Personalised Education Now web site imageChristopher Shute

Recently one of the young men who, as ten-year-old boys, had killed the toddler Jamie Bulger, was recalled to prison under the terms of his Life Licence. He had been sentenced to prison Until Her Majesty’s Pleasure Be Known, which is a life sentence by any other name. I don’t know if all my readers remember the detail of the murder of this unfortunate child, but suffice it to say that two dysfunctional little boys took the toddler and growing bored with him threw objects at him until he was dead. Then they put his little body on the railway line so that a train cut him in half.

The reaction of the ordinary public was perhaps predictable, and in my humble opinion should make us, as a nation, search our collective conscience. The Sun newspaper printed a pro-forma which readers were encouraged to send in to reinforce the paper’s proclaimed conviction that the only possible just sentence for this crime was life, without release or parole. It should be remembered that up to the age of ten a child – in England, at least – is ‘doli incapax’. This bit of sonorous Law Latin simply means that he or she is presumed by the Law to be incapable of forming the intention to commit a crime. Since no one seriously believes that a person becomes a fully-fledged, totally conscious potential criminal at the precise moment when he or she becomes ten years old, the Law provides that a person who reaches that age is allowed to plead, with everdiminishing strength as he grows older, that it is for the prosecution to show that, in spite of his youth, he was fully capable of understanding how serious his actions were. These boys were barely past their tenth birthday. It should have required a second Marshall Hall, an advocate of almost superhuman powers to convince a judge that the boys should stand their trial. Instead, the question was not even raised. The boys were tried, found guilty and sentenced to Her Majesty’s Pleasure and sent to be locked up in a secure facility.

They would stay there until they were eighteen years old. Then, if the public taste for vengeance were to attain its fullest expression, they would be suddenly transported from the relative comfort of the secure unit to the isolation cells of a Young Offenders Institution. We might reasonably expect that the moral hierarchy which operates in prisons would see them relegated, as killers of a child, to the status of ‘nonces’, the lowest grade of prisoner, to whom even fraudsters, burglars and murderers of adults feel themselves to be superior.

Fortunately for the two boys somebody at the Home Office was possessed of enough humanity to release them from imprisonment, under the most rigorous of licences, when they turned eighteen. They were given new identities, and a complete set of cover stories which would enable them to establish themselves as adults in the world of work. It is good to know that civilised values managed to penetrate the tsunami of public hatred which threatened to put them behind bars for the rest of their lives. However, it is also frightening to anyone of a liberal disposition that even the Home Secretary of the day, Jack Straw, whom many believed to be a radical influence in the Government, initially at least tried to get prison terms for the two boys at least comparable with the tariffs imposed on adult murderers.

This tragic case leaves us with one overriding question: why do we seem to want to treat our children with harshness and rigour which we do not even apply to adults? Why do we British often see crime done by children as, if anything worse than offences which adults commit? Why, in fact, do we tend to see childhood and ‘naughtiness’ as indissolubly linked?

We educators need to think urgently about these questions. It should not be necessary to ask why, but even a cursory glance at the average school, the average family home, and the average British street reveals that few among us really like and accept children as they are. We who claim to be practitioners of ‘education’ still tend to value conformity, obedience, silence and readiness to fit in with adult plans above spontaneity and a spirit of adventure which may lead to discussion, variety, and a flexible timetable. Yet many of the most influential adults in our society are precisely the ones who when they were young were the hardest to bring under the sway of the traditional school.

They wanted and went on to seize, the independence of mind and body which they felt instinctively that they were entitled to. I’m thinking of the likes of Horatio Nelson, who when he was a teenage midshipman fought a polar bear all alone on an ice-floe, or Albert Einstein, who his teachers thought to be an imbecile, but who went on to create a revolution in science and mathematics, or even Jesus himself, who ran away from his parents when he was a mere boy to dispute with the learned men in the Temple. They all stepped out of the role of obedient young person to do something exceptional.

In the simplest possible terms I would argue that a substantial part of the problems which as a nation and a culture we encounter as we live with our children, come from a false and unreflective view of children. We see them as at the same time dangerous and trivial, cute and amusing yet vicious and destructive. We want them to learn what we learned and accept the ideas which appeal to us.

We worry if they don’t get the knowledge which we got at the same age as we got it. Instead of revelling at the ability of two- and three-year-old children to grasp the subtleties of any language which is spoken around them, we fret because they can’t do other things like reading and writing at precisely the same age as we did. We constantly see our children as creatures who can’t do things which we can do, who need to be taught all sorts of skills and activities as soon as possible in order to become more and more like us. If you see what I have written here as mere bilious generalisation I would suggest that you might profitably spend time in a typical secondary school or speak with an ordinary family about their children. Ask the adults involved how far they would agree with the ideas I have just expressed. Listen to their responses and measure them against the pattern of thought described above in the paragraph about the common cultural impressions of childhood.

An alternative, and in my view far superior, model of childhood was proposed by A. S. Neill, among others. It specifies that in every aspect of life where the safety or the well-being of the young person or of others were not question, they should have the right to do what their individual view of the world made them want to do. The environment in which they lived would impose natural boundaries; they would not be able to do anything their parents were not willing to pay for, or the Law forbids, but those parents would, by the same token, not have the right to make them follow religious rites or cultural and political ideas if they did not wish to. Many children are happy to follow their parents’ way of life, but this does not mean that they cannot be allowed to construct their own mental world if they wish to do so. The essential aspect of our relationship with our children is that they are not our inferiors, not imperfect where we are perfect, not trivial, funny, cute or deliberately embarrassing. They just got here after us, so they have yet to do all the learning that we have already gone through.

Seeing childhood in that way would surely make us think differently about the education we offer to our young. At present, unless we choose home-based learning for them, we sweep out children into a machinery of imposed learning and activity lasting eleven years from the age of five (or even earlier). We justify this by reference to a range of ‘needs’ which we attribute to them without ever asking them whether they actually have them. The results of this manipulation is that some children grow up with positive attitudes towards learning, but a significant proportion of them reach adulthood convinced that they cannot handle ’booklearning’ – which is the only kind of learning schools seem to value – so they come to believe that they are socially worthless, and in some cases are even tempted to be criminals, since they cannot hope to be successful in the ordinary world. That is the nature of the generation which we are raising. It included the killers of Jamie Bulger, and a horde of other violent and dangerous young people, whose attitudes and actions provide front-page stories for the tabloid press.

I want to suggest that we need, urgently, to find a totally different culture of childhood, which will promote respect for all people, however young, and encourage them to grow up thinking of themselves as real, authentic, valuable individuals, with a heritage of humanity to pass on to their children.


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