Remember the Children of Peshawar

Peshawar, a historic city with many beautiful landmarks, including this, the Sunehri Mosque. Sadly it is today associated with far more negative feelings.

Peshawar, a historic city with many beautiful landmarks, including this, the Sunehri Mosque. Sadly it is today associated with far more negative feelings.

Children often demonstrate the most stubborn resilience. Thank goodness they do.

Driving to work this morning I was reminded by an item which I heard on my car radio, that it is the anniversary of the dreadful massacre of innocents that occurred at the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan on December 16th last year. Writing about the atrocity on this blog at that time, I described the perpetrators of this mass murder of 122 children and 22 teachers as thugs, and suggested that one of their motivations for this evil deed was their fear that education will ultimately produce an increased number of people who are prepared to condemn their particular brand of bigotry, and stand against their violence and hatred. I have had no reason in the intervening year to change my mind on this matter.

A visit to the website of Dawn, the Pakistan, English Language national newspaper, confirmed what I had expected. A significant amount of space in today’s edition has been devoted to remembering this cowardly act, but even more column inches are given over to a celebration of the courage with which children and their parents have rebuilt a school community and reaffirmed their right to education. Several articles in today’s newspaper consider the current state of Pakistan and its efforts to address security issues and the fear of terrorism, but at the centre of many of the arguments is a reflection on the impact of this specific tragic event upon the lives of children and their families. The words of the journalist Zahid Hussain are fairly typical of the tone set on the paper’s opinion pages when he writes:-

“It was, perhaps, the gravest moment even for this country that has seen so many tragedies and bled so many times. The wounds of parents losing their children can never be healed. Those who escaped the macabre dance of death are back in school traumatised by the memories of their colleagues mowed down in front of them. Their lives can never be the same again.”

Whilst several writers have tried to capture the mood in Peshawar, and to reflect upon how we might interpret the terrible events of December 2014, they cannot hope to achieve the eloquence that is contained in the commemorative pages that dominate today’s edition of Dawn. Under the heading 144 Stories, the newspaper presents a narrative of each of the victims who died that day at the hands of a group of criminals. These stories convey understandable anger, incomprehension, desperation and fear, but many also are filled with compassion, hope and even forgiveness. I found it impossible to read more than a few of these accounts as the poignancy of the words and the feelings so personally expressed quickly become unbearable.

The tragedy of that day last December is peculiarly juxtaposed now here in England, as elsewhere in the world, when families prepare to celebrate Christmas. Many of us look forward to spending time with family and friends, but most particularly with children and grandchildren. Perhaps reading accounts such as those that are published today in Dawn serve an important function in insisting that we reflect upon those freedoms and relationships that we can so easily take for granted, and in ensuring that we are never complacent about the need to stand up against those who would undermine the values which so many of us hold dear. This is not simply an issue for Pakistan, but one for which we must all accept some responsibility. It is one in particular that those of us who are teachers should ensure continues to be discussed in our classrooms and with our students and colleagues.

My words are wholly inadequate in addressing a topic of such gravity, and cannot possibly hold a candle to those used to convey the 144 stories presented in Dawn. If you have time today to read only one page from a single newspaper, you would find it hard to better invest your time than in reading the one highlighted below.

 

http://www.dawn.com/news/1223313/144stories-remembering-lives-lost-in-the-peshawar-school-attack

 

Inclusion is not just a matter for debate; it needs to be put into action

People who once had homes, jobs and some security, now have nothing. Why then are they being subjected to abuse in so many parts of Europe?

People who once had homes, jobs and some security, now have nothing. Why then are they being subjected to abuse in so many parts of Europe?

September is a form of silly season for university researchers in Europe. Immediately prior to a new intake of excited, or sometimes apprehensive students onto their courses, many academic staff are to be found at conferences at various venues around the globe.

The general consensus appears to be that these annual research jamborees are important, for providing researchers with opportunities to disseminate their most recent work by presenting papers, some of which will eventually make their way into peer reviewed journals, with the hope that they will provoke discussion and debate amongst colleagues working in their chosen discipline. An alternative view of the academic conference has been eloquently portrayed by the author (and erstwhile academic at the University of Birmingham) David Lodge in his excellent and most entertaining novel Small World. This is a book that should be compulsory reading for all would be new researchers. One of its greatest virtues is to show us all that we should not take ourselves too seriously.

I was reflecting upon the place of the academic conference earlier this week as some of my colleagues and students were returning to the University of Northampton from Budapest in Hungary, where the annual European Education Research Conference was held last week. This is one of the larger conferences of its type in Europe and visits a different venue each year – I understand that Dublin will be the centre of attention in 2016.

I haven’t attended this particular event for a number of years, but I am always interested to hear the various and often contradictory reactions of colleagues and students as they return to their desks after a week away amongst researchers from a wide range of countries and situations. Some come back with tales of valuable debates about data sets or philosophical differences of opinion, others express disappointment at poorly attended sessions, or having heard a well-known “leader in their field” present exactly the same paper that they gave at two previous conferences.

Most recount matters related to the culture of the country which hosted the conference. The opportunity to sample a different cuisine or see unfamiliar sights clearly impacts upon their memories of the event. But this year I was particularly interested to hear one of my former students, now working as a professional researcher, giving a different perspective on an aspect of the conference venue.

Anyone who has been watching the news recently cannot fail to have noticed that Budapest and Hungary in general has been making the headlines; and they have not made for edifying reading. The crisis in Syria and in other parts of the world, including Afghanistan has forced many thousands of people to leave their homes, many of which have been totally destroyed, and to flee their countries in fear of their lives. In recent weeks, in an effort to find safety and a new start in life, many of these desperate families have been crossing Europe and some have arrived in Budapest.

Television images have shown thousands of anxious refugees crowded onto Keleti Station hoping to board trains to Germany or Austria and an opportunity to rebuild their lives. However, in the Hungarian capital city they have not been universally welcomed or helped by everyone, and the government in that country has adopted a hard line which has resulted in greater resentment and antipathy being aimed at these already suffering individual families and individuals.

On this evening’s televised news, viewers were subjected to horrific images of abuse, as Hungarian soldiers and police officers used water cannon and tear gas to prevent tired and frightened people entering their country. At recently erected border fences frightened men, women and children were seen washing the tear gas from their eyes. A particular image of a child, certainly no more than eighteen months old terrified by the experience of burning eyes and soaked from the spray of water cannon must have provoked a feeling of revulsion and anger amongst any parent who saw this footage.

The dehumanization of these people has become a Europe wide tragedy and is taking place in the same country that has welcomed university academics from across the continent. It does seem ironic that many of my European colleagues who have dedicated much of their professional lives to promoting and researching inclusive education, were engaged in their deliberations so close to this clearly discriminatory activity.

But to return to my former student and now colleague. It is usual when attending these conferences to possibly spend an evening or to add on a day to explore the city and visit places of interest. This seems to me to be an important opportunity to gain some insights into the context in which others work and live. I am sure that many who attended the conference would have visited Buda Castle, Fisherman’s Bastion or St Stephen’s Basilica whilst in the city. However, my colleague chose to spend her spare time engaged in an altogether different activity. She described to me how she gave the little time she had available as a volunteer working with relief professionals who were attempting to bring some succor to the refugees huddled on the streets and around the station.

Having spent a number of years researching inclusive education, and searching for ways in which those who are marginalized and discriminated against may gain greater inclusion and respect, she decided to put into practice those principles that she has adopted as a result of her studies. Her time in the city was obviously limited, and it is likely that the impact of her actions will have been similarly small. But I am sure that the decisions that she took in this regard were every bit as important as the paper that she presented at the conference. This is not in any way to belittle her research, but simply to state that in the whole scheme of things there are some issues that matter far more than others. In years to come she may well forget the paper that she gave at this international event; however, it is just possible that someone may recall the small act of kindness that she showed them in their time of greatest need.

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.

Interpretation is without a doubt the most critical part of reading

Raj ghat Samadhi the memorial in Delhi that marks the spot of Mahatma Gandhi's cremation. A moving place where respectful crowds stand in silence.

Raj Ghat Samadhi the memorial in Delhi that marks the spot of Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation. A moving place where respectful crowds stand in silence.

January 30th this year marked the 67th anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by the Hindu fundamentalist Nathuram Godse, as he walked from Birla House in Delhi to conduct a prayer meeting. This savage act plunged a nation into mourning and is commemorated today by supporters of Gandhi’s stance on non-violence and social activism across India and the wider world. As is usual, the date provoked comments on Gandhi’s legacy in several Indian papers this year, and my attention was particularly drawn to one in the Hindu, written by Varghese K. George under the heading Gita, Gandhi and Godse (Hindu Jan 30th 2015).

The article is interesting for constructing an argument that both Gandhi and Godse had been opposed to British rule in India. They had also shared the same Hindu faith and were profoundly influenced by the contents of the Bhagavad Gita, which was written at some point between 400 BCE and 400 CE. In his article, George stresses the point that many great leaders and campaigners, including Gandhi, and Martin Luther King junior, and he might equally have added Aung San Suu Kyi, have been driven by a religious conviction that shaped their view of the world, and in particular their beliefs in both social justice and the means by which this might be achieved. He then goes on to discuss the fact that Godse whilst profoundly influenced by the words of the Bhagavad Gita, gave this text an interpretation that was so far removed from that of Gandhi’s that he became a murderer, whilst Gandhi died a martyr.

George makes a very articulate and well-reasoned case within his article for a debate about the place of religious doctrine in the politics of today’s largely secular societies. He points out that the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been very pointed in his presentation of copies of the Gita to a number of world leaders, including President Barak Obama, and the Japanese Emperor Akihito. This he suggests, may well have angered some of the Indian population in what has been firmly established by the 1950 constitution as a secular state. India is in fact home to representatives of all the world’s major religions, and it has been argued that the secular nature of the state has been an important factor in the retention of social accord since independence in 1947.

This is certainly an interesting debate, but reading this from a teacher’s perspective, of even greater interest is the discussion within this article of the interpretation of religious texts and the ways in which these are conveyed to others. Gandhi’s reading of the Gita was undoubtedly influenced by his contact with other religious texts, including the Christian Bible and the Moslem Quran, both of which he found to have passages that greatly moved him. Writing in From Yeravanda Mandir, Gandhi stated that in his opinion “All faiths constitute a revelation of Truth, but all are imperfect and liable to error.” However, he also believed that these great religious texts called upon adherents to their faith to treat all men with respect and to abhor violence.

Gandhi’s interpretation clearly did not sit well with Nathurum Godse and his colleagues, who chose to justify their appalling actions through reference to religion. It was in part, Gandhi’s respect for the rights of India’s Moslem’s to assert their opinions and choices that so incensed Godse and many others of similar extreme views. As a result of this a terrible crime was committed and both men lost their lives. Within his article, Varghese K. George makes the important point, that whilst leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King junior have used religious books to justify their non-violence, so have many despots of the past used the same texts to support their actions of mass killing through crusades, Jihad and “holy wars” against those who hold a different set of beliefs. As George emphasises at the conclusion of his piece, it is all about our reading of the text rather than simply the words contained on the page.

The Hindu article struck a chord with me as I was leaving Bangalore, having over the past two weeks enjoyed the company of Hindus, Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and secularists all working together in various situations. At no time did I feel greatly distanced from these individuals, or the views that shape the ways in which they behave, despite not personally subscribing to their religious beliefs. Yet I read increasingly in the media and hear repeatedly on the radio that men are killing each other and inflicting their distorted view of the world and are justifying this mayhem by reference to scripture. Such behaviour is an affront to education which surely must have as a major aim the promotion of respect and tolerance. Those who are most directly involved in acts of violence are for the most part not educated men, and those who lead them choose to use their own education as a means of controlling others for their personal ends rather than working towards a better society for all.  As teachers there must be an imperative upon us to assist children to interpret religion as providing a set of guiding principles aimed at creating a more just and caring society. If we do not believe that religion has a part to play in challenging violence and aggression, then it should have no place in our schools.

Postscript:

Nathuram Godse and his co-conspirator Narayan Apte were both hanged on November 15th 1949 for their part in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. I am quite sure that the decision to execute these two men would have been opposed by Gandhi, who would have seen violence as playing no part in the implementation of justice.

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Teachers – at the forefront of challenging ignorance and bigotry.

Diversity and difference is a cause for celebration and an opportunity for learning - for those who are prepared to open their minds and leave their prejudices behind.

Diversity and difference is a cause for celebration and an opportunity for learning – for those who are prepared to open their minds and leave their prejudices behind.

Last evening I had a very sad and disturbing conversation with a friend who teaches in a school in a city not very far from here. Angela (not her real name) has worked in the same primary school for the past fourteen years and is totally committed to her pupils and their families. Angela is a good musician and she is involved in a wide range of after school activities for children including organising a school choir, a recorder group and a drumming class. In addition, she helps to run a parent and child activity group for a couple of weeks during each school summer holiday. Angela’s husband is similarly involved in a number of initiatives to support children and families, in what is one of the poorest parts of the city in which they live.

Angela tells me that at the end of the school day yesterday an unusually large number of parents, mostly mothers, who had come to collect their children, came to see her to have a brief conversation. Most, she tells me, had the same message that they wished to convey. “Please”, they said, “make sure everyone knows that we are good people, and we are disgusted by the events that have taken place today in France, these people do not represent our community.”

As the parents were conveying this message, Angela was completely ignorant of the murder of journalists and cartoonists that had taken place earlier in the day at the offices of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo in Paris. She tells me that she was at first confused, but as the significance of what had happened became apparent she then felt angry and slightly nauseous. Being largely unaware of the events, after all she had been in class all day, she was at a loss as to what she could say.

Angela teaches in a school where more than fifty percent of the children come from Moslem families. Her school is located in a part of the city where Moslem’s make up a majority of the local neighbourhood. It is a peaceful and well respected community that contributes greatly to the socio-economic and cultural well-being of the area and the city as a whole. Of late however, many who live in this district have become increasingly afraid of anti-Islamic sentiments that have been intensified both by terrorist activities in various parts of the world, and by the fanning of flames by a number of xenophobic individuals and organisations.

Today, as on every school day, Angela will continue to give her best for the children in the school. She will, as always be available for families, and will demonstrate the same enthusiasm for the musical after school activities that she runs. The saddest part of Angela’s situation, she tells me, is that good, caring and dedicated parents feel the need to apologise to her, and reassure her that they do not subscribe to the hatred shown by a tiny minority who are prepared to murder, maim and terrorise those who do not share their warped view of the world. Angela tells me that over her years of working in this school she has come to appreciate the warmth and affection shown towards her by parents of children attending this school. She and her colleagues have been thankful for the support given to the school by members of the local community, and regard those of the Moslem faith as kind, considerate and caring. Of course, she tells me, there are a few parents who are not supportive and do not want to participate in the life and activities of the school, but isn’t this true of schools everywhere? This is not a factor dependent upon religious belief.

Listening to Angela’s recounting of her after school conversations, it was impossible not to empathise and to appreciate her concerns and those of the families with whom she works. It was equally difficult not share in her sadness and anger that a small minority can have the effect of demonising the  peaceful majority who espouse a religious belief. Though anger will have only a negative impact and is part of what the terrorist tries to achieve. Today Angela and her colleagues will try to reassure parents and children as they arrive at the school gates. It should not be necessary, but today, possibly more than on others, they will be vigilant in listening for any unkind or inappropriate comment that might be made towards a child in school. She does not anticipate that there will be any real need to behave differently from the ways that she might on any other day, but she is none the less concerned that there may be difficult moments.

Good teachers like Angela care about their children and do their best for them regardless of their background, culture or religion. They look for the good that exists in all children and do their best to support them in their learning and social development. This is the way that all professionals who are committed to children act, and will continue to behave, despite the provocation of a few misguided bullies and thugs who through a misrepresentation of faith attempt to terrorise the populace. Education should be free of fear, must promote the exchange of ideas, celebrate difference and diversity and aim to create a more inclusive and respectful society. If this is achieved the perpetrators of atrocities such as those committed in Paris yesterday will be seen for what they are – acts of cowardice and totally unrepresentative of anyone other than a bigoted minority.

The actions that will be taken by Angela and her colleagues, and by teachers in classrooms and on playgrounds across the world today will have far greater impact than ignorant men armed with guns could ever have.

Nous sommes Charlie!

We should applaud teachers who oppose those who fear education.

We must believe that these children in Pakistan will bring a better future to their country.

We must believe that these children in Pakistan will bring a better future to their country.

 

The students with whom I work, and who come from all around the world, often shape the way I think about the contents of this blog. Last week, in a casual conversation with one student it was suggested that in the lead up to Christmas, I might ensure that the subject matter was suitably focused upon some of the less serious aspects of education (hence featuring Paddington Bear yesterday). However, all this changed this morning when the mood amongst students and colleagues alike was, to say the least, sombre.

The brutal and cowardly massacre of innocent children yesterday in Peshawar, Pakistan has quite rightly stunned the world. As the news of this atrocity emerged  it quickly became the focus of shocked discussion and disgust amongst everyone I encountered. Several students expressed their anger and distress at the killings, many finding these difficult to talk about. The reaction was, unequivocally one of horror, but noticeably, not disbelief. Sadly in recent years attacks upon schools and the killing of children and teachers has been reported all too often in the news.

An organisation called the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack published a report earlier this year, which outlined how violence had been aimed at schools in thirty countries around the world. Whilst the worst of these atrocities make headlines, the majority escape attention outside of the countries where they are perpetrated. Amongst the shocking facts in this report is the stunning revelation that between 2009 and 2013 more than 1,000 attacks were made on schools in each of six countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Colombia, Sudan, Syria and Somalia. The report suggests that for teachers Colombia is one of the most dangerous places to work with 140 teachers killed between 2009 and 2012. The bombing, shelling and looting of schools and universities and the kidnap of children and teachers has blighted the lives of families in many parts of Africa, South America and Asia, where increases in armed conflict have seen schools commandeered for military use.

Over a number of years I have been fortunate to work with students from many parts of the world that are now cited as being dangerous places to be involved in education. Every one of these colleagues has been a dedicated professional and has demonstrated a commitment to gain additional skills and knowledge in order to serve children in their communities. I find myself increasingly wondering about the safety of these teachers and the children in their care.

This morning I had a conversation with a colleague in which we tried to imagine how parents and children must be facing the day in Pakistan. If I was a child in Peshawar how would I feel about attending school today? Would I wish to go, or would I simply want to hide away in the shelter of my home? If I was a parent, would I want to send my child to a place that should be welcoming and safe, in the fear that I may be putting them in the way of danger? Having never been in a position where I have had to consider such questions, I find it hard to imagine what must be going through their minds.

Such thinking is, of course, exactly what the criminal thugs who were behind yesterday’s mass murder wish to generate. It is evident that they fear the whole process of education. Educated people think, reason and challenge the futility of violence. They have the ability to shape the communities in which they live and to bring about positive change. These are the very skills that those responsible for attacks on schools, teachers and children oppose, and dread.

I am sure that every teacher and parent across the globe shared the sorrow and distress of those in Pakistan this morning. Sadly, emotion alone will not bring a halt to the determination of those whose hatred is aimed at children and teachers. It is easy to feel helpless in the face of such a situation, but nonetheless important that we should all lend a voice to the condemnation of these dreadful acts. Teachers in Peshawar and other troubled areas of the world will continue to demonstrate their commitment to children. For those of us who are teachers working in situations of comfort, we must accept the  responsibility to engage positively with our colleagues who work in these areas, even if our actions appear insignificant.

The Report from Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack can be read at:-

http://www.protectingeducation.org/sites/default/files/documents/eua_2014_full_0.pdf

 

A short film highlighting the extent of this issue can be seen at:-

http://www.protectingeducation.org/get-involved

When is a college not a college?

What will this young man learn from his education?

What will this young man learn from his education?

I sometimes find myself confused by the use of words. Or maybe it’s the misuse of words that alarms me so. In today’s Guardian newspaper, a report by the Home Affairs Editor Alan Travis appears under the headline “Graying to let staff use force at ‘super-jail’ for children.” The article reports that Chris Graying, Secretary of State for Justice in the UK coalition government, has decided that he will endorse the use of force to restrain the inmates at a proposed privately run “secure college” for teenagers. This despite a court ruling that suggests that such an approach would be counter-productive and potentially damaging to the purpose of the establishment.

Perhaps I am being too sensitive, but it is the use of the term “secure college” that causes me a certain amount of angst when reading this report. College is a word that I normally associate with an educational institution, charged with a responsibility to care for students and provide them with opportunities to develop skills, knowledge and understanding through study and practical application. I have visited many such establishments during my forty years as a teacher, but never have I heard any of the staff or students at such an institution discussing the need for physical restraint as a means of promoting learning.

Both Graying and his colleague, the Justice Minister Andrew Selous have emphasised that whilst the establishment which they propose will be developed to house young offenders, its emphasis will be upon providing inmates with an education to prepare them to enter society and contribute to their communities. These are of course, noble sentiments and it is to be hoped that they succeed in this mission. However, as Alan Travis rightly states, the intended £85 million project far from serving the function normally associated with a college is in fact a new form of “super-jail.” The use of euphemisms will have little impact in what is clearly an effort to disguise the true nature of this proposal.

The use of force as a means of promoting education has long been discredited. Whilst in the past some teachers have apparently held the view that knowledge could be beaten into children, it is generally accepted that students  learn best from those teachers for whom they have the greatest respect. Those who attempt to gain such respect through a show of force are almost certain to fail, which is precisely why there should be no place for violence in educational establishments.  As Andrew Neilson from the Howard League for Penal Reform has stated, “The Ministry of Justice has  described the secure college as putting education at the heart of detention, yet this consultation places punishment firmly at the heart of the proposal.” The institution proposed by Mr Grayling and his colleagues does not in any way, resemble a college by any definition that would be acceptable to teachers with a proud history of providing education in this country. I’m sure that if you ask the majority of teachers to define a place that incarcerates young people away from their communities, and enforces discipline through the use of force, they would tell you that this was a jail, a prison or a young offender’s institution. I suspect that the term school or college would be unlikely to cross their minds.

Before I am accused of being a “bleeding heart liberal” (which I quite probably am), I must say that I accept that there are young people who for whatever reason become serial offenders, and require specialist provision and management away from the majority of their peers. This has been the case throughout history and seems likely to be so well into the future. What I am asking however, is that we consider two issues raised in today’s Guardian article. Firstly, that we should be more honest in our choice of terms, and when a new jail is to be created we do not dress this up in the guise of a college. Secondly, that when claiming to address the needs of children and young people, even those who may have committed crimes and been thoroughly obnoxious in their behaviour, we acknowledge that if we choose to manage them through the use of violence, they will believe that this is an acceptable approach to dealing with others and will therefore use this method themselves in the future.

 

A return to as near to normality as might be achieved.

I wonder if this boy has returned to school? How might this differ from what he left behind last time he was in class?

I wonder if this boy has returned to school? How might this differ from what he left behind last time he was in class?

Here in England the new school term is well under way. Children have settled into their new classes, made friends and in some cases become acquainted with the expectations of unfamiliar teachers. The start of term is always greeted by both teachers and children with mixed emotions. For some who have enjoyed the freedom of a summer break and the opportunity to spend unstructured times with friends, the return to school can seem like the imposition of inevitable incarceration until the next school holiday. In reality however, most soon readjust and settled into the routine of a new term.

For teachers too it may take a little time to get back into stride. Though they have doubtless spent many hours during their break preparing lessons and resources for the coming weeks, once the doors open to a new class there are the usual questions about how quickly they will settle, and what challenges they will bring that permeate every teacher’s mind. Just as with the children, after a few days the routine is re-established and the holidays will seem like a distant dream.

For some children the beginning of this school year is viewed through a very different lens and will hopefully bring renewed hope and security. The UNICEF website currently features an unattributed article under the headline Children in Gaza: “It is beautiful to be back at school with my friends.” The text describes how after fifty days of relentless terror and bloodshed some children in Gaza, supported by aid from UNICEF are returning to their schools for the first time in a few months. Their enforced break from education resulted not from a holiday, but was necessitated as a safety precaution against the bombing and fighting that has marred their nation. In some instances their schools were commandeered to provide shelter for families made homeless by bombing. Many of these children now look forward to a return to some form of normality, or at least a respite from the violence that has characterised much of their young lives. Their experiences have been so harrowing that it is hard to imagine how they will re-adjust to the routine of classroom life and the need to concentrate upon their studies.

One seventeen year old boy interviewed by UNICEF states that;-

“I have seen so much violence, I don’t know how to cope with it. All I wish for is having peace of mind. I wish everything could be like it was before, that my house were still standing.”

Whilst a ten year old said:-

“It is beautiful to be back at school, free to leave my house and to play outside with my friends again.”

These children, living in an abnormal situation clearly hunger for the simple normality that most of us are fortunate enough to experience in our day to day lives. That which at times may appear to be a dull and routine existence to many children in my own country, is something which these young people long to experience. For them schooling provides far more than an education, it gives them an opportunity to touch the normality that most of us take for granted.

The world in which they live is mismanaged by adults who have simply failed to find a means by which they can live together and try to understand their differences and similarities. The children themselves are powerless victims in a situation that is out of the control of all but a few powerful individuals. These men (they are almost exclusively men) who hold such power over life and death are clearly able to shut the images of children from their minds, as they continue their relentless pursuit of their own selfish ends. Mohammed, an eleven year old boy cited in the UNICEF article says:-

“I was so happy to be able to get out of my home at last, after so many weeks confined at home. I was frightened that some of my friends might also have been killed, but thank God, I found out this morning that it is not the case.”

Unlike Mohammed, many children returning to their schools in Gaza will be mourning the loss of friends and family. Inevitably they must wonder whether when violence next erupts, as it almost invariably will,  they will lose more friends, or indeed might themselves become victims of this appalling mayhem .

Schools to these children afford a safe haven where they can learn and play with their friends. The teachers working in these schools will face a major challenge in enabling their students to come to terms with the violence that has become a feature of their lives. It is almost certain that without the professionalism of such teachers, and the values that they instil in their students, today’s children will become embroiled in the violence of the future.

Perhaps the political leaders of Israel and Palestine should return to the classroom and spend some time learning alongside the children who have faced such terror in recent months. I am sure that there is much they could learn by listening to the voices of these innocents.