I’m not quite sure if the term ‘safeguarding children’ is now disappearing from the scene in the UK and being replaced by its predecessor, ‘child protection’. Be that as it may, the focus of this article means that either phrase will do.
Every Child Matters
My question concerns what we see as the overarching framework of our engagement with children, whether as parents, substitute parents (of various kinds), teachers, social workers, doctors and nurses, psychologists, therapists, and the like. Under the previous government the official line was the ‘Outcomes Framework’ listed in Every Child Matters (December 2004) with its five strands: being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution, and achieving economic well-being. This was intended to influence everything and everyone. And it has had a fair measure of success in that many professionals can at least quote it.
But it doesn’t take much thought or practical experience to realise that it is not, and cannot be, an overall framework for our understanding of and engagement with children and young people. To be fair, it probably wasn’t intended to be. Set against the sum total of human experience, longings, fears and emotions, as reflected say in art, music or literature, it is a pale and sketchy document. And when our horizons are extended to take in that which lies beyond, whether in our dreams, our spiritual intimations, and the challenge of separation, loss and death, it seems more like a provisional and very rudimentary local map.
A Good Childhood
Another attempt to provide a framework in recent years was The Good Childhood Inquiry by The Children’s Society which led to the book A Good Childhood (2009). It set its findings alongside Every Child Matters, and its main conclusion was that “most of the obstacles children face today are linked to the belief among adults that the prime duty of the individual is to make the most of their own life, rather than contribute to the good of others… excessive individualism is causing a range of problems for children including: high family break-up, teenage unkindness, commercial pressures towards premature sexualisation, unprincipled advertising, too much competition in education and acceptance of income inequality.”
This of course raises the question of what an alternative ‘good community’ or ‘good society’ looks like. (Let’s leave well alone for now how you go about achieving it). And that is where there are competing versions in history, and around the world: republics, theocratic states, utopian visions of communal living, communist command economies, capitalist free market economies, communities shaped by Shariah Law, and so on. And now a new term has entered the arena: ‘big society’. Is this indicative of a completely new concept of society and community, or is it a variation or amalgam of one or more of the above ideas?
Taking it as read that child protection (or safeguarding children) is a non-negotiable part of what we are looking for, in any society and all parts of the world, what might we conclude if we keep children in the forefront of our minds?
This is where my life at Mill Grove has encouraged me to try to hold together three discrete but connected streams of thinking and experience: human nature, models of life together on a small scale, and visions of society as a whole. The first of these is a contentious term but it will have to do. I have in mind what we might conclude on a reading of world history, and the truth that ideal human beings (that is perfect, without tensions or sin) whether seen as individuals or social groups, do not exist. To seek to build a community on any idea of perfection or perfectibility is therefore doomed to sadness or wrath. The second covers everything from families, nuclear and extended, to kibbutzim, residential schools, communes, children’s homes, therapeutic communities. The third has already been alluded to.
It seems to me to be foolish and proud of any human or group (religious, political, secular or professional) to believe against what I believe to be the overwhelming evidence of history, that there is a utopia waiting to be found on earth. Always such an ‘idea’ tends to lead to the tyranny of that idea with dire consequences especially for children. So what sort of vision might there be, as an alternative to laissez-faire, burying our heads in the sand, or despair?
The Growth of Love
This is where I come back to The Growth of Love. It seems to me that we need an overarching framework that is broad enough to encompass all of human emotions, experience and longings, but also flexible enough to relate to both small and large collectivities, set in a range of different cultures and situations worldwide. In place of a template for good society, we place ‘love’ at the heart of things (something conspicuous by its absence in Every Child Matters). ‘Love’ does justice to both individuals and communities by its very nature.
With this in place we can then begin to explore what we think might protect, nurture and give space for love to grow. I conclude that ‘security’ (child protection, safeguarded included), comes first; then ‘boundaries’ (firm, lived and just); next ‘significance’ represented by the unconditional commitment of at least one other person on earth; then ‘community’ in all its variations, and finally ‘creativity’, which includes play, learning and much more. People will choose their own words, but the framework has been tested around the world, and it seems to remain reasonably intact and relevant. In the Philippines, for example, people are asking for a study guide, and a group is now working on this.
The Over-Arching Framework
So to return to the initial question: child protection or the well-being of children? For an overarching framework that informs our engagement with children, the former will not do, but it is an essential part of that framework. (We note in passing that we must make sure that we do not get lured into allowing it to become de facto our ultimate horizon.) The well-being of children is a broader concept, but it begs the question of what sort of social life might best serve this desirable goal. It leads us into insuperable difficulties if we insist on a planned, concrete, replicable version of a good society.
By taking the daring step of re-introducing the word love into political and professional discourses, we may find we have opened a promising line of thought and action. It reveals that Every Child Matters is (probably as intended) not an overall framework, and that we must have terms that are comprehensible and applicable in the range of discourses that go to make up any community or society.
I suppose that this line of thinking has slowly paved the way for a dawning awareness about the way in which a household, and a neighbourhood (community), relate to each other. There are similar dynamics and processes. Children are part of both, and will of course benefit where both are thriving.
For years I studied community development and applied it to parishes or districts; likewise I studied social work and applied it to individuals and families. As I have sought a wider and more all-encompassing framework I have discovered that in essence the two disciplines were connected more closely than I had ever imagined. Families need and support neighbourhoods, and vice-versa. So any ‘big society’ needs to be conceived with this at its heart.
Would I be right in thinking that social pedagogy has been working at this interface all through? If so, that would help to explain why it has always been so attractive to me.