Sunday, February 01, 2009

My blood pressure is at a unhealthily high level, due to an article on the BBC website, which talks about a report in advance of its publication tomorrow. First of all, what is that about? If the report is due for release tomorrow, why release the details in advance, and have everyone speculate about its contents? Why not... oh I don't know... wait until the day for publication, and publish it? I am becoming a grumpy old woman....

The report will apparently say that despite better health, better education and more stuff, children's lives are harder than they have been in the past. What raised my blood pressure sharply was this comment from a mother (my italics):

'Lincolnshire mother Sarah Parish said she refused to believe her children suffered as a result of her job. "I wanted to find me again and have something for me as well as the children. I enjoy my job, I knew they would be no worse off at nursery as they are at home with me. I do miss them incredibly but I make sure I spend time with them and do the things they enjoy doing as well," she said. '

So... I conclude that this woman puts her happiness over that of her children; won't be convinced by any actual evidence that things aren't the way she'd like them to be; and is too selfish to admit that being at home with their mother is better or different from being at nursery.

I think we are on very dangerous territory as a society: research shows that children are MUCH better off with a single loving adult than at nursery, where they will have the divided attention of people who are paid to keep them safe, but not to engage and love them. The younger the child, the more profound the difference between institutional care in a nursery and home will be.

If children are neglected and abused at home, they would of course be better off in an environment where they are at least kept safe. How many children IS that? Most of the parents I know are fallible, and have their own idiosyncrasies, but love their children and want to do whatever is best for them. The trouble is that government propaganda about getting parents back into work and providing affordable childcare, often gives the impression that putting children into nursery is a better option for the children than being cared for by the loving adults in their lives. Research shows the opposite.

When the suffragettes were fighting for the vote and rights for women, what they hoped for was a world in which the work that women traditionally were doing - looking after children and caring for the house - was recognised as of equal value as the work traditionally done by men. By the time I was growing up in the 1970s, the feminist movement had subverted that aim into the call for complete equality, the right for a woman to be like a man, to do the same jobs as a man and to be treated like a man.

At that time, neuroscience seemed to think that men's and women's brains were alike, and that the differences between them were either the result of environmental influences, or an anomaly. We know better now, know that there are differences in men's and women's brains before they leave the womb, and these lead to differences in their general attitudes, their abilities and shortcomings, and their approaches to the world.

Among my friends, among the wonderful women I met when I had my first child, when I went to a National Childbirth Trust neighbourhood group, I was unusual. I had had a career and a good job in the city, and I gave it up when I had my son, in order to be with him. It wasn't something I had to agonise over: the day before he was born, it was 50/50 whether I would stay at home or go back to work; the day after he was born, I didn't have a choice. I couldn't have left him with anyone.

To say that this deep emotional attachment took me by surprise, is an understatement. I thought I knew about having a baby and looking after it, because I had two siblings who were 13 and 15 years younger than me respectively, and I had helped a great deal with looking after them when I was a teenager. I knew about caring for children, playing games, looking after ther physical needs. What I wasn't aware of until I had my own children was the bonding that made me want to protect my child from all harm, all strife, all danger, all unhappiness. It's a good evolutionary habit, driving one to keep babies safe, and look after their needs over and above your own, and it is being subverted by encouraging women to leave their young babies in nurseries at a very young age.

I feel that my mother had no choice but to stay at home in the 1950s to look after her babies... that was just expected of her. The feminist movement appears to me to have worked hard so that contemporary women now have no choice but to go to work, and leave their babies in the care of nurseries and nannies. I don't see that as progress. Progress would offer women real choices, the freedom to go to work if that is really what she wants, but also to stay at home. Shortly after I stopped work to have my first baby, Mother and Baby magazine surveyed their readers to discover their real atittudes to staying at home, and discovered that 80% of women would prefer to be at home with their babies. I'm not sure, but I guess that less than half of those actually have the freedom to choose that in fact.

What I think is really damaging to our society and to families, is that women having traditionally put the rest of the family - and especially their children - first, and themselves second, are now encouraged to put themselves first and the rest of the family second. Most people seem to think that's OK, and good for the wives and mothers in our society. I think it is just as unbalanced as it was before, but in the other direction. Really, we should be learning to consider the welfare of the family unit and balancing the needs and wishes of all the members of it to agree how the family should work. Saying "I refuse to believe that my children suffer..." doesn't indicate this is what is happening.

Our society has the option to change the way things are at the moment... there is no evil alien in charge forcing us to organise the way that we do. I think that the way the UK has developed their education industry makes no sense at all in the 21st century: we could be giving children more freedom to learn the things that interest them, and instead we are imposing an outdated national curriculum - and heavy testing - on them all. They are being given the impression by the system we squeeze them all through, that they are stupid if they can't read by the time they are six (many famous, successful people have been much older), they are stupid if they can't grasp cursive writing by the time they are seven (many adults would struggle to achieve this), and that knowledge, and understanding, of quadrilateral equations is essential to be a success as an adult (if this were true it would pose a problem for at least 50% of adults).

One of the main points in Frank Smith's amazingly wonderful Book of Learning and Forgetting, is that if you struggle to learn, the main thing you learn is that learning is a struggle. Children are learning machines, and what we should be asking about our system of education is why we think it is necessary to make children unhappy in order for them to learn; and what do we expect to come out of a system that uses a one-dimensional academic measuring stick for people who will go on to diverse futures, being everything from roadsweepers to brain surgeons?

The curent system seems to want everyone to attempt to become a brain surgeon, only lowering their sights if they fail a test at some point. Thus, anyone who doesn't excel at academic work, gradually has to bring their expectations down, lugging along a permanent sense of failure to reach the level required. Is this an effective way to make people into happy and fulfilled adults? I don't think so. Equality of opportunity shouldn't mean trying to squeeze everyone through the same system in the same way - especially in these days of computerised technology, when it would be possible to individualise learning to take account of our children's different strengths and talents.

I see the way that the system treats boys and girls exactly the same as a very damaging thing: the school system hasn't caught up with the fact that we know boys and girls are quite different from the very beginning. Any parent with both girls and boys is aware of this, and that it isn't anything to do with environmental conditioning. I had two boys before my daughter was born, and they had dolls and tea sets as well as lego and construction kits. The dolls were largely ignored (or abused) before my daughter was born. She ignored the boys' toys in favour of crayons and paper at a very early age. My sons loathed being made to sit still; she loved it. They could spend all afternoon with another boy and know nothing, but nothing, about him at the end of it. She would know a child's name, where they lived and how many brothers or sisters they had after five minutes.

It seems ridiculous to me that there is the possibility, with rising unemployment, that there will be families without an earner in them due to lack of jobs, while children are languishing in nurseries so that their mothers can go to work when they would rather not. That boys who would be far better off in their mother's company will be unhappy at nurseries and learning how to disrupt classes to express that unhappiness, while their mothers are unhappy at work.

We have a punitive system of education, that systematically excludes people by raising the bar for progress through the system. It IS possible to change that. We could be opening up education, allowing anyone who wishes to study with their local college or university. How many people do you believe would stick with an advanced course in economics, say, if the intellectual content of the course was way above them? How many people who choose to do, say, electrical engineering, if they had no understanding or interest in the content?

When I took my children out of school, I suddenly realised that my attitudes and opinions upon education were not my own: they were largely formed by my understanding of what was "normal" because I had been through the state education system myself. When I really looked at the system and how it operates, as though I were the alien dropped from outer space so beloved of teachers in providing pupils with a different perspective, I realised that I didn't buy into a lot of the things which the school system adheres to. Putting barriers in the way of people who wanted to learn was just one of them.

Our children have rising incidences of depression, suicide, anxiety. If they were getting happier and better educated with our current system, I could understand the drive for more of the same, but there is every sign that they are not. Children who have been nailed into their seats to read and write at an early age, are having to have exercise regimes, spinning andswinging and catching and throwin a ball, prescribed to counteract dyspraxia. So we are preventing children from doing what comes natually by our insistence on starting academic education much earlier than most of our european counterparts, and then have to prescribe remedial courses in being a child and doing what children do, as a result!

And one in six children still leaves school after 11 years of compulsory education, unable to read and write. It is estimated that one in four is unable to read, write and calculate simple maths problems to a reasonable level. That's leaving aside the permanent sense of failure whicha child must have if theyhave endured 11 years of being unable to do what most of their contemporaries do. This doesn't seem like a successful system to me.

At the heart of our education system is a scientific theory of learning which says that it is necessary to break up information into digestible chunks, feed it out to children and then test teir assimilation of the information, as though the information makes more sense - not less - when you break it into such small pieces that it doesnt seem to relate to anything else. It is a system where helping each other is seen as cheating, instead of just...helping. Can you imagine a situation in an office where someone who is struggling to understand the photocopier was left to handle it on their own, because for anyone in the office to show him how to use it would be "cheating"? This attitude that you should not help, that somehow there is a shame in giving or accepting help, is very damaging, I think.

There is a quote from the report, which says it calls for "a radical shift away from the excessively individualistic ethos which now prevails, to an ethos where the constant question is, 'What would we do if our aim was a world based on love?'"

I'd like to know the answer to that question, too.

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