Relationships by numbers

24th April 2009 at 01:00

There is much discussion today about the problem of relationships between people - in the home, on the street, and indeed between teachers and pupils. It is often couched in terms of anti-social behaviour, but there may be a bigger problem: the "anti-socialisation" of young people.

Many initiatives to help deal with these "problems of behaviour" have emerged over the past decade or so - from peer mentoring in schools to community wardens on the street, or even forms of parenting advice. But all seem to be predicated on one sentiment: that people, and professionals, cannot be left to sort things out for themselves.

Some developments and initiatives may have positive spin-offs, but in general there is a problem today that relationships between people are becoming increasingly "unreal", no longer directed by people themselves, by their personal morality, professional judgment or community norms. As such, the experiences young people have with adults are in danger of becoming ever more formal and distant from the lived experiences of people, professionals and communities. In other words, the more behaviour is seen as something to be managed by government, the more it appears that young people will receive an ersatz form of socialisation.

Today, relationships between adults and young people are increasingly riddled with red tape, safety certificates, codes of conduct, correct procedures, awareness training, legal contracts. Rather than acting like ourselves, using our experience of life, of kids or of our profession, we tend to look over our shoulder before we act, or to question our judgment - not because we are doing anything wrong, but because we have been made aware that there are "new procedures to follow".

Before you touch a child in school, perhaps you should check the touching policy; before giving a child a lift, maybe you should check if their parents have filled out that new form; before you shout at a child or split up a fight, perhaps you should think about the training you received on conflict, bullying and emotional management, or check the council policy about "behaving in a manner that could be interpreted as being aggressive"; and before giving personal advice to an older pupil who has asked you something about sex, perhaps you should check the relationship education curriculum, or even consult a lawyer to make sure you cover your back.

For older teachers who have had the time and space to develop their own form of personal authority over the years, and who have consequently developed their own professional judgment, these new "correct" ways of behaving may have little impact. However, for younger, more inexperienced teachers there is a real danger that the "proceduralisation" of relationships with young people will prevent them from developing personal authority, professional judgment or any capacity to relate to pupils spontaneously.

New procedures, codes of conduct and behaviour management techniques are promoted as things that can help develop professionalism and socialise young people. The reality is that they undermine both by undermining teachers' capacity to develop personal and professional autonomy. Such initiatives turn the teacher-pupil relationship into something which embodies none of the character, spontaneity or indeed humanity that teachers can bring to the job.

Stuart Waiton is director of Generation YouthIssues.org. He has contributed to a new book, 'The Future of Community', which he will be discussing at Waterstone's in Glasgow on May 13, at 6.30pm.

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