Monday 24 December 2007

Daemons, gobblers and education policy

I went to see The Golden Compass last night. Perhaps I had low expectations, since I kindof think Northern Lights is a work of genius, but it was really rather brilliant. The target was, predictably, less obviously organised religion, but some of Philip Pullman’s other meanings were made clearer, and that heightened the whole experience for me. It also made me think about the politics of education.

Because the film and the book include a very urgent message. There are, after all, such things as Gobblers. There is, in fact, an all-powerful branch of the established power that is experimenting with cutting the daemons out of children. As a former teacher, Pullman knows that all too well.

His choice of the word was specific: ‘daemon’ in Latin is ‘genius’, and we are talking here about the heart, imagination, creativity and divine spark in us all. Of course there are forces out there now who are intent on removing that aspect from children, to make them more amenable, more employable, more receptive to consumer culture.

It so happened this week that someone close to me (I’ve promised not to identify her) left her job as a primary school teaching assistant, partly because this painful process of daemon removal is now so obvious. To those who believe education can be fixed by more money, or any more of the usual technocratic tweaking, I would say this:

Think about the poor seven-year-olds who are never allowed outside in the natural world, or encouraged to paint or make music, but are lectured for an hour about how to put glitter onto glue (or who have to draw from miserable photocopies rather than from life, or who have bits of stories for comprehension rather than the whole things).

Or the nursery teachers with their clipboards in the playground, ticking off the various stages of play development set by DfES (but never actually help them play, heaven forfend).

Or the eight-year-olds who are not allowed to learn aspects of reading or writing, which the rest of the class is learning, because they have been ‘graded’ at a lower scale (just because the 11+ has gone, it doesn’t mean we’ve got rid of selection).

So is New Labour’s utilitarian education policy really the target of The Golden Compass? Not precisely, but that’s what I thought about as I watched the scenes of daemon-removal. I’m sure that’s what Pullman thought about when he wrote it: the people at the heart of British education who are so concerned to divide learning up into measurable parts that they can’t put the heart of education back together again.

And for Lib Dems like me who yearn for an education policy capable of confronting this widespread, pernicious caricature that passes for schooling – not for everybody, but often for the poorest – then let’s spend 2008 developing a language with which to talk about it, to name the evil and to tackle it head on.

Friday 7 December 2007

"The interests of the child are paramount"

It isn’t easy to argue against the ingrained New Labour doctrine that, for professionals at least, “the interests of the child are paramount”. But, having listened to the interview with the paediatrician Dr David Southall yesterday – now struck off the medical register – and with one of his victims today, you can’t help feeling that the doctrine can so easily become a mask for a hideous tyranny over children and families.

I’m not of course arguing that there is no such thing as child abuse – you can see minor versions of it every day in the street, especially round here – but there are some major drawbacks to the doctrine in practice, and here are three of them:

1. There are only rare cases when the child’s interests are really separate from its parent’s. In the vast majority of cases, even in cases of abuse, any child will have better life chances than they would do in social service care. It is neat, bureaucratic thinking to imagine that children’s interests and those of the rest of the family can be separated and opposed. It is rarely true. Unless the interests of the whole family is taken into account, you can ruin the lives of all of them.

2. In practice, the doctrine means that, as a parent – and I know this all too well, looking into the eyes of the health visitors – professionals are no longer on your side. And when parents sense this, it widens the very gulf with professionals and agencies which allows abuse to happen unchecked. Even as a relatively articulate and middle-class parent, I am uncomfortably aware that some of the agencies I deal with now treat me with an officially-sanctioned aura of mild suspicion. If I feel that, you hardly need any more explanation why so many others are designated ‘hard to reach’.

3. I won’t name the cases, because I don’t want to test this theory in the libel courts, but it is increasingly clear that – for some embattled and flummoxed professionals (police, social services, paediatricians) – if they don’t know the reason for the problem before them, they tend to assume that the parents did it. Who knows how the McCann case will end, but I’m inclined to believe this is another example. Yet parenting is now so unfashionable, and regarded with such suspicion by what has become a child protection industry, that these convenient interpretations come to court and children are removed from their parents, never to return – even if the grounds were later found to be completely false.

Once again, I’m not denying that child abuse is serious and must be dealt with. What I am saying, is that the child protection industry is, and always has been, part of the abuse. And behind that reasonable sounding mantra “the child’s interests are paramount” is a cruel bureaucratic blindness that can justify absolutely anything.

Add to that a sprinkling of local authority targets to increase the number of successful fosterings, and you have the makings of a racket that is truly evil – when social service departments hide behind the secrecy of the family courts to remove children of those they deem too stupid, or too peculiar, to have them.

I know two Lib Dem MPs currently tackling cases related to this. At some point we need to see them not so much as a series of individual miscarriages of justice, and realise it is something bigger: that, when doctrines allow professionals unchecked power – even in the name of children – then history shows that it is always abused.