What we make them

25th October 1996 at 01:00
Are children the enemy? A cursory glance at the week's news stories might suggest that they are, what with riots at a Yorkshire comprehensive, Government plans for stricter school rules and citizenship lessons, and the tragic figure of a headteacher's wife, widowed by a 16-year-old thug.

Yet another moral panic is in full flight, with children as young as five portrayed as Public Enemy Number One.

Perhaps sometimes they are. Significantly, fewer than half of the 8-16 year-olds interviewed for the National Commission of Inquiry into the Prevention of Child Abuse report - published amid a flurry of indifference this week - said adults listened to them "most of the time".

The dignified figure of Frances Lawrence is - if you listen carefully - insisting that as adults and parents it is we who have the responsibility for raising our young to be useful members of society. And then there is the Commission on Child Abuse, whose sensible conclusions were ignored in favour of official ridicule of its claim that victims could be kids yelled at in supermarkets by harassed parents.

So what we are left with is the hang 'em and flog 'em tendency, as articulated by the Government and Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, who is becoming a household name for publicising schools with problem pupils. Politicians want a quick fix: so does the union, whose members are at the end of their tethers.

This week's School from Hell is The Ridings in Halifax, where 60 pupils are deemed unteachable by NASUWT, which is demanding they be excluded forthwith. Coincidentally, this is roughly the number of children with official or unofficial special needs on the roll, who are concentrated there because it is surrounded by selective schools. Just what the Government wants to see more of. But then what? Children exiled into enforced, legal truancy by market forces.

If answers are to be had, they lie in the more considered solutions of Frances Lawrence and the National Commission on Child Abuse. They are very clear that children are only a problem because we make them so. They are the symptom, not the cause.

Mrs Lawrence wants credit to be given to schoolchildren for the three Es: effort, earnestness and excellence. Unfortunately these might be tricky to measure in league tables, elevated as the answer to everything after the reforms of the past 17 years. The league table society is thwarting the child abuse campaigners, who want money to be spent on prevention rather than treatment. These days you don't get money unless the nation is demonstrably getting value for it.

Their inquiry has produced more than 80 recommendations covering similar ground to Mrs Lawrence and more. Specifically, it wants government departments to co-ordinate their planning for children and create a dedicated Minister and for parenting education to be provided. In short, it wants children to be put first. Given the way in which critics united to damn the report that is likely to remain a faint aspiration.

Hard evidence on whether juvenile incivility is increasing is not forthcoming although many schools say behaviour is getting worse. However, those tend to be the ones for whom the education market means getting dumped with the offspring of problem families.

Feckless parents - particularly single ones - are publicly blamed for many of our perceived problems. There is undoubtedly some dreadful parenting around: many teachers tell horror stories of children who start school not even recognising their own names, let alone basic social skills. A recent Panorama used hidden cameras to reveal parents screaming abuse at their wayward son for minor misdemeanours.

We aspire to Pacific Rim economies: perhaps we should also aspire to their society and family structure. Why not start by helping families break the cycle of poor parenting? Nigel de Gruchy's idea of a Good Parenting Agency raises risible images of women in flowery hats preaching among the poor: far more sensible to start with health visitors who are actively welcomed into every home and already run schemes such as Books for Babies.

It may take a generation to effect some sort of change, but that is no reason not to try. Politicians should bite the bullet and create a Minister for Children who could examine the effects of governmental policies on the young and help keep the issue in public focus - and remind us that children are what we make them.

After all, it takes a whole village to raise a child: an unfashionable nostrum in the wake of Mrs Thatcher's unwholesome edict that there is no such thing as society.

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