How Will the Coalition Rate Children’s Needs?

Thursday, July 1st, 2010 by Chris Durkin

Like many people, I was very interested in the election and the wheeling and dealing that took place afterwards. How the coalition works out will be interesting to see. However, as always, elections ignore certain sections of our society, which is hardly surprising given the way they are organised; politicians understandably target the people who are going to elect them.

This, in some constituencies, means that politicians concentrate only on a very small group of people, whilst ignoring others. For example, in so-called safe seats very little canvassing seems to take place, whereas in the marginal seats disproportionately large amount of resources are thrown at the electorate.

Where were Children’s Interests?

In terms of children and young people this means they can be ignored because:

“People belonging to future generations cannot vote today. The principle of democracy can, in its traditional and narrow form, conflict with the maxim of intergenerational justice. The need to appease the electorate every four or five years means that politicians direct their actions towards satisfying the needs and desires of present citizens - their electorate. The interests, therefore, of future generations are all too often neglected”.[i]

This is not to say that children and young people are completely ignored but they are wrapped up in other agendas such as families, with politicians using slogans such as ‘hard-working families’. In part this can lead to people being categorised and in some cases demonised. Teenagers and adolescents are often categorised as knife-carrying, binge-drinking anti-social young people.

This demonising of certain groups appears to preclude us from having a rational debate about the needs of young people, resulting in politicians becoming increasingly separated from the lives of the young. It also possibly  has the opposite effect from what was intended in that so often there is a disconnect between young people and the rest of society.

As a recently published Demos report states:

“The less young people recognise themselves or their concerns in these cultural narratives, the less incentive there is for them to participate in the public sphere”. Hannon, C., and Tims, C. (2010:24)   

Yet, as this report goes on to point out, there is a contradictory aspect to this narrative. In one way politicians celebrate the achievements of young people recognising that young people are the nation’s future and that they will provide the country’s future wealth whilst at the same time castigating them for perceived poor behaviour.

The Impact of Class

In my experience there is also a class divide in this debate which was clearly illustrated for me over thirty years ago when I worked in London. I was undertaking my usual role for the probation service in the local magistrates’ court. Two men had been arrested for exposing themselves to motorists and were being charged with indecent exposure. The stipendiary magistrate heard the case and listened carefully to the evidence. What had happened to these two men was they had met up in London for a University reunion, had too much to drink and exhibited the behaviour on the way back to their hotel. In this case the magistrate asked the Police to charge these two men with lesser charges, namely drunk and disorderly, to ensure they didn’t have ‘a stain’ on their characters.

Although this is an extreme example we know that students often get up to stupid behaviour, which they would not repeat in later life; we have to look no further than members of the current cabinet and their membership of the Bullingdon Club whilst at Oxford. If we changed the narrative in these cases and replaced the word students with the words unemployed youngsters from a rundown estate people’s attitude to their behaviour may well be different.

As the Demos report states, “Young people need to be liberated from the limited parameters of ‘youth issues’, and brought into a wider set of political decisions” (Hannon, C., and Tims, C. 2010:30).

This is particularly so for young people who have been in the care system who are even more marginalised within society - a silent group whose voice is rarely heard. We are so quick to judge and blame rather than recognise that those that have been in the care system have been increasingly damaged by a life before care, and sadly it must be accepted that they are all too frequently damaged by life in a care system that provides no stability, with frequent moves in homes and sometimes schools. Stability provides children and young people with time to explore, question and test out life within a secure environment whilst they grow up.

The Government Needs to Take a Strategic View.

What concerns me deeply about the forthcoming budgetary cuts is that they will affect the most vulnerable in our society, marginalising both people and communities; many young people leaving care, for instance, are facing a bleak future. Growing up in an environment which provides limited certainty in terms of home, school and ‘corporate parenting’ whilst at the same time trying to make sense of past abusive experiences is a recipe for disaster. Add to this mix an artificial boundary between children and adult services, and you have all too frequently a major tragedy.

In addressing this whole issue new thinking is required, thinking that is both long-term and systemic. In terms of the care system, planning for leaving care should be part of the strategy from day one. It requires an aspirational plan for a young person’s future and involves identifying a worker/mentor who assists the young person throughout at least the ten years after leaving care. It requires a less uncertain approach that attempts to identify one person who will guide the young person through the care system, which may be a social pedagogue. What, people may ask, am I doing advocating further resources. The riposte to the latter question is to point out the waste of resources currently going on when we look at the disproportionate numbers of care leavers unemployed, homeless, in offender institutions and accessing our health service. Short term silo mentality does not lead to strategic thinking.

References

Hannon, C., and Tims, C. (2010) An Anatomy of Youth, London: Demos http://www.[1]demos.co.uk/files/AoY_webfile.pdf?1270387139 (accessed 14/6/2010)

[i] Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations, ‘Generational justice in constitutions’, cited on page 5 - Hannon, C., and Tims, C. (2010) An Anatomy of Youth, London: Demos http://www.[i]demos.co.uk/files/AoY_webfile.pdf?1270387139 (accessed 14/6/2010)

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