Good news about teachers just doesn’t sell newspapers!

 

When this teacher does her job well nobody will notice

When this teacher does her job well nobody will notice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

 

 

Good news shows how progress can been made.

These smiling faces indicate the educational progress being made in Bangladesh

These smiling faces indicate the educational progress being made in Bangladesh

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With the right support teachers can deliver.

These children told me that they don't go to school. They also told me that they would like to do so. Let's hope that their prospects may now be improved.

These children told me that they don’t go to school. They also told me that they would like to do so. Let’s hope that their prospects may now be improved.

I imagine that in India at present there must be many people wondering what the new Indian government under the leadership of Mr Narendra Modi may bring to the country. Whilst observing the Indian media I have detected extremes of elation and apprehension at the appointment of the new Prime Minister, and I have no doubt that his every move will be scrutinised over the coming years of his period of office. No matter what political affinities individuals may hold, one can only wonder at the monolithic task of conducting elections in the world’s largest and most diverse democracy. I am today struck by the contrast between the democratic processes that are one of India’s great successes and the sham which purports to be an electoral system in Syria.

As an interested bystander who observes India for the most part from a distance, and relies for news on a not always impartial press and media service, but more so on the discussions I have with friends and colleagues from within the country, I will be particularly curious to see how developments in respect of children and education are advanced under this new administration. The UNESCO Institute of Statistics reported in 2013 that the number of children out of school and therefore not having access to formal education in India is 37.7 million. That equates to approximately fifty percent of the world’s number of out of school children. The National Council for Education in India have been campaigning hard to address this issue, including taking action to the Supreme Court. The monitoring of this figure must surely be a priority for the incoming government.

The Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) (2009) has been a focus of attention for most individuals and groups who are concerned for the education and rights of children from marginalised populations. During his election campaign, Mr Modi, along with other members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promised to  “revitalise and reorganise” education in the country and specifically referred to improving schooling for those with disabilities and from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Since its implementation the RTE has been a source of dispute, anger and disappointment. It is often seen as well-intentioned but cumbersome, with many schools and education administrators finding ways to avoid its implementation.

For those watching developments on this front, the issue of schools seeking minority status from their State Governments, thus allowing them to avoid the retention of 25 percent of their seats for children from socially and economically disadvantaged students, will undoubtedly provide a critical focus. The legislation as it stands lacks clarity and many schools are identifying ways to circumvent the spirit of the Act. In some states, such as Tamil Nadu the target figures for admission of students previously denied education has fallen well below 50 percent of those anticipated. In many instances school principals have claimed that they had no applications from families who fall within the criteria. Critics say that they have adopted a stance aimed at repelling potential applicants and have made clear that such children will not receive a warm welcome.

It is, of course, easy to be critical of these schools and indeed the blatant obstacles that many have put in place are inexcusable. However, if the new government is sincere in addressing the challenge of children denied their educational rights, a first priority must be the preparation of teachers to address a more diverse school population. In my many meetings with teachers in India I have found that whilst some are adamant in their belief that a policy of inclusion should not be adopted, I meet many more who are concerned that they wish to see a more equitable system created. For many, their greatest apprehensions are centred upon their lack of experience of working with children from marginalised groups and their belief that they lack the skills to teach them. Even the most committed teachers who I meet during their attendance on courses, such as the MA programme we run in Bangalore, express some anxieties. If these dedicated professionals have concerns, how much greater must these be amongst those who have not as yet made the commitment to working for the development of inclusive schools?

The next few years are likely to be critical in the development of education in India and the full implementation of the RTE will be an important factor in the success or failure of the school system. I do hope that Mr Modi and his ministers have the courage to push forward the important initiatives that have the intention of improving the lives of millions of children and their families who have lived in poverty and exclusion for too long. Hopefully he will recognise that those who can deliver on these policies for him, the teachers in schools, need professional development and support if they are to succeed. I have the good fortune to work with teachers in India who are keen to deliver for pupils who have previously been denied their right to education, and undoubtedly will deliver given the right support.