We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For

I’m sharing here again the trailer for this very powerful film that touches upon so many of the issues that are foremost in education today:

I think every educator and parent would do well to find 7 minutes to watch this trailer.

What is School For?

Seth Godin’s book Linchpin is one of my all-time favourites – so much so that I often give away copies to friends when not recommending it here on my blog.

Some months ago I shared that he had prepared what he called his ‘Manifesto for Education’, called: Stop Stealing Dreams!

Now there are more resources as he has spoken on the manifesto at a TEDx event:

Here's the link to download the e-book: Stop Stealing Dreams

I urge as many people as possible to watch the video and read the e-book. You might not agree with everything said, but at least everyone who cares about the education available to young people should make sure their voice is heard and that they become part of the wider debate. Also, it's vital that we make ourselves well-informed about the origins of certain educational practices, so that we can challenge why things are done in particular ways - and think about how we might want to do them differently.

Special Needs in Mainstream Education

The Right to Education Act here in India attempts to achieve many ends, regrettably most of them political rather than educational or driven by research-based knowledge of what is good for society. Here, I want to focus on the intention of the Act towards those children with Special Needs (defined in the broadest sense to include those with physical, mental or learning difficulties).

The Act is very simple and straightforward – indicating that every such child should be granted a place in a standard, mainstream school, public or private. At face value this may sound fully justifiable and pursuant to a just, fair, inclusive society. However, before coming to such a conclusion I feel we should be willing to learn from the experiences of other countries (especially when it is an acknowledged fact that their was very little conscious research behind the provisions of the RTE).

In UK, in 1978 Mary Warnock (now Baroness Warnock) chaired a committee on Special Education. The results were far-reaching and radical including a massive shift in focus on educating learning disabled children in mainstream schools.

This trend went on for over 20 years with Baroness Warnock as being a champion of Special Needs rights. However, in 2005 Baroness Warnock shocked the special needs community when she expressed dissatisfaction with the very system that she had helped to create. She went so far as to call it ‘appalling’. By that time, the situation was that so many children had been moved out of specialised schools in to mainstream ones that only 100,000 children remained in the special schools. This meant that many of those children faced very long journeys to and from school. Warnock suggested that all that had been done had been with the very best of intentions, with compassion, intellect and respect for the rights of those with special needs.

However, whilst ideologically sound, the practical outcomes had been an inability to achieve the laudable aims desired. As well as the challenges for the 100,000 students mentioned above, her research indicated that what had been done also failed to meet the needs of the children who had been ‘mainstreamed’. Too often, in what were still largely conventional classrooms in most mainstream schools their special needs were not being adequately met. However, the financial and academic attention given to attempting to meet their needs had often reduced schools’ abilities to meet the needs of all their other pupils. In short, the policy hadn’t really met anyone’s needs very effectively. As a result, Baroness Warnock advocated a reversal of the policy and the establishment of more special schools.

Let us not forget that all that happened in UK – a country that was starting with a mainstream education system that was far better equipped materially and professionally than the public or private schools of India. This was brought home to me when the Education Secretary of Delhi was seeking advice on how to employ/ recruit and/ or train an enormous number of Special Educators to meet the requirements of the Act and orders handed down from the courts.

Most schools in the country lack even the most fundamental and rudimentary tools of inclusion, such as ramps, level ground surfaces, adequate space in classrooms for wheelchairs, audio sound loops in classrooms for the hearing-impaired or safe environments for the visually-impaired. The vast majority of mainstream teachers need to undergo extensive sensitization and inclusion training, along with training in differentiation skills to meet disparate needs of students in a single classroom.

In the circumstances, I believe that a realistic and practical strategy is required, with the following elements;
1) a start should be made on closing the training gaps of teachers, perhaps with a ‘Foundations of Inclusion’ certification course that all would be required to complete within 5 years,
2) expansion of course offerings to develop specialised skills of special educators,
3) Direction of specific funds earmarked from Education Cess (there must be some reason we’re all paying that money!) for establishing Special Schools in all major urban areas and districts with departments/ subsidiary units specialising in different needs (sight, hearing, physical, mental),
4) defined time limits for all public and private schools to address certain core fundamentals for basic accessibility for inclusion, including ramps where possible (otherwise lifts), special toilets etc.
4) A rolling programme, linked to point 1 above in timing, to mainstream children (in both public and private schools), where their conditions place them in the mild to moderate part of the spectrum in terms of their learning difficulties AND where assessment concludes that they can function effectively in large group inclusive learning environments.
5) Where the child does not meet the definition under point 4. above, guaranteed provision of a place in the Special Schools set up under point 2. above.

Just because a Minister sitting in Delhi says something will be a particular way, doesn’t make it so. We have to start from where we are, not where we wish we were. Otherwise, pie in the sky, unrealistic programmes dictated from on high will simply mean lot of ideological angst and guilt whilst little changes practically and those with learning difficulties continue to be treated as marginalised members of society with their needs completely unmet.

I welcome others’ thoughts and views.

How The World Understands Kunskapsskolan

Kunskapsskolan started opening schools in Sweden in 1990. However, it seems that whatever was happening there took some time to make an appearance on international media radar.

However, in June 2008, the Economist ran an insightful article looking at what the company was doing. The perspective is mostly on the business aspects, though it touches a bit on the unique attributes of the educational ethos and approach:
Economist Article – The Swedish Model

Somewhat later, in March 2010, the British newspaper, The Telegraph ran a story setting out to understand something of the approach to education. This was a response to the fact that the first of the three current Academies in England was shortly to open. The article seeks to understand what makes the model different and why the british government was embracing it as a positive new direction:
The Telegraph – A Swedish Blueprint for our Schools?

The Indian media, as far as I can see, didn’t show any interest until the Delhi press conference in late June 2012. This article by Business Standard again mixes interest in the business aspects of the plans for India with the elements that make the approach to education unique:
Business Standard – Kunskapsskolan launch in Gurgaon set to rewrite educational standards

It does often seem ironic to me that society claims throughout the world that education is such a vitally important aspect of developing an effective society, yet there is really so very little interest in truly innovative developments that might have the potential to bring significant benefits to the next generation. When i think of what did fill the column inches of my morning paper today I figure I’ll remain mystified for longer yet!

Aspire Wins 2012 McNulty Prize

Congratulations to Amit Bhatia and all friends at Aspire for the richly-deserved recognition of winning the John P McNulty prize for social entrepreneurship. Aspire’s work is changing lives at so many levels, enhancing the lives of and empowering young Indians to play a full and active part in a prosperous future. Proud to know you guys.

2012 McNulty Prize Finalists from McNulty Prize on Vimeo.

Could You Pass PISA?

The PISA tests are conducted on a regular basis across schools throughout OECD countries as a means of benchmarking the education systems of those countries (particularly State systems). It is, for example, the result of these tests that caused so much focus in recent years on the education system of Finland as many looked to see what they might learn for their own countries from the way the Finns approach education. When Chinese students first took the tests they performed extremely well, though there have been acknowledgements that the students all too often lack other skills having been drilled in a very rote-based education system. For an understanding of India’s position – see below!

This article is very interesting. Firstly, it offers access to the full “The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2012 Education at a Glance Report”. This carries a wealth of information about everything from the comparative levels of social mobility the education system creates in different countries (how possible is it to achieve academic levels significantly above one’s parents) as a representation of fairness to the relative levels of teacher salaries, training and other facilities in different countries (regrettably data not available for India).

This page also provides an interesting ‘hands on’ experience of doing PISA test questions so that you can pit yourself against the challenges it presents to class 10 students. I’m feeling kind, so won’t ask anyone to reveal their scores here (unless, of course, you can genuinely claim full marks!)

Huffington Post Article – Test Yourself Against PISA

So, what’s the Indian scenario? I’m afraid a very sad state of affairs that makes very clear the long road ahead. India agreed to take part in the 2009 test (taken a year later in 2010 for some technical reasons alongside some other ‘first timer’ countries. Two States were chosen, being those perceived to be amongst the most advanced in State education and development; Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Some complained that instead some top private schools should have been entered. However, that would have been out of line with the OECD objectives of comparing the education available to all in the country. When the results, came, they had performed second from bottom, better than only Kyrigistan. What happened next is contained in this Times of india report:

Times of India – PISA

What can we say – there’s a long and hard road ahead, but we must start somewhere.

Kunskapsskolan in New York

Here’s a short video on the ‘Innovate Manhattan’ school in New York that gives a little flavour of the philosophy we’re bringing to India through the first flagship Kunskapsskolan, Gurgaon School opening in April 2013.