Childhood report fails to bridge gap between problems and solutions

A Good Childhood amounts to an attack on a prevailing culture of individualism as much as any particular set of systems, institutions or policies.  

Indeed, this is its power. Growing numbers of people are losing their jobs and houses while evidence emerges of senior bankers awarding themselves large bonuses from within their crumbling businesses. At such a time an attack on individual advancement and personal acquisitiveness is bound to be potent.

The report is the product of a unique and undoubtedly important inquiry into the wellbeing of young people. And the fact that it has leant so heavily on the views of young people is welcome.

However, the report’s breadth and the nature of its evidence are also weaknesses. We have seen that commentators who wish to portray UK society as in persistent decline have found it easy to play up the problems identified, while rejecting any of the proposed solutions. Equally, progressives, who might ordinarily have been found supporting the report’s recommendations, have tended to attack its failure to acknowledge the progress that has already been made, such as rising living standards and educational achievement.

This is perhaps evidence of A Good Childhood’s main deficiency - the gap between the challenges it uncovers and the solutions it offers.

One example is the report’s recommendations for teachers, which emphasise teaching for social and emotional well being, and introducing testing to measure progress. For teachers to carry out these recommendations effectively would require a fundamental rethink of classroom organisation and processes of learning. This, in turn, would have knock-on effects for the training, development and recruitment of the workforce in schools, and probably schools’ partnerships with other local services for children and young people. It may well be that such a rethink is exactly what is needed – in fact the RSA’s Charter for Education in the 21st Century presents a vision of education that might support this recommendation. However, the report does not coherently argue through these implications.

It is also true to say that the consequences of implementing many of the report’s recommendations are likely to contradict its intentions, or at least highlight unresolved tensions. The report points to damaging effects on young people’s well being of women pursuing careers, and the pressure that the school assessment regime has placed on young people. RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor makes an important point when he notes that, while such trends may reduce happiness, they also have the potential to narrow the gap between rich and poor, thus eliminating an equally important source of anxiety. What the report fails to do is provide a coherent vision of how the tension between slower, less pressure-driven, and therefore happier lifestyles can be reconciled with the need to reduce social inequality and raise the living standards of the poorest.

These reservations should not, however, overshadow the importance and value of this kind of inquiry. It is far too rare to find a major piece of work such as this that is not focussed narrowly on outcomes such as exams or attendance in education, obesity in health, or youth offending.

And if this work were to be extended in future, there is an important opportunity for broadening the inquiry. The launch report for the Good Childhood Inquiry, also based on the views of young people, noted a lack of responses that related wellbeing to having a productive role in the community. It speculated that, rather than being irrelevant to young people’s wellbeing, its absence could have been related to young people’s sense of themselves on the outside of communities. It is a shame that this relationship between wellbeing and active citizenship does not seem to have been explored further in the final report. If social fragmentation and excessive individualism are to blame for making life more difficult for our children, can active citizenship bring social cohesion and promote wellbeing?

Social progress is by no means inevitable in the face of complex and unpredictable social issues such as climate change, demographic shifts, and a turbulent economy. But the efforts of active citizens will be critical to realising our shared aspirations, and our wellbeing, in the future.

Ian McGimpsey is senior manager, RSA Education