The evidence is stark: that by the time they start primary school, many children who as toddlers haven’t had the advantages of a home which nurtures them (encouraging them to socialise, to adapt to being in a group and take instructions, to develop an appetite for healthy food and to keep themselves safe and clean) have fallen behind and some will never catch up (have a look at this Sutton Trust research) By the end of primary school, even the bright children from the most disadvantaged groups will have fallen behind their well-off peers in terms of academic achievements. For those who don’t get a head start, doing well at GCSEs, A-levels and even university is like climbing Everest.
‘No excuses’ is the mantra of the most successful headteachers working in areas where pupil intake faces lots of socio-economic challenges (have a look at this interesting article in the FT by Chris Cook about schools in the London borough of Newham). And there are many schools opening up worlds of opportunity for their pupils, whatever their background.
But what of those young children who can’t respond to the teaching?
It seems to me there are two separate groups, whose problems have to be addressed differently.
First, those whose families are trying but struggling. If it helps to give these kids a safe place to go, with an ordered environment, adults they trust, peers to encourage good behaviour and even nutritious food on offer, I’m all for the trend in recent years to ask ‘extended’ schools to take charge of young children from breakfast through to homework clubs and tea.
Helping the families is important too – the most effective heads try to engage parents as much as possible, the charitable sector has some fascinating and effective stuff going on. Research by Robert Cassen of the LSE has shown that 85 per cent of school success depends on how much support and stimulation a child receives at home.
Save The Children UK has a scheme called Families and Schools Together (FAST) which works with schools and parents in deprived areas. It is getting very encouraging results. Have a look here and see whether your local council or school might like to take part – they are looking for 400 groups across the UK by 2014. Some of what they do is as simple as getting a family to have meals together, as well as tackling behaviour.
If the government wants to learn from schemes like FAST and provide parenting help (there’s a pilot going on at the moment), that’s good news too, so long as they do it properly and don’t let the dead hand of Whitehall turn it into a box-ticking exercise. And whereas once only the Labour party promised to provide nursery school places, now every political party pledges to expand provision because they know how important it is to help children develop during the early years.
At a local mother and baby group recently I met a little girl who at the age of 18 months could neither stand nor walk nor use any language simply because no one in the family had helped her develop – her physical and cognitive abilities had not been nurtured and it was now up to a very caring childminder to help her take an interest in what she could reach if she used her legs. Previously she had been ‘dumped’ in a baby chair or left in her cot.
Which brings me to the ‘star’ of this blogpost. I recently had the pleasure of meeting Camila Batmangelidgh in a BBC studio when we were both appearing on Andrew Neil’s late night political show This Week (you’ll see me in the picture of the green room with Camila in her fabulous trademark outfit, with popstar Katie Melua and Labour politician Alan Johnson). Her idea on how to tackle the problems of the second, more challenging group is simple but compelling: love.
Camila has commissioned interesting new research which shows that children with the worst family problems, traumatised by abuse and neglect, are actually having their brain chemistry changed – that their experiences of horror are literally formative and this leads to the sort of aggression seen in last summer’s riots. She and her organisation Kids Company have secured the ear of the political elite because of the way they prove that the most challenging young people can respond to love if not to education or government schemes.
Her problem is that, as she sees it, both the officials and professionals working in social services and the politicians guiding policy find it difficult to respond in a really human manner to this most difficult group of kids, whose awful suffering often leads to problems with drugs and the police as well as dropping out or being excluded from school.
She talks movingly about the danger of adults in officialdom and politics becoming ‘emotionally corrupt’ in its dealings with children. It is crucial, she says, to always remember that her task is to love the children she meets and, in essence, to accept the role of substitute parent. Swathed in all that brightly coloured fabric, she’s a beacon of unconventional hope.
At the moment, Kids Company is running an appeal for its scheme to help feed nutritious meals to the children turning up with empty stomachs at their street level centres and drop ins. But its ongoing social and educational support work is interesting as well. It poses a challenge to those who believe that ‘interfering’ in families is crossing an unacceptable line, whether it is to rescue a child from failing in education or from abuse and neglect. As Camila puts it, ‘Children don’t have a public voice so they can’t tell us. We have a collective responsibility to change children’s futures for the better.’
If we leave a child to suffer abuse without offering help, that’s terrible.(This NSPCC video has been getting lots of Twitter recommendations) But isn’t it an equally broad indictment if we all, as a society, decide we are too squeamish to intervene when over half of children from poorer households won’t get what they can from their time at school, and may be held back all their lives as a result?