A betrayal of childhood

Written by: Sir Al Aynsley-Green | Published:
Former children’s commissioner Sir Al Aynsley-Green

What would an alien from Mars with no vested or financial interest say about British education on arriving here? Former children’s commissioner Sir Al Aynsley-Green tackles this question in his new book

Education is in crisis. Yes, outstanding schools teach a minority of children where parents can pay for independent education or live in the catchment of an excellent state school; but alongside the betrayal of countless other children especially those with disability or disadvantage whose parents can’t.

The question above is one I ask in my book The British Betrayal of Childhood. In it, I describe a dismal litany:

  • Teachers leaving the profession in droves with failure to attract the very best recruits.
  • Lowering entrance requirements for training.
  • More than 1,000 headteachers taking to the streets to protest over inadequate funding.
  • A narrow test-oriented curriculum driven by zealous teaching to the test while dismissing the stress this causes teachers and pupils with soaring emotional ill health.
  • “Off-rolling” and excluding children because of the perverse incentives of league tables for SATs or GCSE attainment.
  • A complete absence of any overarching cross-political party consensus of the purpose of education, let alone any idea of what we should be trying to achieve for children overall.
  • Failure to prepare children with the skills needed for 21st century life.

The uncomfortable reality is that we have some of the worst outcomes overall for children in the developed world, not just for education but across health, social care, youth justice and poverty.

The exam question is “why”? A question that politicians are unwilling to answer. My answer is four-fold.

First, indifference and denial in public and political “attitude” to the importance of children in stark contrast to that which I have seen in The Netherlands, Finland and Canada.

Second, government policies that are short-term, inconsistent, and in the case of dismantling the world’s best policy programme for children Every Child Matters shown to be untrustworthy.

Third, the failure of effective political advocacy for the best interests of children locally and nationally.

And finally, the ubiquitous presence of bunkers and silos in and between organisations in the children’s sectors.

Children matter – to parents, families and communities across Britain. Quite simply, they are our nation’s most precious resource as citizens today, and because of the changes in demography with more older people living longer – who will generate the wealth to support them? The children of today.

So, through an economic lens we need healthy, educated, creative and resilient, happy children equipped with the life-skills to become confident adults and parents in due course. And those who can’t, through disability or disadvantage, must be supported to develop their full potential. Surely, this should drive political policy, but does it? My analysis concludes that it doesn’t.

This is most starkly manifest in the bunkers between children’s health and education, with other silos between early years, primary and secondary education, and devastatingly between the maintained and independent sectors.

Why can’t we have a well-funded all-though, inclusive education ethos grounded in a clear definition of the purpose of education and what we are trying to achieve for our children?

A serious “national conversation” on the purpose of education is needed without those challenging the present mindset being contemptuously dismissed as “the blob”.

Sadly, so much education controversy is mired in which metrics show success – SATs attainment targets and league tables are beloved metrics for school improvement, but what really matters and what is not being addressed is the quality of the lives of the children and young people when they become adults.

We have been indoctrinated to measure what is easily measurable and not what actually matters. “It doesn’t have to be like this,” should be the mantra.

So, let’s step back and ask what do children need to thrive? They need “nurture”, and this should be everybody’s business, as in the African proverb: “It takes a whole village to raise a child.”

Parents are fundamentally important, but do we invest enough in preparing people for the most important job in the world? My answer is no, we don’t. It’s not just parents – local communities are vital for play, managed risk, connection with nature alongside sport, music and the arts. Faiths promote spirituality and purpose of life, while supported by the voluntary sector, government provides resources for health, education and social care.

Building local community responsibility for their children must be a key way forward to improve the outcomes for our children. But how do we do this?

The Human Early Learning Partnership model in Canada describes the local context through “mapping” children’s lives from routine data. The concept is simple – to “map” by postcode locality the data on the life of the child, including inputs, outputs and outcomes across health, education, social care, youth justice and poverty.

These data are used by childhood coalitions, schools, government ministries and researchers to inform advocacy for children’s needs, and to recommend changes to policies and funding. For example, mapping the “nurturative” assets for children by school locality – where there are crèches for babies, after-school clubs for children, sports facilities for teenagers – show how local communities are nurturing their children focused around the school. Sadly, it has proved impossible to engage with government in England to understand the power of this approach.

So, what do you think? If getting a national conversation going on what really matters is key, then what are you going to do to shout from the roof tops and kick the doors down to get it? If you don’t, who else will?

  • Sir Al Aynsley-Green is the former children’s commissioner for England. He is currently visiting professor of advocacy for children and childhood at Nottingham Trent University and professor emeritus of child health, at University College London. His book, The British Betrayal of Childhood is published by Routledge. Visit www.aynsley-green.com


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