We must stop treating children like adults

(This blog first appeared on Conservative Home.)

Katharine Birbalsingh and Jamie Oliver’s Dream Schoolhave put a welcome focus on the decline in discipline in schools.  This will come as little surprise to those who teach or know teachers in inner city schools.

But few have commented on the fact that children’s expectation of ‘respect’ from teachers whilst being unwilling to give them any themselves is part of a wider trend, with consequences beyond the grave damage it has done to children’s ability to learn.  While children must be called ‘students’ and are invited to expound their grievances after moaning that “You think you’re higher than everybody else because you’re a headmaster”, rather than being given a detention for cheek, they also suffer adult consequences for childish behaviour.

Under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, local authorities have been required to keep a record of each racist incident by children.  Adrian Hart has pointed out that this has led to 250,000 racist incidents being logged in six years, mostly childish playground insults made in some cases by children as young as three.  Each of these children is tarred as a racist in these records, leading to potentially serious consequences in their school career even if the records are eventually deleted (something we can have no confidence will be done, given the government’s inability to keep data secure).

Undoubtedly an indirect consequence of this Act is that CPS prosecutions for racist or religious offences for ages 10 –17 rose from 404 in 2005/06 to 2,916 in 2007/08.  It cannot be the case that such prosecutions reflect a seven-fold increase in racist behaviour by children.  The criminal justice system is one in which children suffer particularly badly for their treatment as adults. 

In my early years at the Bar, I represented children accused of causing serious harm by using a ruler as a catapult, children accused of robbery for forcing others to give them their pocket money and seen minor school fights end up in the Youth Court.  These are matters that schools should be dealing with through a rigorous discipline policy, rather than allowing the destruction of children’s career prospects through receiving criminal records.  In this respect, it is encouraging that Michael Gove has expressed his intention to give schools the power to discipline their pupils for incidents beyond the school gate.The most odious consequence of this criminal justice policy, one which pervades the CPS and almost all police forces, is that it stigmatises working class children.  In that respect, it is of a piece with the inability – or perhaps the lack of any desire – of inner city schools to discipline their children.  Children at schools with disciplinary policies tough enough to prevent their worst excesses and which don’t spit children out into the criminal justice system are unlikely to find themselves with a criminal record for fighting.  Middle class parents are also likely to be in a better position to prevail upon the police and CPS not to prosecute their children.

Yet whilst children are treated as adults they are simultaneously infantilised.  The hysteria over paedophilia has led to parents refusing to allow their children to play in the streets or in local parks, notwithstanding the fact that there has been no significant increase in child sex offences and that the vast majority are caused by adults known to them.  Some schools even ban children from playing football in their playgrounds for fear of litigation if they fall over and the insurance for school activities and trips has become sufficiently prohibitive to prevent many schools from running them. 

What sort of understanding of society’s demands will children learn from this?  On the one hand allowed to run riot in the classroom, on the other prosecuted for behaviour once punished within school; treated as mature individuals but denied the structured education that allows them to develop into adults; and given the illusion of freedom and respect whilst being denied the freedom to play on the streets and in the parks.

Children need to be able to breathe.  They need to be given structures that allow them to develop into mature adults.  Most importantly of all, they need to be able to make mistakes – even serious ones – without their future being blighted.  Our society’s attitude to children pretends to give them greater respect but fails to teach them how to command it, retarding their development into truly mature adults.  Our failure to recognise this leaves our most deprived children yet more compromised in their ability to compete for places at the best universities, the best jobs and the best start in life.

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