"The defining feature of modern-day parents in the UK and USA is anxiety and ‘aspirational anguish"
Following on from my last post, I have recently been on BBC Breakfast TV talking about the book
The Happiest Kids in the World' and I thought it would be interesting to expand on what they say about the pressures on modern parenting and, in particular, how parents in the UK and USA have been made to buy into the very destructive belief that academic achievement is the key to life success.
Of course we can't simply transplant the things we like about one culture onto another, but there are things that we can reflect about - especially why we have developed the systems that we have in each country and in what way they are serving the true needs of our communities and populations. I think we have a situation in the UK where the system is no longer serving the wellbeing of children, families or teachers and (as they say at the end of the book) the only way to address this is to initiate a grassroots social revolution. We hope the four-day Festival of Childhood, that we are co-running in the summer, will help with this and we are currently thinking of ways that we can connect all the people that can't get there, but want to be involved (one is to become a member of the Save Childhood Movement).
I think the revolution will come from lots of people choosing to get off the achievement and material goods bus - which is what the Millenials are already doing. There is a simpler and happier life available -we just have to decide that we want something better and get together to create it.
The book highlights the fact that, in both the UK and USA, parenting expertise is evaluated through the academic accomplishments of children, rather than whether they are growing up to be happy, healthy and caring people - and that this is resulting in highly competitive and judgemental systems that are damaging to both parents and children.
As in Scandinavian countries, at the heart of the Dutch culture is a society of home-loving people who place the child firmly at the centre. For Dutch parents success is defined by happiness and wellbeing – that of their children – and of themselves (the importance of adult wellbeing for child wellbeing is something that we highlighted last National Children's Day UK) . "Dutch parents have long realized that the emotional wellbeing of their children is just as important, if not more so, than any external validation of success" In stark comparison, modern culture in the UK and the USA has increasingly defined success through competition and external achievement, with child and family wellbeing secondary.
' In the UK and USA education is seen as the route to success – in the Netherlands it is seen as the route to a child’s wellbeing and their development as an individual (i.e social skills and character) – the focus is on the child and his or her burgeoning independence."
As a result UK and USA parents are constantly challenged and unsettled by the combined pressure of their own desire for their children to be happy and do well, with the thoughts and opinions of their neighbours and peer groups, and increasingly strong political messages that children need ‘a head-start' in life that often involves an over-early introduction to formal learning.. The tragedy is that this simply isn't true. The success of Scandinavian systems in international league tables prove that academic achievement is fully possible without hot-housing and without competition. Nor is there any evidence that starting children in formal education early has any beneficial impact on later performance - in fact the opposite is more likely the case. 90% of countries in the world star formal learning at 6/7, because structured play gives children the time to develop all their physical, emotional and social capacities (that are so vital for later learning).
"There is no research evidence to support the ‘earlier is better’ view. On the contrary, evidence for the benefits of play-based learning in early childhood shows that those nations where children start formal education later (up to the age of seven) achieve better results on average than those that start formal education earlier. Forcing children to perform tasks that go against their natural developmental instincts may produce short-term results, but often at the cost of long-term motivation and enjoyment.
Too Much Too Soon Campaign, 2016
I often wish their was another English word for play that could convey the levels of concentration, creativity and complexity that children develop in the right environments and that is so well understood by schools such as those of Reggio Emilia in Italy. Play in the UK is often portrayed in the media as children standing around a sand tray - which is a travesty to anyone who has seen the real thing. The gifted pedagogue Maria Montessori felt so strongly about this that she called the children's activities 'the work of the child', rather than play, which is actually much more accurate.
Many years ago I carried out a piece of research looking at children's perceptions of work and play and it was shocking that within six months of starting reception class amazingly buzzy, curious and active children, that had previously seen work as everything that you did at nursery, suddenly understood the word as something that someone else gave you (that more often than not involved paper and pens) and play as something of much less value that you got to do after you had finished.
Children who are 'pressurised to perform, pushed to conform and wired for success' are not allowed to develop at their own pace and quickly learn that their own motivations, choice of activities and judgments of competence don’t count, but what does matters are the teachers choices and judgements, in pursuit of externally imposed tests and desirable outcomes i.e. the demands of what the NUT has termed 'Exam Factories. Instead of schools being dynamic places of learning, they have instead become where your worth is directly related to your academic competence - which is fine if you are academic and a tragedy if you have other skills and capacities (that are actually equally important to healthy, sustainable societies).
In my mind it is simply unacceptable for us to label some children as having value and others not, when every one of us has unique interests and abilities that should be nurtured and celebrated. In a recent report the mental health charity Young Minds said that many of the young people that they work with feel constantly judged and completely 'defined by their grades' - so it is not surprising that they are demotivated and depressed.
What a weird world we have created when a child with high grades is seen as successful, even if they have been self-harming or on anti-depressants for years. We need to join up the dots between achievement and mental wellbeing.
Dutch society has also fought for and achieved an enviable work-life balance. "As the part-time champions of Europe, the Dutch work an average 29 hours a week, dedicate at least one day a week to spending time with their children, and pencil in time for themselves too." - although this does seem to have come as the result of the country needing to cut people's working hours and pay in order to address recession. They don't care any where near as much about material goods though and most have seen this as a beneficial move so that they can spend more time with their families. Parents in the UK are at the other end of the scale, with some of the highest working hours in Europe.
The 2017 Modern Families Index reported that:
Only one in five families said they have got the right balance between time (to spend with family) and money (earning or having enough income) to see their family thrive (in other words 80% felt they didn't). More than a third say they haven’t got enough time or money.
In couple families, many parents both work full time. 48 per cent of couple families in the survey said they both worked full time. 57 per cent of single parents worked full time.
Just under half of parents (47 per cent) think that over the last two years it has become financially more difficult to raise a family.
It is interesting that the 2011 UNICEF Report on Commercialisation in Europe showed that the UK had the most commercial kids - but only because the parents were compensating for the lack of time that they could spend with them by buying things. Most of the children interviewed said that they would rather spend time together as a family.
These are the other things that I have noted from the book:
I have also been thinking about the very important fact that the Dutch political system includes a highly active and rights-based independent Ombudsman for Children, whereas in England we no longer have a Government Minister with responsibility for the rights of all children, the English Children's Commissioner is 'sponsored' by the DfE (!) and we have not implemented child rights impact assessments (CRIA) - despite a UN Committee recommendation to make them statutory
but that is another blog...
I suspect lots of people might think I'm crazy to commit the Save Childhood Movement to an event as big as the 2017 International Festival of Childhood. Over four days we are bringing together an extraordinary gathering of speakers to talk about what's going on in the lives of young children and how we can create a more caring and meaningful world. We have committed to two major venues, with all the staging and promotional costs of putting on a top-notch event. Not only that but we are working with a wonderful creative partner in Bath who is overseeing an extravaganza of playful external events and activities - all of which will be free. So we will have what we hope will be an internationally important conference embedded within a city-wide celebration of childhood.
The movement is not a large organisation, supported by major sponsors or members of the national media. Instead it's a young and totally voluntary organisation that, other than two small national lottery grants that it was awarded for the development of National Children's Day UK, has been pretty much self-funded. In the three years since its launch people have freely given what has amounted to thousands of hours of voluntary time and expertise, but we still rely on a tiny core team. Any funds that we raise this year will go to ensuring that we can grow our team and its activities in a solid and sustainable way.
Each topic that we are covering in the festival subsequently deserves a conference of its own and, if it is successful, this is something that we plan to help happen. We also want to initiate a series of national conversations about the kind of values we really want to see in society. My own feeling is that big problems demand big solutions and one of the issues with current political leadership is that it focuses only on the short-term, rather than inspiring people to come together to re-write the rules and shape a better and more compassionate future. We have to start somewhere and thinking small simply isn't going to hack it.
This morning I read Sian Griffiths' Sunday Times review of Michele Hutchison and Rina Mae Acosta's book 'The Happiest Kids in the World'. The book documents Michele's experience of moving from the UK to bring up her children in Amsterdam and the huge gulf between the pressurised, competitive way she was brought up and the Dutch parenting style. "In Holland family life is fiercely valued. Instead of a culture of long office hours, it is a matter of national pride to leave work early to spend time with your children...There is no exam pressure for under tens or homework in primary schools. Instead the importance of having friends and building social skills is emaphasized."
"Childhood over here consists of freedom, plenty of play and little academic stress...In contrast we see British parents feeling constantly challenged and unsettled by their own unrealistic expectations and by other people's opinions... Parents in the UK put kids under immense pressure to succeed and be perfect."
I resonate with this because it took me years to throw off the 'having to be perfect' burden of my own British up-bringing. I was terrified of failure and the result was that I held back from doing the things that I really felt drawn to and speaking up about the things that I cared about. It is only in my later years that I have realised that I am more terrified of coming to the end of my days without having tried - and that what matters for all of us is that we can become the best versions of ourselves.
Nature has not designed us all to be the same, for the very good reason that human communities only work when there is a rich and varied profusion of interests, talents and capabilities that cover all the aspects that make things work. We need people that are great with their hands and can take things apart and put them together again. We need carpenters and electricians and builders and plumbers and gardeners. We need thinkers, explorers, innovators and and scientists. We need artists and writers, musicians and healers. We need people that lead and people that are happy being led. What we don't need is a world where, from the youngest age, children are separated from their natural instincts as exhuberant lifelong learners and where people are made to feel that they only have value and worth within a very limited range of human capacities,.
That is what we are trying to say through the festival - that human beings are extraordinary, diverse, multi-talented and complex creatures - each one of us totally unique and capable of whatever has richness and meaning for us as individuals. But we are also innately social beings that understand ourselves and grow through our relationship with others. Somehow we have allowed systems to be created that have failed to acknowledge this, that have made us fear judgment and failure more than not being who we really are, and that have made success all about qualifications and things, rather than fulfillment and worth. Outer wealth has come at the cost of inner wealth - and that is too high a price to pay.
We want every child to feel valued and special and that can only come about if we are brave enough to question all the old systems through the lens of child, family and community wellbeing. That is what the festival is about and is why I hope you will support us at the event and become part of the solution. Hopefully this is just the beginning of us working together to bring in the new...
You can see the festival website on www.festivalofchildhood.com - and we are now also on Twitter
As the year is drawing towards its end I have been thinking about why I do what I do, when so often it seems like we are faced with insurmountable barriers from systems that seem to be determined to maintain old and decaying structures, rather than welcoming in the new.
People around the world are clearly demonstrating that they are tired of the old ways of doing things, and particularly so when these are damaging to their children, parents and communities. Too many of us have been made to feel that the only things that give us value are personal achievement (within very limited boundaries), money and things, whereas it is clear that what really underpins a happy and contented life is relationship, personal meaning and contribution. There is nothing wrong with money, and of course countries need to be economically sustainable, but in some countries it seems that a terrible human cost is currently being paid, particularly in the lives of young children.
We know that the foundations of healthy societies are laid in the early years. In fact Professor Heckman and his colleagues at the University of Chicago have just released new research that suggests a 13% Return On Investment through early childhood programs, a substantial increase from the 7 - 10% that is most often quoted. What that means is that every country should be prioritising the health and wellbeing of its youngest citizens,not only because this creates happier and healthier societies, but because it is an economic necessity. Poor levels of attachment and early nurture have a devastating and hugely costly impact on society.
We also know from numerous studies (but it is also obvious) that the most influential relationship in a child's life is the one with his or her parents, and particularly the mother. Above all young children need love and security - and what is less often mentioned, time - time to simply be together with no obvious agenda, time for silliness and play, and time for the deep connections that we crave as highly social animals. It's not just children that need time to be with their parents, but that parents need to be nurtured by the freedom, wonder and playfulness of being with their children.
The next best thing to a parent is a loving, caring and emotionally mature adult - so grandparents and close relatives are really important, as are other first carers, along with childminders and early years practitioners. The common element for countries that do well on both achievement and wellbeing indices is that they have invested heavily in family and community life - recognising that cycles of poverty and social exclusion being passed down from one generation to the next can only be broken by appropriate levels of state support. They have also recognised that the people working with the youngest children need to be the most qualified and valued - and not the least.
In many Scandinavian countries a large percentage of the early years workforce have degree and masters level qualifications in recognition of this fact. And in Italy the remarkable Loris Malaguzzi created his own dedicated early years training, calling on young children to be recognised as the holders of important human rights, who learn and grow through relationship with others.
In the future our children are going to have to compete within a global market - and it is not just academic qualifications that they will be measured on, but also their social skills, resilience, empathy, character and how much they listen to and care for others. All of these skills are formed in early childhood and by providing diminished environments we are robbing children of their true potential and their ability to move beyond the social barriers of class and disadvantage.
What does the situation in England tell us about the current government's commitment to children and families?
It has only been in the last few years that I have become more actively focused on how policies get made in England and it has been a pretty depressing process. The evidence clearly suggests that policymakers tend to be interested only in evidence that fits their own need, ideology or prejudice, and they may ignore or even abuse those who provide evidence that doesn't fit the political bill. I personally experienced this in 2013 when the Save Childhood Movement first launched the Too Much Too Soon Campaign and the concerns of 127 eminent experts, including 17 Emeritus Professors, were summarily dismissed as belonging to the 'Blob'.
This was similar to the DfE response to Robin Alexander's rigorously evidenced and potentially ground-breaking Cambridge Primary Review, which provided a damning critique of the impact of current policy on schools and children, but also offered a number of carefully thought-through solutions. Instead of giving these the time and attention that they deserved, the DfE then implemented the Rose Review and you can make your own minds up re the qualitative difference between the two by looking at this CPR analysis (which can now interestingly be found on a government website).
Since then we have seen a succession of expert consultations take place, but these of course mean nothing if the recommendations are then ignored (with seemingly no rigorous evidence-base) by those in power and an example of this was the 2014 Nutbrown Review that resulted in Cathy Nutbrown issuing this response to the DfE. A Primary Assessment Inquiry is currently underway, but I find it deeply frustrating that these processes are continually repeated when so much good work has already been done. This endless re-inventing of the wheel takes up a great deal of time and resources and seems to do little more than provide an excuse that government is responding to expert concerns without actually having to do anything about them. I was one of the signatories for this Guardian letter, that was published on Christmas Day, but I fear that without us chaining ourselves to the railings, no-one is really taking any notice.
Despite considerable evidence suggesting the opposite, successive governments have invested in the naive belief that early learning can be forced, that raising test scores in literacy and numeracy will elevate the country’s economic performance, and that copying successful nations’ educational policies will raise standards to an acceptable level. Not only that, but they are increasingly influenced by the media. As Robin Alexander started in his essay 'Moral Panic'
"In many countries, including the UK, the potential of international student achievement surveys such as TIMSS and PISA is being subverted by political and media fixation on the resulting league tables. These prompt not just well-founded efforts to learn from others’ success but also ill-founded assertions about educational cause and effect, inappropriate transplanting of the policies to which success is attributed, and even the reconfiguring of entire national curricula to respond less to national culture, values and needs than to the dubious claims of ‘international benchmarking’ and ‘world class’ educational standards – the latter equated with test scores in a limited spectrum of human learning."
To add to the dilemma, Early Years and Education Ministers (most of whom have no prior knowledge of the field) constanty come and go, everyone is focused on short-term wins, rather than long-term vision - and children, parents and schools are at the mercy of constantly changing agendas. I read in a report somewhere (that I am still trying to track down) that over the last two decades an 18 year old in Britain will have experienced more than 400 changes in education policy and that currently doesn't seem like an exaggeration.
I have no doubt that most people involved in government are well-intentioned and genuinely trying to do their best. It has become clear, however, that the current system simply isn't serving the true needs of the people within it. Deep and lasting improvements can surely only be achieved when those in power have the courage and vision to put the best interests of children and families at the heart of political policymaking.
When you look at the findings of James Heckman, can we really afford not to?