What can we learn in one minute fifty seven seconds?



One minute and fifty seven seconds – not much out of a busy day, and certainly very little time to do justice to the experiences of a seven year old child.

I can remember a couple of occasions in my life when I thrilled to the experience of being on the sea in a relatively small boat. One of these trips, out of Brixham harbour in Devon, on flat calm waters was to catch blue and silver mackerel, which made a fine supper during a brief family holiday. Many years later, as an adult, a far more exciting journey was experienced from the Isle of May in the Scottish Firth of Forth returning to the mainland following a week living on that quiet and desolate nature reserve. On this particular journey huge waves crashed across the boat as it pitched and rolled through the white crested peaks and troughs of a savage sea. However, as the skipper of the vessel manoeuvred a familiar pathway with apparent nonchalance back to the safety of the tiny port of Anstruther, where we knew warmth and shelter awaited, I was neither fearful for my safety and that of my family, nor apprehensive of what lay ahead.

How different then were my experiences from those of seven year old Malak who features in the first of a series of “unfairy tales” recently launched by UNICEF. These short animations combine the power of art and music to convey a simple but harrowing message about the plight of children fleeing Syria in search of a safe haven where they will not be shot at, bombed, or forced from their homes. Sadly, this is a story with which we are all now so familiar. So, will a simple animated film make any difference?

This was a question I asked myself this morning having watched “Malak and the Boat”, and I am still unsure that I have an answer. The title “Unfairy Tale” applied to these short animations is a subtle play on words. As children many of us are brought up with fairy tales; fables that often become ingrained within our national and cultural identities. Those of the brothers Grimm, or Hans-Christian Anderson, or Perrault have become classics of literature, much loved stories with which we became familiar in our early years. The play on words in the title of these brief animations, with an emphasis upon how “unfair” life can be for so many children and their families is an apt juxtaposition for a series of short films that convey a desperate message. (As a matter of fact, many traditional fairy stories have sinister undertones which have in some instances terrified rather than entertained the children to whom they were read.)

UNICEF’s “unfairy tales” are beautifully made and compelling. They are also short enough to hold the attention of even those who live busy lives and claim to have little time to think. But I am still unsure whether they are likely to have the impact that their producers intend. I find myself asking, who will see these films? They came easily to my attention because I am well connected to media outlets and newsfeeds that consider children’s rights, but I am unaware of them having been placed in a position of prominence beyond these. Are UNICEF therefore releasing these films only in the direction of those individuals and organisations that have already demonstrated concern? If this is the case, can they possibly hope to have an impact?

Whilst conveying the brutality that is a part of the daily lives of so many children and expressing a message that we all need to hear, I wonder if these carefully crafted works of art can possibly change the attitudes and approaches of governments, organisations or individuals who for so long now have been confronted with the horrifying images of children in distress washed up, and not always alive, on the beaches of Europe? Many of these destitute children appear to have simply become a daily feature of our television news programmes and have often been relegated to the inside pages of our newspapers. Can the efforts of UNICEF in producing these films possibly have any effect?

We have already seen that attitudes towards the ever growing population of refugees fleeing war torn countries have been conveyed in words of sympathy, empathy, and sorrow, but of late these emotions have been more frequently transposed by fear, hatred and resentment. But as the images of suffering have become a nightly feature of our television screens I would suggest that the most common reaction has now become one of indifference. Will yet one more bold and impassioned approach to gaining understanding, such as this from UNICEF change any of this?

These are the imponderables that I found myself addressing this morning as I began my comfortable journey to work. I have no answer, and indeed I suspect there are no easy solutions. In the meantime, we must applaud those who are making bold efforts to keep the plight of desperate refugees to the forefront of our minds. The UNICEF films may, or may not make a difference, but at least as an organisation they are taking affirmative action, both through this media and their actions on the ground, to support those who are suffering as a result of the carnage inflicted upon Syria.

I post “Malak and the Boat” here for you to see for yourself. It will take a whole one minute and fifty seven seconds from your busy schedule today to watch this film, and even longer if you then decide to send it to a friend. Perhaps after watching you can help me to find answers to some of the troubling questions I have asked above. If so, I would like to hear what these are.

Click on the image below to watch “Malak and the Boat”


Who is capable?

Meant to protect children's rights - but not always easy to interpret.

Meant to protect children’s rights – but not always easy to interpret.

I spent a significant part of yesterday afternoon attempting, with somewhat limited success, to engage a group of undergraduate students in a debate about the capabilities of children. I say with limited success, though of course it is always difficult to know what individuals are thinking and I should not presume that a reluctance to actively participate on the part of some students meant that they were not contemplating the issues at hand. Nonetheless, I suspect that some of the concepts related to notions of capability were seen as quite challenging to a few of my young audience. This is not really surprising as it may be seen as a form of abstraction that has challenged academics and policy makers over many years.

The source of the intended debate was Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  This important document, which first saw the light of day in 1989, has provided the foundation of much of the work conducted by activists and researchers, who have been concerned to work for improvements in the educational and social conditions of children in the years since its publication. In yesterday’s session with undergraduates I was particularly concerned to examine the ways in which the conditions of children from vulnerable groups have changed in recent years, and how their own potential roles as advocates for children could make a positive contribution in this area. I was also keen to stress the important role that children can play as self-advocates, particularly when supported by the kind of empathetic professionals that I hope this group of undergraduates might become.

Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that:

Parties shall assure to the child who is capable if forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.

As with every article from the convention this clause is designed to afford protection to children and to ensure that due consideration is given to their opinions and desires. In that sense, it is hard to fault the intentions of the statement. However, it is the expression “who is capable” buried within the article that I wanted to discuss in more detail with yesterday’s group of students.

Whilst Article 12 undoubtedly has noble intentions, and it is quite right that the age and maturity of a child should be taken into consideration when involving children in decision making, I have concerns that in some instances the lack of a clear definition of “capability” could be the source of some difficulty. The questions that I raised in yesterday’s session, and indeed have discussed on many occasions with colleagues working in the area of inclusive education, were those such as; who assesses the capabilities of a child, and are there dangers that a child who has been given a label such as autistic spectrum disorder, may never be regarded as capable? Is there a possibility that the notion of capability could be used as a method of control, with assumptions that certain members of the population, who happen to have been given a specific diagnosis, could not possibly be capable of making their own choices or decisions?

Blanket misguided assessments have been made about groups of people throughout history, simply on the basis of their shared characteristics. At one time women were denied opportunities to vote because it was assumed that they were not able to understand the highbrow issues of politics, they were similarly denied opportunities to train as doctors or hold positions of high office in certain professions. These discriminatory views have, quite rightly been challenged and laws changed to ensure greater equality of opportunity. In the past, terms like “ineducable” were applied to many children who had learning difficulties and in some circumstances they were locked away from society, supposedly for their own good. In these examples it is apparent that those in positions of authority failed to recognise the competence of individuals and their capabilities in respect of making decisions affecting their lives.

It is certainly true that all of us are likely to have limited capabilities in respect of some aspects of our lives, and in such situations we may well be dependent upon the expertise of others when it comes to making decisions. But most of the time we are treated with respect, encouraged to assert our independence and to express our opinions in relation to matters that affect us. When we are not afforded this level of respect, we quite rightly feel affronted or patronised and may well rebel against those who we see as denying our rights.

It must therefore be of concern that in an effort to discuss the capabilities of children, as was the situation yesterday, we often find that in describing individuals it is easier to talk about what they can’t do rather than to emphasise what they can. Asked to consider how children might be encouraged to engage in making decisions about their education or care, the responses from yesterday’s participants often began with a description of the child’s difficulties or perceived deficits. It appears to be easier to see obstacles than to consider the ways in which these may be overcome.

I am a great supporter of UNICEF and in particular the campaigns that they have initiated to ensure that the rights of children are recognised and upheld. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has been in place now for twenty six years and has had a significant impact upon the development of both international initiatives and national policies. However, a failure to fully debate the nature of capability continues to provide a plausible exclusion clause for those who for a variety of reasons would prefer not to consult children about their needs and wishes. So long as this remains the case I appear destined to try to deconstruct notions of capability – even with the occasional group of recalcitrant students!

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.