What Makes A Good Childhood?

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Bob Reitemeier, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, considers the role of teachers in creating good childhoods following a rising tide of concern. The Good Childhood Inquiry aims to establish what the state of childhood actually is in the UK.

Research has revealed that our wealth as a society has not bought us the kind of childhood we would want for our children, with UNICEF’s recent report on children’s well-being ranking the UK bottom out of 21 rich countries when it comes to children’s well-being.

This shocking finding points unequivocally to something we’ve known for a long time – that childhood in the UK is in need of a radical rethink.

Which is why The Children’s Society decided to launch The Good Childhood Inquiry - the UK’s first independent inquiry into childhood.

Teachers under the spotlight

Anxiety about children’s lives includes the classroom, with recent headlines declaring that the UK has fallen dramatically in international educational league tables. 

At the same time as teachers are coming under increasing pressure to maintain academic achievements there is also widespread debate about the levels of assessment in schools and in particular the formal testing of 7, 11 and 14 year olds.  Critics have argued that national tests and league tables lead teachers to focus on certain groups of students and to ‘teach to the test’.

Almost half the children submitting evidence to the inquiry agreed with the statement ‘I feel under a lot of pressure at school’. In The Children’s Society’s national survey of 8,000 young people aged between 14 to 16 years, 58% said that they worried about exams and 47% often worried about their schoolwork.

This presents a dilemma for teachers who are trying to maintain standards whilst being wary of putting too much pressure on their pupils.

Balancing act

Another area where teachers are coming under pressure is in relation to teaching the ‘child as a whole’. Many evidence submissions to The Good Childhood Inquiry called for a more balanced curriculum that includes social and emotional as well as academic learning. This view was also reflected in a public opinion poll commissioned by The Children’s Society as part of the inquiry, with 61% strongly agreeing that a priority for schools should be to support children’s social and emotional development.

The challenge is to encourage social and emotional aspects of learning within the curriculum without jeopardizing recent gains in academic achievement.

Looking beyond the classroom

But surely we can not expect already over-stretched teachers to bear the sole responsibility for our children’s learning?  Much of the evidence submitted to the  inquiry suggests  that  learning does not start and end at the school gates and that we need to look beyond the classroom.

Evidence submitted to the inquiry by children themselves shows that many of them are ambitious.

They want to succeed and dislike being held back by disruptive pupils – with 75 per cent of the children we polled saying that other people messing about in lessons makes it difficult to learn. Children want their classes to be structured and clear. They want their teachers to be interesting and fun. Most of all, they want to learn.

Teachers, echoing the frustrations that some children feel, complain that too much of their time is spent on dealing with problem behaviour, leaving insufficient time for teaching.  As one teacher put it, ‘we are not meant to be parent substitutes’.

Additionally, a number of teachers submitting evidence expressed concern that language and speech standards in young children starting nursery and primary school are falling.  This suggests that we need to look beyond schooling to the home environment and social conditions, two of the most important influences on children.  For example, at the age of two, a child’s cognitive development is a good predictor of future attainment, but by the age of six, high-scoring children from disadvantaged homes are overtaken by children in better-off families.

This tells us that raising overall educational standards can not be achieved by teachers alone.  Solutions need to address poverty, parenting and the environment children grow up in as well as academic achievement. Only then will we provide all children with the best possible learning experience.

Working together to create a new vision for childhood

Our ambition is that The Good Childhood Inquiry will have a far-reaching impact on children’s lives in the twenty-first century.  Through the inquiry we have opened an inclusive public debate about the nature of childhood today.  But creating discussion is only the first step and rather than simply acting as a talk-shop, the inquiry’s final report will provide evidence-based recommendations to ensure all children experience the good childhood they deserve.

The inquiry’s findings will be written with the public in mind and will be presented in a way which is accessible and relevant to parents, teachers, community leaders and importantly children and young people themselves.  We will take them to the Government and other organisations working with and for children to initiate policy changes that will help create a better world for all children.

Responsibility for childhood belongs to society as a whole. Teachers have a key role to play but it is only by working together that we will successfully create a new vision for childhood for the 21st century.

Taken from Primary Leadership Today Issue 13