Sad Young Souls

Argus title : The unhappy generation

Earlier this week, the Independent newspaper ran a front page headline asking “Why are children so unhappy?”.

Ironically, on the very same day, newspapers and television news reports published a photograph of a man on Brighton sea-front, pushing a baby in a buggy towards wild seas, as huge waves crashed about them. Late night newscasters appeared to find it quite amusing.

At the same time news channels continued to publicise details of the rape and murder in Goa of a 15 year old British girl, Scarlett Keening, who last November left Britain on an extended “holiday” with her mother, her step-father and 6 siblings. Rape is reportedly the fastest-growing crime in India, but nonetheless Scarlett was left in the care of her tour operator boyfriend while her mother and siblings travelled elsewhere. She was last seen alive in the early hours of the morning drinking heavily in a bar. She reportedly told a friend she “didn’t really like” the tour operator, but was sleeping with him “because it meant she had food, transport and a roof over her head”.

The Independent’s point could not have been better illustrated. One of the key reasons our young people are unhappy is because adults don’t look after them.

The Independent’s headline referred to a quite remarkable statement by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Teachers (ATL) which next week holds its annual conference.

The ATL has expressed grave concern about the mental health and general well being of the country’s school children. Dr Mary Bousted, the ATL General-Secretary, said: “There is rising concern that more and more children are coming to school unable to learn because their lives are so dispirited and they are under stress.” The Association is calling for a Royal Commission to investigate just why Britain’s children are so miserable.

The ATL will debate the following motion: “Conference notes with deep concern that many children in our schools appear unhappy and anxious.” Another motion warns that “social dysfunction and family breakdown are damaging the educational attainment of children and the performance of schools and colleges”, while a third, almost certainly responding to the recent spate of teenage suicides in Bridgend, refers to the growing number of pupils being driven to suicide by “academic, social and peer pressure”.

Just over a year ago, UNICEF examined the physical and emotional well-being of children in the world’s 21 wealthiest nations – which included the European countries as well as the USA, Canada and Japan. The report, which was written Professor Jonathan Bradshaw of York University, placed the UK last – blaming lack of social cohesion and poor parenting in Britain.

Despite living in the fifth richest country, British children were shown to experience some of the worst levels of poverty. They were more prone to failure at school and to experience violence and bullying, suffering a greater number of poor relationships with both their families and peers.

British children were more likely to have been drunk or have had under-age sex than those of any other country. They were the most likely to be unhappy and more than a fifth of them considered their physical and mental health as poor – only Latvia, Russia and Lithuania did worse. Unsurprisingly, girls reported lower levels of satisfaction than boys.

The UNICEF report sent shock waves through Britain’s child care and education sectors. However, it was two recent reports on primary school education – following probably the most extensive investigation of primary education for 40 years – which directly precipitated the ATL’s call for an inquiry. The review was led by Professor Robin Alexander of Cambridge University.

He came to the conclusion that 3.5million younger British children were affected by what he called a “loss of childhood” and said primary schools were engulfed by a wave of “anti-social behaviour, materialism and the cult of celebrity”. He also warned that political
interference in the primary school timetable with the stress on tests and league tables had put pupils off lessons and damaged their learning.

The ATL was also influenced by research from the National Association of Head Teachers on testing and assessment. The NAHT concluded children’s education had been damaged by too great an emphasis on tests and criticised the focus on homework.

The ATL also blames undue emphasis on homework for putting pressure on children, making them “unhappy and anxious”. It wants to ban compulsory homework for the nation’s primary pupils and set stricter limits on the amount set by secondary schools. A motion to next week’s conference says: “Children should be able to explore, experiment and enjoy their learning without feeling pressured.”

Dr Bousted said: “…we put our children and young people through a plethora of tests and examinations, and then wonder why any enjoyment in learning is destroyed.”

“They are drilled to pass the tests so their school can do well in the league tables. At 11 they worry about getting in to their parents’ choice of secondary school and about getting split up from their friends. The pressure is then on to get five good GCSEs, and good A-levels to get into higher education and secure rewarding, well-paid employment. The price is paid by young people who, far too early, are made to feel that they are failures.”

I don’t doubt Mary Bousted’s sincerity. However, it does trouble me that the ATL’s key strategy to relieve the pressure on children seems to be to reduce homework – something that will also substantially reduce teachers’ own workload. I also find it worrying that teachers who express concern about bullying – as the ATL does – tend to focus upon so-called “cyber bullying” implying that the increase in bullying arises from the greater opportunities afforded by new technologies. The reality is that children bully in traditional and non-traditional ways. What the ATL should be exploring is why children feel the need to bully and why schools seem so powerless or unwilling to stop it.

Given the findings of these various reports, it stuns me that a spokesman for the Department of Children Schools and Families had the complacency and bare-faced gall to deny that children are “unhappy and anxious” and to boast: “Research shows that, for most children, 2008 is a great time to be a child.”

As the reports reveal, this is far from the truth. Children’s social relationships are deeply unsatisfactory – but this is hardly surprising. An insidious culture of bullying and abuse is slowly overwhelming contemporary British society. Abusive behaviour is what children witness in soaps and reality TV shows. It’s what many see at home and all witness at school – and if they ever happened to watch any footage of parliament, they’d recognise it there as well.

British family life is corrupted by sexism and scarred by domestic and sexual violence. Many children grow up believing that no other way of life is possible. In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that many escape violent families, only to find themselves victims or perpetrators of abuse in their own relationships.

Child abuse is widespread, but child protection services are so inadequate that most children have nowhere to turn for help. Support services for troubled children and those with mental health needs have been decimated and the social work profession is a shadow of what it could once have been. It’s hardly surprising that young people drink and copulate for oblivion.

Children have rights, but they are widely flouted. This is because children have no votes, no money, no muscle and therefore no redress. Other than in exceptional circumstances, they cannot seek advice, instruct lawyers or demand the support of councillors or M.P.s. Councils, school governing bodies, police, health and social services departments are able, if they choose, to ignore them with impunity, and often do just that.

Therefore, if I were to name just two things that, in the short term, would improve the situation of children, it would be access to properly resourced safe housing and to free legal and other advice via children’s rights centres in all large towns and cities – with access as of right to children’s advocates to advise and support them. In that way, children denied help or protection, whether by parents, schools or health and social services, would have support, redress and a right of appeal.

In such circumstances, I suspect we might begin to find a passion for children’s rights developing in the most unexpected quarters.

Justice is no substitute for love, but for children who have neither, it’s a start.

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