Here’s a few headlines from the news this week.
- The National Health Service is on course to spend 17% of its entire budget on diabetes related illnesses by 2035
- Teenage conception rates in the UK are still the highest in Europe despite a fall in numbers recently. An extension of a scheme for pharmacists to provide contraceptives to 13 year olds is being considered.
- 20% of privately educated students compared with 7% of state educated students are offered places at Oxbridge and Russell group universities.
- High profile politicians and media owners have been discussing ethics
- Jamie Oliver is concerned about Academies serving unhealthy food.
At first glance, some of these subjects may seem unconnected. Even the link between Jamie Oliver, his school meals and tackling obesity is only partially connected as it would take considerably more input than the removal of turkey twizzlers to prevent the obesity time-bomb, and the economic effects of it that loom all to near.
Here in Britain, we are once more sitting precariously on a knife edge with all manner of problems that we will not face up to and tackle effectively.
Why? Because we have a somewhat warped prioritisation when it comes to considering the real needs of our society.
In the 21st century, how can we still have these grossly disproportionate chances for our children, all because they are born to a certain family and a certain income? The polarity in life chances between the rich and the poor has always been huge but it still continues, largely ignored – for the status quo suits some.
The Guardian article, as outlined in point number 3 above, is startling and yet so blatantly obvious to all those who have an interest in this area. We know the facts and we have known them for a long time: those with money do better academically, they have greater chances to go to the top universities and therefore secure the most financially rewarding jobs, thus perpetuating the cycle of affluence and privilege. This is how our world works – so why are we still surprised by this, and why can’t we see that fundamental, consistent funding is needed to ensure that EVERY child has, at the very least, the opportunity and choice that is currently only available to the few?
Why did the SureStart programme (a programme designed to give all children “the best possible start in life”) fail in its aim to reduce inequality? The focus on play and child-centred learning advocated in SureStart and Early Years settings was, and still is, in direct contradiction to the concentration in Key Stages 1 and 2 on attainment and more traditional methods of learning. Many SureStart children had an excellent start but were automatically at a disadvantage when a more formal education occurred, where a healthy dose of parental influence and popping hands in the purse meant the alleged level playing field for children who had attended Sure Start programmes was no longer present. Money helps in attainment, as the article says. Children who had made headway in SureStart settings were back in an unequal situation because their impoverished parents couldn’t afford or may not have know how to “play the game” of academic attainment.
A few years ago, I listened with interest to Baroness Estelle Morris of Yardley talking with an intense enthusiasm about the need for literacy in our schools, and saying that this was the only way to bring children out of the poverty trap. I argued with her that there was no level playing field – middle class children will always be ahead of the game, and that the development of social, personal and emotional skills could be as significant to improving life chances.
It didn’t fall on deaf ears but there was no contrition and no contemplation that the very policy of ‘driving up standards’ had in itself been a perpetuator of the inequality that the SureStart programme aimed to address.
We move on to the obesity issue. Thousands of children in this country are obese. There are a growing number of people who are being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, and the age of those being diagnosed is getting lower. It is no longer a mid-life disease. Yet we continue to ignore the preventative potential of working with our children and young people to educate them about healthy eating, but to also skill them to look after themselves in body, mind and soul. You can give children a million facts about healthy eating but unless they have the skills to consider and modify their behaviour, and unless their parents are involved in this education, it is almost pointless.
Parents are crying out for help here. They need support and they are not getting any until there is a crisis point, and even then, dieticians and nutritionists are so few and far between that parents cannot access their help even when their children have been diagnosed as an over-eater.
Teenage pregnancy is still a cause for concern. Funding has been cut but the real tragedy is that whilst funds were made available from the previous government, time in schools wasn’t. We shouldn’t have to be in a situation where thirteen year olds require the pill. We should be in a situation where honest and open discussions about sex would enable children, yes, children, to make the choice to delay sexual activity because it is such a precious thing.
The need for pharmacists to dole out contraceptives is a sad indictment on yet another education policy that didn’t work because of the insistence that all time in the curriculum should be given to academic attainment rather than effective life skills. There was and still is room for both.
We have done a huge disservice to another generation of children by not enabling them to consider sex and relationships effectively in school. We haven’t skilled them to make choices and stick to their choices despite provocation and persuasion from peers. And what good is a bunch of A-star GCSE’s going to do to a child who has to look after her own child that she has conceived when she has no chance of using her GCSEs because there is a lack of affordable child care to enable her to work?
It is all so topsy turvy, and our children deserve better than this.
Which brings us finally on to Rupert Murdoch. This week he was talking about ethics: personal, social, business and economic ethics. Or rather Robert Jay Q.C. was asking him whether he or his company had maintained an ethical stance.
Shared ethics – this is important. Would such an abhorrent thing as the phone-hacking scandal have happened if a company were ethically correct, if there were shared values that were constantly reiterated by the chief executive and were regularly evaluated to ensure that every employee was abiding by the company ethics guidelines?(http://www.newscorp.com/corp_gov/codeofethics.html)?
Or were quick bucks and big profits the real drivers? Was it more important to make money from the suffering of others through sensationalisation than to actually abide by an ethical code?
In schools this week, lessons could’ve been postponed so that older students could watch the very brilliant live television broadcast of Murdoch’s accounts at the Leveson enquiry. Our young people deserve to be given the opportunity to experience these debates and develop their own sense of values and a shared ethical stance based on what they are hearing and seeing.
The important thing about all of these news stories this week is that nothing will change, money will be thrown away and our children and young people will remain in a cycle of injustice and inequality if we do not tackle issues together, holistically with a clear set of values within an ethical framework.
The inability of successive governments to tackle obesity and teenage pregnancy is going to cost society and individuals greatly. The ability of successive governments to ignore the contradictions of their policies, where proactive and preventative support for the disadvantaged remains rhetoric rather than providing sustainable change, needs to be challenged, and all of this needs to operate within a value system that is morally correct and democratically agreed.
If, as a society, we gave as much value to empathy, lovingkindness and understanding all of our human needs as we do to academic achievement, then not only would we have a more peaceful and equal existence, it wouldn’t cost as much money in the future – if that is your drive.
We need an ethical code of practice, and starting with a fundamental Law of Education might not be a bad start, whereby all agree on the fundamental reasons why we need to educate the whole child and all children rather than a mere part of a child or those who can afford it.
If we look at empathy in conjunction with numeracy, we may not prevent the next generation of bankers being quite so greedy but we may enable them to think in a more socially intelligent way.
At 3Di, we are only too aware of what could be achieved.
I am all for putting a higher value on empathy and lovingkindness in schools and in everyday life. I have watched children beam when they are praised for being a good helper or friend but there is still overwhelming pressure to achieve and compete. When kids return home at night, parents want to see their school papers and test scores. They want to make sure their kids are keeping up with the rest of the class. It’s not even acceptable to be average in school.
It’s very frustrating as a parent when you try to instill a sense of kindness and tolerance in the home and your children see that as a waste of time. What will that get me? they ask. They honestly see being smarter, wealthier and more popular as the only way to be happy. I know as a young person I had many of the same delusions but there was still a a core need to be a good person. Perhaps there is too little spirituality in the world? Perhaps too little time for reflection to appreciate ethics?
I plan to keep advocating for change, for more emphasis on character and ethics.
Thanks for a thought provoking piece.
It’s a very good point that in order to support children in their emotional, social and spiritual development, we also have to tackle the whole issue of parent perception. Ask a parent what they want for their child, and the most frequent response is “I want them to be happy”, whilst simultaneously worrying about SAT scores and how they are going to attain the grades. Some children are happy to work for exams, others aren’t. And you’re right. We need to look at children’s aspirations too. Perhaps we ought to show them the clear evidence that smart, wealthy and being popular do not equate to happiness, as many research projects have demonstrated. We need to look at the fundamental issue of what spirituality is and how we live it! Thank you for your comments as ever.