Britain has created a crisis in childhood, says former children’s commissioner
Childhood is being ruined in the UK, and the education system under Theresa May’s government is largely to blame. That is the central message of a new book, The British Betrayal of Childhood, published this week by the former children’s commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley-Green.
“Is there a crisis in childhood in Britain? My answer is an unequivocal yes,” says Aynsley-Green. “Mrs May’s government is not doing enough for children, especially in education.”
He hopes his new book, which covers children’s health, poverty, youth justice and social care as well as education, will provoke a national debate about children’s future in the UK, and in particular about how government policies are, he says, shamefully failing children.
It is a powerful, antagonistic and, at times, distressing book that will chime with the experiences of many teachers and parents – and make uncomfortable reading for politicians. “The unnecessary distraction ofgrammar schools, the consequences of cutting budgets, the narrow test-oriented curriculum, the denial of the importance of the arts, the failure to see the need for technical qualifications to meet our skills shortages and the rhetoric of ‘choice’ – when for most families this is an impossible dream – all point to a disconnect with what actually matters to families,” he says.
This is a damning indictment by a man who spent more than 40 years caring for children, first as a children’s physician and lecturer in paediatrics at Oxford, then as a professor of child health and the director of clinical research at Great Ormond Street hospital. In 2000, he was appointed as the first national clinical director for children in the Department of Health, and in 2005 he became the first independent statutory children’s commissioner for England. He was knighted by the Queen for his services to children and young people in 2006.
His own childhood shaped his outlook. “I owe my success in life to being privileged enough to pass the 11-plus,” he says. “That was my springboard for social mobility.”
His father left school at 14 to go down the mines. Aynsley-Green was brought up in a mining community in Northumberland until the family moved to Surrey, hoping to improve their life chances down south. A few months after the move, his father died unexpectedly, “leaving my mother on benefits and me on free school meals”. He was just nine.
“Could a child today from my background be as successful as I have been privileged to be? I think the answer is no.” He does not think grammar schools today do much for poor children.
Inequality, he writes, reigns supreme in Britain today, with only 10% of white boys from the most disadvantaged backgrounds able to progress to higher education, while 82% of Oxbridge graduates come from the upper and middle classes. “Inequality is the elephant in the room in society. It’s self replicating because there’s a stranglehold over society by the elite. They don’t want things to change.”
He highlights a “fantastic” visit he made to a “multiracial, multicultural” state school in north London where the children impressed him enormously, and compares the experience with another visit to a “very expensive independent” school. “At the state school, I talked to these amazing streetwise kids who really value being in this country for all it offers.” But at the private school, the insularity of the pupils appalled him. “They knew poverty occurred in India but had no idea it was happening just a mile down the road.”
He points out that independent, fee-paying schools educate just 7% of students, while 43% of Oxford and 37% of Cambridge students come from such schools. “I’m not knocking the quality of private education. It’s absolutely fantastic, but why can’t all children have that quality of education?”
The inequality that follows on from this divergence creates “generations of elite people who simply do not understand the realities of the world”. He highlights the fact that 25% of MPs, more than 50% of print journalists, 82% of barristers, 81% of judges and 80% of supreme court judges have been to Oxbridge, and says 10% of top jobs go to people from just 10 schools.
And Aynsley-Green knows exactly who is to blame. “I don’t think May is doing enough. She needs to have a joined-up cross-government view of what childhood is all about. This is about political will.” There has been a failure of effective advocacy for children in this government, overseen by a prime minister who has lost sight of the purpose of education and an education minister accused of covering up school cuts with misleading figures, he says. “What does the May government want for our children? Apart from competing with China through league tables?”
He would abolish league tables, along with the “perverse incentive” they create for schools to teach to the test and off-roll pupils in order to improve performance. “We have been indoctrinated to believe that testing and league tables are the only way forward. It doesn’t have to be like this. I want to see evidence that testing is good for children and produces benefits, not least because all we can measure is what is easily measurable – and not what matters.”
He adds: “When has the government given any acknowledgment of thestress caused to children by the testing regime? And it’s not just children, it’s teachers who are stressed. Teachers are leaving the profession in droves.”
The facts bear him out: there is a shortfall of 30,000 classroom teachers and Ofsted recently revealed that the majority of teachers experience relativelyhigh levels of stress and anxiety compared with other professions.
Aynsley-Green notes that even normally stoical headteachers are protesting. “When seriously professional headteachers take to the streets they are a canary in the mine. Yet we have this Teflon attitude from ministers saying we are spending more than ever on education, losing sight of the bulge in the population of children and the lower spending per pupil.”
He is particularly concerned about the lack of funding for child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) and for children with special needs. “Every child should matter to this government but I’m sorry to say every disabled child certainly does not matter. If shame was an attribute of politicians, they would be ashamed of what is happening to our most vulnerable families.”
Similarly, children with mental health issues are being neglected. “The bar for access to Camhs is so high, many children can’t access it. We’re seeing the endpoint of at least 20 years of denial of the importance of emotional ill health in children.” Meanwhile, teachers are being forced to witness children suffering without help. “It’s appalling.”
He believes educators will need to capture the Treasury’s attention to put children on the government’s radar. “We have to look at the cost of not getting it right for children versus the cost of getting it right.” There’s no easy answer, he admits. “I am looking for readers who will pick up the baton from me and run with it. I am hoping to light a touchpaper.”