We will achieve nothing by demonising children

Children's distress must be the focus more than their violent behaviour – and this will also help keep school staff safe, says David Cameron

David Cameron

We will achieve nothing by demonising children

Where, I have been asking myself, are all the headlines about children's distress?

I was struck by the reporting on the EIS teaching union's submission to the Scottish Parliament Education, Children and Young People Committee last week, about the impact of lockdowns and coronavirus on children with additional support needs (ASN).

The EIS ASN network's convener was quoted as saying: “A number of children are displaying quite violent or distressed behaviour, which is impacting their learning and their peers’ as well.”

Background: Violent behaviour rising in early primary school, says union

ASN review: Support for additional support needs pupils 'fragmented' and 'inconsistent'

Advice: How to help pupils with ASN feel included in school

News: Pupils in P1 and S1 among the worst hit by Covid lockdown

Quick read: What's the secret to 'catch-up'? Love

Pupil wellbeing: ‘Huge increase’ in need for pupil mental health support

Predictably, subsequent reporting emphasised the violence rather than the distress.

There were sensationalist references to the most appalling consequences of children’s behaviour, as well as strong, and justified, arguments for better support in schools. Unfortunately, though, this is a problem that does not begin in schools, nor does it end there.

There are equally alarming incidents taking place in communities and homes and, often, it will be the same children who are involved. There will also be instances where children and young people who are involved in such incidents are not even attending school at present or are involved in periodic truancy.

We have to give priority to making staff in schools safe, but to do so we must focus on the distress of children; we will achieve nothing by demonising children.

We also need to stop the waves of intermittent outrage and start to have some long-term commitments.

Third sector organisations which could make a difference in supporting families are struggling for funding. Others who could provide mentoring and direct support are finding life equally difficult. We are emphasising raising attainment as if that was a panacea for all of our educational ills. In Scotland, how often does Girfec (the Getting It Right For Every Child approach) get mentioned in comparison to that? What happened to new community schools? Did they get old and pass away? Where is the priority for better integration of services across the statutory and voluntary sector?

I see continual efforts at systemic solutions, be that through new policies, new strategies, new curricula or whatever. I fear an almost implicit assumption that we are in difficult times and that current approaches are the best that we can do.

As long as we allow the causes of distress to thrive, however, we will face the consequences of that in children's behaviour. That recognition is at the heart of The Promise Scotland (a national response to the findings of the Independent Care Reviewso where are the references to that? Is anyone really making the sort of connections that need to be made?

The simple reality is that Covid exacerbated established problems more than it created new ones, and we are paying the price for not facing up to these over a long period of time. We must do that now.

That means confronting the reality that too many families have too little support, that we remain too committed to sanctions rather than care, and that we need to take practical action to directly support those families who are struggling.

That is how we stand the best chance of keeping our staff safe and giving our children the best chance to thrive.

David Cameron is an education consultant based in Scotland and a former local authority director of children’s services. He tweets @realdcameron

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