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Don't forget the inner world

It is hard for adults to recall the experience of being a child. As we get older and develop ways of making sense of the world, we tend to forget the fears and anxieties that accompany growing up. For children, all sorts of things seem strange, confusing or unreasonable, not least the demands and expectations of parents. The "inner world" of childhood is sometimes captured convincingly in literature, but it tends to be forgotten by adults in their day-to-day exchanges with youngsters.

For professionals, such as teachers, this problem is intensified by the language in which we characteristically describe our work. We talk of policies and programmes, systems and structures, leadership and responsibility all terms that direct attention away from the personal experience of children and young people and towards our own function within the education system. Add to this the notion that "professionalism' requires a degree of detachment and objectivity that it pays not to get too emotionally involved and the scene is set for a further downgrading of the personal dimension.

But we know from research studies that the capacity of children to learn effectively is strongly influenced by emotional as well as cognitive factors. For some children, with a stable family background, a network of friends, opportunities to gain wide social experience, and adult role models who encourage aspiration, there will be a solid foundation on which to build educational development. They will not be immune to the ups and downs of childhood, the highs and lows of adolescence, but they will have a framework of support that enables them to deal with difficulties and overcome adversity.

By contrast, the youngster in local authority care will have far fewer resources to fall back on. He or she is likely to have a history of dysfunctional family life, fractured relationships, and various forms of neglect and abuse. The "system" will have provided a degree of support, but it is likely to have been marked by a lack of continuity in carers, frequent physical relocations, and perhaps pressure from other vulnerable youngsters to engage in anti-social or criminal behaviour. If they are lucky, they may encounter an adult who makes them aware of life's possibilities and encourages them to see education as one way of gaining a sense of achievement and self respect, but the odds are still stacked heavily against them. It is not surprising, therefore, that looked-after children perform very badly by conventional measures of achievement.

For such youngsters, the priorities of schooling may not be perceived as relevant to their condition. The best intentions of teachers may be misconstrued as further evidence of officialdom's attempts simply to control and subdue. What is required, of course, is someone who has the time to listen, the ability to understand, the skill to build up a relationship of trust, and the commitment to provide long-term support. That is a tall order for anyone. And even if all these requirements are met, there are likely to be setbacks. The pain and anger of a damaged childhood can never be entirely erased.

The experience of most children falls somewhere between the two extremes I have described. But, in all cases, attempting to understand what is going on in their inner lives is an important element in helping them to make the most of what education has to offer.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at Paisley University

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