Building Norwegian castles in the air!

Henrik Ibsen. I think he understood human nature somewhat better than I do!

Henrik Ibsen. I think he understood human nature somewhat better than I do!

There is a story that tells how the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, having retired to the city of Oslo, then known as Kristiania, would take a stroll through the city each day, coming to rest at the Grand Café where he would lunch with some of the most famous writers, artists and academics of the city. It is rumoured that he was more than fond of a glass or two of schnapps and the occasional pint of beer, though this may of course be apocryphal as so many legends have grown up around the great dramatist over the years.

I had never anticipated that I would find myself seated in that same café, surrounded by portraits of the great writer, soaking in the atmosphere of this splendid location, but here indeed I am. Following a 3.30 am departure from home for an early morning flight via Amsterdam, and a somewhat fraught meeting at the University of Oslo, I can at last relax for a couple of hours before trying to get some sleep in order to prepare for another early morning flight home tomorrow.

This is only my second visit to Norway, the first was equally short, having crossed the border from Finland, a few hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle to attend the World reindeer racing championships a few years ago (yes, I can assure you that this is true), and what a wonderfully exciting event this was. The first visit was purely recreational, enjoyed as part of a break living amongst the Sami people of Lapland during the crisp snows and frozen waterfalls of an Easter holiday. Today’s visit by contrast was entirely focused upon academic matters, with little by the way of entertaining diversion.

The purpose of this visit was to try and negotiate a means through which a Norwegian and a UK university might work together to support the development of research capacity in the area of inclusive education in Georgia. In order to attempt what was seemingly a straightforward task, eight supposedly intelligent adults sat around a table to make plans. A simple enough task one might imagine. But this was not to be, as the discussions progressed it become increasingly clear that what I had anticipated to be a matter of collaborative planning was developing into a major problem. It became apparent that establishing an agreement with regards to processes and procedures was proving to be more difficult than splitting the atom, finding the missing link or discovering a cure for the common cold all rolled into one!

As the hours rolled by, we reached the typical academic compromise of agreeing to differ. There were undoubtedly solutions to be had, but it would not be the way of university bureaucracy to immediately find them. It was as if Chekhov’s Konstantin had entered the room  to present us all with the body of a freshly killed seagull and that we all needed to find meaning in this apparition. It has long been evident that whenever two academics are gathered together you are assured of at least four opinions, and this was certainly in evidence today. At the end of the meeting there was a consensus that what we needed more than anything else was more discussion. The meeting having reached a predictable unsatisfactory conclusion we packed our papers away, agreed that progress had been made and left to go in various directions wondering what had been achieved.

If a camel is really a horse designed by a committee, it is surprising that universities are not overrun with camels. Whilst international negotiations are never easy, a part of me is convinced that we have created such elaborate approaches to decision making that we no longer know where we are going, and certainly have no idea how to get there. When we discover that a committee is not fulfilling its functions we establish a working party to find out why, and once this working party reports, we appoint a new committee to evaluate its findings. Hence the cycle of bureaucracy continues.

Do I sound frustrated? Maybe just a little. I would put this down to a long day and too much sitting around the debating table. Do I believe a solution will be found? Of course I do, because if I didn’t I would not have stuck with this process for so many years. At the end of the day I am optimistic that the honourable intentions which we all brought to today’s meeting will have the desired outcomes. The consequences of believing otherwise are not to be contemplated.

Perhaps we all need to be prepared to compromise, because as Ibsen reminds us:-

“Castles in the air – they are so easy to take refuge in. And so easy to build too.”

 

 

 

New researchers dipping their toes in the conference presentation waters

Decorating cakes has a place in educational research - thanks Jessica!

Decorating cakes has a place in educational research – thanks Jessica!

For many young researchers working towards a PhD, presenting their work to an audience can seem like a daunting experience. When English is not your first language, and may indeed be your third or fourth, I’m sure that this experience can appear even more challenging. It was therefore with a feeling of great respect and admiration that I listened today to a number of presentations given by students at the annual education research student conference at the university.

This important event in the research student calendar provides an opportunity for them to share their work in progress, gain comments from their peers and from more established researchers and to test their ideas in front of a sympathetic audience. In addition it provides PhD supervisors with a unique opportunity to gain a broader perspective of the educational research being conducted, often in areas that are outside of their usual field of vision.

This was exactly the situation yesterday as students from the UK, Vietnam, Nigeria, China and Ghana provided insights into their work on a varied range of subjects. These ranged from gender issues related to approaches to mathematical calculations in primary school children, through the development of national funding policies for higher education in Vietnam and the coping strategies of academics working under stress in universities.

It is not only the range of topics that make this conference so interesting, but also the approach to presentation. Whilst some opt for a traditional and quite formal presentation of a paper, others adopt a more innovative approach. Phil’s performance of his research findings put across some serious messages whilst entertaining his audience and raising laughter. Jessica, describing her work around peer mentoring for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties had everyone decorating cakes as a means of demonstrating part of her methodology.

A particular innovation for this year’s conference has been the live streaming of sessions to make them accessible to our students and others who were unable to attend. It was particularly heartening last night to discover that colleagues in India, China and Germany, as well as other parts of the UK had made use of this new opportunity.

Today the conference continues and we can look forward to more interesting papers from the UK, India, China and Nigeria, and witnessing a developing confidence in our research students. This conference, entirely organised by research students provides ample evidence that the future of educational enquiry I safe in their hands. Thank you to all who contributed so much to this excellent event.

You can switch in live today’s sessions by clicking on the link below from 9.45 am UK time.

https://northampton.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=77c1f1e5-2ebb-4d9b-9039-0ca182b08bbc

Session 2 – 4

https://northampton.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=202c7038-cfa9-4e0d-af21-2906d9867e39

Afternoon sessions

https://northampton.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=67cd8adf-fa95-4cc1-9f39-a3fef8dc6e10

I could never accept a gun as an educational resource.

Surely not a sensible part of teacher training!

Surely not a sensible part of teacher training!

At first I thought that a series of recent reports from Pakistan were unbelievable. There must be some kind of mistake, or perhaps this was a case of sensational tabloid journalism at its worst. But now I know that what I have been reading does in fact have credibility, and this is even more horrifying than my first feelings of disbelief.

It appears that teachers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in the north west of Pakistan are being given training in the handling of firearms and encouraged to carry guns with them in school. This initiative (though this hardly seems to be an appropriate term), follows the atrocious school massacre perpetrated by the Taliban in December 2014. Soon after this terrifying incident a large number of teachers met and approved the idea that they should be armed. However, this view was not shared by all of their colleagues and many rejected the government’s plans to arm teachers.

Police officers have been providing training to teachers from all phases of education, primary schools through to universities, in the belief that armed teachers will prove to be a deterrent to future would be attackers. Can this really be anything other than a misguided act of desperation? As several commentators have already stated, in a country where the use of suicide bombers has been a gruesome feature of many terrorist attacks, it hardly seems likely that a determined fanatic will be dissuaded from their actions by a teacher with a pistol.

It seems to me that the most distressing feature of this decision to arm teachers is the message that it gives to children in schools. Do we want children to learn that the only response to acts of violence is to confront it with an equal amount of force. Surely thereby lies a path to chaos, and the escalation towards an ever more terrifying situation? As teachers we have traditionally endeavoured to encourage children to settle their differences through peacable means, and have attempted to show them that violence is unacceptable. This new policy appears to renage upon this more ethical approach adopted by schools over many years.

Maria Amir, a blogger whose words are often featured in the national Pakistan newspaper Dawn, has recently reported an appalling incident that must have been feared by many teachers and parents. Under a headline reading “Guns for schoolteachers: An inevitable death in Swat,” Amir reportes that at a private school in Mingora a teacher accidentally shot and killed a 12-year old student while cleaning his gun in the school staffroom. Clearly distressed by this incident, Amir states that:-

“The idea that arming teachers is an effective security measure is ludicrous. It implies that the unlikely event of a terrorist attack trumps the daily security threat of teachers carrying guns to school and students being exposed to them”.

The reaction to this tragedy as reported by several journalists has been equally disturbing. Whilst some have condemned the arming of teachers, suggesting that this has inevitably heightened the risk of such accidents, others have implied that this is a sad but unlikely incident, and a small price to pay for preparing teachers to deter terrorist attacks. This is an issue which seems destined to continue as a source of debate amongst teachers and policy makers for some time. Amongst the many voices to have been heard thus far is that of Malik Khalid Khan, the president of the Private Schools Teachers Association. In opposing the arming of teachers he suggests that:-

“It’s not our job; our job is to teach them books. A teacher holding a gun in the class will have very negative affect on his students,”

The job of protecting schools, he believes, should be assigned to trained police officers or military personnel, and not to teachers.

Sadly, we have seen from incidents in several parts of the world, including the United States of America and in my own home country, that if a fanatic is determined to attack a school they are likely to find a way of doing so. I cannot believe that armed teachers are likely to contribute anything to the safety of children, and are far more likely to provoke those who have a fanatical belief or a grudge against schools to resort to ever more despicable forms of violence.

I have never believed that a gun could be regarded as an educational resource. I find it hard to believe that I could be disuaded from this belief even in a situation such as that faced at times in Pakistan.

Sharing with sisters – probably beyond the call of duty!

I can assure you sisters, that my intentions are entirely honourable!

I can assure you sisters, that my intentions are entirely honourable!

Whilst in a school yesterday I met a teacher who was also visiting to see how a child with special educational needs had settled into class. This teacher works at a local nursery school and had worked with the boy in question since he was just two years old. He had recently transferred into the school and the purpose of the nursery teacher’s visit was to meet with his class teacher to discuss how he was progressing, and to offer any necessary insights into his needs on the basis of her experience of teaching him.

It was good to hear her reporting how well the boy had adjusted to life in a “big class” and that he had made friends, and appeared to be very happy. His new teacher is delighted with his progress, both social and academic and he apparently gets up each morning keen to finish his breakfast and get to school. As we were talking, the teacher informed me that she was pleased to see that at various times during the week, her former pupil has lessons from a male teacher. Pursuing this theme she expressed the view that there are far too few men working in schools with primary aged pupils, and even fewer working with nursery classes. Male role models, she sugeested, are very important in the lives of little children.

Listening to her views I found myself largely in agreement with her comments, and reflected on my own personal professional experiences of working with nursery aged children. For a few years early in my career I taught a class of nursery children, all of whom had some difficulties with learning, in a school in Somerset in the South West of England. This was a particularly formative period of my career, as I worked for a quirky, though dynamic head teacher; his paperwork was a mess, his office resembled Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, but his leadership qualities and commitment to staff, children and parents unquestionable. It was to a large extent through the critical, but supportive demands made by this head teacher that I learned much about child development, the importance of observing children, and of the need to critcially evaluate  everything I did in the classroom.

Whilst comparing experiences of working with nursery aged children with the visiting teacher today, and finding that we have much in common in respect of our belief in the importance of these formative years, I recalled an incident that reinforces the view that perhaps we need more men working in nursery schools.

My afore mentioned head teacher approached me one day bearing details of a two day residential course for nursery teachers, to be organised by the then King Alfred’s College, which has since become the University of Winchester. The course was largely focused upon early language acquisition in nursery aged children, and knowing this to be an area in which I was particularly interested, he said that the school would pay for me to attend.

Eager to learn, I happily sent off the application form and fee and was pleased to be accepted on the course. On the appointed date I duly arrived in the ancient city of Winchester and located the course venue.

On arrival at the reception desk my initial enthusiasm was slightly impaired by a rather frosty lady, a realistic doppelganger for the late Hattie Jacques, who with very little evidence of what could have been described as  a welcoming smile, in a rather loud baritone voice, demanded to know  exactly who I was and what I was doing standing before her. With some trepidation I exclaimed, rather meekly, that I was there for the course. Raising her eyebrows and fixing me with a stare that could have melted steel, she declared that there must be some error.

“What”, she demanded, with the grace of a matador scenting a kill, “is your name?”

“Richard Rose”, I replied, making every effort to hide my knocking knees, and feeling somewhat like a naughty schoolboy (a feeling which had been a familiar feature of my school days!).

With a triumphant air, having scrutinised her list of expected delegates she pinned me to the wall with an iron gaze and declared,

“As I suspected, you are not on my list!”

Beginning to believe that I might indeed be an imposter, I fumbled in my pocket to recover the letter accepting me as a delegate on the course. Handing this over to her I pleaded my case, but with little hope of mitigation.

Scanning her list of attendees once more, her mood suddenly changed, her face now wreathed in a smile that was far more becoming for an individual charged with the responsibility for welcoming visitors.

“Now I see the cause of the confusion”, she declared. “You are indeed here on the list, but you have been recorded as Rose Richards! Clearly whoever compiled the register had not expected attendance from a man. It is, of course, a perfectly understandable mistake.”

I wanted to express the view that I could see the mistake, a simple name reversal,  but wasn’t quite sure that I agreed that it was understandable. However,firmly believing that discretion is almost always the better part of valour, and having raised a smile, I did not wish to reverse this much more comfortable situation. I therefore maintained a decidely subservient approach.

“Ah well”, I replied, “an easy mistake to make, at least the problem is solved.”

“Not quite”, came the reply that seemed to challenge my complacency. “You see young man, (I particularly remember the somewhat derogatory tone attached to that ‘young man,’ with it’s emphasis firmly on the “man.”, all delegates are sharing twin rooms at this conference, so we do indeed have a problem!”

Returning once more to her official documents, her smile once again broadened as she discovered that Rose Richards was booked to share a room with the head of a Roman Catholic nursery school who just happened to be a nun! I had to agree with her, we did now have a problem!

Now I am sure that many sisters from the Catholic church are very broad minded, but the final, and undoubtedly wise decision, made by the conference gatekeeper resulted in myself and this local head teacher being the only delegates given single room accommodation. A sensible solution, and when I eventually found my room I was delighted to find that as a mere man, I might be in solitary confinement, but the cell was comfortably appointed.

I am delighted to see that today there are far more men working in nursery and early years education, though still probably less than is desirable. I am sure that like me they will recognise the tremendous opportunities for learning about child development, which come with these teaching posts. I do hope that today’s men in early years teaching no longer face the kind of interrogation about their place in such schools that was common in the 1970s. However, if they do, I hope that in years to come they too will be able to laugh at the predicaments in which they find themselves.

Incidentally, I never did discover whether the sister heard about this confusion. I like to think that if she did, she too would have raised a smile.

Observe to learn

There is so much to be learned when watching a teacher at work

There is so much to be learned when watching a teacher at work

I believe it to be a great privilege to spend time in a classroom watching a good teacher at work. When in this situation I often find myself thinking about the approaches that the particular teacher being observed is using, sometimes commenting to myself that “I wouldn’t have done it like that,” or “I wish I had thought about doing things that way.” I suspect that as teachers we all tend to be critical of the performances of our peers, but hopefully our critical reflections are for the most part positive and as much focused upon ourselves as on those we observe.

So it was that today I spent time in two separate classes observing a couple of student teachers working with primary school aged students, all of whom had been assessed as having a range of special educational needs. In such situations I always feel that it is important to put the student at ease, a friendly smile and cheery hello can only go so far towards relieving the inevitable tensions felt, but not to give either would be churlish.

After watching each lesson it was a pleasure to discuss what had been observed and to listen to these excellent young colleagues as they talked with great enthusiasm about what they had learned during their brief placement in the school. Both articulated their experiences in a thoughtful manner, describing their many successes with the students, and asking questions about the few difficulties they have experienced along the way. Getting to grips with new forms of assessment, the use of augmentative systems of communication and school approaches to behaviour management had clearly presented a challenge. But these two tyros were clearly equal to the task and saw each new experience as an opportunity to learn.

Teachers in English schools have become accustomed to being observed as they work. Sometimes this is characterised by the creation of a supportive environment in which peers with a genuine commitment to their own professional development share ideas and reflect in a positive manner upon the performance of a colleague. At other times the experience lacks the supportive conditions that we as teachers claim to value so much in education; as for example when a school inspection is in place and teachers are scored rather like performing skaters on an icy rink.

I was once told by an inspector colleague, a good man and experienced educator, that teachers can learn much by being observed. I remember my repost was along the lines that it is equally important that we as observers, are prepared to learn from what we see. Furthermore, I suggested, the real value of the observation is only to be achieved when we engage in a professional dialogue with the observed teacher, and make the effort to understand the reasoning behind their actions, and the context in which we operate. Observations that are simplistically used to make judgements and do not form the basis of professional dialogue have little real value in education.

Each observation this morning lasted about forty minutes and was certainly an informative and enjoyable experience. The real learning, both from my perspective as the observer, and hopefully for the young student teachers, took place in the half hour discussions that we shared when the lessons were over.

As ever, my morning visit to school was an uplifting experience. Seeing children enjoying activities under the guidance of committed professionals in an atmosphere conducive to encouraging learning, ensured that my working day got off to a good start. So thank you to the two young teachers for the privilege of seeing you at work, and to the school which afforded hospitality to myself and continues to inspire both new teachers and students.

 

P.S. To my literary friends, I wish you a belated happy Bloomsday! If it seemed like a long day, reflect upon Joyce’s interpretation of the working week:-

“All Moanday, Tearsday, Wailsday, Thumpsday, Frightday and Shatterday” (Finnegan’s Wake)

If yours was really that bad, I suggest you go into your local school and (after gaining consent) watch a teacher at work – hopefully this will brighten your day!

A different kind of education cut!

Haircut sir? There is a charge, though opinion is free!

Haircut sir?
There is a charge, though opinion is free!

I wouldn’t want to be a hairdresser, it has always seemed to me to be a fairly monotonous trade, though I would never question the skills and dexterity exhibited in even the most rudimentary of barber’s shops.

I can easily invoke memories of when I was a child, and endured a monthly ritualistic visit to the barber who was well established at the corner of Granville Street where I lived in Gloucester. Ted Brint had cut hair and proffered advice in his small shop (he would have cringed at the term salon), indicated by its blood and bandages pole, for as long as anyone could remember. His loyal customers (again clientele would not have featured in his vocabulary) entirely male of course, would sit patently on the uncomfortable wooden chairs which formed an inner ring around the walls of his emporium awaiting their turn for the standard “short back and sides” which was the sole “style” on offer. For amusement, a large pile of magazines, I particularly recall Rugby World (rugby is the main religion in Gloucester), and Reveille, along with annual collections of Giles Cartoon books were strewn around the room, and were certainly useful for passing away the tedious time spent waiting. There was one elderly gentleman who always seemed to be in Ted Brint’s barbers; I never once saw him having what little hair he had cut, and I am convinced that he viewed the shop as his own personal reading room.

It is often said that smells are particularly potent in dragging up memories of our past. This I believe is true. There is a particular type of pipe tobacco; I have no idea which specific brand, which when wafted across my nostrils always brings to mind Ted Brint’s barber shop. As his scissors and comb were navigated across the heads of his customers, Ted would puff on his pipe, occasionally stopping to knock out spent dregs and recharge before recommencing his task. Occasionally a fall out of ash would land on the lap of his current victim, though I suspect he never noticed this occurrence, and I recall a number of  times when he commented upon my “nasty cough”, oblivious to the fact that it was caused by a sudden inhalation of bitter smoke. It always seemed to me as a child, that the acrid smell of tobacco would remain in my clothes for the remainder of the day.

The length of time it took to cut hair was totally unpredictable in Ted’s shop. This had nothing to do with the length of the customer’s hair, or whether they requested a shave; a service applied with a lethal looking cut throat razor, but was entirely determined by Ted’s judgement of the quality of the conversation. A knowledgeable rugby man could be in that chair for an hour, or at least until the master of ceremonies decided that he was gaining no further inside information about the happenings at Tredworth, Longlevens, Matson, Gordon League or some other local rugby club. I soon learned that unless I wanted the visit to turn into a day’s excursion I said as little as possible about my recent performances on the rugby field.

Why have these memories come to my mind today? This is quite easily explained. I have just returned from having my hair cut at the local barber’s shop – this is in fact called “The Barber’s Shop” with no sense of irony intended, though today’s barbers are young women;  a fact of which I suspect Ted would not have approved. These days I can be in and out of this establishment in less than half an hour, I am sure that now I pay more in a search fee than for the actual cutting, since my youthful locks are only a distant memory.

So it was that as I was returning from this latest visit to my local hairdresser, I was reflecting on the contrast of conversations between today’s establishment and those I recall from Ted Brint’s. This morning I was asked, “what do you do for a living?” “Teacher”, I replied (this is always simpler than trying to describe the role of a university professor). However, within seconds I was rueing the error of judgement that led me to make this response. For the following fifteen minutes I was subjected to a perpetual reverberation, the hairdresser hardly drawing breath as she explained to me the multiple problems with today’s schools. Lack of discipline, too much time devoted to useless knowledge (I almost rose to this bait but managed to resist), teachers who are too friendly with children, homework that parents can’t understand. In fifteen minutes I was informed of almost every ill associated with our clearly ailing education system.

Sitting as still and silent as I possibly could, fearing that the slightest comment might result in the loss of an ear, I respected the lady’s tirade until at last she finished her work with the immortal words:-

“I wouldn’t want to be a teacher, you must have the patience of a saint!”

Paying my bill and making with a sense of relief towards the door, I wondered if perhaps I should have taken the initiative and begun a conversation about Northampton Rugby Club’s excellent performances this season, or maybe asked her opinion about the suspension of Dylan Hartley, or England’s prospects in the coming World Cup?

I will store these ideas just in case the next time I go for a haircut the same lady is standing by with her scissors and low opinion of our education provision.

Professionals and sea breezes

Sea breeze and Sencos, a heady cocktail

Sea breeze and Sencos, a heady cocktail

I don’t recall ever having visited Bognor Regis before, and  a couple of evenings ago I enjoyed an evening stroll along the seaside promenade at Felpham beach, taking in the salty air and listening to the gentle rush of the sea against the shingle strand. This was an opportunity for relaxation before what I knew would be a busy day of teaching, and listening to presentations by a range of colleagues at the annual University of Chichester conference for special educational needs co-ordinators.

I must confess to having mixed feelings about the role so ably fulfilled by special educational needs co-ordinators, usually referred to as Sencos. They undoubtedly provide a most professionals service, developing expertise, offering advice and assisting teachers to understand the needs of children who are experiencing difficulties with learning. Their enthusiasm and dedication is seldom in question as was evidenced in the university conference centre at this well organised and attended event. The attentive audience upon which I gazed whilst giving my morning presentation provided ample evidence of their interest and eager anticipation of picking up information that might assist them in their challenging role. This level of attention was in evidence throughout all the day’s sessions, with participants taking copious notes and asking the kinds of questions that demonstrate a commitment to harvest information for use in their schools. These are indeed consummate professionals with a hunger for knowledge and a determination to improve the lot of the children with special educational needs.

My questioning of the role of the Senco, comes not from their obvious levels of commitment and devotion to their pupils, but rather in the worries I have that this may detract from the enthusiasm of their teacher colleagues. Is there a danger that teachers working in schools with highly skilled Sencos may abdicate some of their responsibility for children with special educational needs, and assume that these will be addressed by a named professional? Is it possible that the role in some way diminishes the need for others to develop the skills that these designated colleages so ably demonstrate?

Talking to Sencos throughout the day in Bognor I gained the impression that the situation in schools is variable. One lady told me about how she is given opportunities to regularly update her colleagues through professional development events. She explained how she already has two training sessions timetabled at school to disseminate some of the ideas and developments picked up during this conference. She declared that the majority of the staff in her school saw her as a supportive source of information who enabled them to develop new professional skills, knowledge and understanding and help them to apply these in the classroom. However, another young and effervescent Senco told me a different tale. In her school it would appear that as soon as there is a problem with a child who is struggling with learning, it is seen as an issue to be dealt with by her alone. She is expected to come up with a solution and apply this so that teaching may resume as usual. Would she, I wondered, have a chance to share today’s sessions in school? Sadly, she declared that if this were to happen it would be the first time ever.

I am sure that these contrasting approaches can be found in schools throughout the country. I am certainly not advocating that we dispense with the role of the Senco in order that all teachers take responsibility for every child in their class.  I suspect that in many instances this simply wouldn’t happen. I am convinced that having someone I school who has both the professional knowledge and positive attitudes that I witnessed amongst the SENCOs in Bognor is a force for good. However, I do wish that more thought was given to how these excellent teachers are supported and enabled to develop the skills of their colleagues. In some situations they appear to plough a lonely furrow, bearing a weight of responsibility with limited recognition of the important skills that they have acquired or the most effective ways in which these can be deployed.

My visit to Bognor and the chance I was given to speak to, and listen and learn from these excellent teachers, was a most rewarding experience. As is always the case when teachers are gathered together, there were high levels of creativity and originality in evidence throughout the day. On the long journey home, involving four trains, I had plenty of time to reflect on the commitment I had recorded amongst these colleagues. Surely the next step towards the development of inclusive schools must be to fire all teachers with this level of professional enthusiasm for teaching learners who are currently struggling in our schools.

 

It’s not about agreement, but the quality of the argument.

 

Socrates taught us to learn through logical disputation. I suspect that this may be put to the test over the next few days.

Socrates taught us to learn through logical disputation. I suspect that this may be put to the test over the next few days.

I suppose that most teachers have mixed feelings about marking student’s work. This is a situation that probably pertains no matter whether working in a primary school or a university. These days, the majority of my marking activity is undertaken in relation to post graduate courses, which means that I often read work that is interesting and thoughtful, and sometimes provocative and challenging.

Recently I have marked assignments that have taught me about various aspects of education in India, and a dissertation that challenged my views about setting children for English lessons in a primary school. Occasionally students express ideas and opinions with which I am fundamentally in disagreement. This can in itself be interesting as the marking process is not about having to be in accord with the ideas advanced, and if the student presents a good argument supported by appropriate referencing and sound evidence, it is good to be challenged.

There have been times when I have read statements that have made me raise my eyebrows in surprise. I recall once marking an essay written by an undergraduate student that opened with the never to be forgotten words “A little known Swiss psychologist called Piaget…” At the time I was tempted to write “little known to you maybe, but not to most students of education!” I resisted the urge to be slightly sardonic, and simply directed the student to some reading that I hoped might expand their knowledge of one of the most influential developmental psychologists of the twentieth century.

Early this morning I opened my emails and found some work forwarded to me by an undergraduate student who was asking for some initial comments. My first impressions were favourable. The introduction to an assignment addressing teacher understanding of behaviour difficulties was well written, with reference to some interesting literature and a well-constructed description of the framework upon which the work was to be developed. So far, so good, but then I came across a phrase that made me take a sharp intake of breath. “Children who cannot abide by classroom rules,” argued the writer, “should be excluded from the school and educated in a separate unit where they cannot be disruptive of lessons.” Reading on I anticipated, or at least hoped for, a qualification of this bold assertion. However, two pages further on and my desires had not been realised. Teaching is a difficult enough task, argued this student, and if children make it even more so by disrupting lessons they should simply be removed.

Reading to the end of this work, which presented a lot of emotion, but little evidence upon which to base a logical argument, I found myself wondering how to respond. I most certainly find myself at odds with the sentiments expressed in the assignment, but did not simply want to express my disagreement or disapproval. I was far more inclined to write a response debating the points made. But having reflected on the contents of the essay, I eventually decided that rather than putting my thoughts on paper, I would invite the student to meet and debate the issues.

Having decided on this course of action I emailed the author of the work asking her if she would like to discuss her assignment, and suggesting that the work was well written, but that she needed to strengthen her arguments if she really believed that excluding children from lessons, or even from school was a good idea. I made it clear that I didn’t agree with her perspectives, but hoped that she might be able to justify her suggestions. A reply came within an hour welcoming my invitation and suggesting that all alternatives to exclusion have been shown to fail. “Why don’t you put my arguments on your blog?” She asked. “I think you will find that most teachers agree with me and would like to see trouble makers removed from schools.” Now there was a challenge I couldn’t resist.

I look forward to meeting with this interesting student and to seeing how she builds a case for her assertions.

End of an era, but a bright future ahead

ollege of Education. Not the prettiest of buildings, but for many years the centre of many achievements in inclusive education in Ireland.

Church of Ireland College of Education. Not the prettiest of buildings, but for many years the centre of considerable achievements in inclusive education in Ireland.

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”
                                                                                                              Seneca

My Professional association with the Republic of Ireland goes back over a lengthy period and has embraced teaching, research, examining and consultancy work. In Michael Shevlin, a good friend and colleague at Trinity College Dublin I have one of my closest collaborators with whom I have researched and written for more than the past ten years. During that time we have succeeded in securing funding for both small scale studies and the largest educational research project awarded in the country, and we look forward to continuing this professional partnership well into the future.

I am in Dublin today, in part to work with Michael, but also to perform a duty which, I know I will find interesting, but also tinged with a little sadness. Since 2003 I have had a fruitful and highly enjoyable relationship with colleagues at the Church of Ireland College of Education in Rathmines. My association with this long established teacher training institute began when I was appointed as an examiner of special education courses, and then developed in interesting directions as opportunities to conduct research with my colleague Ãine emerged, and later when I supervised the PhD of another tutor David. These and other colleagues at Church of Ireland College have made a significant contribution to the field of special and inclusive education in Ireland. In addition they have provided support to teachers and children in Africa through regular working visits and supply of resources.

Today the college will close, and a proud chapter of Irish educational history will reach its finale. Tutors from the college will move to another institution across the city where they will continue their good work alongside new colleagues and in a significantly different environment. A change of location will certainly not lessen their commitment and may even bring new opportunities and enthusiasm for the challenges ahead.

This evening I will deliver the final lecture at the old college. I am sure that this will be an emotional occasion, particularly for those who have been associated with Church of Ireland College of Education for most of their lives. I have no intention of giving a presentation of any profound significance, but will rather ensure that what I provide will be a celebration of all that is good within special and inclusive education in Ireland, and the tremendous contribution that college tutors have made to this.

I will leave the college tonight with many happy memories of working with excellent colleagues and students. I will recall the many visits made to schools with tutors to visit students putting into practice those skills that had been invested in them during their training. I will similarly remember the meetings to discuss student portfolios of work and to debate curriculum content with Mary, Eamonn, Ruby and other members of the team over coffee and biscuits in the staff common room. The friendly debriefing meetings with Sydney Blain, a true gentleman whose hand carefully manoeuvred the tiller of the college for many years, were always an education and a pleasure. Memories of developing research instruments and shared writing and conference presentations with Ãine, along with sitting in difficult meetings to feed back findings to reluctant policy makers and administrators, will undoubtedly re-emerge. Lengthy supervision meetings with David to debate his research approaches and discuss the findings from his excellent PhD study of the management of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties in Irish schools, added greatly to my understanding of these issues within both an Irish and international context.

There will inevitably be a valedictory air surrounding this evening’s events, but I hope that this will be tempered by a true atmosphere of celebration, and an opportunity for colleagues and students of an establishment held in great affection well beyond Dublin, to reflect on the many achievements of the past. I will also urge colleagues to look to the future and to seek new ways to ensure that their many talents and enthusiasms can continue to benefit the wider educational community.

This may seem like the end of an era, but it also signals the start of new and exciting opportunities.

Filling my lungs

“Sometimes all I need
Is the air that I breathe
And to love you”

Written by Albert Hammond and  Mike Hazlewood,  and performed by The Hollies

 

Taste that good, clean Northamptonshire country air!

Taste that good, clean Northamptonshire country air!

 

A few days away from this blog has been necessitated by events. Arriving home from India at the weekend, exhausted and afflicted with the all too familiar “Bangalore Bark,” (a persistent cough that seems to have the sole function of extracating two weeks of city gunge from my suffering respiratory system!), my priority was to catch up with my family, and seek some domestic tranquility. The greatest challenge of working away from home for extended periods is certainly being away from loved ones – skype is good, but it has its limitations.

Living in a location surrounded by fields and trees, one of the first things I inevitably notice and appreciate when returning home from working in traffic choked polluted cities, is the good clean air. It arrives in my lungs as a welcome tonic and has an immediate rejuvenating effect. If I could bottle the good clean Northamptonshire country air, and carry it with me on my travels, it would be well worth the cost of excess baggage.The relative quiet of the countryside, disturbed only by birdsong and the wind in the trees is certainly a boon, but it is the rich quality of the air that I appreciate most. Ten minutes of deep breathing in the garden can result in a most pleasant intoxication.

Back on familiar territory, I have the opportunity to reflect on the hospitality and friendship of colleagues and students with whom I have had the privilege to work over the past few weeks in Bangalore. Whilst their lives and experiences differ greatly from my own, we have engaged in a common purpose, and share in the same ambitions of creating improved learning opportunities for children and teachers. As has been the case on all my previous visits, I have returned home with new learning and continue to make slow progress towards understanding the complex challenges that my Indian friends face in their day to day teaching lives. Their persistence and determination to do well for their students, fills me with admiration.

I look forward to returning to Bangalore to work with these respected colleagues in September, and to sharing again in this educational journey. I wonder how much easier their work might be if they could breathe some of this lovely Northamptonshire air? I’ll take a can or two with me on my next trip!