I can remember clearly the frustration of wanting to be grown up. As a child, I read a lot and the books showed me places and people far more interesting, exciting and most importantly, more autonomous than myself. They had adventures and lives that turned on the decisions they made and fiction or non fiction, I longed for such freedom; to be considered grown up enough that your voice mattered.
I believe that feeling of frustration still exists for children. Day in, day out, in village, town and city, children internalise that they are not yet grown up enough to be listened to and their views, aspirations and decisions will remain largely ignored. They are told that they need to grow up to be considered to have voices that will be as valued as adults and they receive message upon message from society around them that they do not have the experience, knowledge and independence necessary to make and act on decisions which affect them. The land of childhood is an extraordinary place; on one hand, idealised as a state and time of innocence and security and on the other, considered a fertile breeding ground for misbehaviour, misrule and menace. These two descriptions exist simultaneously in the adult imagination and neither bear the close-up scrutiny of reality. Just like adults, children are neither angels nor demons, but something in between. Capable of good and evil, children like adults, are subject to impulse and desire; bias and bad judgement, but they also bear other similarities – the ability to love, goodness, hardwork and humour. They are people too. I think we are in danger of setting this consideration so far back in policy and decision- making in education, that we are in danger of forgetting it altogether.
Children are held in childhood – a place which I am sometimes convinced must seem to them like a draughty, austere station waiting-room, where long list of rules and requirements are displayed which they cannot hope to meet and which continually highlights the exotic, exciting and colourful destinations of the future adult world from which they are barred. The problem is, that while they wait, something happens. Children do not exist in a sanitised space, sealed from and immune to the world around them. They watch and they listen. They talk and internalise. They learn the rules of the adult world without having any real stake in them and this seems to me to be the root of many of our problems in the current education system but also the means of addressing them.
Children learn that despite this country being a signatory to the UNCRC, schools are still largely undemocratic institutions, organised on the basis of unequal power relations between students and teachers. They learn that rights, respect and responsibility is something controlled by adults. They learn that adults seem more concerned about preserving their own authority than educating them in shared democratic practices. They start to internalise that their own individuality, rather than the interests of the community of which they are a part, is best. As children wait in childhood we are actively promoting the wrong things. Wanting to be grown up seems still to be formed by wanting to be like grown ups, and there is plenty of evidence that media preoccupation with fame, money, power, success and influence is taking its toll on how children view what adulthood means and what they’re aiming for in life. We show them this side of adulthood but actively choose to restrict the more worthwhile citizenship and decision making possibilities. This seems to me to be the wrong way round.
What then of the solutions? Teacher burnout, dissatisfaction with the job and retention issues feature heavily in current education concerns. Behaviour problems, no excuses clamp downs, exclusions and off-rolling – these too indicate a system in dire trouble. Every single one of these issues is linked to relationships. If we spent more time on democratic practices in schools – and yes, that does mean rethinking how schools are organised and the roles teachers play in them- if we spent more of our energies on including children in their education and sharing the decision making process, then there might be real scope for solving those issues through the establishment of more positive and engaging relationships. Education should not be about keeping children under control, but about teaching and learning in partnership. Education should not be so costly to practitioners as to make them ill, but founded on mutual respect and shared goals, promoting health and happiness. Democratic practices make it less likely that behaviour issues arise because children are invested in the process of learning (Covell et al. 2010) and the benefits of implementing a rights respecting approach are far reaching, going beyond the immediate benefits for the child and the school and out into the wider community (Dunhill, 2018). Maybe, just maybe, including children democratically in schools, emphasising their rights and the rights of others might prove to be the game-changer. Positive relationships in the classroom make job satisfaction, sound mental health and teacher retention more likely.
Whilst we continue to exclude children and young people from the really important aspects of being an adult which is to have knowledge of, experience in and responsibility for decisions which affect the individual (Article 12, UNCRC, 1989), is it any wonder that children want to escape childhood? They see adults having all the control, all the power and in their eyes, all the fun. They understand that it is adults voices that count. It is imperative to think seriously about what sort of adults we want them to be and whether in the twenty-first century, our present system is fit for purpose. You know what I think.