They may not vote but they should be heard;Comment;Opinion

10th April 1998 at 01:00
Children are the fifth of the population without a vote. Last week Sam Galbraith, the designated minister for children, published a child strategy statement which makes clear that all Government departments should pay heed to how their policies affect children. The intention is wholly commendable. But will it be more than token?

For reasons of administrative convenience children are still usually seen and not heard. They are used to being taken for granted. Many local authorities have been selling off playing fields, for instance, but how many have consulted the age group which uses open spaces most? Indeed, how many follow Edinburgh education department, which labels its fields council property and tells youngsters to keep off?

Think of the problems children have with the law when they are at their most vulnerable as victims in custody battles. Judges are becoming more sympathetic to the need to treat child witnesses sensitively, but their interests must usually still be voiced by adults rather than the children themselves.

In schools there is inevitably tension, often unspoken, between the needs of pupils and the desire by teachers and other staff to retain authority. Power cannot readily be dispersed among 1,000 young people. But teachers know well that involving pupils in policies and decisions makes for better understanding and acceptance. The letters columns in primary school newspapers show how articulately youngsters can express strongly held opinions.

The Scottish parliament will have the opportunity to pay heed to children, and Mr Galbraith's initiative is more likely to flourish in a new constitutional climate. It is important for young people, the group most alienated from UK politics, to accept the new parliament.

But valuing children does not start with Government ministers and national institutions. It must begin in the family. A paper produced for Edinburgh University's Centre for Theology and Public Issues (page 5) looks at the father's point of view. A culture which demands long hours of work reinforces the traditional distance of fathers from their children's daily lives. Children, it seems, do not want material indulgence or expressions of love from their fathers. Unlike adults, they do not agonise about gender roles in parenting. They simply want a share of committed fatherly attention and an interest in their doings.

Here again children want to be taken seriously. And if it can happen in the family the institutions of society will follow suit far more readily.

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