All children deserve the chance to grow up in a loving, secure family. They could have the chance to fulfil their potential if society reduced levels of educational failure, ill health, substance abuse, teenage pregnancies, abuse and neglect, crime and anti-social behaviour among children and young people1.
The Report “Every Child Matters”2 was stimulated by the appalling mismanagement, at twelve different levels, of a three-year-old child in local authority care who died in 2003. The Report’s title stands in stark contrast to a detailed critique by Conservatives3 that claims that these policies would result in “nationalising the upbringing of children”, for “in the guise of a caring, child-centred administration, this government is effecting a radical change in the balance of authority between parents, children and the state”. There are obviously strong tensions here. What is meant by saying every child matters? Matters, but in what way?
Some fifty years ago a young, inexperienced teacher reached the last lesson on a Friday totally exhausted. When the class asked for a discussion on space travel he readily agreed. After a lively half hour one child asked, “What would people look like on another planet?” There was a pause before one eleven-year-old piped-up; “I know, it’s easy, they would look just like us!” The class mocked his apparent simplicity; “How do you know that”, asked the teacher. The boy brightened, “In the Old Testament it says God made man in his own image, so if we look like God so will they!”4 Whatever your understanding may, or may not be, of a possible divinity it’s hard to look at any child in quite the same way after a comment like that. From such a perspective every child does matter because, like you, they are a special part of something bigger than any of us; something more mysterious, infinitely grander than an I.D. number, an I.Q. rating or a set of exam results. Yes, how children matter depends on our perspective.
The government reminded primary teachers of the importance of working closely with parents, and cited English research that showed that parental engagement can account for up to 12% of the differences between the performance of different pupil’s, while OECD puts the figure at 29%5. The Prime Minister, in his passionate foreword to the Report opened by saying, “For most parents our children are everything to us; our hopes, our ambitions, our futures… but sadly some children’s lives are dreadfully different. Instead of the joy, warmth and security of normal family life these children’s lives are filled with fear (often) from the people closest to them”6. That same autumn teachers said that they’d never experienced such an ill-prepared generation of five-year-olds; half of them lacked the speaking and listening skills needed to cope in a classroom and many could neither clean their teeth, tie their shoelaces, nor hold a knife and fork, and they had little understanding of how to socialise7. “A cultural change means that parents no longer believed conversation was essential to their children’s development”, noted a commentator, suggesting that family conversation had been reduced to “the daily grunt” because “there is an ethos which says don’t worry, schools will do it all for you”8. Meanwhile children are by no means devoid of information; 80% of three-year-olds in Birmingham were known to have televisions in their own bedrooms9. Forty-two percent of children are now born to unmarried mothers, and half of all marriages end in divorce. Only some 10% of children sit down to more than one family meal a week, and 7% of children will experience their father being in prison at some stage during their school days10. Still the pressure on families builds up, as the demands to feed an ever more buoyant economy (applauded by the same Prime Minister), knows no limits11. Yet in the final Bill that went before parliament in 2005 families are only mentioned twice12.
So, having established consumerism as the driving force in the economy, the state has to pick up the broken social pieces before they upset the economic cart. Until the 1980s a teacher’s role was defined as being “in loco parentis” — to act in place of a responsible parent, who set the pace. But the language of “Every Child Matters” is subtlety different. The responsibilities have been reversed. It is teachers who are urged, as a way of improving academic results, to work with parents13. But don’t the children belong to the parents, not the state? If something has gone wrong, which it manifestly has, is it not parents (ordinary people like you and I) that have to be strengthened to do our job properly, and not have our responsibilities taken from us and reallocated as jobs to professionals?
This massive agenda was the ultimate in joined-up thinking. Defining five outcomes for children as; being healthy, staying safe, enjoyment and achievement, making a positive contribution, and economic well-being, the Bill legislated to set-up what are euphemistically called “full service extended schools”14. Wrap-around schools (as they are called) are to be opened before normal school hours to provide breakfast, and to remain open hours after lessons finish to provide after-school clubs, child care and social support systems throughout the year. Started in a small way twenty years ago by worried teachers anxious that some children were arriving at school without breakfast, and returning to empty homes, the pace of its expansion in recent years parallels England’s increasing material expectations15. It resonates exactly with government’s political determination to get as many single mothers back into the workforce, unencumbered by the needs of their children. If there is any logic in “wrap-around schooling”, which sees children in school for far longer hours than any adult would wish to spend at work, it is that this is for the benefit of the parents, not the good of the child. The two are by no means the same. “Every Child Matters” could finally unravel what remains of the family.
Thesis 85: 25th August 2006