Let imagination lead the way

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Ted Wragg (left) champions the rights of all children to receive high quality education and training

As chairman of the Devon Children's Trust, one of the pathfinder schemes bringing together different services involved in children's education and welfare, I have taken a special interest in the Children Bill as it went through Parliament. It seems odd that the idea of education, health, social services and others actually working together is being seen as a desirable novelty when it should have been the norm.

What I like about the Devon Children's Trust is that sitting around the same table are people from major services, alongside representatives of key bodies such as Sure Start, Connexions, the Learning and Skills Council, the police and parents. We also have some marvellous young people advising us right across the range, including children nominated by Mencap.

The Children Bill should now move everything on significantly, from blueprint to action. Although these initiatives were signalled in the paper Every Child Matters, and were strongly driven, in the first instance, by the dreadful case of Victoria Climbie, it is important that the future is not determined solely by tragedy otherwise people could become so smothered by regulation and bureaucracy that they are prevented from doing the very job of protecting children that society wants them to do.

The establishment of a Children's Commissioner is significant and will be a force for good, since the office should guarantee a hearing for children themselves. It is important that it does not become a controlling political force telling people what to do, because this is not necessary, as the basic principles have been agreed.

The five fundamental rights that children are entitled to enjoy are clearly laid out and they are inclusive, for everyone, not just for a selection.

They are the rights to:

* Physical and mental health

* Protection from harm and neglect

* Education and training

* Make a contribution to society

* Social and economic wellbeing.

Each of these should be beyond argument in any civilised society and they should cohere as an organic whole. It is hard for children to get the most out of education and training, for example, if they are ill, neglected, or if their family is blighted by poverty. Vulnerable children often miss out on vital schooling and thus become more at risk in a fast moving society full of predators looking for easy prey.

Most teachers will want to know how they can best fulfil the third of these objectives, by providing high quality education and training. It is here that the word "inclusive" takes on real meaning and I want to say something specific about one matter in particular, the need for creative teaching.

The Government says - and I'll believe it when it happens - that, after so much detailed prescription, there should be more creative teaching. If this is so, why should it only happen in mainstream education? If creative teaching is desirable generally, then it should certainly be a top priority for those most in need of help.

The good news is that many people went into special needs teaching because they had creative ideas. The bad news is that the recent "compliance culture", the plethora of central diktats and initiatives, fear of Ofsted, naming and shaming, and other intimidating factors, have shaken the self-confidence of many.

I was lecturing at a conference of primary headteachers earlier this year, just after a sudden snowfall had paralysed many communities. "Put your hand up if you did 'snow' as a topic last week?" the previous speaker asked. Few hands were raised, as people muttered about Sats practice and other pressures. Snow presentsa wonderful opportunity for writing, drawing, science, and lots more. Yet many people had become too cowed to capitalise on it.

So my message is simple. If we want to be truly inclusive and make available the best opportunities for all under this new world of joined up services, then let creative teaching rip on a grand scale. There is a tremendous amount of imagination among professionals, not only in teaching, but in the other connected services.

What is more, children desperately need imaginative teaching if they are to be fully equipped citizens one day, able to cope with the formidable demands of the 21st century.

Ted Wragg is emeritus professor of education at Exeter University. He will be speaking at the NasenTES exhibition on October 22

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