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Monthly Archives: May 2012

Is the Coalition ditching Every Child Matters?

There’s a very interesting cover story and editorial in this week’s Times Educational Supplement, suggesting that the Department of Education under the Coalition government is in the process of quietly ditching New Labour’s flagship children’s policy, Every Child Matters (ECM).

ECM was launched in 2002, partly in response to the failure of English schools to prevent the abuse and death of Victoria Climbie, the eight-year-old girl who died in 2000. ECM led to the merging of schools and child support services, the creation of a Children’s Commissioner, the broadening of Ofsted statutory requirements for schools to include children’s ‘well-being’, and the creation of a new ministry – the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It also, I’d suggest, helped pave the way for the national introduction of Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning into primary schools in 2002 and secondary schools in 2007.

Ed Balls, minister for Children, Schools and Families, rapidly built a huge empire on the back of ECM, ‘with responsibilities for everything from schools and children’s centres to ‘families with multiple problems’, domestic violence and youth services’.

As the TES says:

ECM had a huge impact on everyone working in education. Schools suddenly had to ensure that they were looking after all aspects of pupils’ lives. Their breakfast clubs multiplied, and they built close links with social services, health authorities and the police.

Some teachers felt the move went too far, requiring huge efforts to protect every child from instances which were, thankfully, the horrific exception. Besides, ECM conspicuously failed to make sure such instances never happened, as the Baby P case showed in 2007, in Haringey, the same district where Victoria Climbie lived and died. Michael Shaw, editor of TES, writes that the “darker irony” was that ECM ended up getting blamed for Baby P’s death.

How had a former education director with a background as a headteacher ended up the boss of social workers? Why had Haringey’s child protection work been inspected – and given a thumbs up – by a schools watchdog? The answer was Every Child Matters.

Make way, munchkins!

In 2010, when the Coalition government came to power, there was a quiet but definite shift in priorities:

The day after the coalition was formed, the Department for Children, Schools and Families was renamed the Department for Education. The department’s rainbow motif, complete with brightly coloured cartoon children – derisively referred to as ‘munchkins’ by Conservative advisors – was ditched in favour of austere, dark-blue lettering. And when Michael Gove took office in Sanctuary Buildings it was as the secretary of state for education, not children.

The Coalition also quietly pushed a shift in focus away from ‘well-being’ and towards ‘achievement’. Schools no longer had a statutory obligation to promote children’s spiritual, social and emotional well-being, and Ofsted would no longer grade them on these areas:

Under Ofsted’s new inspection framework, introduced in January, the number of points that schools are graded on has been reduced from 27 to just five. Overall effectiveness, pupil achievement, quality of teaching, pupil behaviour and safety, and leadership and management are covered. But specific grades on pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, and the extent to which they ‘adopt healthy lifestyles’, develop workplace skills and ‘contribute to the school and wider community’ have been dropped. It is a change that children’s charities fear will be to the detriment of some of their most vulnerable pupils.

Government advisors have expressed scepticism about Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning, and it’s likely to be dropped from many schools’ curricula as a result of the shift in focus from well-being to achievement. And several local councils have, since the election, split education services from social services.

TES editor Michael Shaw worries that the huge reforms in the education sector – the shift from comprehensives to academies and free schools, and potentially (if Gove is to be believed) the shift from free schools to for-profit schools  – could cause institutional confusion, allowing some children to drop through the safety net:

some child protection agencies are now confused about who their contact should be. Do they still ring up the local authority, or should they be setting up new relationships with the academy chains – or even each individual school? Meanwhile ministers seem to regard the initiative’s goals as distractions from schools’ core purpose. No longer do children need to ‘enjoy and achieve’ – just achieve…local cutbacks are making it harder for schools to bring in specialised support.

Another concern, to my mind, is that the new ‘free market’ in education means academies and free schools are incredibly wary of bad publicity, and so could cover up any instances of child abuse they come across, rather than risking bad publicity and its impact on charitable donations and their haloed image as perfect schools. I saw this happening at private schools, and wouldn’t like to see this ‘hush culture’ spread to the state sector, where there needs to be some universal statutory protection in place. The one area where you shouldn’t give too much freedom to individual schools is in how they handle instances of child abuse, otherwise you end up with what happened in Catholic schools all over the world.

Two models of well-being: active and passive

There are two main philosophies of well-being: active and passive.

The active philosophy of well-being tells us that happiness and flourishing come from striving and achievement. It’s best embodied by Aristotle, who defines happiness as “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue”. The key word there is activity – Aristotle thinks we are happiest when we are actively striving towards the common good, engaging with our society, exploring the natural world, adding to our knowledge. We also see this active philosophy of well-being in, for example, Positive Psychology’s concept of ‘flow’ – those moments when we are utterly, blissfully absorbed in what we’re doing.

Aristotle’s philosophy is attractive partly because it’s a philosophy of desire. It doesn’t tell us we have to abandon all desires, as Stoicism or Buddhism do. Rather it suggests we need to direct our natural desire for happiness to its proper goal. It also takes account of the external things that make up the good life – a family, a fulfilling career, a free society – and tells us we should take these things seriously and strive to build them and protect them.

The downside of this philosophy, however, is that we can feel we’re never at rest, that we’re constantly setting ourselves new challenges, new mountains to climb, and we can end up feeling a bit worn out and not, in fact, at peace.

The passive philosophy of well-being tells us that happiness is the absence of desire, the absence of striving. It’s best embodied by the Epicureans, for whom happiness is being at rest and at peace, without feeling any pain; or by the Stoics, for whom happiness is a virtuous self that is perfectly at rest and free from all attachment and aversion; or by the Buddhists, who likewise have an ideal of the sage resting in their mind without grasping at or pushing away the things of the world.

The downside of this philosophy is that we can become too detached from the world, too monastically withdrawn, and unengaged in our society in a meaningful way. You could accuse it of lacking civic virtue – what does the Epicurean, blissfully at rest in his philosophical commune, do for his society, and for those less fortunate than him. Is apathy really a worthwhile end state?

I am conscious of these two philosophies of well-being at the moment, having spent the last month promoting my book. I feel, at the end of the month, rather tired, and in need of a holiday. I also feel that there’s a paradox in writing a book about the good life which one then feels one has to relentlessly publicise, grasping at every possible opportunity in order to get yourself heard in a very noisy marketplace.

I hung out this weekend with a friend who I met on the Camino de Santiago, a mystical young Irishman called Ciaran. He told me that if one gets obsessed with the ‘numbers game’ – how many books one has sold, how many people come to your speaking events, how many people join your philosophy club and so on, then you’re basically like a Wall Street banker counting their coins. He suggested a radically different path, of just letting go of all that, trusting in God, basically, rather than desperately striving to get your message out there.

His idea sort of reminds me of the concept in Taoism of Wu Wei – non-doing, or doing without doing. The Taoist sage sees the foolishness of desperately striving to change the cosmos, rather they act in accordance with the natural movement of the cosmos, letting it carry their ideas like the wind spreading the florets of a dandelion, rather than trying to impose their will upon it. That sounds a great idea right now. So does a holiday.