The refugee crisis in Europe is, rightly, dominating headlines. The refugees' plight is a very visible one - tired, hungry, dirty, the absence of hope is etched numbingly across their faces. It stirs us to act and to get involved. It is the right response of a civilised society to a crisis that should never have been allowed to happen.
And yet when nudged on illiteracy, another global crisis impacting 100s of millions of people too many of us are ambivalent. Perhaps it’s because we don’t see it around us that we don’t care enough. We rarely come across someone who is struggling to write, and it’s not obvious when someone is finding it hard to read. And we definitely don't see the consequences.
The curse of illiteracy is it's largely invisible. But its impact is global and devastating. Today 520 million women and girls are illiterate. They are consequently denied access to learn, earn, vote and ultimately thrive. For me the starkest statistic on literacy is that babies born to mothers in Sub-Saharan Africa who can't read are 50% less likely to reach their fifth birthday.
If you see inequality and poverty, you’re seeing the impact of illiteracy. Later this month, when world leaders meet at the United Nations in New York, they will announce their commitment to the new Global Goals for sustainable development, setting out their ambition for a more peaceful and prosperous world. There are 17 of them, and none will be achievable without combatting illiteracy along the way. The real prize of a more literate world is not more people who can read and write, but what they can then do with those skills.
There are nearly 800 million people around the world who are illiterate and we won't begin to put a dent in that number unless we are all stirred to action and become more involved. Sometimes challenges on this scale can seem too remote, too abstract to even try to fix. But this is an issue where each of us can make a difference.
Today marks International Literacy Day, an opportunity to bang the literacy drum. For us at Pearson, that beat comes in the form of Project Literacy. There are lots of ways to get involved with the project from volunteering to raising awareness through your social networks. Find out more about how you can get involved with Project Literacy and help make a lasting dent in the literacy challenge.
Later this month, when world leaders meet at the United Nations in New York, they will announce their commitment to the new Global Goals for sustainable development, setting out their ambition for a more peaceful and prosperous world.
All 17 goals are important, but the fourth – “to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” – makes many of the others that much more achievable, too. For education can slow and even reverse the vicious cycle of poverty, and give people the chance to improve their prospects, their communities and their lives. Education is a pathway to improved health, nutrition and wellbeing, particularly for women and children (goals 2, 3 and 4). A child born to a mother who can read is 50% more likely to survive past the age of 5. Education helps create ‘global citizens’ with the knowledge to promote responsible consumption and production patterns (goal 12) and aids the development of peaceful societies (goal 16). Education has an effect on nearly every aspect of the societies in which we work.
Just one vivid example of this: through the Sudiksha program in Hyderabad, India, which we invest in via our Pearson Affordable Learning Fund, local women are empowered to open and run neighbourhood branches of a low-cost preschool network under a profit-sharing model. Sudiksha trains and educates the women as teachers, and they are then able to teach students who otherwise would not be able to attend school. As the programme progresses, the risk of extreme poverty decreases for both the women and their students.
By putting efficacy at the heart of everything we do in education, Pearson has been contributing to a wider movement to focus much more on outcomes over inputs. So it’s encouraging that the new goals also focus on outcomes, such as expanding access to education, ensuring the success of students (measured by completion rates) and enabling them to progress in their lives (tracked by placement into jobs or further education). This is particularly important in a world of constrained resources, where everyone involved in education is trying to do more with less.
These goals, of course, are a vital means by which we fulfil Pearson’s own purpose – to empower people to progress in their lives through learning – which is reflected in the reach and impact of our people, products and services. But beyond our purpose, it is our responsibility as a learning company to support the Global Goals' focus on improved quality of life for the world’s poorest citizens, and to do so by using our expertise in teaching and learning.
Clearly, we can’t do this alone, and we know that the Global Goals themselves call for a robust network of partnerships to carry out this work (goal 17). So we will continue working with our partners Save the Children, Kiva and Camfed, and will step up the work we have started with a number of global education partners through Project Literacy. We will offer support in new ways as well.
Plans to give widespread international attention to the Global Goals this month include an initiative called the World’s Largest Lesson. Pearson will be playing an active role in promoting that lesson. You can help by learning all you can about the Global Goals at the link above, reading about the World’s Largest Lesson and sharing it on social media using #telleveryone and #globalgoals.
Everyone, no matter where they were born and under what circumstances, deserves an equal shot at a healthy, safe and fulfilling life. With these ambitious new goals, the world is setting out to achieve just that – and to do so in our lifetime. I look forward to all of us at Pearson being able to say that we played our part in making that happen.
When the Chinese invented exams over a thousand years ago, and the British copied them in the nineteenth century to select people for the Civil Service, they were a wonderful innovation. A way to ensure a more meritocratic society, to objectify knowledge and aptitude that as a result of standardisation allowed meritocracy to spread.
Of course they weren't perfect then and they are not perfect today. And, while we can continuously improve them and make them better, they'll never be perfect because they can only ever be a proxy for what people know at a point in time. Assessing everything that someone knows or can do, would take as long as it took to learn it in the first place.
The problem however, is that people too often see exams as more than that; too often they are seen not as one important indicator among many, but as the sum total definition of knowledge and ability, a binary predictor of success or failure in life.
Perhaps that's bound to happen in a more transparent and competitive society. Of more concern however, is when the education establishment itself also begins to define all worthwhile learning only in terms of exam results. That is a far bigger problem, because then the examination tail begins to wag the education dog.
School accountability systems can do a very effective job in holding teachers to account. But they can also distort behaviour in ways that are counter-productive. An accountability system that is too heavily focused on exam results leads to good teaching being defined primarily in terms of those test results; to an ability to teach to the test.
Over the years we've seen a growing tendency in this country to hire and fire teachers and to put school leadership teams under immense pressure on the basis primarily of exam results. This tendency is damaging. It squeezes the creativity and innovation out of teaching and the joy out of learning. It does not help our children acquire all the knowledge they really need.
Of course exams are an important indicator, but the irony is that those confident schools that give them less emphasis often do better in them than less confident schools which focus solely on exam technique. School accountability systems should be developed in ways that take into account the fact that the pressure they exert can have the reverse effect to the one intended.
In the UK, our new Progress Eight measure is a big improvement on what went before. But it should sit alongside a basket of other measures, independent of exam results. That might sound complicated, but that's the whole point; a good education provides a range of outcomes, not just one.
This is what parents want. In a recent Pearson report published with Family Lives, a charity that supports families to improve the outcomes for over 1 million children each year, parents told us clearly that exam results were some way down their list when choosing a school for their child. They were more interested in their personal and social development, including how they'd fare in work and life after school. Parents also showed a clear desire to be updated regularly on their child’s learning and development throughout the academic year, instead of having a single, annual report summarising their child’s progress.
This view is also reflected strongly in the views of British industry. The latest CBI/Pearson Education & Skills Survey finds that employers are looking for education, above all else, to be a better preparation for the workplace. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise but employers believe, too often the emphasis is placed squarely on academic exam results as the only gauge of education achievement.
The report clearly shows that employers – in this instance over 300 CBI members reflecting an employee base of over 1.2 million – are looking for more rounded individuals with skills such as communication, team-working, grit and leadership. This more balanced approach supports more than just employment; it equips people to succeed socially too.
Students have spoken
Most significantly though, students themselves recognise the need for change. In a Pearson/Teach First survey of students aged 14-21, young people expressed strong opinions about end of year exams not being the best way to assess learning. They felt their future rested arbitrarily on their performance on one given day.
When students talked about what assessment method worked best for them, most said they wanted confirmation they were learning the course material and staying on target. They consistently conveyed the need for regular feedback. There were concerns from some that the exam was more important than the learning; that delivering results counted more to some schools than understanding their personal hopes and ambitions.
Exam boards, government and school leaders have a great opportunity but also a responsibility, to work together to listen to what parents, employers and students tell us and to use these views to support teachers to rise above exam based performance measures, to reject a narrowing of curriculum around exams. We should reflect these views in how teachers are held to account, too. Exams alone are too crude a measure.
Rod Bristow is President of Core Markets for Pearson, including Pearson's UK exam board
A New Conversation with Parents: How can Schools Inform and Listen in a Digital Age: Pearson/Family Lives, 2011
Inspiring Growth: CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey 2015
When we think about big organizations or brands like Coca-Cola, Disney, Chase or Nike, we typically recall a particular product, affiliated celebrity, news story, or experience we’ve had with that company. What we don’t think about – or at least I don’t often think about – are the people who form the backbone of that company.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with many people across Pearson. Kendra is a Diversity & Inclusion expert with an adorable yellow lab and supportive husband in Massachusetts. Diane is a Pearson Enrollment Advisor and an unbelievable single-mom who has an impressive knack for editing home videos. And, Tom is a Science Specialist who has appeared on several local-Florida news channels with his son and husband to champion LGBT rights. We are a company of incredibly diverse individuals who are personally connected and dedicated to children and education. Most of us are parents, caregivers, and/or parent advocates.
That’s why we are so excited to launch Pearson’s third global Employee Resource Group (ERG): Pearson Parents! An ERG is an internal, employee-driven interest group that unites us behind shared business and social impact goals. The new Pearson Parents ERG follows on from our Women in Learning and Leadership ERG, and Spectrum, our LGBTQI and Allies ERG. Why, might you ask, is this an important initiative for Pearson?
We believe that parents and caregivers are children’s first and most important teachers. As a learning company, it’s crucial that we empower parents as they navigate their children’s educational journey—this includes supporting the parents and caregivers who work at Pearson.
The Pearson Parents ERG provides us with an internal network to make connections, exchange ideas and learn from one another. We are real people with deep ties to the local communities our families live in. We can discuss which topics are important to people in our networks. We can strategize about how we, as a company, can be more open and transparent about the work we do. And, we can think through what resources or information to provide to the public.
In an increasingly global economy, it is also important that we are sensitive and understanding to the diverse needs of learners. We have colleagues all over the world - 40,000 of us in 70 countries - so sharing our unique cultures and experiences will help to inform the work we do.
Our ultimate goal is to facilitate a meaningful, open dialogue between Pearson and the wider parent community. As the Pearson Parents’ community grows, we will continue to focus on kids and learning, while maintaining our commitment to support and advocate for parents and caregivers, both at Pearson and around the world.
Jenn looks after our parents' community in North America. Connect with her on Twitter: @Jenn_Rosenthal
No two classrooms are alike, but all students deserve access to a reliable learning infrastructure. Pearson CEO John Fallon speaks with students, teachers and local citizens on a panel discussion at Texas Southmost College about education in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
We have reached an inflection point in global media. The pace of disruptive change in new technology — in particular, the explosive growth of mobile and social media — poses a direct challenge to how leading media organisations produce and sell their journalism. They have a great opportunity — to reach more readers than ever before — but must also reimagine their business models.
Great brands will seize the moment and embrace the digital opportunity. But to do this effectively, organisations will need significant investment, a global brand and an unerring focus. Given the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead, the best way to ensure continuing success is to be part of a global, digital news organisation that is 100 per cent focused on making and selling journalism.
So, after much reflection and analysis over many months, we’ve decided the time is right for a new owner to take the FT forward. Nikkei shares our commitment to the FT’s editorial independence; it has proved that in its own journalism, equally published without fear or favour.
Pearson and the FT will continue to work together in areas like global business education and teaching English in countries such as China. Pearson is already the world’s largest provider of English language learning, reaching more than 33m students worldwide. But we’re still only meeting a fraction of the global demand — over a billion people will be learning English as a foreign language by 2020.
The world of education is now changing profoundly, through globalisation, the emerging middle class in countries including India, China and Brazil, and the revolution of digital technology. The number of students going to university around the world is expected to triple over the next 20 years.
And that is what the future of Pearson is about: the ever-growing global demand for better education — whether that means learning real skills that lead to a career, access to better teachers and learning resources, or more affordable and effective higher education. It is a big and fragmented sector — annual global spending on education is estimated at about £3tn. As a business that currently makes around £5bn in annual sales, that is a lot of space for Pearson to grow.
We are accelerating our investment in digital learning and fast-growing economies — in the past five years we have invested in some of the most dynamic education businesses in the US, China, Brazil and South Africa. We are designing innovative digital technologies and new business models to help reduce barriers to learning and contribute to solving the world’s most pressing education challenges.
Fifty-eight years ago when Pearson bought the FT, the spread of authoritative reliable news helped democracies to form and markets to function. While that need remains crucial today, I believe it is now the promise of education, not just information, that can be the world’s greatest path to equality of opportunity. Parents the world over say that the single most important goal for their children is to gain the skills that will help them forge successful careers and lives. This is the promise of education — and the future of Pearson.
The writer is chief executive of Pearson, the proprietor of the Financial Times and the world’s largest education company
Today we have made a significant announcement, which is that we have agreed to sell the Financial Times to Nikkei. This is an important moment for both Pearson and the FT, so I wanted to share more about what’s happening and why.
For fifty-eight years, Pearson has been the proud owner of the Financial Times. We’ve invested in its global expansion and digital transformation, through good times and bad; and all the time, protecting its editorial independence and championing the quality and breadth of its journalism. Both Pearson and the FT have benefited greatly from the relationship. The FT is recognised across the globe as an intelligent and authoritative commentator on world events, finance, commerce and economics.
In recent years, we’ve developed an increasing focus on our biggest, most exciting opportunity – to help people make progress in their lives through learning. As that opportunity has crystallised, it’s become clear to me and the Pearson board that the scale of the challenge requires our undivided attention.
The changing media landscape
At the same time, we are at an inflection point in global media. The pace of disruptive change in new technology – in particular, the explosive growth of mobile and social media – poses a direct challenge to how the FT produces and sells its journalism. It presents the FT with a great opportunity too – to reach more readers than ever before, in new and exciting ways.
Nikkei has a long and distinguished track record of quality, impartiality and reliability in its journalism and global viewpoint. The Board and I are confident that the FT will continue to flourish under Nikkei’s ownership.
I’ve every confidence in the FT’s ability to seize the moment, as it has done ably so far, in its digital transformation. The readership is at an all time high, with readers willing to pay more than ever for its journalism. But, after much reflection and detailed analysis of both the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead, we have concluded that the best way to ensure the FT’s continuing journalistic and commercial success is for it to be part of a global, digital news organisation that is 100% focused on these same issues.
The FT remains part of Pearson until we complete the transaction around the end of this year. I’m very pleased that we will continue to work together in areas like business education and teaching English to professionals in countries such as China.
I know many people will have questions about what this means for our Professional line of business, of which the FT is a part. Pearson VUE and our English business remain incredibly important to Pearson, and are a big part of our future.
We plan to reinvest the proceeds from today’s sale to accelerate our push into digital learning, educational services and emerging markets. We will focus our investment on products and businesses with a bigger, bolder impact on learning outcomes, underpinned by a stronger brand and high-performing culture.
This will help us progress toward a future where learning is more effective, affordable, personal and accessible for people who need it most. By doing so, we can help more people discover a love of learning and make progress in their lives.
This is the promise of learning– and the future of Pearson.
There’s nothing new in young people and their parents wanting to know what it takes to get ahead after they leave formal education. What are the things they’ll need for that first step on the job ladder, and to keep climbing up; and how and where do you get them? These are the questions that every generation concerns itself with.
Neither is there anything new in employers being clear about the sort of young people they’re looking for - a healthy attitude, great workplace skills, a bit of know-how under your belt - the basic building blocks of career advice haven’t really changed all that much.
But the world is now moving so fast that we cannot rely on the things we’ve always just accepted. The technological revolution has gone far beyond a short, sharp, spike in the timeline of history. It’s a way of life, where the things we don’t know and can’t do today become the everyday occurrences of everyone’s tomorrow. A world where political borders mean less and less, as ideas and people travel ever more freely about. Where barriers to entry tumble, and competition races for the best jobs and the best people. In this 21st century world that values not just what you know, but also what you can do, keeping yourself relevant has never been more challenging.
Against this backdrop we’ve been working with the CBI in the UK to look more closely at what employers there look for in the young people leaving education and heading into the world of work. And we’ve discovered a vivid picture, where a list of exams passed and grades achieved is no longer the only passport to moving on and up. Attitudes and character (85%) now ranks well ahead of qualifications (39%) or academic results (31%) as the most important factors when recruiting.
But it seems that when businesses look to these ‘new’ measures of suitability, they become worried.
The survey of 310 UK companies, which together employ over a million people, reveals that more than half (55%) think they won’t be able to find enough workers with the skills they need; 39% are currently concerned by the attitudes of school and college leavers to work, and 61% are not satisfied by young people’s self-management and resilience.
It is overwhelmingly clear from the research that employers are looking for education to do a better job at preparing young people for the workplace - to turn out better communicators, team-workers, leaders, never-giver-uppers. But there is also concern about getting the basics right too; that there are too many school leavers unable to do the fundamentals of reading, writing and counting well enough. Nor do businesses think that young people have a necessary awareness of the world outside their school gates - half of firms want this as a priority in schools for 14-18 year olds. The upshot is that close to a third (31%) of firms point to having had to organise remedial training in core skills for some school/college leavers.
This is not a lone struggle being fought by businesses. I do not know anyone alive who does not want to see schools everywhere work as well as possible for preparing young people for their futures. In separate research we found that - globally - increasing career skills is the top priority for parents and students, and scored very highly among teachers too.
Nor should people read the survey and jump to some knee-jerk conclusion that UK schools aren’t working. Hundreds of thousands of young people leave schools every year, ready and able to flourish. Happy, too! We need to continue cherishing the things that so many schools and teachers ignite in young people every day, around the world - a natural human curiosity for knowledge, and a love of learning, literature, and the arts.
Rather, the message here is about creating an environment where communication, teamwork, grit, and leadership skills are nurtured throughout education systems. Getting this balance of skills should matter to anyone who is a parent, a teacher, an employer, or just cares about what happens next to our world.
One of my favourite things about my role at Pearson is meeting students who are studying our BTEC qualifications. There is something about the blend of academic and practical skills that gives them something extra. Students like Mohammed. School never really ignited his passions until he took a BTEC in sports science at his local college. In his own words the qualification was about “doing something you’re incredibly passionate about… and being the best person you can be”. Every year thousands of students study BTECs. Through their own dedication, their brilliant teachers, and the involvement of businesses in shaping what they learn and providing work placement opportunities, they’ll succeed. Just like Mohammed, who is now a coach at Chelsea Football Club. Or the quarter of UK university undergraduates who go there brandishing their BTECs. Within a few years that’ll likely be one in three new undergraduates. And from higher education we know they progress into good jobs, because they leave armed with those skills employers need.
The findings of this latest survey are one side of the story here. Equally important is the exercise itself, of trying to align the hopes and needs of business and schools. The evidence seems to say that, for too long now, these two worlds - education and employability - are diverging, if not in aspiration then in the way they see those aspirations being achieved. It’s a relationship that we need to celebrate and encourage to grow; that we need to get running on parallel tracks. But tracks that also criss and cross; where the vocational and the academic blend, and where a multitude of destinations can be reached in a multitude of ways.
Nearly two-thirds of the businesses we surveyed said they would be willing to play a greater role in supporting careers provisions in schools and colleges. That’s a good place to kick on from, together.
In the east end of London, the name of Richard Cloudesley rings loud. By all accounts a man of modest achievement, the school to which he gave his name is anything but. His life is a story that bridges 15th and 16th century England; his legacy is of a place that bridges gaps in the here and now - the gap between a childhood and the fulfilment of potential.
For most people, education is that bridge, yet around the world it’s a crossing that’s denied to too many. Disabled children are too often those who get left behind, a gap made bigger by the perception of inability more than the fact of it. It’s a perception that teachers at Richard Cloudesley School have been mocking for over 100 years. Today, we’re celebrating just one of them.
As I arrive at Richard Cloudesley, I am struck by its open and friendly modernity. The school moved sites a few years ago, to its new home, with space, light and high technology. As the front doors open, motorised wheelchairs and walking aids line the large lobby. I spy a child using an eye gaze keyboard to communicate. There’s something futuristic about this place.
Underneath these visible signs of progress, there's a driving force. Every child here is deeply cared about, but there’s more. Sean, the headteacher, describes it as “making sure nobody falls off the cliff.” He talks about making sure that children who come to schools like Richard Cloudesley - children with significant physical disabilities - have somewhere to progress to after their school years, and are not simply resigned to a life at home or in care.
They’re leaving few stones unturned in that pursuit. The complex needs of their students require a complete view of their welfare. So alongside the teaching staff, the school employs a specialist dietician, a medical team, psychologists, social care workers and counsellors. This is an operation to rival many top flight football clubs.
Sean is clearly very proud of the whole team, but none more than Joanna Ross, who is being presented with a national teaching award. “We’re all very excited, but I think she’ll be embarrassed by it all,” says Sean. Joanna has been with the school since 2004, working with their youngest students, and judging by the turnout of parents and carers, present and past, her award is richly deserved.
I’m ushered into a specially arranged assembly. I look around for my colleague, Dominic, who I arrived with but now seem to have lost. I spot him in the front row, chatting to a young pupil. “This is Faith”, Dominic says, as he introduces her. “She’s been looking after me. She wants us to have the best view.” Faith is small for her 11 years, but there’s no lack of stature.
“Tell him about Mango Man,” Dominic asks her. I lean in to hear, as her voice struggles to keep up with everything she has to say. Mango Man is the superhero comic story she’s been busy writing. Half man, half mango… by all accounts it’s quite a tale. Everyone at the school seems to know about Mango Man… and know about Faith. That evening she’s due to fly to the Ukraine for treatment, a journey she makes several times a year. “I’m scared of flying,” says Dominic. She looks silently straight at him with a crystal-clear incredulity, like he’s just admitted to being scared of fresh air. I can’t imagine anything ever fazes Faith.
“We’re here to celebrate someone very special,” announces Sean as he kicks the assembly into life. “Though, all our teachers are incredible here, aren’t they?” Young hands go up and faces light up. One by one, each student gets to have their say. “They’re kind”; “They give us homework”; “They teach me how to do things”. Sean looks around the room. “Has everyone’s voice been heard?” he asks. Samuel’s has not. So everyone waits. There is no sense that anyone is in a rush. Samuel stares at his carer; “Hugs” comes the translation. I was watching her interaction with Samuel, and I couldn’t see how she worked that out; and then I wondered, just who is the one here lacking in communication skills?
In the preceding weeks, pupils, parents and teachers have been asked why they think Joanna deserves the award, and their thoughts are now presented back to them on a big screen. It’s in keeping with the day, but it’s also an exercise that answers the ‘purposeful writing and shared reading’ requirements of the national curriculum. Education is squeezed into every experience here.
We are asked to read the quotations aloud together. They are brimming with the stuff of role models - ‘amazing’, ‘inspirational’, ‘special’, ‘fun’. But I’m struck by one particular quote: “Every teacher training course needs a Joanna.”
And then it’s Joanna’s turn to speak. “This is really about all of you; and everything I’ve learned about you and from you.” And as if to prove it, she walks around and makes sure all the pupils get their chance to touch the award.
Richard Cloudesley is a shining example of why no child should ever accept a limit. But having the humility to acknowledge your limits is important. At Pearson, we do a lot in education. But we never lose sight of our place. That whatever we do, however well we do it, pales into insignificance against the impact of teachers. That the frontline of education - that place where a teacher and student come together, will always be where the most extraordinary things happen, every day.
The Pearson UK Teaching Awards began in 1999 as a way for anyone to say “thank you” to the teacher who has helped them most. This year they attracted over 7,000 nominations. Learn more at http://www.pearsonteachingawards.com/.
Haiti should be a paradise on Earth. Tropical air breathes down from its mountains, rustling the chorus of coconut palms into a gentle surrender of their harvest. Its bountiful coastline offers up a gallery of fish, their chargrilled scent meandering through the placid streets. Voices waft in friendly rhythms.
But you don’t need to explore too far to see that this is far from a paradise.
Daily life here can feel like a momentary interruption in an unabating journey towards devastation. The 2010 earthquake brought Haiti to its feet and to the conscience of the world, but it had been under the grip of destruction for years before. Politics here can, and often does, spill into bloodshed, staining that which it is supposed to serve. Remnants of communities long beyond breaking point cling to existence - smells of putrid, fermented garbage line the outer banks of walkways and streets. In a country that can’t even keep itself clean, what hope does education have?
This is the Haiti that my father remembers. He came from Borgne - aptly pronounced by the locals as “Oh Boy” - a small, indistinguishable town on the north coast. Back then there were no public schools, so if you wanted an education, you had to pay for it. Thus schooling was reduced to the privileged pursuit of the wealthy and the well-connected. If you were neither, you went nowhere.
My grandfather, Rollin, got himself ‘connected’, and in doing so got his son - my father - into a school. It meant a four hour trip over deadly mountain terrain; it meant sending their little boy away to live in the big city of strangers; it meant scraping together every last penny they ever had. When school fees were late, my father would be thrown to the streets, left to wander around in the hope that the money would soon be on its way. It always arrived, and he was allowed back in, in the end.
But ask my father what he remembers, and you’ll hear nothing of the hardship and the struggle. Instead, he’ll speak of luck, of being the only one of his friends that got the chance of school. He’ll speak of opportunity, of progress, of the start point to the rest of his life.
My father completed high school at the very top of his class, but graduated into the merciless dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier. His education had taught him how to read, and that had given him the freedom to think. But Duvalier’s Haiti was not a place for free-thinkers. So in October 1980, my father, along with 132 other Haitian men and women, boarded a boat, heading somewhere in the loose direction of America. They were running away, of course, but my father never described it as an escape. Survival, he would always tell me, should never simply be the absence of fear, but the presence of hope. His hope, as he lay upon that rickety boat, was to live the life of the educated man he had become.
The boat trudged along for eight days, small and overloaded, alone amongst the bullying seas. The exiles survived on slim rations of uncooked rice and sips of water. Finally, Cuba; and for some, far enough, as they scuttled from the shore into the secrecy of a new life. But my father had bigger dreams; 14 days later, they landed in Florida.
A year later, my mother made the same journey. Hers was a quest of a different kind; a single minded mission to secure for her 18-month son the education that she had been denied. She was only 19. She left alone - her baby was to follow weeks later. It took them 17 years of battling the system before they were reunited. The education she had risked her life to get him, gone. But she had succeeded. My sister and I are her proof of that. I am a lawyer, and Patricia will soon graduate with her Master of Arts.
When we were children, my father would take my sister and I to the public library every Saturday. Come rain or shine, he made sure we got a chance to get to read as many books as possible. And my mother would often come home burdened with secondhand books she’d bought from the local thrift store or garage sales. To this day, I have kept them all, an enduring reminder of the world that opens up when you learn to read. Perhaps it is with our father’s words ringing in our ears - of the power of education to change the world - that we have both found ourselves working for Pearson.
My parents’ stories seem so far removed from the life I’ve enjoyed as a first-generation American, that to describe myself as a child of refugees feels odd. Yet that is exactly what I am. I am the children of those risking their lives, right at this moment, attempting the perilous crossing from North Africa to Europe. I am the children of Syria, torn from their homes and their classrooms by war. And I am the proof, that education is both the means and the motivation that can make the difference.