22 September 2012

The Gift of Music for Children

Today is a good day for spreading the benefits of music to children! My organisation, CHW, is having a "coffee and cash-in" event this afternoon, to raise money for a children's music therapy project we are supporting in Argentina. When planning this, I didn't know that it was also Playing for Change Day, an initiative started by the Playing for Change Foundation (PFCF). It is a day of action, using music to create positive social change. Musicians will play at events all over the world, and bring music into the lives of young people. You can see a list of the events, or watch some shows online, here.

A while ago, I wrote about the benefits of music for children and it was great to learn about PFCF's work. The PFCF states that it is "dedicated to the fundamental idea that peace and change are possible through the language of music." It funds music programmes in different countries and aims to ensure that anyone with the desire to receive a music education has the opportunity to do so. The children from one of the programmes it set up, Ntonga Music School. in the township Gugulethu, near Cape Town, will be performing this afternoon. Some of my friends in Cape Town are going to support them, and I wish I could be there to hear them play too!

Closer to home, I attended the event, "A Moment's Peace" in London, over the summer. Children and young people from different choirs all sang together. The World Heart Beat Music Academy, in London, provided them with an environment to get together and rehearse for the event. On its website, it is stated that the Academy "envisions a world where music as a universal form of communication, bridges cultural, political, economic and linguistic barriers." This is another great project, showing how music can create positive social change.

I have seen how music can have such a good impact on children's live through my work in Romania too. One organisation CHW supports there, FAST, runs a music project for Roma children. It allows Roma children and youth to fight against discrimination by showcasing their musical ability to the community. I have been to some of the performances by the children who are a part of FAST's music project and they were amazing! The children gained confidence from being part of the project and were able to develop their musical talent. It was something for them to work towards and be proud of.

The project CHW is currently fundraising for in Argentina has a different aim. We are working with Talleres Apadro, an organisation which runs a rehabilitation centre. The children that attend have various disabilities and other special needs. The staff there know how much music therapy will benefit these children and help give them space to express themselves. I really hope we are able to reach our aim of £2220 to help with their project. If you have any ideas for fundraising, or want to help out, please do get in touch.

Room for the Project!
During my last trip to Argentina, the staff at Talleres Apadro showed me
this room, where they want to hold their music therapy programme. I hope we can
fill it with instruments and all the resources they need!

You can follow our progress with fundraising for the music therapy project here:

I must go and attend our fundraiser for the music therapy project now! I am wishing all the best to those taking part in performances around the world for Playing for Change Day!

05 September 2012

Challenges of Running a Children's Charity

Today has been a hard day. There are a lot of challenges involved with running a children's charity. Some are much more difficult to deal with than others. The organisation I started, CHW, is based in London, and we currently support locally run children's initiatives in five countries. Below are three of the most challenging things I have found in running CHW, in order of the least to the most difficult.


Firstly, raising funds is itself difficult, but you accept that this is a challenge that comes with the nature of this work. Since the recession hit, we have had less donations - an issue faced by most other organisations in the charity sector. As we are a small organisation, this has been difficult. It is frustrating not to be able to help the local organisations CHW supports as quickly as I would like. We have tried to hold more fundraising events, since individual donations decreased. These are difficult economic times, but this is a challenge we must rise to.

Volunteer and student at a "Clothes Swap" fundraising event 

The Children's Struggles

The second thing, which is much more difficult, is trying to understand the backgrounds of the children we help. I have personally been to, and vetted, every organisation that we decided to support and have met the children they help. The children have had to face circumstances in their short lives that I couldn't have imagined when I was growing up - from walking to collect water from a well everyday (Ghana), to facing constant discrimination (Roma in Europe) and the constant threat of violence (South Africa) and a lot of other issues. This has opened my eyes to many harsh realities and I feel compelled to act, as I was given many opportunities in life, just by chance - for example, I have always had food and water; I was able to complete my education, etc. I would like to use all the opportunities I have had to help give opportunities to others who have not been so lucky.

To think of the challenges many children face is awful. However, in my field of work, there is also hope. I met these children through the local organisations that support them. These organisations are doing very good work, that we hope to contribute to, and will give these children a better childhood and more opportunities for their future. We support a range of projects from one which helps orphaned babies in China that need life-saving surgeries, to an organisation in Argentina which runs eighteen houses for children and teenagers who have been orphaned or abandoned, with three of the houses caring for those with disabilities.  I just wish that local organisations, like the ones we support, could somehow reach all the children out there that need help, in every country.

The Most Difficult Times

The third thing, which is the most difficult, is experiencing the illness, or death, either of one of the children you have been working with, or of someone who is close to the children. I started CHW in 2007 and until 2010, nothing like this had ever happened. Even though we were a small organisation, we had been doing well, fulfilling the appeals from the local organisations, and building our networks within the five countries where we work. Everything was very positive.

Early success: one of our first projects in 2007 was to fund the purchase and installation of a water tank, which New Life International Children's Home in Ghana had asked us for.

In 2010, something happened which I will never forget. It was my last day in Cape Town and a little girl we were hoping to help through a local organisation, called The Future Factory, passed away in a road accident. The accident was avoidable - the driver of a minibus full of children overtook a line of waiting cars at a railway crossing, dodged the security barrier and went straight into the path of an oncoming train. Most of the children were killed. The little girl I knew, Lisle, was eleven. She had been through so much. When she was seven she was sexually abused, stabbed, hit over the head with a rock and set alight, by a family friend. She survived, and showed great determination to get past this. She became an inspiration to her community. The director of the Future Factory, Anne, supported Lisle and her family greatly. Anne and I were with Lisle's family when they had to identify her after the crash. I wrote about Lisle recently on the second anniversary of the accident. You can read more about her here. I raised money for her funeral, which was the saddest appeal I have ever had to run.

Then, this summer, another terrible thing happened. Last year, one of our biggest projects was to fundraise for a local Romanian organisation, FAST, to build a carpentry workshop for one of the families it worked with. The family had eleven children, and they were living in abject poverty. The father Sorin had carpentry skills, but nobody wanted to employ him because he is Roma, and there is much discrimination against the Roma people. The director of FAST, Daniel, believed that, with his organisation's help, Sorin could start a furniture business and support all his children. As the children grew up, they could join the family business and end the cycle of poverty they would otherwise be stuck in. Sorin and his eldest son, Lucian, who is seventeen, helped the builders construct the workshop. I visited last year, when it was nearly complete, and Sorin seemed so hopeful.

Sorin with Lucian and one of the younger children, 
during the construction of the workshop.

I was devastated to receive an email from Daniel at the beginning of the summer to say that Sorin had been having stomach pains and Daniel had taken him to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Everything happened so fast after this, and Sorin's condition rapidly deteriorated. I am waiting for further news on Sorin. Lucian will now be in charge of providing for the family, as his father is in hospital and is very weak. Lucian is so young, and has so many people to support. Sorin was going to pass on his skills to Lucian and the other children. Now, if we are able to raise the funds (two hundred pounds per month for about a year) Daniel says that Lucian can have an apprenticeship with FAST (which has builders and carpenters within its team) and will be able to run the family business well. I hope that we will be able to support this.

Today, I received some sad news from one of the physiotherapists, Gabriela, at a project we support in Argentina. The organisation, Bethel, is the one I mentioned previously, which runs eighteen homes for children. Gabriela works at one of the houses for those with disabilities, and this is the house where I usually volunteer, if I am in Argentina, so I know all the people there very well. The residents have a range of disabilities. All have some form of mental disability and each have differing physical issues too. They are looked after very well and will be able to reach adulthood, if their condition does not have complications. One little girl, Luz, was able to do very little for herself. She could not talk. She had been given a wheelchair as she was too weak to walk and she was fed through a tube in her stomach each day. She was very much loved by the staff, and I could see how well she was taken care of - not just each day while I was there, but also by how much she had grown every time I went back to Argentina and visited. Today Gabriela told me that Luz had passed away in hospital. I think Luz must be twelve years old by now. I am so sad, but I do realise that Bethel gave her the best life she could have had for those twelve years.

Keep on Going...

People tell me how rewarding it must be to run CHW. They are right - a lot of the time it is. However, sometimes, it is really tough, especially when there is nothing more that you can do for someone. Then, maybe, what you must do is carry on being inspired by those people, and keep their memory alive through what you do. I won't ever forget Lisle or Luz and I must carry on working on CHW's projects to keep on reaching children who can benefit from our work.

Photos of some happy children at the projects we support in Ghana (above) and China (below). It is important to keep going, and help to meet their needs.

02 September 2012

A Good Education is Essential for a Bright Future

"I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way..."

Attention had been drawn to the failures of the UK education system following the row over the marking of GCSE English grades this summer. Exam boards may face a legal challenge after changing grade boundaries between January and June. This meant that pupils who sat the exam in January were marked more generously than those who took the exam in June. This is awful for all the young people personally affected by what has happened this year, but there has been concern about inadequacies in the British education system for a while now, and perhaps the public outrage over this will finally bring about change. The Head of one school said that GSCEs are "insufficiently rigorous" while Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Head of Ofsted stated that this is an opportunity to look at the UK's education system and ask "whether it stands up with the best in the world." International tests have shown that it does not.
Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

UK Standards have Slipped

Back in 2010, it was reported that UK schools had slipped down in world rankings, following the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests in 2009. These tests, held every three years by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), are taken by fifteen year olds in participating countries and economies. British school children were ranked 23rd in the world, down from 12th in 2000. In an increasingly globalised world, this is worrying for the future prospects for the children and young people educated in Britain. As Sir Michael Wilshaw observed:

"Our youngsters, when they leave school, will be going into a global marketplace, they have to compete not just against competitors here but against the rest of the world."

So who are the children who are receiving the best education today, that will allow them to compete the most successfully when they enter the workforce tomorrow? 

Leading the Way 

Image courtesy of photostock/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The late Whitney Houston sang the lyrics which are at the top of this post as part of her song, "The Children Are Our Future." The children who are taught well will be able to lead the way. According to a BBC News article, those children are likely to be from China. The article, entitled 'China: The World's Cleverest Country?' states that Shanghai came top in the 2009 Pisa tests. The results from this round should be published late next year. 

The article showed the leaders in previous years. Other than Finland, all of the top performing pupils are from Eastern Asia. The following are the results in three areas tested: reading, maths and science, respectively.
  • 2000: Finland, Japan, South Korea
  • 2003: Finland, Hong Kong, Finland
  • 2006: South Korea, Taipei, Finland
  • 2009: Shanghai, Shanghai, Shanghai
It was questioned whether Shanghai's results would be representative of other, less prosperous areas of China. However,  Andreas Schleicher, the head of Pisa, said that unpublished test results from nine provinces in China show that pupils in other parts of the country are performing strongly, including those from rural and disadvantaged backgrounds. This is an important point, which I will come back to.

Investing in our Children; Investing in Our Future

Investing in an education system will have long-term benefits for a state's economy, as it will lead to producing skilled workers, who are able to compete in a global economy. President Obama has said that: 

"...countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow. Businesses will hire wherever the highly-skilled, highly-trained workers are located."

Some countries give greater priority to investing in their education systems than others. On a recent trip to a poor province in China, Schleicher saw that schools were often the most impressive buildings, whereas in the West, these were more likely to be shopping centres. He said of China: 

"You get an image of a society that is investing in its future, rather than in current consumption."

Subsidising consumption, whilst cutting funding to areas such as education, is a pattern journalist and author, Fareed Zakaria, has noticed in the US. He said that decisions and policies made in the 1950s and '60s, which led to the development of a great public education system and to massive funding for science and technology, were some of the important factors which allowed America's economic growth. Now, Zakaria said, countries including Germany, South Korea and China are making large investments in education, science, technology and infrastructure. If the US continues to cut investments in these areas, it will fall behind.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

So how is the UK doing in terms of expenditure on education? National budget cuts in response to the recession have affected the education system. Last year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies released a report, "Trends in Education and Schools Spending" which looked at proposed cuts and their impact. Last month, a Guardian article expressed worries over cuts to the Department for Education's capital budget. It is not just investment itself in the education system that is a concern, but the ability to invest wisely. After the Pisa assessment in 2009, Toby Young, a Telegraph blogger, pointed out that the UK was ranked 8th when it comes to spending per pupil, but its position in the league table was 23rd. The UK spent an average of $60,000 per pupil, between the ages of six and fifteen, compared to $40,000 in Poland and Estonia, but Poland and Estonia were both ranked higher than the UK in the league table. Only seven other OECD countries spent more per pupil than the UK, showing there are more factors to take into consideration than funding alone.

Improving the Education System

Keeping Standards High

Long before the issue of the grading of GSCEs this summer, people have argued that there has been a "dumbing down" of exams in the UK. A report by Ofqual, released in May, which investigated certain subjects at GCSE and A Level showed that they had become less demanding over the last decade. Professor Jonathan Jansen, the Dean of the University of the Free State, South Africa, said in a CNN interview, that in South Africa, the standards are low, with pupils being able to pass some subjects with thirty or forty per cent, all the way up to grade twelve. He commented:

"... it's like we don't get it that in a modern interconnected economy you better be up there playing with the best"

Lowering standards and "dumbing down" exams degrades a country's education system and affects the future of everyone who goes through it. 

Another issue is where educational standards are lowered for part of the population. As I mentioned above, results in China showed pupils were performing strongly, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. A problem in the UK, the US and some other Western countries is that expectations have been lowered for pupils from underprivileged backgrounds.  Demanding high standards from pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds allows these pupils to do well, despite their difficult circumstances. In various countries, including China, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Finland, OECD researchers found that more that 40% of disadvantaged pupils excelled at school, exceeding expectations, given their background. The UK, however, was found to have a greater variation in reading standards, due to class differences, than almost any other country in the OECD. In this area, just 24% of pupils in the UK performed better than would be expected given their backgrounds. Schleicher has said that accepting lower expectations for poorer children was - 

"the big trap in the 1970s. It was giving the disadvantaged child an excuse - you come from a poor background, so we'll lower the horizon for you, we'll make it easier. But that child has still got to compete in a national labour market."

Lowering standards has long-term detriments for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, ultimately making it more difficult for them to succeed in the future.

Image courtesy of Phaitoon/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Good Examples

Other factors also come into play, with regards to increasing the standard of an educational system overall. South Korea, for example, has done well in the league tables. South Korean pupils attend school 220 days per year, compared to the US's 180. South Korean pupils also study at least three hours more than those in the US, per school day. South Korea may be well ahead of the UK and the US in Pisa's rankings for its test scores, but it comes 24th out of thirty developed countries for "study effectiveness". Finland is ranked at the top for study effectiveness, but has the least number of school hours in the developed world. 

Some distinctive elements of the Finnish system include: 

  • the fact that children of all abilities are taught in the same class; 
  • there are no school league tables and only one set of public exams; 
  • children usually have the same teacher from year to year; 
  • the state prescribes the curriculum but teachers are free to decide how to teach a subject; and 
  • the high standard of teaching, with teachers being drawn from the top 10% of graduates and also being required to have a master's degree.
You can see more facts about the Finnish education system hereThe UK Government has been reported as being inspired by the Finnish system. The OECD has said that the quality of teachers is key to raising education standards. Schleicher stated that teachers need to be given "status, pay and professional autonomy." Finland and Singapore recruit high-achieving students to the teaching profession and have two of the most successful education systems in the world.

Another of Schleicher's recommendations is to partner top-performing schools with less successful schools in the area. In the UK, some schools are "coasting" along and "doing so-so." There is room for improvement and partnering with schools that are performing well has proved to be a very successful strategy in Shanghai.

A Good Education

Image courtesy of PaulGooddy/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A good education will equip children and young people with the skills to compete in the global market, but we must not forget the other aims of education too. Martha Nussbaum reminds us in her book "Not for Profit" that:

"Anxiously focused on national economic growth, we increasingly treat education as though its primary goal were to teach students to be economically productive rather than to think critically and become knowledgeable and empathetic citizens. This shortsighted focus on profitable skills has eroded our ability to criticise authority, reduced our sympathy with the marginalised and different, and damaged our competence to deal with complex global problems. And the loss of these basic capacities jeopardises the health of democracies and the hope of a decent world."

This will now be a big challenge to achieve, but it is so important to be able to give young people the skills they need for the future and the tools they need to be good citizens and productive members of the global society. As well as improving the quality of education so that it teaches these qualities, all pupils must benefit from the education system. Commenting on the success of the Chinese system,  Schleicher said:

"Anyone can create an education system where a few at the top succeed, but the real challenge is to push through the entire cohort."

I, along with others, are hoping that this row over the GCSEs marking can act as a springboard for Government to take action to improve the quality of British education and to ensure that all children in the UK will benefit from this. We are talking about our future.