would agree, that from fairly early on in the teaching process, some students stand out as potential candidates to study at doctoral level. Having taught on master’s level degree courses over a number of years, I can recall many occasions when I have had conversations with individuals regarding the possibility that they might further their studies, and continue whilst they had “study momentum”, to the next level. Whilst some respond positively, there are others who just wish to obtain their degrees and finish their studies after a prolonged period of self-sacrifice, and absence from their families, hobbies or other domestic arrangements. I fully appreciate this and would never coerce anyone into several more years of study unless they genuinely wanted to take this leap.

When working in England I have generally been delighted when a good and enthusiastic student expresses a desire to register for PhD. It is particularly heartening when they wish to do so because of the experiences they have had working on a course in which I have played a small part. There is no denying that I always feel an immense sense of pride when a few years later they walk onto a stage to receive their doctorates. However, when we started the MA in special and inclusive education programme in Bangalore, I had not really anticipated the level of interest that we might have here for doctoral level study.

I can honestly report that the quality of work we have received from students in our Bangalore cohorts has been very high. Their independence as researchers and their commitment to study has been exemplary. They respond positively to criticism and advice, and they have been a joy to teach. As our first cohort commenced work on research for their final dissertations some of them began to discuss amongst themselves the possibility of furthering their studies. This initial murmur eventually got louder until a few actually made the plunge to ask about continuing their development as researchers.

What motivates them to take this bold step to an even higher level of study I wonder? We are always honest with students about the significant endeavour that will be involved. In conversation with those who have now made a commitment and made applications for doctoral level study, it is evident that it is not the prospect of an academic career that has focused the minds of most, but rather a genuine desire to investigate aspects of their work, and the children and families they support. In so doing they hope to gain greater understanding of how the lives of others might be improved, and the ways in which the education services provided here in India can become more inclusive.

Having seen the level of motivation that characterises our Indian students, I find the prospect of working with some of them, as they hone their research skills and conduct empirical studies into aspects of inclusion, both exciting and daunting. Exciting because I know of their commitment and enthusiasm, and believe that they will produce studies of outstanding quality. Daunting because I know that I will need to be on my mettle to keep up with these consummate professionals, as they gain further in their confidence as researchers and thinkers.

Much that is good has emerged from the MA course here in Bangalore. The levels of learning have been high for students and tutors alike. We have evidence of new learning being applied in classrooms and changing the lives of children, families and teachers. We have developed networks, forged friendships and established collegial relationships that will endure and continue to impact upon professional lives. Building a community of researchers and practitioners here in South India, all of whom have the intention of moving the inclusive education agenda forward, should be reason enough to continue working with friends and colleagues in this part of the world. As one of our students stated at the recent graduation ceremony; “I see today not so much as the end of a period of study, but more of a new beginning for teachers and children.”

Amen to that!

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

The rescue mission completed

Fortunately life is seldom as dramatic as that portrayed here by Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen in the Great Escape. Sometimes it just feels that way!

Fortunately life is seldom as dramatic as that portrayed here by Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen in the Great Escape. Sometimes it just feels that way!

I am indebted to friends and colleagues who offered messages of support, or in some instances advice on the rescue of those incarcerated gowns held captive by customs and excise at Bangalore airport. Many of the potential solutions tendered came as a result of similar experiences with local bureaucracy, and it was reassuring to be reminded that I should not look at the situation too personally. Other ideas, all kindly meant, ranged from the practical to the wholly bizarre. In particular Sorrell’s suggestion of a commando type raid upon Bangalore airport gaol, largely calling upon the services of Tom Cruise, takes the prize for imagination. This was much as I would have expected from a friend who is an artist and dependent upon creativity to make a living. His ideas did however, have the important effect of diffusing some of the tensions of the past forty eight hours with humour.

I can now inform readers that after much anxiety, and through a great team effort, the academic accoutrements were finally released. On the basis of experience gained I can advise colleagues who may find themselves in a similar situation (hopefully this will not apply to you), that there is a formula, albeit a complex one to secure the release of custom held captives. So here briefly is the approach that ultimately – late last evening in fact – secured the freedom of the gowns. Firstly ensure that you have a strong team working with you to address the challenge – Jayashree and Sunil proved themselves worthy warriors in the cause. Remain persistent, be constantly in the thoughts of the jailers and their superiors. This is best done using local intelligence who are able to call upon influential friends to make frequent phone calls declaring the innocence of the prisoners. At the same time, anticipate frequent journeys to the prison officers’ headquarters armed with pens and as many official papers as you can muster. Expect to have passport and other means of identification photocopied on numerous occasions, be prepared to fill in what will seem like hundreds of forms, often to be informed by other jailers that these are in fact the wrong forms, and repeat the same information to dozens of different officials over the course of several days. As the end game approaches ensure that a small proportion of the original ransom demand is handed over, but only at the point where you have seen the hostages and assured yourself that they remain alive. Finally, have a fast getaway car with engine running at the door of the prison.

The drama concluded today’s graduation can now go ahead. A great cheer could be heard from all concerned. However, a happy ending having been secured, the saga doesn’t quite end here. A bandh has been announced for today in Bangalore. For those of you unfamiliar with the term bandh, I must explain that this is a form of strike which will bring the whole city to a halt for most of the day. In extremis this can become an ugly situation involving a certain amount of violence. Having experienced a couple of these in the past I know that they can normally be avoided, and that the disruption caused can be minimised. However, as ill-luck would have things, one of the focal points of today’s event is immediately adjacent to the hall where the graduation was to be held. This has necessitated finding a change of venue and a complete reordering of events. It seems that life in Bangalore, normally a fairly sedate business, is occasionally hit by a monsoon, and that this latest deluge is falling upon our celebrations.

Undaunted we will continue. Our original plans may have been thwarted, the fates have had their fun, but we will have the last laugh. The gowns are released, a compromise venue found and I have had sufficient sleep to gird my loins to do battle with any further obstacles that may emerge. So be warned, students will be graduating with their University of Northampton MA in Special and Inclusive Education today in Bangalore, come what may. That’s a promise!

 

P.S to my good friend Sorrell I ask – who needs Tom Cruise? Mission impossible? – never!

Bangalore beckons

 

Joining again with friends

Joining again with friends

I am sure that there are many people who when about to embark on a journey feel fully prepared and organised. As I pack my bags for India I am confident that I have everything needed for working when I get there, having spent many hours going back through presentations and materials that I will be using for teaching over the coming weeks. I am less confident that I will arrive with all the necessary items of clothing and other domestic requirements, which always appear to be packed in a hurry.

I prefer to travel with as little luggage as possible, and having made similar journeys to Bangalore over many years, I have learned to recognise those accoutrements that are surplus to requirements, and which on previous trips have stood idly by in a room until ready to be taken home. Even so, I usually find myself sitting on a plane wondering if I have all essential items packed.

I once flew to Mumbai seated next to a passenger who was visiting India as a tourist for a month and had everything he needed, or so he hoped, in a small holdall taken onto the flight as hand luggage. I remember being full of admiration for someone who could travel so light and with a sparse number of items. Though I also reflected that he could find himself most unpopular on a return flight had he been unable to change or wash his clothing after a month of wearing the same shirt in India’s dust and heat! – That is a somewhat disrespectful comment and I hope that the gentleman in question had a great time and returned to England with a suitcase full of good memories.

Over the past few days colleagues here at the university have asked me about what I am going to teach in India and about the challenges of preparing to deliver ideas about inclusive education, largely a western concept, within an Asian culture. They are quite right in seeing this as an important issue and one which needs to be approached with respect and an appreciation of local and national procedures and traditions. Fortunately, when working in Bangalore, I do so alongside long established Indian friends and colleagues whose experiences and perceptions have greatly influenced the ways in which I work.

I like to think  when working with colleagues in India that I have taken full consideration of the circumstances in which they teach, and have informed myself by spending time in local schools and working alongside colleagues in classrooms. However, I am always aware that when working alongside teachers I learn as much, or possibly more than I can convey through my teaching practices.

Keeping up to date with Indian research, legislation and literature is demanding, but affords many enjoyable learning experiences. Applying this learning with colleagues is something I look forward to as I prepare for this next expedition.

The coming days are sure to provide plenty of new learning opportunities and a chance to renew old acquaintances and make new friends. Above all, there will be times spent in debating the approaches we can develop and adopt to challenge exclusion and ensure that children who have been marginalised have new opportunities for learning and succeeding. The commitment of teachers in India is such that the education scene is changing quickly and dramatically. There is every reason to be confident that in the future schools will become far more inclusive than they have been in the recent past.

If I board the plane tomorrow minus an item or two of clothing, or without my toothpaste or a bar of soap I am sure I will overcome these omissions without too many difficulties. So long as I arrive with open eyes and a willingness to share in learning, I am convinced that all will be well. I look forward to reporting further after I settle once again into India’s Garden City. As Mark Twain informed us

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

But only if we travel with an intention to learn and respect those who we meet along the way.

Sponteneity; an important part of the learning process

This is a classroom that children appreciate

This is a classroom that children appreciate

When I arrived at the university this morning I ran into a retired head teacher colleague who I have known for more than 20 years. She is clearly enjoying retirement, having shed the responsibilities of school leadership with its associated stresses, though she remains committed to education, largely through supervising students on their school teaching practices. A meeting to discuss such work was the very reason that she was in the university today.

As is invariably the case when long established colleagues meet after having not seen each other for some time we began to reminisce on our earlier days teaching in schools. Angela, in common with many head teachers in the UK suggested that life in schools today is much more challenging than in previous years, and she clearly has no regrets about having taken retirement.

A particular memory that we share is of a brief course we ran for children from our two respective schools which looked at the life cycles and habitats of creatures living in local woodlands. This involved a couple of field trips during which we encouraged pupils, many of whom were described as having special educational needs, to delve through leaf litter in search of a range of invertebrates and other creatures and to use pooters, hand magnifiers and other simple apparatus to explore the exciting variety of life beneath the trees. I particularly recall that whilst the pupils showed little by the way of inhibitions, Angela was somewhat squeamish about handling earth worms, spiders, beetles, slugs, centipedes and a whole range of what she would certainly have described as “creepy crawlies!” None the less, she recognised the value in these experiences and joined in with the enthusiasm one would expect from a consummate professional.

The memories of these shared lessons made us both smile and recall specific individuals and the learning that had taken place. We particularly discussed individual pupils who struggled in the confines of the classroom, but demonstrated enthusiasm and interest in learning in this different environment. As we recalled these lessons we both felt that we had provided a tremendous platform for learning, but these memories also raised other issues, with which neither of us feel terribly comfortable. Whilst the lessons we conducted were well planned, with a good range of follow up activities in the classroom and well defined learning outcomes and assessment criteria, there was a good deal of spontaneity and flexibility in the work we pursued. As we worked in the woodlands the children often came up with ideas that were tangential to our lesson plans and we were able to follow new paths that led to increased learning. Some of this did not appear within the course objectives and at times bore little resemblance to the original intentions of the lesson, but none the less children learned, enjoyed the experience and in later years often recalled their visits to the woods.

I recall one particular lesson in which we were looking at the variety of trees in Wakerley Woods by identifying leaves and looking at bark patterns, when a pupil found a patch of toadstools at the base of a tree. This created a new interest amongst many of the children who went hunting similar examples of fungi, comparing them for shape, colour and location. For a significant part of the lesson the original objectives were set aside and the lesson content was determined by our pupils. As a result of this there was a breadth of learning and new experiences that we had not anticipated. We were eventually able to return to the original task of tree identification, but agreed that the diversion had been worthwhile and provided an important opportunity for learning.

“I suspect that this approach to teaching and learning may be less favourably looked upon today,” commented Angela. “If it isn’t in the lesson plan or the assessment schedule, in many schools it wouldn’t be encouraged. Furthermore, I fear that in today’s target driven and sanitised education world, behaviours such as this might have had us labelled as irresponsible and failing teachers.”

It is only a couple of years since Angela retired as head teacher; her experience of headship is much more recent than mine. I fear that what she had to say may be an indication of the narrow minded interpretation of what schools should be about that has been engendered by our political masters in recent years. Deviation from lesson plans and a prescribed curriculum is no longer encouraged, and learning that is controlled rather than spontaneous is the order of the day. Many teachers in school express similar views to those put forward by Angela, a fact that I find very disturbing.

I like to think that if Angela and I were in a similar position today we would react as teachers in exactly the same way that we did twenty years ago. I am sure that both of us still believe that learning comes from guided exploration, and that this needs to be encouraged in our children. However, I do worry that for many young teachers entering the profession, the pressures to ensure that a narrowly defined set of learning criteria are achieved, and that these should be addressed through a rigid definition of teaching styles, may limit the opportunity for creativity.

There are many imaginative teachers in our schools who rail against the imposition of pseudo-scientific and managerial approaches to teaching. Just as everything else in education eventually comes back into vogue, I am (almost) sure, and certainly hopeful that in the future they will have their day.

Personal space and inclusive research

 

Forming partnerships for future research in inclusion

Forming partnerships for future research in inclusion

One of the best aspects of being amongst enthusiastic people, is that their enthusiasm can become infectious. Here today, in São Carlos Brazil, I have been surrounded by colleagues whose commitment to learning, and in particular their passion for research, has been affirming. For the next three days, researchers from the UK who are the early stages of their academic  careers, will work alongside a similar group of colleagues from Brazil exploring issues of research into the inclusion of learners with disabilities and special educational needs.

Through the good offices of the British Council, these keen investigators have been brought together to explore ways in which they may collaborate in the further development of research and exchange of knowledge and ideas. My role in this process, along with that of other well established academics from Brazil and the UK, is to support and facilitate activities, and to encourage these dynamic individuals to form partnerships for exploring ideas around inclusive education.

Today, the most stimulating and important activity has been a series of presentations given by some of these new researchers, affording them an opportunity to exchange their ideas with a supportive audience. The range of topics covered has been diverse and interesting. Research into access to learning for students who are multi-sensory impaired, an investigation into cultural interpretations of autism, the experiences of students with disabilities in Brazilian universities, explorations into ways of teaching mathematics, and an analysis of school refusal behaviours in looked after children, were just a few of the topics discussed. Each presenter demonstrated a thoughtful approach to developing a research project and a critical analysis of what they had discovered.

Many themes emerged from today’s presentation, but one that I had not anticipated comes immediately to mind. Several of today’s researchers raised issues related to the influence of spatial aspects of the management of educational provision. In some instances these revealed specific challenges that need to be confronted if progress towards inclusion is to be made. Elizabete Renders provided an interesting observation of a deaf student, attending university in Brazil. In order to assure access to learning, this student is accompanied by a signed communicator who works with him in every lecture and seminar session. However, Elizabete recorded that students in the sessions where this young man was present, spent much of their time watching him and the lady supporting him. This raises questions about his personal space and how self-conscious he may be in this situation. There are also issues about the degree to which students are distracted from their lectures by watching this activity.

A second session presented by Sean Bracken considered the control that teachers exercise over learners with special educational needs in terms of where they locate children in classes. His research suggests that teachers have clear ideas about where they wish to place children in the classroom based partly upon their individual needs, but more because of the need to exert control, and that this may mean that they have less opportunity for participation in some activities. It would seem that some teachers, in their need to ensure that they are controlling learners, give less attention to providing space that is conducive to learning.

A further presentation from Prithvi Parepa examined cultural interpretations of autism. He too found matters related to personal space to be a factor in his work. Prithvi discussed the challenges that parents experience when their children have a limited understanding of the personal space of others, and intrude upon this, with no ill-intent, but simply as a result of lack of understanding. This may seem like a small matter to some people, but to parents it can be a cause of considerable stress.

I was particularly impressed today that in expressing their findings, these researchers demonstrated a great empathy for the subjects of their studies. Each had identified potential obstacles to learning experienced by the individuals in their studies, and had sought not only to understand these, but to discuss possible ways of providing support.

Over the next few days these colleagues will be forming partnerships with others who, before today were unknown to them. This is an ambitious aim, but having met these dedicated professionals I have every confidence that much will be achieved. This is the next generation of researchers who face the responsibility to move inclusion forward through what promises to be a stormy time of social upheaval and economic challenge. Having met them, I see every reason to be highly optimistic.

 

 

Familiar challenges identified in Hong Kong

Teachers in Hong Kong are working hard to create inclusive schools - but is Hong Kong in general ready for these?

Teachers in Hong Kong are working hard to create inclusive schools – but is Hong Kong in general ready for these?

A few years ago I had an opportunity to spend time working in Hong Kong, when I was awarded the Marden Fellowship as Visiting Professor at the Institute of Education, in the New Territories District of the Special Administrative Region. During my time there, and on subsequent visits, I made many friends and good colleagues who were working at the Institute of Education and in schools. My time was spent working on research and writing projects with Professor Chris Forlin who was at that time a substantive member of the academic staff, teaching on post-graduate courses, and doing consultancy for various government agencies and schools. 2007 – 2008 was an interesting time to be in Hong Kong as discussions about the development of more inclusive schools was high on the education agenda, and opportunities to debate the interpretation of inclusive schooling within a Chinese context were plentiful.

It is seven years since I last visited Hong Kong and I have no doubt that much will have changed during that time. I must admit that as several former colleagues from the area are no longer working there, I have to a great extent failed to keep abreast of educational developments in the region. Whenever Hong Kong makes the international news, as it did most recently through the extensive pro-democracy demonstrations that brought this non-stop district to a grinding halt, I have endeavoured to play catch up with what is happening in the education field. However, the news reports around schools in Hong Kong are usually quite bland, with little focus upon the progress being made to address diversity in classrooms.

Today, an article in the on-line edition of the most popular English language newspaper in the area, The South China Morning Post (23rd February, 2015), did come to my attention. Under a banner headline Special Needs Students: More Support Needed in Hong Kong Schools. Robin Cheung a retired school principal wrote about his concerns that whilst teachers in schools have shown considerable commitment towards inclusion, progress is being impeded by a lack of adequate resourcing and poor access to training for teachers.

These are issues that have been raised in many parts of the world and are certainly not exclusive to Hong Kong. Mr Cheung, in bringing attention to these apparent deficiencies is echoing concerns that I hear every day here in my own country. However, he develops his argument further by suggesting that the consequences of a failure to provide adequate support has resulted in some children receiving worse provision than that which they were previously afforded in segregated special schools. Describing the ways in which many schools operate, he states that:-

“They also resort to class streaming and put most special educational needs students together to minimise the disruptive and dragging effects on other students. It seems they are running a school within a school, but without the abundant resources enjoyed by the former special schools”.

The notion of segregation within a mainstream school is certainly not new. The designation of classes for children with special educational needs, thus separating them from their peers for all academic purposes, is a model that has been seen in many countries, including my own over many years. The rationale behind this exclusive action appears to be the potential disruption attributed to children with special educational needs, an example of stereotyping if ever I saw one! This, Mr Cheung rightly observes, was never the purpose of inclusive education and is a clear indication of a failure to administer policy with the commitment needed to ensure success. The arguments rehearsed in this Hong Kong article have certainly been aired on many previous occasions, but a number of more interesting points are also made.

Mr Cheung suggests that whilst there are problems for schools where a commitment to inclusion is stated, but not easily attained, there is a need to look at the situation in a more holistic manner. Adjustments to the curriculum are needed, rather than believing that children can be made to fit that which exists, and this he states is not simply a task for the schools alone:-

“…rather than just keeping such students in schools and maintaining a semblance of order and learning, these students need help to develop into self-sufficient, productive citizens, but the curriculum design, pedagogical innovation, assessment and life and career planning involved are far beyond the capability of any individual schools. Their concerns just highlight the inadequacies of the present system”.

A more holistic approach to developing inclusive societies that place a greater emphasis upon a broader range of skills, knowledge and understanding is seen as an important pre-requisite to enabling schools to address a broad range of learning needs. In making this assertion Mr Cheung is certainly expressing a concern that is felt by increasing numbers of teachers. If we truly believe in the development of inclusive schools, surely we must ensure that the rest of society works with us in order to understand what it is that all children can do. In this way we will be able to support them in making a valuable, and hopefully valued contribution to their communities.

The news from Hong Kong may not be earth shattering, but it does serve as a reminder that schools alone do not have the answers to creatng a more equitable society.

Testing times?

 

Too late, I'm already disturbed!

Too late,
I’m already disturbed!

A friend in India emailed me this morning to bring to my attention a development that is being hailed as a major breakthrough in the education of children with learning disabilities. An article in the Times of India, written by Yagnesh Mehta under the headline Quick test to identify learning disability among children, implies an impending innovation, which it is suggested will enhance the educational opportunities of a significant number of children. Why is it then that having read the article a couple of times I feel more apprehension than elation?

The article informs readers that:

“Rudresh Vyas, head of psychology department at MTB Arts College, has received a grant of Rs 13 lakh from the University Grants Commission (UGC) to develop the screening test. He will work on the project for the next three years and after successful tests of the model it will be introduced for use by teachers.”

At a surface level I suppose we should all be grateful if the development of a new procedure enables teachers to provide the support for children that may enable them to be more effective learners. But I find myself somewhat disturbed by the implications that are suggested in this article. Maybe this is simply a matter of poor expression within the news report that is doing Dr Vyas a great disservice; I certainly hope that this is the case, because if my interpretation of this article is right, then it raises a number of serious questions.

In the first place, I am concerned for the implication that this “screening test” has not yet been developed, and indeed it is suggested that it is three years away from a state of preparedness, but already it is being seen as a useful tool to be used by teachers. “Successful tests of the model” are apparently assured. This does seem to imply that the results of the test’s developments and the outcomes of any field trials are already anticipated. This, in my experience, is not the usual way in which valid research is conducted. The development of any legitimate instrument would normally go through extensive piloting and field work and only then, if the results proved positive, would such a test be seen as worthy of introduction. If this normal procedure is not seen as necessary, why has Rs 13  lakh (£13,600) been provided for development?

This is clearly a concern, but I have a far greater apprehension about the report and its potential impact upon students. Dr Vyas is reported as saying that:

“With this test a child will be screened within 15 minutes. Currently, there are tests available which require three to four hours. This test will be easy since it will be computerized and shows results in seconds. The test will be available in three languages — Gujarati, Hindi and English”.

I find it hard to imagine that a fifteen minute screening test can possibly have the efficacy that is suggested in this article. However, I am even more concerned that within the period of fifteen minutes it will soon be possible to apply a label to children that will have immense impact upon the rest of their educational lives and possibly beyond.

I have no doubt that the motivations behind the development of this test are honourable. However, a procedure that is likely to result in the labelling of a child as having a learning difficulty, whilst possibly leading to the provision of additional support, is equally destined to single this learner out as potentially problematic and to result in a lowering of expectations. Do we really need more tests that simply tell us about the potential difficulties that children might have with learning? Might we not be better investing Rs 13 lakh on the professional development of teachers in order to assist them in adopting more inclusive approaches to teaching and managing their classrooms.

I wish Dr Vyas well as he works on the development of yet another screening test aimed at identifying learning difficulties in children. I do hope that if it comes to fruition, teachers who are tempted to use this test will recognise that their own professional understanding of children has a part to play in identifying their needs. I also hope that they may choose to examine their own teaching practices alongside the needs of individual children, in order to provide opportunities for them to demonstrate what they can do, rather than simply listing those aspects of learning with which they may have difficulties.

Still more battles to be fought and won.

Having made so  uch progress to wards a more inclusive education system, now is not the time to rest on our laurels.

Having made so much progress towards a more inclusive education system, now is not the time to rest on our laurels.

In March of last year I referred to a blog called Diary of a Not So Ordinary Boy, written by the mother of a boy named Sam who has Down’s syndrome (No right of access to the “ordinary” world? March 16th 2014). Sam’s mother also happens to be a teacher. I regularly follow this blog which provides insights into both the pleasures and challenges of a parent, who is clearly very perceptive in respect of current educational initiatives, and also has strong opinions of the provision that should be making for children such as her son. There have been times when I have smiled at the successes shared, such as Sam’s achievements in making friends through riding his bicycle (something to which I can certainly relate), but sometimes the writing also has the opposite effect and makes me wonder at the obstacles put in the way of Sam and his mother.

Earlier today I read Sam’s mother’s latest offering, titled “Battle Weary” (January 3rd 2015). You can read this for yourself at  http://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/. Far from being a piece that celebrated the many achievements of her son, this contribution left me wondering about the kind of educational uncertainty that has been created in the UK in recent years. On initial reading I found this latest article thoroughly depressing, but on re-reading it a couple of hours later my emotions have perhaps moved further in the direction of disappointment with the inadequacies displayed by those of us who have advocated for a more inclusive education system.

“Battle Weary” is indeed an apt title for the posting in question, because it begins with a reminder that parents were at the forefront of campaigns to achieve the right of all children, regardless of need or ability, to be educated alongside their peers in mainstream classrooms. However it concludes with a depressing assertion that many parents are now exhausted from their efforts to ensure that when children do enter mainstream schools, they receive the education that they need and the support of committed teachers. The implication is that seeking the rights of children to the most basic of educational needs has become an impossible mission, causing many parents to withdraw their children from mainstream schools and seek a special school placement.

Sam’s mother lists a number of factors that she sees as having contributed to the failure of schools to meet the needs of many children. Inadequate training of teachers, poor resourcing and the over emphasis upon academic attainment and narrowly focused assessment and testing procedures are all seen as inhibiting progress. These are certainly contributors to the difficulties with moving the inclusion agenda forward that are recognised by many teachers and families. However, one particular paragraph in the blog  caused me particular despondency and makes me wonder about our failures as educators. Sam’s mother writes:-

“I can’t count the times I see the relationship between parents of children with special needs and the schools they attend characterised as a battle.  As a parent I’ve been labelled as pushy, or fussy, and difficult; precious.  I’ve alluded to the magnifying effect of Down’s syndrome, the way that everything is harder, slower, in sharper relief.  Parents are under pressure.  Teachers are under pressure.  Add to that a challenging child, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, but what you have is a powder keg, a road crash waiting to happen, and one that echoes, continues to affect families and subsequent teachers, for years to come.  It was a shock to realise that maybe I wasn’t as awkward as I was made to feel”.

This paragraph emphasises how easy it is for relationships between professionals and parents to break down. I suspect that many teachers might suggest that the lack of empathy described here is the result of the pressures that they are working under in schools. Certainly Sam’s mother, herself a teacher, acknowledges that these stresses are genuine, and is not suggesting that teaching children who are seen as more “challenging” or “less able” than their peers is a simple task. If truly inclusive schooling is to be achieved, gaps between the views and expectations of both teachers and parents are clearly going to have to be closed, and this will demand a lot more work on the part of schools.

If I was the parent of a child who was struggling at school, and for whom I felt inadequate provision was being made, I too would be “pushy”. It was largely as a result of the efforts made by parents, many of whom were perceived as being demanding and awkward, that a recognition of the marginalisation of children with special educational needs was achieved. Sadly, Sam’s mother, and many others like her, are now beginning to turn their backs on mainstream schools that they feel are not addressing the needs of their children. My greatest fear is that many education policy makers and some school managers will be happy to see these parents leave and will feel that their reservations about a more inclusive education system are fully justified.

I recall that throughout the 1980s and 1990s many parents and professionals stood together to fight for the right of children such as Sam to attend mainstream schools. Perhaps having largely achieved this aim, too many of those professionals felt that the battle was won. It is evident from the expressions of frustration expressed not only by Sam’s mother, but by many others in similar situations, that this is far from the case. I do hope that there are parents who may still have enough faith left in those teachers who remain committed to a more just approach to education, to join with them to see the journey that they commenced together through to a more satisfactory conclusion. A failure to do so will result in yet further generations of children being pushed to the margins.

Tell me, have you reached your full potential yet?

 

I wonder if this wayward school boy ever reached his "full potential?"

I wonder if this wayward school boy ever reached his “full potential?”

I have just been struck a dreadful blow – it is just possible that I may have reached my full potential! On the other hand, there is a vague possibility that I may yet have untapped resources, that will enable me to achieve greater things in life.

Of course, I don’t actually regard either of the statements made above as having any currency. Both are completely meaningless and speculative, but they are used here to illustrate the vacuous nature of an expression that I have heard throughout my career in education, the use of which can serve either to limit or create putative expectations of children.

I recall when I was appointed as headteacher of a school in the 1980s being informed that my principle task was to ensure that every child reached his or her full potential. A few weeks ago I heard the chief inspector of schools for England commenting that too many secondary schools are failing to enable children to attain their potential, and this weekend, a report in the Independent newspaper informs me that mainstream schools are failing to enable children with special educational needs to reach their full potential. This last observation is based upon a report recently published by Mencap, a national charity supporting children with learning disabilities and their families. I will return to this in a while, but firstly let me ask you a few questions.

Do you personally feel that you have achieved everything that may have been possible in your life? Have you reached your full potential or fallen short of this? Might it be that you are still striving to reach this ultimate goal? More importantly, no matter what answer you may have given to these questions, I wonder how you came to this conclusion? Who decided what your potential might be? Has that which was regarded as your potential been exceeded, or inhibited through the expectations of others? Perhaps the most contentious question of all (if you work as a teacher) might be, how well equipped are you to judge the potential of others?

The history of education has not always reached the highest of standards in the art of prediction, as excerpts from a number of school reports reveal:-

“She writes indifferently and knows nothing of grammar”, wrote one of Charlotte Bronte’s teachers who clearly could not have anticipated the success of the novel Jane Eyre a few years later.

Equally wide of the mark was the observation made in 1895 that “He will never amount to anything.” A comment that must surely have been a later source of some embarrassment, to the teacher who uttered these words in respect of a young Albert Einstein.

It is, of course, easy to mock those who have made such wayward comments or made predictions that have proven false with time, but there may equally be an important message here to which we should take heed. I am sure that not all students possess the determination and tenacity of Charlotte Bronte or Albert Einstein, and that for some, the setting of a low benchmark may have an inhibiting effect upon the progress that they could make.

Returning to the Mencap report based upon a survey of 1,000 parents of children with learning disabilities who attend mainstream schools, I find that it contains much useful information which deserves careful consideration. In particular, it is apparent that many parents feel that teachers within mainstream schools are inadequately trained to address the needs of pupils with complex needs. Some of these parents express their frustrations with a system that has low expectations of their children and provide limited opportunities for them to interact with their peers. Examples of children who spend most of their time with a teaching assistant, working on separate tasks to those set for the rest of the class are provided. Is this inclusion would seem to be a legitimate question to ask.

I feel fairly confident in stating that low expectations have hindered learning for children with disabilities and special educational needs for as long as there have been schools. However, I still have some reservations with regards to the language that is used in debating this situation. The article in the Independent newspapers reports that Jan Tregelles, Mencap’s chief executive stated:-

“Parents feel the education service is woefully ill prepared to properly support children and young people with a learning disability to reach their full potential,”

It is that term “full potential” which, having read this far into these ramblings you will have appreciated is giving me cause for concern. I am wholly in accord with the suggestion that we need to raise expectations and to provide the kinds of resources and training that may enable all pupils to succeed in schools. I am however concerned that in using this term “full potential” we are instilling in teachers a belief that we can set targets for children, which if achieved will enable us to feel content in both their and our accomplishments. Is there, I wonder complacency here, based upon a spurious notion that we can determine what an individual should achieve, according to their age or ability? How does this differ from the now discredited belief that we can set our expectations of the potential achievements of pupils on the basis of their gender, ethnicity or social class?

Like Jan Tregelles, who has given an immense commitment to improving the educational opportunities for children with learning disabilities, I have concerns that many schools are not addressing the needs of all their pupils. Unlike the authors of the Mencap report, I feel that there are significant dangers from teachers or policy makers who believe that they have the ability or right to determine the potential of others.

I have no doubts that some who read this article will say that this is simply a matter of semantics. However, I would contend that the language we use about children can be powerful. We are well aware of the negative influence that placing a label on a child, such as “learning disability”, “dyslexia” or “autism” may have on the achievements of the individual. Might it not be equally dangerous to believe that we have the right or the ability to sit in Judgement on the potential of a child?