Friday, 12 October 2007

Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes ask researchers and policy makers to ‘Leave the kids alone’

A recipe for educational disaster is this. First, frighten children with horror stories of a world in which we are all doomed because of global warming, unless they are good citizens who recycle. Second, lock them away behind walls, sealed doors and security cameras and treat anyone who comes near them as a potential knife wielding maniac, or a paedophile who must have a ‘criminal record’ check. Third, tell them they are in danger of early death or diabetes unless they give up chips for carrots, and follow the way of Saint Jamie Oliver. Fourth, get them obsessed about their lack of ability to ‘learn to learn’, their low self-esteem, how they find it hard to cope, and make them discuss their feelings endlessly in learning power lessons, circle time and philosophy for children classes. Fifth, make them scared about going to secondary school and make them take part in psychodrama workshops to express their fears through ‘role play’.

These activities are all going on in schools, turning the global, social, physical and mental worlds into frightening and destructive prospects rather than liberating challenges. The recipe for disaster is followed with a seemingly progressive and caring response, namely teaching them a ‘vocabulary of feelings’ through numerous therapeutic activities that claim to help them deal with their free-floating fears and anxieties. More than one parent has been surprised to hear their five-year-old declare: "I’m feeling a little stressy today", or for their nine-year-old to come home saying he’s had "a very anxious day".

And so to the sixth ingredient - the latest in a deluge of reports about the state of children’s emotional well-being, Robin Alexander and Linda Hargreaves’ first offering from the Primary Review, based on 87 discussions with a total of 750 people. It notes the ‘pessimistic and critical tenor’ (p5) of talk about ‘the big issues’, of children being under ‘intense and excessive pressure’ from policy-driven demands, the breakdown of communities and the ‘insecure and dangerous world outside the school gates’ and ‘alarm’ about ‘global warming’ and a fear of crime and a ‘generalised fear of strangers’.

The report acknowledges, sensitively, that it may just be reporting transitory opinions, but concludes nevertheless: ‘This, for better or worse, is what these people say and how they feel’ (p44). Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, commented on the report for the BBC, saying 'It is very worrying that children are not feeling safe, that they don't even trust their friends'.

Such comments and the numerous recent reports over the past year in a similar vein are blind to how contemporary policy-making works. You make children and young people describe their fears and insecurities and then demand that the government steps in to resolve them. Even when children seem not to be as worried as the adults think, you suggest they are merely 'repressing their fears'. No doubt schools will soon be receiving 'advice and guidance' about how to be trusting and less fearful as a result of the report.

The result of this report and all the interventions currently going on in schools to deal with insecurities and fears is a disastrous spiral of decline into an obsession with safety by politicians, journalists, teachers, parents and children themselves. This obsession is rooted in the very agency – government – that was its cause and is now asked to deal with it.

Children’s fears reflect the policy concerns of the last few years. They are not cooped up and fearful 'battery children' but Blair and Brown’s children singing back to them in angel voices about the moral panics and fears policy makers themselves have promoted. If the DCSF were truly 'committed to improving the lives of children', as they said in response to the Review, they would bow out of the classroom 'leave the kids alone' and give the curriculum and teaching back to the teachers.

The Esmée Fairburn foundation and University of Cambridge University, Faculty of Education, interim report, Community Soundings: The Primary Review regional witness sessions, was published on 11 October 2007. The full report can be read as a pdf.