Friday, February 16, 2007

Trailing clouds of glory

The dust is beginning to settle after the publication of the UNICEF Report Card 7. (From here on to be referred to as 'the report') Yesterday's newspapers carried predictable reactions, with The Guardian taking the 'blame and shame' approach and The Times using the opportunity to attack UNICEF for ... well, basically for existing. There are those who see a sinister anti-capitalist attack behind the report, some who question the age of the data used, or its relevance and some who find the league table and international comparisons odious.

I suspect that each reaction has some measure of justification but I hope the prejudices, defensiveness, anger and guilt will fade and a real debate about the experiences and expectations of children will begin.

I quoted from Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality in my previous post and in the title of this one because that particular stanza presents, in my view, the worst and the best attitudes to childhood. It has the romantic image of the baby, having had a previous, heavenly existence 'trailing clouds of glory' as it arrives, but as the infant becomes a boy, a youth and then a man, the romance fades. Wordsworth might peddle the Lakeland idyll, but I think at heart he was a realist. Sadly, that cannot be said of all who comment on children's issues. There are those who see helpless little angels who need to be protected from every aspect of life and there are those who see potential vandals and hooligans and want tough regulations to keep them in line. Neither attitude is helpful.

The Golden Age
contrary to popular belief, there never was a golden age of childhood, of family life or of education. Politicians in particular like to hark back to better times when children were all well-behaved, ate their greens and excelled at school. Utter nonsense! Not only can we not turn back the clock, we wouldn't really want to if we could. The current fancy in documentaries and literature is that the 1950s was the perfect time to grow up. I was born towards the end of 1945 so remember the fifties well. Like the curate's egg, parts were great but I wouldn't want to go back to smog, rationing, overcrowded classrooms, childhood diseases and all the other post-war conditions that prevailed.

Simple solutions
The report has coincided with the murders of three 15 year olds in London. This has prompted David Cameron to rush in with what he hopes will be a vote-winning answer to the problems of the age - blame fathers and force them to act responsibly. It makes a change from blaming working mothers, single mothers, formula-feeding babies, teachers, video games and all things American. Both Labour and Conservative parties are threatening yet more quick-fix changes to the school curriculum for 14 to 16 year olds; do they really think swapping French for Mandarin will engage the disaffected?

Subjectivity and relativity
Serious criticisms have been made about the report's use of young people's subjective views of well-being and the comparisons of relative rather than real poverty. It was ill-advised of the authors to set their critics such easy targets, nevertheless these sections are of interest to anyone trying to understand the perceived needs of the young. It takes a great deal of maturity to see one's own situation objectively. The 12 year old girl, sobbing because she is the only one who can't afford to go on the school trip, isn't comforted by the thought that she's actually better off than most children in Africa. For kids, everything is subjective and relative.

Constant change is here to stay
That was a popular bumper sticker in the 1980s, when the UK saw enormous social change. There has been change in every generation but perhaps it was more noticeable then because it was rapid and widespread. We can accommodate incremental change but that period was pretty hectic and many of the basic values and structures of society seemed to be abandoned before new ones were defined. When children experience change in one area of their lives, they need stability in other areas but everything seemed to change at once. The genie won't go back in the bottle, so 'Back to Basics' campaigns are never going to work. We have to look for new solutions to today's problems, not try to turn 21st century children into 1950s models.

Fear and engagement
There is fear in our inner-city schools, on the streets and even in some homes. I keep hearing that adults are afraid of young people: they are afraid of being mugged or stabbed; afraid of being accused of racism or abuse. Young people say they are afraid of each other and bullying is a real element in school life. Fear won't go away unless it is confronted and that can only be done through real engagement between parents and youngsters, teachers and pupils, local communities and their youth groups, pupils with one another.

Complex problems require complex solutions
I hope that there will be a real debate about these issues; even if the report itself is dismissed as flawed, let's use the opportunity it presents to evaluate our provision for young people. In my experience, the majority respond positively when presented with real opportunities and they can be very generous and committed when given a 'cause' to support. Comic Relief will be as well supported as CND and the League against Cruel Sports was in my teenage years. Here are a few of my suggestions for consideration:
  • How to help families to help themselves out of poverty? (The fishing rod not the fish approach)
  • How to get rid of the fear? (Opportunities for dialogue and engagement in schools and local communities - spend money on video cameras, not ASBOs?)
  • How to fill the gap created by movement away from extended families? (Sure Start and Home Start schemes work well but there are not enough)
  • How to restore the home as the centre for developing social skills. (Make it financially possible to have a parent at home? Issue every family with a dining table?)
  • We've heard a lot about 'stakeholders' in recent years. How can we make youngsters stakeholders in their own communities?

I love young people; I love their humour, generosity and enthusiasm. They deserve the opportunity to fulfil their potential and to develop a real sense of well-being.

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