Childhood subject to market forces

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
Clare Roskill looks at how growing up has changed in the past two decades.THATCHER'S CHILDREN? POLITICS, CHILDHOOD AND SOCIETY IN THE 1980S AND 1990S Edited by Jane Pilcher and Stephen Wagg Taylor and Francis Pounds 13.95

What has happened to children and to concepts of childhood since Thatcherism? What has been the influence of the New Right? How have children fared under a political era that has combined free market economics with right-wing support for self-reliant traditional two-parent nuclear families? Thatcherism, the editors of this book argue, continues to reverberate six years after the lady's departure (though those reverberations may appear to many readers to be more in the nature of death rattles).

The editors and authors of this book, some of whom are sociologists, claim as the book's central tenet the notion that childhood is socially constructed and "thus specific to certain times and places in human history"; that it is neither natural nor universal in its character, but subject to change according to time and context. The editors stress the importance of an article by Prout and James who have proposed a new paradigm for the sociology of childhood. I was left unconvinced that some of these ideas would be seen as new by non-sociologist readers who have worked professionally with children or by those who have followed social policy changes closely.

There are many valuable contributions in this book, some by academics immersed in their particular field of study. It did however seem to me that the addition of three or four chapters on other key areas of social policy would have given a more complete overview of the politics of childhood under the New Right.

Contributions on health policy and from an environmental perspective would have been very welcome. Discussion of the effects of housing policy and homelessness on children and young people were notable by their absence. These are undoubtedly more central in their effects on Thatcher's children than the last chapter's subject.

This was an interesting chapter on child prostitution and tourism, but its focus was on Thailand and Cuba. There are undoubtedly links back to Britain because some - not all - of the exploitation of these children is by western white males. There are outstanding policy issues as to whether this country will crack down on sexual exploitation of children by its citizens while abroad. Yet these issues were not centrally explored in this chapter. Hence, it seemed to me that the book fell short of providing a full overview of all the most important aspects of childhood under the New Right.

Stephen Wagg, besides editing the book, provides a chapter that summarises the politics of British schooling since the war. A description of legislative landmarks and education ministers' personal influence is inter-woven with analysis of changing views about school children, of the politics of parental and pupil power and of the relevance of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

A chapter by Karen Winter and Paul Connolly is valuable for its attempt to tease out how the Thatcher administration, steeped in notions of family values, legislated in the Children Act for an extension of children's rights. Their thesis is that overall the Act extended children's rights in relation to the state rather than in relation to parents. I felt it needed to go into further detail as to what has happened in relation to the private law provisions of the Act. The press several times since the Act's implementation has made much of children "divorcing" parents and, despite the tabloid misnomer, there is a rights issue here.

Nigel Parton in his chapter, "the New Politics of Child Protection" argues that the medico-social model within which child abuse was first addressed, has been replaced by a socio-legal model. Forensic evidence now rules. He reminds us - surprising though it may seem after the publicity over Rikki Neave's death and the criticism of Cambridgeshire social services for failing to take him into care - that child care social work once operated in a confident, quiet and uncontested way.

Parton's comments on the child protection aspects of the Children Act are a significant addition to Winter and Connolly's. He suggests that key principles of the Act such as partnership between statutory agencies and parents, and the role of the state in supporting children and families in need, are more in keeping with social democratic welfarism than Thatcher New Right principles. Parton's contribution is well worth detailed attention, not least because the debate will continue through the late 90s as to how children and the family unit can both be protected - the latter from unwarranted interference and stigma.

As always with this type of book individual readers, depending on their knowledge and interests, will find some chapters of greater value than others. I valued the chapter by Anne and Bob Franklin outlining the ideas, history and policy of the Children's Rights Movement, though it could have examined in further depth the Right's historical and ideological antagonism to such ideas. Other readers with interest in youth justice, child poverty, the Gillick legal judgments, child labour and media will find contributions that will add to their knowledge and provide useful policy overviews.

Clare Roskill is a senior manager at the Children's Society with responsibility for standards and policy.

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