Put the children back at the centre

22nd July 2005 at 01:00
In the first part of a new summer series, Sue Palmer argues that the age of high technology is at risk of forgetting how to nurture its young

At the heart of the educational process lies the child,' began the Plowden Report in 1967. Those of us who trained and taught in the post-Plowden years were immersed in theories of child development and devoted to the ideal of "child-centred education", but as time went on realised there was more to education than just catering for the needs and interests of the children in our classes, and opinion swung away from the child-centred ideal.

Unfortunately, in a system that thrives on polarity, it soon swung too far.

Now, 40 years on, attitudes to education are almost diametrically opposed to Plowden's vision. These days, at the heart of the educational process lies the curriculum.

Trainee teachers in 2005 are taught not about child development but the national curriculum and the Government's literacy and numeracy strategies.

Instead of Piagetian theory, they learn about curricular objectives, and the only "needs" involved relate to curriculum entitlement. Has Liam had his fair share of phonics today? Has Nasreen had a good helping of numeracy?

And it is not working. Over-emphasis on the curriculum has proved every bit as unsatisfactory as over-emphasis on "the child" was all those years ago.

Test and inspection results may improve as teachers become increasingly adept at teaching to the test and the Ofsted handbook. But education is a mess, and and every teacher in the country knows it.

The point is that teaching involves balancing both sorts of expertise: knowledge about the curriculum, certainly, but knowledge also about children, and the freedom to respond to their needs and demands day by day.

We can feed Liam phonics and Nasreen numeracy until we are blue in the face, but unless they are engaged and ready to learn it won't make a jot of difference.

So it is definitely time to bring children back into the heart of the educational process, and this TES summer series aims to help by looking at aspects of childhood. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that childhood has changed a great deal since Plowden's day.

Growing up in the early 21st century is very different from growing up in the 1960s. Indeed, halfway back - in the 1980s - the American social commentator Neil Postman claimed that children brought up in a global village of mass telecommunications no longer have a childhood as we used to know it, free from adult concerns. Children who are constantly exposed to graphic images of violence, explicit depictions of sex and remorseless marketing of consumer goods are initiated from their earliest years into the adult world.

In the same decade, the child psychiatrist David Elkind wrote The Hurried Child, describing how western culture rushes children ever earlier into dressing, consuming and behaving like adults; how they are driven to achieve in competitive educational and social environments; and how often they are required to shoulder adult responsibilities during parental marriage breakdown or expected to fend for themselves while parents are out at work.

Elkind's prognosis for the "hurried child" was bleak, and by 2003 Robert Shaw, another child psychiatrist, was documenting in his book The Epidemic "the rot of American culture, absentee and permissive parenting and the resultant plague of joyless, selfish children".

These and other books now pouring out of the United States paint a particularly gloomy picture of contemporary childhood. After three years researching the subject, my own view is more sanguine, although we need to be aware of the problems our American cousins have raised.

Reports of behavioural problems in schools, anti-social behaviour in general, substance abuse, binge drinking, depression, self-harm and eating disorders, suggest that our own "epidemic" is not far way.

My findings suggest that a whole raft of cultural changes - from increased consumption of junk food, through children's changing play and sleeping habits to poor parental work-life balance - are affecting the education and behaviour of a growing number of young people. And our primary schools, with their early start to formal education, competitive ethos and high-stakes testing, are adding to the problem.

It seems that we have reached a stage when the evolution of human culture has so overtaken our biological evolution that our species is no longer sure how to rear its young.

Changes since the 1960s have been phenomenal: massive global advances in technology; greater equality for women (changing the structure of the family forever); a consumer economy which has created such wealth that we can eat, buy and travel more than ever before in human history.

But while all this may be wonderful for adults, unforeseen side-effects are damaging for children. For instance, we have now noticed that the processed convenience foods they enjoy so much are actually poisoning them. My own research, based on the opinions of an extensive range of experts, suggests that many other aspects of modern life are similarly toxic to developing human beings.

In the circumstances, our educational system - indeed our entire social system - can no longer turn a blind eye to the requirements of healthy, balanced child-rearing.

In a book to be published next year, I argue not only that schools must put the child right back into the educational equation, but also that society as a whole needs to wise up to the fundamentals of child development.

Above all, parents must be aware that children's bodies and brains will not mature "naturally" without the appropriate physical, social and emotional conditions for healthy growth - and that these are biological and social conditions, not technological ones. To ensure an ongoing supply of good, productive citizens, society must also provide the conditions for healthy ethical development.

The answer is, to coin a rather tired phrase, education, education, education.

Three lots of input are needed. All young people should study child development as part of their secondary education; every prospective parent should receive an update as part of ante-natal care; then, when children start primary school, mothers and fathers could attend child development classes again, to establish what children need when moving from infanthood towards adolescence.

Schools should provide informed guidelines on issues such as the amount of sleep that children need at different ages, appropriate amounts and types of television viewing, and ways for parents and children to spend time together (and not just on homework). They could also help parents battle against damaging social pressures, such as the television-in-the-bedroom syndrome - children's late-night viewing not only interferes with sleep but is also far more difficult to monitor. Many adults are in denial about what children watch on television and what they play on their games consoles.

There should also be rigorous attention to the marketing aimed at children - personally, I would favour a complete ban, as in Sweden - and to policing the electronic village on their behalf: television, console games, the internet, mobile phones and popular music. While censorship may be anathema for adults, children are not adults, and as a society we should care about what they see and hear.

But while technology has caused many problems, it can also help to solve them. Television programmes such as the remarkable Child Of Our Times have already renewed interest in child development, The celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has awoken the nation to the damage wrought by junk food, and parenting programmes such as Little Angels and websites such as www.raisingkids.org.uk provide the sort of practical advice once available from extended families.

There are many ways to harness technology to help cure the "epidemic" which it has inadvertently helped create - just as long as we recognise its limitations in the actual business of rearing children.

We live on the brink of a new world. Old geographical and national boundaries are dissolving, with young Britons feeling as close to Friends and Neighbours in New York and Melbourne as those in their own street. And television has already demonstrated its power to help overcome racism, homophobia and other social evils.

Like many others, I believe that new technologies could transform human thought, society and potential, just as the printing press changed European civilisation 500 years ago. But it depends on the way our children - all our children - develop.

To move into this renaissance we need balanced, educated citizens - and this requires an environment where children can grow up healthy, happy and whole. We must remember that what is good for adults is not necessarily good for children, and that the further technology takes us from our biological roots, the more it is likely to damage their development.

Plowden may have been wrong in putting children alone at the heart of the educational process, and we must not get that balance wrong again. But as the generation that will inherit our world, children are most definitely at the heart of human progress. To make the next exciting steps along the way, we must remember how to nurture them.

Sue Palmer is an independent primary education consultant.See www.suepalmer.co.uk Her book Toxic Childhood is due to be published by Orion Books in 2006 orcan be ordered online from www.amazon.co.uk

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