A chance to see it their way

15th July 2005 at 01:00
The BBC has given children cameras to film their family life. The result, says Diane Hofkins, is powerful and illuminating

The ingrained British notion that children should be seen but not heard is finally being scrubbed away. Listening to children is now taken seriously.

Local authorities consult them about what services they want; schools set up children's councils and act upon their proposals; Children's minister Beverley Hughes has pledged to seek their views.

But do children really believe adults are listening? Last week The TES revealed that children's responses to Office for Standards in Education questionnaires about their school were stunningly anodyne. Never mind that Ofsted may have found the school plagued by serious weaknesses, rife with third-rate teaching and bad behaviour - nine out of 10 primary children were satisfied with their schools. Tales of bullying by other children or unfair treatment from teachers seem rarely to have reached the inspectors'


As one young pupil told chief inspector David Bell: "I like to go outside and play skittles and hoops. We are allowed to play games in the playground. My teacher is very nice."

Perhaps what Ofsted needs to do is give cameras to children for months at a time, engage a BBC production crew to edit the results and then show the films to a fascinated and humbled school community.

The outcome could be as moving, funny and telling as the BBC2 series My Life as a Child, a six-week series running on Tuesday nights until August 9. Of course, most children are more honest and less well-behaved in their own families than they are in school, but adults don't always realise how perceptive youngsters can be.

The first programme, broadcast last week, brought to life the emotional ups and downs of having parents who are separated.

"My mum," says nine-year-old Mary, whose father is now living with a new partner in Portugal, "she's like a child trapped in a woman's body. And me, I'm an adult trapped in a kid's body. But it's really annoying because I still really want to be the kid."

Mary understands that her mum, suffering from depression when the film was being made, needs to accept that her dad will never return. But she is confused about her own feelings. Mary really likes her dad's new partner ("She's my new best friend") and wishes somehow he could separately be with both women.

We see adorable, blonde Ellen engaged in a rather awkward relationship with her new stepfather, and her discomfort in her own home is palpable.

How did the children's families react to these films? Did they worsen Mary's mum's depression or Ellen's relationship with her stepdad? Apparently not. Executive producer Tracy Jeune is confident that the process was conducted within strict ethical standards.

"The methodology was absolutely crucial," she said. "We had to be completely transparent all the way through with the parents and the children."

Not only were the parents thrilled with the results, they had seen the process from start to finish, so there were no surprises. Mary's mum, for instance, said "That's me!" when she saw the film, and felt that Mary had been helped by it, gaining confidence, and no longer needing to climb into someone else's bed at night.

The BBC team talked through issues which arose with parents. "They were actively encouraged by us to bring them up as a general conversation as a family, so the children felt completely and totally that they had the full support of their parents."

In addition, Ms Jeune points out, the stories are ongoing, with the films in the first episode all ending on an optimistic note.

The aim, she said, was to present a "360-degree view of childhood", so along with the distress of having distant fathers, we have messy bedrooms, sibling rivalry and kids spinning on their mums' office chairs.

In episode 4 (July 26), children experience the birth of a sibling.

Nine-year-old Ellie, who, unusually, attended the birth, recalls: "Mum started making really funny noises and it really made me laugh." And she learned that much more comes out than just the baby. "There was blood everywhere. I couldn't bear to look."

Twenty-one children aged seven to 11 became autobiographical film-makers for the series, having been selected from a field of more than 600.

Tracy Jeune explained that her team didn't want child actors. "We were looking for thoughtful children, children who would enjoy talking to themselves, really." The children were directors and camera operators of their own films, but the material was edited by the BBC, which also grouped the autobiographies into themes.

Ms Jeune believes this is the first time children have had so much power to present their own voices on television. "We use children a lot on TV," she says. "We use them to sell peas, or they're inside documentaries where they're the bit-part characters."

Even programmes such as Supernanny, she observes, are about "teaching parents to be parents, not about the children themselves".

My Life as a Child, Tuesdays 9.50pm on BBC2 until August 9

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