Friday, 11 September 2020

The Challenges and Opprtunities of Education for Developmental Needs

Having designed many systems to measure the impact of youth projects, particularly those involving disabled children, across a wide range of communities and backgrounds, I feel that it is in education, more than anywhere else, is where society  needs to rethink the objectives of our education system and consider the impact on those with disabilities and Special Educational Needs.

As someone who has been diagnosed with severe autism and ADHD only three years ago, at 55, but grew up in the sixties and seventies, a time when neither condition was recognised,  I have some understanding of how difficult, often terrifying school can be. A chaotic, noisy environment with complex social rules, it was a distressing time which I cannot look back on with much happiness.  I have not worked with many children who did not want to learn, those that do are often rebelling against the regimented systems of learning, more than rejecting and appetite for wisdom. 

If we truly believe, as we do, that disabled people particularly those with developmental and learning difficulties have real talent and ability then we need an education system flexible enough to support them. We must create enabling environments, working both in and alongside mainstream schools, where all children can thrive, creating a generation of adults able to contribute and be valued in our society. I accept that for many disabled children, inclusion is a positive and enriching experience which, by removing ignorance about disability helps eradicate discrimination for future generations. There are however many occasions when it fails to deliver the equal opportunities and positive social interaction it was intended to.

My experience is that, at the heart of this problem, lies the way education is delivered and measured in our schools. We have developed an obsession with testing and measuring, as someone who designs impact tools and processes, this may seem like a hypocritical statement, but I have always maintained that we should measure what really matters, not that which is easiest to measure. We must always ask if we should measure and consider our objective in assessing a very diverse range of young people against a set academic standard. Moreover, since the introduction of a compulsory national curriculum teachers have enjoyed less and less autonomy, with successive governments making sweeping curricular decisions often with little or no consultation with front-line staff.  This approach, which holds that worthwhile knowledge is only to be found in packages produced by small groups of experts and controlled from the top-down, is akin to a manufacturing process not a learning environment, responsible for the growth and well-being of our future generation.

This system is too inflexible to allow teachers the freedom to engage children of all abilities, to acknowledge those with real creative or vocational talents. To push and encourage those with developmental needs to fulfil their potential and find their place in our social hierarchy. Too many students are cast out because their learning style differs from standardised methods. I was lucky and resourceful, teaching myself and seeking out opportunities to learn in museums, libraries and by engaging with friends of my parents, many do not have this opportunity or such a supportive environment.

Children need a system that empowers teachers, allow them to deliver an individualised curriculum focused on promoting effective learning, the ability to learn in new ways and independently. Teachers need the freedom and trust to teach those children in their care, in the most appropriate way. Using appropriate assessment tools and the national curriculum as guidance, while prioritising the individual needs and talents of children to experience as rounded an education as possible.

We can begin by ensuring teachers are given the freedom to make curriculum decisions based on their own talents and interests, freeing creative energy could re-vitalise existing teachers, make the profession more attractive to graduates and forge new relationships and trust between school and parents.

In short, we have a duty to encourage our teachers to be individuals and facilitators because, only then do we allow them to unleash their full potential and that can only be to the mutual advantage of all our children and wider society.

Friday, 6 March 2020

The Challenge of Being Green in a Global Economy

Since the Court of Appeal ruled that the third runway at Heathrow was illegal, as it failed to meet the government’s own commitment to zero carbon by 2050. Other infrastructure projects have come under increasing scrutiny with the campaigner and TV presenter Chris Packham launching a legal challenge to the HS2 rail project.  This problem has been further exacerbated by the collapse of budget airline Flybe and the loss of its regional connections, especially from the cities of Southampton and Exeter.

This produces the problem of how to deal with the need for new transport links, housing and infrastructure while meeting the challenge of climate change. Indeed, as this blog asks, can we be Green at all in a global economy?

First the need. Britain is already densely populated by international standards. At 430 people per square kilometre, it is nearly twice as crowded as Germany (227) people per sq./km) and more than three times as crowded as France (117 people per sq./km). However, this problem is much worse in London, which is 18 times more overcrowded than the rest of the UK.  The need to decentralise and move people away from the capital has never been greater, but London is still the financial capital and fast, reliable transport links are an essential part in minimalising the impact of decentralisation.  

The social impact of overcrowding, particularly in London, is largely to the detriment of our young people.  A study, commissioned by the National Housing Federation shows that 3.6 million people are living in overcrowded homes, 2.5 million cannot properly afford where they live and the same number again are living with parents or relatives against their wishes. Add to this the 1.4 million living in poor or substandard conditions and the lives of one in eight people in England are now negatively affected by years of fast-rising prices and missed house-building targets.

In fact, those building targets are already unachievable, according to the Journal of Housing Economics - July 2019. One home will have to be built every six minutes, night and day, just to cope with the current level of net immigration to England (ONS projections).  At the same time the UK’s countryside, so necessary as the demand for home grown produce and bio-fuel intensifies, will continue to be swallowed up by construction of the extra housing required.

So, the challenge is to meet the desire for a global, expanding economy, with free movement of labour, while maintaining our commitment to be carbon zero by 2050. The impact of this is going to be huge and many, large sacrifices are going to have to be made. The arguments to slash net immigration to ease the pressure on housing and other infrastructure, would still require new transport links to ease social and environmental pressures on our capital and encourage investment in provincial cities.

This is too big a topic for one blog and so, over the coming blogs, I want to explore the options moving forward, learning as I go. My own opinion is that we must accept the need, that is we cannot continue squeezing ever increasing numbers into our cities, The question should be which transport schemes have the best net impact? Not do we need to build this.

One thing I do know is that environmental calculations, like all statistics, are not always as they seem and that sometimes a short term carbon hit can prove hugely beneficial in the longer term, not only for the environment but also to ease the social impact of overcrowding. The UK is far too London centric but making it less so requires investment in our transport network and that will come at a short to medium term cost, both financial and environmental. What we must do, is build robust models, around a commonly agreed standard, that can accurately and credibly predict the longer-term impacts both positive and negative.