Christina Milarvie Quarrell is a Poet Photographer Artist born and raised in the Govanhill Gorbals communities. Her work celebrates the values of people before profit. Art is her passion and she utilises community arts as a basis for the creation and gathering of working class culture, poems, stories and songs.
John Davis is a Professor of Childhood Inclusion at the University of Edinburgh (who will be moving to the University of Strathclyde in June 2018) he researches and writes on a range of issues including childhood, disability, inclusion, social justice and anti-discrimination with the aim of supporting children and families to be at the centre of resolving their own life issues.
We have previously written on the need to demystify early learning and creativity (see link here); on the need to Let the Flower’s Bloom (see link here) and on the need to ensure male-female learning relationships are based on ideas of equity, love and nurture. When writing about love, learning and nurture we realised that our education system often lacks a sense of fairness and that policies that aim to enable schooling to be more equitable often lack clarity on what constitutes a learning barrier.
Our post sets out to critically analyse the claim, made in a recent ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) film called Resilience, that a ‘toxic childhood’ currently engulfs our children and that a lack of ‘self-control’ in educational settings only stems from past experiences in the home lives. Our post’s central aim is to promote a more empathetic way of working with our children in Schools. We argue that a more empathetic, participatory, creative and equitable approach to learning can be achieved without us introducing ’toxic childhood’ check lists, utilising approaches that only ‘assess’ children in relation to ‘health professional’ notions of childhood, and promoting techniques that overly focus on ‘apolitical’ ideas of what causes negative family experiences.
This post also poses questions concerning: what childhood should be and what education is for? It questions the idea that childhood should involve children being physically assaulted by adults and employs John Maclean’s words and Mary Brooksbank’s poems ‘Nae Regrets’ and ‘Oh Dear Me’ to argue that childhood should be a less ‘thrawn’ time, that education should encourage children to have revolutionary thoughts and that educational settings should enable children to find their intrinsic motivation for learning rather than promote cultures of reward and punishment.
In particular, we widen the ACE notion of learning barriers (which include the peculiarly American issues of experiencing gun violence) to encompass issues such as poverty, poor housing, austerity, the cost of the school day, low paid jobs, racism, sexism, homophobia and disability discrimination. Our critique of ACE enables us to conclude that Scotland needs a politics of dignity to address and confront the politics of Westminster and the UK’s broken economic model.
Our post also critiques the ACE Film and our education system for lacking a children’s rights focus. In so doing, our post poses questions concerning our willingness to enable child-led learning, our ability to devolve power from adults to children and our capacity to enable the full diversity of children to adopt leadership roles in their learning communities. We question whether the pupil equity fund (PEF) is simply a sticking plaster that hides the need for more fundamental societal reform and use the words of Jimmy Reid to raise concerns about the extent to which PEF projects and process will be built on children’s voices, wishes and aspirations. Concerns regarding child voice are also utilised in the post to question the extent to which the Empowering Schools Act will reduce arbitrary adult power in schools.
Towards the end of the post we employ Christina Milarvie Quarrell’s poetry (‘All Scotland’s Children’ and ‘Letter To Marie’ to conclude that ordinary people hold in their own hands, lives and communities the power to resolve our issues with Scottish childhood and education. And, that young people can provide the solution to Scotland’s ills if: we believe in them; support their complex identities; recognise their diverse ways of being; enable them to experience empathetic relationships and support them to articulate their hopes, aspirations and emotions.
A country’s approach to child law tells you a lot about its values. Since the establishment of the Holyrood Parliament, Scotland has enshrined children’s right to:
- Receive inclusive mainstream schooling (2000);
- Have their barriers to learning addressed (including the impacts of poverty and poor housing 2004/2009);
- Access a key person to organise support for learning and to help children and families to address their wider life issues (2005/2014);
- Enjoy healthy school meals (2007),
- Improved children’s hearings (2011),
- Their cases investigated by the commissioner for children and young people (2014):
- Not have to experience passive smoking in cars (2016)
Add to that: the provision of baby boxes, 1440 free hours of early years provision for 3 and 4 year olds (by 2020) and the forthcoming Child Poverty Act; you get the feeling that the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood is interested in legislating to improve children’s lives.
Most recently, Holyrood started the process of equalising the law on ‘assault’ to ensure that children have the same rights as adults and that we no longer condone violence against children. Responses to this policy have, in the main, been extremely positive. However, we find that a small minority of folk are still embitteredly resistant to policies that seek to help children improve their place in the world. For example, the Catholic Church has been widely criticised for opposing the change to the law on assault (see ‘Catholic Church savaged after it opposes smacking ban’)
The Church stated that the policy would interfere with parenting. How ironic, that in a year that began with former ‘inmates’ giving evidence of their abuse at the hands of Nuns (and others see reporting on the inquiry here) of Smyllum Park ‘orphanage’ in Lanark – that the Church should be unable to demonstrate any evidence of ‘Mea Culpa’ or to find in their hearts an ounce of compassion for a policy that has been long overdue.
When listening to and reading accounts of children who experience smacking – there is one clear message – ‘It hurts inside’. When we enable adults to assault children, it sends a message that violence is ok, control is ok and ‘my’ adult power can never be questioned. The same message that is sent out by domestic abusers (see this link) and paedophiles.
One Nun in the child abuse inquiry apologised because children in the setting had been sexually abused by a ‘scoutmaster’. Yet, she seemed incapable of taking responsibility for her own behaviour (she is accused of regularly beating children). She appeared unable or unwilling to make a link between her own adult culture of physical abuse and the culture that enabled child sexual abuse.
Alice Miller’s writing defines ‘poisonous pedagogy’ as approaches to childhood and child-rearing that are authoritarian, involve humiliation and are used to justify mistreatment of family members. Miller argues that the antidote to ‘poisonous pedagogy’ is to expose it to the ‘light of truth’.
The conversations I had in the United States gave support to my own experience that courage can be just as infectious as fear. And if we are courageous enough to face the truth, the world will change, for the power of that “poisonous pedagogy” which has dominated us for so long has been dependent upon our fear, our confusion, and our childish credulity; once it is exposed to the light of truth, it will inevitably disappear.’
From the Introduction of Alice Miller’s book ‘For Your Own Good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence’.
Miller argues that we should recognise and resist abusive processes and move from cultures of fear and cruelty to courageously engage with our lived human realities.
But, it is not just child-rearing in ‘orphanages’ and families that can rigidly impose ideas of the correct way to behave, involve arbitrary adult power and be inhumane. Many school teachers utilise naughty walls and other rewards/punishment approaches to force children to ‘control’ their ways of being and to ensure child compliance within their work places. They do so without understanding the connections between the techniques of paedophiles and their own techniques. In contrast, we want children to be free to say no to adults – it keeps them safe.
Our series of blog posts on early learning argued that creative, messy and child-led learning was under threat from advocates of top down performance indicators that test children and approaches that seek to instil in young people the correct ways to behave. They linked contemporary approaches of creative learning to the notion that children do not have to be continually ‘taught’, that adults need to ‘step back’ and that learning that comes from an intrinsic sense of self has deeper meaning.
In particular, our posts connected rigid educational approaches in Scottish educational settings to the tradition that children should not utilise their own languages for learning (Gaelic, Scots, etc) and to racist values that suggested highlanders were ‘ignorant’, ‘naive’ and ‘savages’.
Ways of thinking, which separate out and/or shame children because of their culture or home back grounds, are problematic because they kill off childhood creativity and fail to engendered ideas of inclusion, anit-discrimination and fairness. For example, Mary Brooksbanks is now famous for her poetry and song,. Yet she was excluded from ‘mainstream; schooling because of prejudice concerning visual impairment.
Mary had many capabilities e.g. tae shift bobbins fast, make poetry and create song, but, the values that underpinned schooling at the time meant that she experienced very little schooling because the system was not set up to include her, nor engage with her abilities. She, therefore, had to learn about life through her family, her role working in the jute-mill and the political events that unfolded in her world of work.
Reflecting on her life in the poem ‘Nae Regrets’, she indicates that her life wasn’t what it should have been:
‘Nae Regrets’ by Mary Brooksbank
I’m growin’ auld, and still it seems
Life’s no jist empty o’ its dreams
In waukrift nichts there comes tae me
Memories o’ whit used tae be.
A gey roch road, fell snell weather
A fecht tae mak it a wee bit smoother
Gin we show our eident grit
We’ll mak it even better yet.
Langs the road and steys the brae
We’ll no’ lament, we’ve hae’en oor day
Tho’ it wisna’ a’ it shoulda been
A gey thrawn speil, sma’ rest atween.
I’, growin’ auld, I feel gey prood
In youth I ta’en the rauchle road
Gin I’d my time a ower’ again
I’d spent it jist as I hae dune.
Mary’s poem speaks of constant hard work and hard times, ‘A gey thrawn speil, sma’ rest atween’. More positively, the poem also indicates that we can all work together, as we have rephrased it here, tae mak oor gey rochle road a gey bit smoother yet. This ability to improve our lives is why the list of childhood policies mentioned at the beginning of this post is so important. Such policy processes should enable childhood to become a much less ‘thrawn’ place. And, one of the main places that we can improve childhood opportunity is in our education system. But, what is education for? Is it appropriate to seek to solve our society’s ills in such a place?
This blog site has previously discussed how Froebelian principles include the idea that children should learn about the world through visiting and experiencing different occupations, interacting with nature and growing our own gardens because this integrates us with our community during our earliest years and enables us to make connections between our identities and different ways of being in the world.
Such ideas have just as much currency today, as when put forward over a 100 years ago. Mary Brookbank’s knew about the importance of collaborative and community based=learning. She learned about music in her family, she learned her role as a ‘shifter’ from others and later, as an adult, attended classes held by John Maclean in Glasgow concerning politics, socialism and the need to improve the lives of working people.
Mary Brookbanks political stance was well formed before she met Maclean, it was a politics of lived experience, a politics of direct action and a politics bore out of participation in Jute mill strikes. Her politics were expressed in her very way of being, they were not simply, a politics of talking a good game but failing to practice what we preach.
Mary’s politics was a lived politics that understood the consequence of exclusion from learning, the impact on health of poor work conditions in the mill and the deadly outcomes of authoritarian, exploitative and abusive employers. Mary sought to confront the conditions of her life and, as was the case with Maclean, was sent to prison for her beliefs. During Mary’s time in our world, black, gay and disabled activities, also employed direct action and peaceful dissent to bring about change and also were locked up for confronting the ‘establishment’.
The curriculum for excellence in Scotland suggests that our education system should enable children to become confident citizens. It is important that you learn the ability to confidently assert your rights in the face of discrimination, exclusion and exploitation. It is especially important when politicians fail us in favour of economically powerful corporations and those with vested interests in preventing change e.g. the Catholic Church in Scotland or the National Rifle Association in the USA.
We have published this article in a year where young people have been protesting about their friends’ massacre in Florida and white men, who think themselves powerful, have been threatening those grieving young people. When those men threaten young people with arrested and criminal convictions, rather than enact the changes that are so glaringly required to gun laws in the USA – those men seek to bully children and young people, rather than confront their own ‘male’ values, power and prejudice.
A recently released film called Defiant Lives has charted the modern history of direct activism of disabled people in the UK, USA and Australia. We can see a connection between this movie and the young people who are protesting for changes in US Gun law. This video has meaning and messages for those young people from Florida who seek to change the conditions of their lives. This message is: do not be bullied, do not be brow beaten, do not be diminished – the power of collective protest can and will bring the change you aspire to.
The Defiant Lives film, illustrates how disabled people challenged what and who public services (education, transport and health) were for. Disabled activists sought to end processes of segregation and they were supported in their aims by LGBT activists and Black activists.
Mary Brookbanks was an activist who sought to change society through collective action. She was excluded from mainstream schooling because it was unable to adapt to her requirements and she lived at a time where children could and were exploited, in the mills, for financial profit. Today children’s exclusion from and within mainstream education is connected to rigid educational approaches that over tests children; blame cultures that revel in exam result league tables; and deficit model thinking suggests childhood inabilities are to do with ‘poor’ parenting.
The Defiant Lives film contrasts techniques of exclusion with strength-based approaches where disabled children are viewed as having a variety of capabilities (e.g. in Mary’s case to be a poet, a worker, an activist and a political leader). This film shows us how, for decades, disabled people employed direct peaceful action to demonstrate their capabilities to a society that lacked a moral compass.
The Defiant Lives movie indicates that the UK shifted away from institutionalisation but in some countries this shift has still not occurred, e.g. in eastern European countries where disabled children are still routinely taken away from parents/families and locked away in hospital ‘nurseries’ (see the work of LUMOS that seeks to address such exclusion). Towards the end of The Defiant Lives movie Liz Carr, an actress and comedienne, indicates that Westminster politics have enabled techniques of exclusion to return e.g. in social care settings that lock disabled people away, welfare systems that sanction people with mental health issues and a political system that unfairly removes mobility allowances.
In contrast to such approaches, we now advocate that Disabled children should receive access to education at the earliest possible opportunity. For example, early learning settings should enable all children to build empathetic and collaborative relationships with their peer group, whatever their different identities. We encourage parents and relatives to assume competence from the earliest moments of children’s lives e.g. when playing with babies, responding to sounds and exchanging facial expressions.
Rather than imposing adult ideas of learning on early years settings (e.g. assessments, literacy, phonics, jigsaws and ‘word games’), we encourage professionals to support children’s creativity and enable children to lead their daily ‘learning journeys’ (see link here). Lynn McNair’s research demonstrated that when we enable children to lead their own learning they become more participatory and empathetic with other children.
Similarly, there are researchers that argue that men who attend their children’s birth are more empathetic and appreciative of the experience and its pivotal connection to our sense of humanness. Hence, it is important for us to also challenge entrenched ideas about who should be involved in children’s care and what early learning should entail.
The Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) research has established that it is creative play in early childhood that most enables language development/achievement in primary school. GUS have published research briefings that challenge the ACE films assertion that gaps between children’s educational outcomes relate to a a lack of ambition on the part of children or parents – see link here. Research also tells us that the imposition of rigid tests, resource packs and adult defined activities – will directly fail to enable childhood creativity (see Krystallia Kyritsi’s and Lynn McNair’s work on this at The University of Edinburgh).
In relation to childhood, such a shift, to promoting the benefits and supportive nature of learning networks and relationships, requires us to consider the issues that impact on children’s abilities to build relationships and recognise how children’s own identities and aspirations provide intrinsic motivation for learning (e.g. children’s aspiration to learn should stems from their internal engine rather than external threats).
Some professionals employ fear tactics to create external motivators for learning and create a ‘dangerous’ world to force children to carry out their adult wishes. For example, statements like ‘You won’t get a job or career if you don’t turn up to school on time’, ‘You can’t stay at school if you wear the wrong shoes’, ‘You won’t have a future if you don’t pass your exams’ and ‘You aren’t welcome in this school if change your ‘normal’ hair colour’, are employed to make children fearful of their own choices, their ability to innovate and their capability for taking risks.
Adult bullying of children in schools has been related to snobbery concerning class and poverty. For example, in the past books such as Ball’s The Micropolitics Of The School and Willis’s Learning to labour charted the ‘hidden curriculum’ in schools where adult prejudices create barriers to ‘working class’ children’s learning. Contemporary books e.g. Childhood Poverty And Social Exclusion From A Child’s Perspective by Tess Ridge now connect childhood learning barriers to how poverty impacts on children’s sense of Fitting in’ and ‘joining in’. There has, also, been a lot of work understanding the impact of poverty on families’ abilities to meet the costs of the School day:
‘The Cost of the School Day research report presents learning and recommendations from children and staff, along with resources to support poverty proofing in other schools and local authorities:
- From uniform and travel to lunch, trips, clubs and home learning: the key financial barriers affecting children’s participation and experiences at school
- Existing good practice measures which reduce costs, ensure equal access to opportunities and reduce poverty related stigma, along with ideas about what more can be done
- Recommendations to local authorities, schools and other stakeholders
- Resources to support poverty proofing, including reflective questions and sample sessions for children
- Examples of simple initial changes made by schools participating in Cost of the School Day, including removing the need for expensive badged uniform, improving communications with parents about financial support and starting homework clubs.
Read the Executive Summary
Read the full Cost of the School Day Report’
These reports demonstrate that schools have been slow to understand the impact of poverty on children and families but that there are concrete steps that can be taken to ensure that schools reduce the stigma that children experience (for more on how to address child poverty see the child poverty action group report here).
Low paid jobs put pressure on parents to work longer hours to feed, clothe, house and heat their families. We are back, in some way, to the times Mary Brookbanks wrote of when her jute worker colleagues took in extra work – with the subsequent impact on their health and happiness:
It was a common sight to see women, after a long ten-hour-day in the mill, running to the stream wash-houses with the family washing. They worked up to the last few days before having their bairns. Often they would call in at the calenders from their work and carry home bundles of sacks to sew. These were paid for at the rate of 5 pence for 25, 6 pence for a coarser type of sack. Infant and maternal mortality in Dundee was the highest in the country (See link here for more).
The UK still has stubbornly high infant mortality compared to other countries. Our foodbank society is slow to address childhood poverty. Food bank society doesn’t work, the fact we have had to run food banks simply masks deeper problems with our society and an economy that does not enable work to pay (see Canadian writing on this here).
The shame in the eyes of some of the respondents who were paraded in front of the Ace film’s cameras reminds you of Dickensian shame of characters in a Christmas carol. Insensitive professional approaches, welfare sanctions and food banks – are all mechanisms that shame our society not children who live in poverty. Dickensian approaches should not be the solution to anything. We need a politics of dignity to address and confront the politics of Westminster and the UK’s broken economic model. Mary Brooksbank highlighted the need to better reward those that work hardest (see link here to video where Karine Polwarts explains some of Mary’s life experiences before singing the song):
‘Oh Dear Me’ – The Jute Mill Song By Mary Brooksbank
O, dear me, the mill is running fast
And we poor shifters canna get nae rest
Shifting bobbins coarse and fine
They fairly make you work for your ten and nine
O, dear me, I wish this day were done
Running up and doon the Pass is nae fun
Shiftin’, piecin’, spinning warp, weft and twine
To feed and clothe ma bairnie offa ten and nine
O, dear me, the world is ill-divided
Them that works the hardest are the least provided
But I maun bide contented, dark days or fine
There’s no much pleasure living offa ten and nine
O, dear me, the world is ill-divided, them that works the hardest are the least provided, indeed. Yet, some commentators are slow to understand this message.
For example, there has been recent media coverage about the need to address the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) on pupil’s learning relationships. Ideas about ‘ACE’ stem from a USA film called Resilience which has been shown in various community centres in Scotland. The film is directed by James Redford, son of Robert. In our post we will, refer to this film as ‘the ACE film’.
The film promotes the term ‘toxic childhood’ to explain the impact of key factors on children and describes an ‘ACE Check List’ which medics have found to have negative implications for health in later life. The term Toxic Childhood in the ACE film should not be confused with the title of a separate UK book on the negative impact of contemporary life on childhood play and creativity.
ACE factors include:
- Having a parent or adult swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you
- Having a parent or adult push, grab, slap, or throw something at you
- Seeing your mother pushed, grabbed, slapped, kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, hit with something hard, have something thrown at her, be repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife.
- Having a person 5 years older than you touch your body in a sexual way
- Feeling that no one in your family loved you, thought you were important/special, looked out for each other, felt close to each other, or supported each other
- Feeling you didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and/or had no one to protect you
- Experiencing Drug or alcohol abusing parents/family members
- Experiencing the loss of a biological parent through divorce, abandonment, or other reasons (e.g. imprisonment)
- Experiencing a household member depressed or mentally ill, or attempting suicide?
The film tell us that having an ACE score of 3 or above could have dire adverse health effects on us (ironically the film its-self comes with a health warning).
The film shows lots of clips of children struggling at school who have high ACE scores and lots of patronising professionals ‘telling them’ about the solutions to their ‘uncontrolled’ behaviour. Some of the professionals in the film talk to children and parents about their ‘problem behaviour’ in ways that most counsellors in the UK would find highly unethical. Indeed, some of the professional ‘behaviour’ in the film appears to re-produce the types of ‘abusive’ power relationships that the film associates with ACE – e.g. professionals are seen telling Black parents and children who they are, what there problems are and what the solutions are. Whilst, children’s own voices are strangely absent.
In the ACE film it is unclear how an Ace assessment actually leads to change and actually moves away from discourses of blame/shame. The processes are under explored that turn negative life experience into reduced educational outcomes . The ACE film mainly perpetuates the deficit idea that people who live in poverty have to be ‘taught’ how to control themselves and fails to mention,at all, how key USA adverse childhood experiences such as gun violence, drugs, poverty and poor housing can and should be politically addressed.
Nor does the ACE film, at any point, relate childhood anxiety to the way middle class professionals’ miss-treat children who experience poverty. Professionals are depicted as white-coated nights in shining armour who are riding to rescue of all these poor children. Poor children who, without professional ‘intervention’, will go on to be adults who have terrible problems.
At no point does the video point out that there is an industry of middle-class consultants using such films to exploit children for financial gain, blame families and hoodwink public servants into paying for strategies to ACE that don’t work e.g. the PPP parenting approach that failed in Glasgow.
The Glasgow effect report connects ill-health to having a lack of power to change your life and design your communities. If the ACE film simply leads to more interference by do-gooder professionals who think they have all the answers, it will simply re-create the very circumstances of disempowerment it describes in families, in public services.
John Davis and Harla Octarra’s October 2016 Common space Article here drew on Maggie Melon’s writing in the link Scottish Left Review to argue that social-barriers inhibit parents and children’s ability to build strong relationships with family members and that a failure to understand the impact of poverty leads to social work processes of surveillance that stigmatise large numbers of families.
John and Harla suggested that problems arise when you fail to consider the history and context of intervention in families living in poverty. Maggie Mellon argued that it was poverty and inequality that stunted children’s lives and that these things could not be tackled by case working the entire population of children.
This is a lesson that the ACE video fails to recognise, indeed the video depicts events where whole audiences are encouraged to identify their own ACE score without thought for the implications of this practice for labelling of individuals and communities. Similar social work, religious and educational practices of labelling were identified as the root cause of abuse of indigenous children in residential educational ‘homes’ in Canada – you would expect a film that is connected to the ‘Sundance Festival’ to be more aware of the historical, cultural and discrimination issues at play in health, education and social work services.
Maggie Melon has argued that instead of whole scale testing of families, the basis for overall well-being of children includes: housing, jobs, income, education, health services and access to the natural environment.
Christina has written about this in her poetry book To Heal A Wounded Spirit:
All Scotland’s Children by Christina Milarvie Quarrell
Scotland has lost her way.
Young people without jobs.
Older adults eating or heating.
Families with no homes.
Hope a vague memory.
Bankers (polite term)
Gutting our country.
To sort out this mess.
Greed must be attacked.
People not profit.
Our collective drive.
No economic guru needed.
The writing on the wall
All Scottish people
Alive and well
For All Scotland’s People
The relentless focus on ‘risk’ has created an authoritarian rather than a supportive approach to childhood. The focus on risk as an explanation for poor educational outcomes – masks the deeper socio-economic factors that creat pressure in families and lead to family breakdown.
When scaring viewers about the long term risks associated with adverse childhood experiences, the ACE film shows little awareness of this critique,. The makers of the ACE film seemed ignorant of the difference between correlation (two things are associated) and cause (one thing makes another happen). We need to ask children what causes their adverse experience not assume adults know best.
Maggie Melon argued that a surveillance and ‘child protection’ approach made social workers jobs difficult to do because the public didn’t trust them.” And there is a danger that ACE ways of thinking make families suspicious of professionals who are overly focussed on providing their own professional solutions to complex family issues.
Just as authoritarian men inhibit women’s lives, authoritarian professionals skew local power relations. Public service power relations, austerity politics, poverty and inequality stunt children’s lives as much as the power relations in families. For example, poverty and inequality manifest themselves in poor local planning on housing which in Scotland has traditionally involved top-down decision-making that brakes up communities and families. Children require enabling not authoritarian relationships – whether they be provided by professionals, parents, wider family members or friends.
Teachers in schools are being asked to close the attainment gap (see definition here) but there is a danger that teachers watching the ACE film will take action without discussing their plans with children and will employ rigid approaches to evaluate their interventions. The ACE film creates its own sort of risk: that we end up with more overt testing of children that creates greater stigmatisation and alienation in schools.
If PEF evaluation is too concerned with adult imposed tests – then the PEF money will do more harm than good by simply increasing pupil stigmatisation by teachers. There is a danger that teachers will become frustrated when thoughtless top down initiatives do not work and reproduce the child/parent blame cultures of the ACE film to explain why teacher-led PEF initiatives have failed.
If PEF money is to have impact, we need to ensure initiatives are based on mutual understanding, collaborative working and shared solution making. Any initiative needs to be: long term, well planned and involve an interactive process. The PEF money needs to enable better understanding of pupils meanings (e.g. in relation to learning) rather than apportion blame if and when rigid activities fail to statistically bear fruit.
It will be very easy for disaffected teachers to blame children and parents if they cannot prove the money they have received from the Pupil Equity Fund (PEF) has been spent wisely. It will be easy for professionals to blame families rather than take responsibility for inadequate initiatives.
John Dewey argued for professional enquiry, pragmatism and recognition of context. We can see echoes of Dewey’s ideas in calls for PEF funding to be ‘properly’ evaluated in Scotland. Writers in England have questioned whether teachers have the skills to evaluate the ‘pupil premium’ funding initiative (see link here).
In John’s ‘Multiprofessional Children’s Services’ book written with Mary Smith in 2012 and published by Sage, they argued that there are contradictory ideas concerning what should be evaluate and by whom (e.g. in relation to schooling and other related services for disabled children and children excluded from schooling). This book argues we need to move towards more relational approaches to evaluation that helps children and young people identify their barriers to learning and their own solutions to those barriers.
But, relational approaches require professionals to talk to pupils in ways that are not hierarchical, that engender trust and that foster mutual respect. We can all think of a school teacher who we would never have wanted to discuss our personal problems with, we can all think of learning moments where that school teacher was the main barrier to learning and we can all think of times when our learning barriers had nothing to do with our home lives or individual learning approaches and everything to do with the negative cultures of a specific school or classroom.
The PEF money may help with issues like the cost of the school day – but it could equally be spent on parachuting in expensive ‘experts’. Similarly, it is difficult to see how one off PEF projects will address the wider community and social economic issues that impact on schools.
The Scottish Government are investing serious amounts in this strategy:
‘Pupil Equity Funding is additional funding from the Scottish Government’s £750 million Attainment Scotland Fund, allocated directly to schools and targeted at closing the poverty related attainment gap. This funding is to be spent at the discretion of Headteachers working in partnership with each other and their local authority. In 2017/18, Scotland’s schools received a share of over £120 million, and in 2018/19 this is set to increase to over £122 million.’
Yet, there are concerns that the Government are simply moving around money that was previously cut from budgets and/or that short term educational fixes will fail because they do not address core economic issues that alienate people in Scotland and that can only be addressed with Scottish independence.
The words of Jimmy Reid (in his famous speech) attest to the fact that children and young people in Scotland feel alienation and frustration born from the experience of being excluded from decision making processes:
Everything that is proposed from the establishment seems almost calculated to minimise the role of the people, to miniaturise man. I can understand how attractive this prospect must be to those at the top. Those of us who refuse to be pawns in their power game can be picked up by their bureaucratic tweezers and dropped in a filing cabinet under “M” for malcontent or maladjusted. When you think of some of the high flats around us, it can hardly be an accident that they are as near as one could get to an architectural representation of a filing cabinet.
If modern technology requires greater and larger productive units, let’s make our wealth-producing resources and potential subject to public control and to social accountability. Let’s gear our society to social need, not personal greed. Given such creative re-orientation of society, there is no doubt in my mind that in a few years we could eradicate in our country the scourge of poverty, the underprivileged, slums, and insecurity.
Even this is not enough. To measure social progress purely by material advance is not enough. Our aim must be the enrichment of the whole quality of life. It requires a social and cultural, or if you wish, a spiritual transformation of our country. A necessary part of this must be the restructuring of the institutions of government and, where necessary, the evolution of additional structures so as to involve the people in the decision-making processes of our society.
The ACE film creates a check list for explaining M for malcontent that will fill millions of filing cabinets. Jimmy Reid would have viewed the ACE film as part of the problems of childhood, not the solution to adverse childhood experiences. Reid’s views raise questions about the PEF approach, such as:
- What guarantees do we have that children and young people who are the subjects of ‘PEF’ interventions – will want to be the subjects of laboratory experiments?
- If children demonstrate discontent with PEF processes, will their views be filed under M” for malcontent/maladjusted?
- Will children be asked what they think the solutions to the attainment gap are?
- Will there be considered, qualitative and informed collaborative analysis by parents, professionals and young people of how PEF money should and is utilised in schools?
- Can PEF actually have an impact, when the powers that be at Westminster are hell bent on destroying the social fabric of our society?
All these questions will be answered in the next few years. In the meantime, we should focus on enabling children and young people to lead their own learning and create their own PEF initiatives at the same time as encouraging or local and national politicians to take the action that is necessary to address the Westminster induced inequality that is the scourge of our nation.
It is time to recognise that the massive mobilisation of young people in the cause of Scottish Independence in 2014 has been under analysed for its significance and meaning. In particular the role of working-class young people in the independence movement needs to be better understood. Young working-class people in Scotland have aspirations that the country presently fails to enable. We should not seek to reduce working-class children to the status of passive objects in their own lives, rather, we should seek to support them unleash their ideas in our communities.
Their mobilisation in 2014 was born of a frustration with the status quo, frustration with a school system that over emphasises academic qualifications and frustration with the snobbery of school systems that do not engage with their lived lives (see link here to young people from Investing in Children’s in-put into a Common Weal policy lab on Education and here to their ‘Out of The Shadows’ videos – that explain the discrimination they have experienced in schools) .
Child poverty is an industry that utilises and stigmatises children for financial gain. Adverse childhood experiences impact on our later lives but so does the stigma of poverty and the practices (such as parent blaming) that they foster. In Scotland, we know that adverse childhood experiences have an impact on education but we are also very wary of the knee jerk conclusions of the ACE film; that we need to teach children resilience and self-control.
Through the Getting It Right For Every Child Approach, the Additional Support for Learning Act and their subsequent guidance, we have developed over a decade of innovative practice on how to prevent childhood experiences becoming learning barriers. This involves taking a balanced approach to children’s life issues; trying to work on removing barriers to learning through dialogue (e.g. using the GIRFEC my world assessment) and by enabling children and parents to work out what they think the solutions are to their life problems.
Previously, we have written in this blog about how children (and adults) benefit from, love, support and encouragement. Of how our own lives have been enabled by people who supported our learning. Christine wrote about this in her poem ‘Letter from Marie 6.8.1997’.
Letter from Marie 6.8.1997 By Christina Milarvie Quarrell
This has been a trying few weeks for you.
I have been thinking about you all the time.
Try now to clear your thoughts,
Think peace and love,
And remember we had lots of good times especially with our Mum.
Lots of relaxing at the cottage,
sunny days spent talking and sitting with gran as well.
I remember laughs with Mum and a feeling of freedom that we really had a home.
This is your time Christine,
you have loved and given of yourself to all you have met,
now take care of yourself.
This is your time for freedom on your terms.
Don’t think too much just go with your flow.
We have so many jewels in our crown as a family
and lots of joyful times ahead,
lets go full steam, we only get one chance (I Think!).
I love you and treasure your friendship.
Your loving sister Marie x x x x x x x
ps. – A rose of Sunshine Yellow.
An omen, just after writing to you I went out to the garden to hang out the washing and there shining through the shrubbery was this lovely yellow rose from Mum’s rose bush.
I was sure the rose bush had died. What a sight and reassurance of life to come when I saw this beautiful message in the form of this rose.
Marie x x x x x x x x x
The first rose of renewal for Christine.
‘Letter from Marie’ illustrates the process of love and support that can soothe us when we encounter adverse life experiences. It lasts a life time when you have someone, be it a family member or teacher, who believes in you, supports your own identity and powerfully connects with your emotions.
The ACE film explains that the solutions to adverse childhood experiences is supportive relationships – but it is extremely light on child-led explanations of what that support process looks like.
In Scotland, we know that adverse childhood experiences have an impact on education but we are also very wary of the knee jerk conclusions of the ACE film. The solution to ACE, is to listen to and support children to be powerful in their lives. Abuse is about power, without self-emancipation, political change and equity, ‘resilience’ techniques merely become a short term sticking plaster for more fundamental societal problems.
Here we see a distinct difference in what education is for. To the do-gooder professional, it is a place where they get paid well and can pat themselves on the back for ensuring that children are protected from poor parenting. The do-gooder professional will utilise the Ace film to justify learning interventions that seek to ensure children control themselves and parents do better.
To the, Children’s Rights, LGBT, Disabled, Feminist Black and/or Anti-Poverty activist, education is a place where acting out should be encouraged, where having a strong voice and challenging adults is a good thing because it enables the emergence of new and creative approaches to learning, collaboration and change. The activist thinks, how can we enable children and parents to self-emancipate? In particular, to the children’s rights activist the ACE film presents as yet another process that seeks to control childhood and stigmatise working-class parents.
The recent Empowering Schools consultation was an opportunity to push back on adult control of schools and childhood. The draft bill could have been a focus for child-led learning. But, the draft bill was very disappointing as it seemed to only perceive children’s participation in decision-making in schools as an add on, rather than, a central aspect of educational policy. The final Empowering Schools ACT will need to be drastically changed if we are to shift to children leading educational settings and teachers becoming facilitators of learning.
Small things indicate the power differentials in schools (e.g. why is it the case that community educators and early learning staff do not require children to call them miss/sir but school teachers do?). The final Empowering Schools ACT will need to speak more to the everyday experiences of dis-empowerment that children experience in schools, if it is to drastically improve their sometimes ‘thrawn’ experiences.
The Empowering Schools Act will also need to enshrine the rights of diverse children to adopt leadership roles in their education settings and to address the glass ceiling that means that men disproportionately find their way into headship roles in, for example, secondary schools. Presently, the proposed Act has nothing to say about the misogyny of male head teachers dictating to female pupils what clothes they should wear.
The act does nothing to promote pupil’s rights to powerfully express their own identities (LBGT, Gypsy/Traveller, Goth, etc) and still be able to take up leadership roles representing the school. And, the act fails to indicate how the power that is devolved to schools will not simply increase the control that white men exercise over our educational settings.
Similarly, the ACE video had absolutely nothing to say about anti-discriminatory policies in education that seek to address disabilism, sexism, racism or homophobia. See Cara Blaisdell’s blog on the ACE film here that uses the work of Kristina Konstantoni, Marlies Kustatscher, and Morag Treanor to critique early educational professional’s lack of in depth promotion of anti-discriminatory practice relating to ethnicity, poverty or gender.
Many children and young people are denied the opportunity to develop their sense of self because they lack supportive adults in their lives and experience insensitive professionals or parents who will not engage with their diverse identities.
For, example David from LGBT Scotland explains (at 5.49 in the video see link here) that young people in care, who identify as LGBT, do not get enough support for their identity or their self-esteem and that he sees his role as to offer that support through peer education. LGBT Scotland’s Life in Scotland report explains that young LGBT people experience inconsistencies regarding their inclusion and treatment across Scotland :
“Areas such as Glasgow are fabby for the LGBT+ community but my local area… is horrible and full of bigots, lack of education and small mindedness.”
“All in all, Scotland has become very progressive and forward thinking in relation to LGBT youth, there are some areas that could be improved but that is more down to the local areas and schools than the country as a whole.”
Young people find it difficult to attach to people who do not recognise their capabilities, identities and ways of being. LGBT Scotland offer peer support to young people, support that young people may not be receiving in their home communities. We should not assume that all of a child’s identities can be support by one type of person (be that a parent or a professional), that all children’s life problems have at their route drugs and alcohol or that issues of patriarchy are less important than or disconnected from the fact that your parents shout at you.
The Ace film mentions the need for people to talk about their feelings in a way that might confront ‘man up’ type cultures but it does so in a mainly simplistic way. Our position on ACE does not mean, as the Catholic Church have argued, that the professionals should not ‘interfere’ when children are subject to adverse experiences in the home.
Rather, we are arguing that parents do not live in a vacuum and that if we want to reduce childhood adverse experiences we also have to politically address the key and interconnected issues that impact on children and families and lead to conflict in the home and school. Whether they be a poverty of ambition, a poverty of opportunity, a poverty of loving relationships, a poverty of transport links, a poverty of housing, a poverty of adequate childcare and/or a poverty of economic resources, we have to take a complex approach to the factors that impact on learning.
Children often comment on how schools fail to provide supportive relationships. In particular, children complain when adults make arbitrary decisions about child-child conflict in schools, meat out punishment rather than understanding and deny children’s ability to arbitrate their own disagreements.
Many years ago Priscilla Alderson at the Institute of Education was involved with the Cleave School in developing a book called The Cleave School experience which demonstrated how peer conflict resolution approaches had greatly reduced conflict in the school and have enabled the children to develop empathic relationships based on dialogue.
Such ways of working were aimed at challenging Blairite and Thatcherite ideas of education where for example, parents assume, ‘‘my’ child is competing against yours for their future’. They also bring into question the way that we individualise assessment in schools and put extreme pressure on young people to gain educational qualifications, rather than develop a range of skills, including conflict resolution skills.
Children and young people can gain support for their esteem from a range of people, concerning their various and complex identities (e.g. relatives their parents age, siblings, cousins, thoughtful professionals, local club leaders, team mates, fellow musicians, dance partners, fellow club members, etc.).
For a wide variety of reasons, parents and professionals can fail to provide the support that children require . Hence, we need a GIRFEC approach not just the children, but, for the adults tasked with supporting the children – if the teacher, social worker or health professional is experiencing difficulties with colleagues, housing or their own family members; we need to ensure they are also supported to do their job and have the capacity to deliver on the promises they have made children.
In this blog post, we wish to go further than merely critiquing the endless run of educational initiatives that have failed to address the attainment gap. We seek to pose questions about what education is for. Rather than focusing on the limitations of sticking plasters such as PEF, we propose that we develop a inter-connected politics where the impact of housing, welfare and economic policy are taken into account when understanding educational attainment gaps. Where the teacher, early years educator or sports coach thinks about their own prejudices and thinks twice before killing off children;s spontaneity. Where we fully harness the revolutionary potential of our communities – for the better good of our fellow citizens.
John Maclean was hugely critical of the idea that education and work should involve technical rational approaches, increased efficiency and commodity production:
…Hence we have a renewed interest in. education, finding concrete expression in Fisher’s Education Bill, in the scientific research departments of the Government, and in the funds now in process of allocation towards research in the cotton, woollen and other industries. Very soon the work of technical colleges will be vastly expanded… …. The underlying motive in all the re-organisation and development of education is “increased efficiency,” and this capitalist phrase simply means better wage-slaves or better producers of commodities. … … We, as Socialists, must be intensely interested in improved education along technical and commercial lines, but it is our special business to see that all public educational institutions be used for the creation of intelligent, class conscious workers. In this respect we differ from the W.E.A., which simply has for its object the creation of intelligent workers. Personally, I wish to see all opportunities for self-development opened up to the working class. But I am specially interested in such education as will make revolutionists. Such an education will not be given in our public schools, colleges, and universities if the capitalist class can prevent it. Part of the working-class fight must be for absolute control of all educational agencies; but in the meantime the education of the workers themselves cannot be left in abeyance.
John Maclean suggests our education system should be about producing revolutionaries, rather than wage slaves. In previous posts, John Davis pointed out that 80% of private sector early years practitioners get paid less than the living wage, in spite of them being required to have an HNC qualification to register with the Scottish Social Services council,. We force early years professionals to do qualifications – because it improves the service – but we do not enable that education to pay.
Wage-slave commodity-production approaches to education require children to grow up to be workers who do not challenge oppressive tele-sales and sport-direct cultures that exploit workers in the search of profit. It requires working-class children to try and hide where they come from at school and in job interviews because the communities they grow up in are stigmatised by the professionals who work in schools, do the interviewing and make decisions about our young people’s future.
Local authorities in 2014 prevented workers from expressing their view on the referendum – as if children did not know the politics of their teachers. Such censorship of our citizen’s right to self-expression was shameful, and based on a deficit view of children that believes they cannot resist adult ideas. It was a missed opportunity to recognise and reinforce the importance of debate, dialogue and listening in schools.
Maclean believed the education system should ensure that young people grew up to be intelligent and class conscious. In 2014 Scotland’s young people worked with all sorts of adults to promote and vote for change – change that older generations prevented and resented. Hence, we could judge our education system on the grounds of dodgy PISA tests (that simply compare apples and pears) or we could judge it on the basis of whether it enables our young people to be treated fairly, think creatively, act collectively, build relationships and lead processes of change that enable a fairer society.
In 2014 young people seemed keen to utilise the revolutionary potential of their learning when working as activists for change. Hence, when we are evaluating educational initiatives – we should check whether they fulfil young people’s own aspiration to: feel a sense of liberation from rigid adult structures; to lead their own learning, to collaborate equitably with others; to use their knowledge innovatively and to have their abilities recognised – rather than their culture/class stigmatised.
Many teachers and pupils are supportive of children’s diverse identities. Yet, others, act in divisive ways. Young people tell us that bullying cultures thrive in Schools that over emphasise academic and commodity aspects of learning. Unless we confront those cultures we will not see the attainment gap close. Similarly, such are the under employment conditions for graduates, poverty wages for over a million folk in the UK (the minimum wage specifically discriminates against young people) and lack of career prospect for young people – we have to question the mantra that education serves to enable young people to get better paid jobs.
An independent Scotland will have to ensure that there is a more meaningful and vocational link between schooling and work. And, that schools facilitate transition into local networks and local communities that value people who use their hands to work e.g. plumbers, gardeners, artists and artisans – handy people. See our previous post that discussed the work of Gal Gael and the restorative aspects of working with your hands.
At present many young people are simply channelled into life-long learning holding pens that hold off their transition to adulthood an independence e.g. the average age of a first time buyer is now 30 years of age.
We also have to question educational process that increase self-harm and induce loss of life, in the search of a fake future that doesn’t exist. For example, the constant quest for increased attainment results simply raises the bar for entry to popular university courses, rather than serves to produce a better society. Hence, it is appropriate for governments to try to utilise the school system to address societal ills but not if they actually simply increase those ills. A more considered approach would revolutionise the way we do exams and question why we do specific exams on one day a year.
All of Scotland’s young people have abilities. Only, some young people’s abilities are more recognised than others. A truly strength-based approach would involves us being less judgmental about our fellow human beings, questioning adult views of education and listening more to children and young people about the tensions they encounter in their lives.
For example, Christina was friendly with the singer/song writer Frankie Miller who went about with her and her pal Cathy in Brigton and Calton in 1963 when Frankie was 13. She remembers Frankie as a brilliant dancer who went about in a fabulous duffle coat: ‘He was the only one with a deep forest, bottle, green duffle coat and nobody could find out where he got it from’.
Frankie’s talent took him away from where he grew up and Otis Reading’s partner was quoted as saying, ‘He is the only white boy who can sing like Otis’.
Frankie’s song I can’t change it – but I’m trying, which was written when he was 12, indicates a need to accept people for their past, their failings and their aspirations:
I cant change It (but I’m trying)
My friends can’t find some things I say
Must be the way I say those things
My friends can’t find some things I do
Must be the way I do those things
I can’t change it
But I’m trying to do right
I used to steal I used to fall
Was I wrong I can’t recall
I stole in love but all in all
Was I wrong I don’t recall
I can’t change it
But I’m trying to do right
Is it bad to look inside yourself and decide to go
To someone who can show the way complete
Are you glad to lose the doubts you thought would never go
When them inside hallucinations had you beat
My own true love has gone away
What can I say she left that day
The moon still shines a different way
What can I say
She left that day
I can’t change it but I’m waiting patiently
The great failing of the ACE film is that it did not recognize the need to hold off intervening in children’s lives, to resist the temptation to offer advice until we understand children’s own ways of being.
Deficit ideas of childhood that too quickly attempt to define children’s lives have been critiqued by contemporary psychologists, such as Erica Burman. Burman and other childhood studies ‘experts’ suggested that deficit ideas underplayed children’s abilities, masked children’s views, assumed professional intervention always worked, over emphasised the notion of the nuclear family and neglected the rights and feelings of children.
Rather than being a ‘problem’ that needs to be controlled, contemporary thinking draws on feminist theory to state that children are innovative, creative, complex, able and imaginative beings who can develop supportive attachments with a range of adults and other children and contribute greatly to our society. Even when young people rock our cosy (or not so cosy) adult worlds, our education system should be focussed on enabling those noisy talents to flourish.
Our final conclusion concerns the ACE film which sought to connect ideas from health to explain children’s issues in education. It would be a strange world were we had to look for lessons on how to build a more equitable educational approach from a country with some of the least equitable health and education systems on the planet.