‘Let’s make the young lead the way’

Do we need obedient children? No. What we need in the 21st century is creative, questioning, challenging children who can think for themselves. We no longer need to prepare them for a

life of kowtowing to the old bowler hat, the gaffer, the policeman, the dominie, the sergeant-major. That world is gone for ever. Belief in unquestioning obedience began to subside as the world assessed the aftermath of the Somme and the Holocaust, and it will never come back.

We need to produce young people who are immensely flexible, self-sufficient, full of cheek and confidence. We need to leave behind the put-down and the threat in the same way that we have put away the tawse and the cane. We need to learn to cope with to as well as fro, to listen as well as to teach, to cherish the bright spark and not to seek to put it out.

We do need children to co-operate, to come to school, to participate in society. But if they are not co-operating we need to ask them why and negotiate to fix it. We need to encourage them to solve their own problems and find solutions they can live with. With truancy, perhaps we should face the fact that school isn’t right for everyone: many children suffer from school phobia because of bullying or unhappiness. We need to look at answers such as counselling or small learning units.

Surely all this is obvious. Yet New Labour in England has gone down the Dickensian path of supporting the jailing of a mother whose children failed to attend school. Patricia Amos has swallowed the pill. Obediently, she told the Today programme yesterday that jail had worked for her and her family, and all but thanked the education secretary, Estelle Morris, for allowing it to happen. The tenor of the public debate is now that this has been demonstrably A Good Thing, that it has ”worked”. It is a disaster. It sends a wrong message to children and families.

There are parents up and down the country struggling to impose rules and regulations on recalcitrant teenagers and failing. It is well documented that the parents of many badly-behaved children far from being bohemian, kaftan-wearing luvvies are, actually, when they attend to the problem, already strict, heavy-handed disciplinarians who are trying in the only way they know – with threats, fists, and ill-controlled anger – to make their children conform.

Pushing these parents into a corner by subjecting them to threats and fear in turn from the state is only going to make these relationships break down faster. In many of these families, the currency of discipline and punishment is already so devalued that another step on the road will bring them to the end of it and we will have runaways as well as truants.

What these families need is attention, parenting classes, measures aimed at giving them the skills to manage their relationships better.

Thank goodness for devolution. Jailing truants’ mums is not going to happen north of the border, but, just in time to stop us getting a swelled heid, it was revealed at the weekend that researchers on the Possible Scotland report due next month have found in focus groups across the country that most Scots think of young people as ”a problem, a nuisance, and a threat”, and that their hard-line demands include a curfew on young people and harsher sentences for youth crime.

It seems there are enough grumpy, intolerant older Scots around that if Jack McConnell suggested appointing a child-catcher, a la Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, it would turn out to be a huge vote-winner.

Some of that is indicative of social attitudes towards children as much as it is the problems they have and cause. The young have few real friends outside their own families these days. They are more and more seen as their parents’ ”problem”. Yet the older generation should ask themselves who is going to push their wheelchairs and take care of them in old age, who is going to run the country, who is going to have the ideas that generate economic success for Scotland in the future.

After all, the children are our future. We need more than ever now to find ways to encourage their creativity and confidence so that we can produce home-grown talent that can compete on the global stage. We need them to have ideas and the courage to put them into practice, to have the strength to risk failing. As the recent job losses in West Lothian have shown, it is no good being simply an outpost of other people’s empires because, when the chips are down, it is the factories far from the HQ that close first.

Britons like to mock the education system in the United States with its reliance on Big Bird and new ideas such as using rap in English lessons. Countries such as Japan with lots of homework, rote learning, blackboards and exams are seen as more successful educationally.

However, look at how the US has developed computer and IT technology. Most of the important technological innovation of the past 10 years has come from people who came through the US public school system, in large part because they are encouraged to think for themselves and a high value is placed

on creativity.

In Scotland, we need to empower young people through freedom, choice, and co-operation. Make them strong and let them lead the way.

The Guardian
May 29th 2006