The age of assessment

20th October 2000 at 01:00
Is corruption of innocence today's 'crisis of childhood' or is it the overwhelming desire to produce economically-useful adults? Chris Bunting reports.

WE are experiencing a "crisis of childhood". Our children, we are told by a frantic media, are drinking, taking drugs, smoking and having sex.

The daily news is rarely without a story about the theft of our youngsters' innocence. Recently, front pages have been dominated by hand-wringing about teenage pregnancy, a vitriolic campaign to save the anti-gay law Clause 28 "for the sake of the children" and a vigilante scheme to name and harass child sex offenders.

The message is that our traditional idea of childhood - a stage of innocence carefully protected from the corruption of adult life - is, if not on its death bed, then in intensive care.

This is all grist to the mill of social commentators. Paul Johnson, historian and Daily Mail pundit who claims he never heard a four-letter word before he was 16, predicts a violent and chaotic future for a generation that "knows more about condoms than the Ten Commandments".

And yet Professor Hugh Cunningham, an authority on the history of childhood at the University of Kent, shrugs his shoulders. He points out that changes to our concepts of how children should be raised are nothing new. "Childhood is constantly being reinvented. There is no consistent view of what it amounts to over time."

Abandonment of infants was so widely accepted in the time of the Roman Empire that 20 to 40 per cent of new-borns are believed to have been left by their parents. It was not until the arrival of Christian concepts of the soul that children were recognised as valuable in themselves.

In medieval Europe, according to Cunningham, there was little recognition that children's development could be affected by how they are treated. With the 16th century, came a new idea - original sin. One catechism asserted that even unborn babies had "evil lusts and appetites".

While Cunningham acknowledges that sentimental feelings for children have been a feature of family life throughout history, he traces the birth of "childhood innocence" to the end of the 18th century. "It turns into the view that childhood is the best time of life and from there it is down hill."

Where are our ideas of childhood headed now? Professor Cunningham sees major changes afoot, but does not identify corruption of innocence as a key issue.

"If I was looking at recent history, I would look at the growth of more instrumental ideas of childhood: the powerful view that you don't look at childhood as something goodin itself, you see it as leading to something else: to being a good adult."

He believes it is a view fostered by the current structure of our education system: "Once you have got state schooling paid for out of taxes, you have got to prove it is money well spent. There will always be a drive to quantify how well you are achieving some objective which, most obviously in the case of children, is making them a useful adult."

Bob Davis, senior lecturer in cultural studies at Glasgow University, has also spotted a drift towards an "instrumental" view of childhood. "We are increasingly obsessed by a model that sees childhood as nothing more than a forum in which one rehearses the skills of adulthood." In education, this Government, and its Conservative predecessor, have introduced testing to monitor pupils' progress up the ladder. The national curriculum, league tables and the school inspection regime all do their bit.

More recently, the Government has begun to formalise the early-years curriculum and introduce a nursery inspectorate.

"The battle over the shape of early-years provision has become, for people like me, the most obvious expression of a deeper trend in the education system towards an obsession with measurable attainment and a mechanistic attempt to produce economically-useful adults," Dr Davis says.

On the ground, of course, nothing is quite so simple and the academics' "concepts of childhood" do not stay in their boxes.

Proponents of the Government's standards agenda invariably argue that they are simply trying to get teachers to do their jobs effectively.

Critics almost always argue that more child-centred, less mechanistic structures for education would actually produce higher-achieving adults.

Anna Davin, a social historian at Middlesex University, observes: "All the time, you have a number of different views of childhood floating around, influencing different people in different ways. What they are doing is influencing and helping adults make sense of how they are dealing with children."

The last point is worth emphasising. In all our talk about childhood, it is striking how rarely we allow children to make their voices heard.

Bess Herbert, of the London Children's Rights Commission, a charity set up to campaign for a children's voice at the heart of government, says: "It is almost as if we are afraid to allow young people to talk, scared that they might say something unrealistic or outrageous, that might upset our ways of thinking about them."

If they were given a voice, there might really be a crisis of childhood.

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