News Views

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

A mixture of news items, events, comments and whimsies, including school leaving age, the public image of teenage boys, David Cameron, Baby P and the social work task, better conditions for parents, coping with stress and Mittel Appenzell

School Leaving Age

We have been sent the findings of a survey, conducted online by education recruitment specialist Select Education, which suggests that teachers are sceptical about the benefits of increasing the school leaving age. Nearly six out of ten (59%) of the 377 teachers polled thought that attainment levels would not increase if such a change was implemented.

Teachers, thought that, by being forced to remain at school for longer, disruptive and less academically gifted children would impede the development of those interested and focused on academic attainment. There was a general feeling that by 16, many children are better suited to a different environment and forcing them to stay within the school system will only further increase truancy rates. More cynical responses also highlighted that the government may just use the initiative as a means of reducing unemployment.

One respondent summed up the general feeling: “It’s just prolonging the agony for non-academic students. Leave those who want to study further in peace without the class disruption from pupils that don’t want to be there.”

There were, however, some teachers in favour of an increase in the school leaving age, “Giving every child the opportunity to reach their full potential is critical in today’s society; raising the leaving age will help children who would normally leave and do nothing with their life achieve a future.”

Peter Flannery, the Managing Director of Select Education concluded, “This is a complex issue and the effects of such a change need to be carefully assessed by looking at the impact on not only students but also teachers, our education system and society as a whole. Respondents made some very interesting alternative suggestions such as an increase in apprenticeships or more encouragement for people to return to education later in life when they will be more focused and committed”.

We agree. We have argued before for LOSLA - the lowering of the school leaving age - for those who wish to go and do something else. In education the key factor is motivation. If students know that they need to learn, they will absorb ideas and knowledge, learn skills (including how to learn) and encourage others. If they are unmotivated, what they are taught will not be absorbed, and they will not achieve. The resources should go into life-long learning and into encouraging children to want to learn.

Hoodies or Altar Boys?

Women in Journalism has published some research into the image of teenage boys in the press. They found that of 8629 references to adolescent boys in regional and national newspapers in the last year, 4374 were referring to crime. This was not only creating a threatening image in the eyes of the population as a whole, but it was making boys more wary of each other.

We consider this a serious problem. In part we blame the media for sensationalising and stigmatising teenage boys. In part we blame the public for wanting to read these stories. While the stories attract readers, the media will publish them. The real problem comes when people believe that the stories give a picture of life as it is, and in consequence modify their behaviour because of their anxiety and fears.

We suspect that most people do not witness crimes being committed by adolescent boys, except on television. In reality, most parts of the country are fairly safe and crime-free. If this were not so, why would TY programmes need to keep trotting out the same pictures of vandals? Have you seen the one with the boy smashing the window of the white van to steal its contents? He must be in his thirties by now, but it is still used as if it is typical of teenage boys’ behaviour. It’s lazy journalism in our view.

A Silver Lining

The recent death of Ivan, David and Samantha Cameron’s son, was a great loss to the family, and David Cameron spoke eloquently about the key role played by Ivan in the family. Parents do not seek to have children with disabilities, but when they are born, they can play as significant a role in a family as the able children, and David Cameron made this clear when talking about the family’s loss.

Politicians are sometimes distant figures, being careful about their images in public, often living comfortably and sometimes coming from privileged backgrounds. Ivan’s death gave the public a chance to see something of the private side of David Cameron’s life - to see that privilege is no protection against the major trials of life, and to see him address the issues of disability and bereavement head-on, and movingly. He came through this well. A loss to the family was a gain for us all.

The Legacy of Baby P

Baby P must have had a miserable life, and we hope that something good can come from his suffering.

One of the points made in Lord Laming’s latest report is the child protection work suffers “an over-emphasis on process and targets”. We agree. The main job satisfaction of social workers in this field should be the knowledge that they have protected children who were being abused, or were at risk, offering them the hope of a secure and happy life. (See Chris Durkin’s article this month about what people in this field are hoping to achieve when they join the profession.)

To achieve this job satisfaction, social workers need to be allowed to work in a way that achieves their aim. Sitting at a computer, filling in forms, does not. The essential part of the job is concerned with people interacting with people.

Child protection social workers also need a job that is do-able, with a workload that allows them to follow up leads, to talk to the people involved, to support parents and children, to inform and consult other professionals, to record their actions, and to have time to think about what they are doing. Overload them, and it’s like spinning too many plates; some get broken.

If the outcome of Baby P’s death is that social workers are enabled to do a proper job, he will have saved the lives of other children still to be born.

Better Conditions for Parents

Without any trade union calling them out on strike, parents’ needs for better conditions are getting political attention.

The Liberal Democrat Spring Conference today backed plans to give all families 20 hours of free, high quality child care for children over 18 months old as well as allowing fathers to take up to one year of paternity leave. (We are not sure if the “high quality” bit implies that parents would have the choice of more hours of cheap low quality child care as an alternative.)

The LibDems want all childcare workers qualified to a minimum level, an expanded role for children’s centres as training institutions, and the chance for parents to share 19 months of leave.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has taken up the cause. Their proposal is not as generous as the LibDems’, but they back the chance for parents to have greater flexibility in deciding how much leave parents take. At present, mothers are paid for nine months, and fathers for two weeks.

Childhood is a very short time, and we think that the country should invest in its children’s early years in particular. We believe this will pay off, as well as be good for the children. And once the pattern is established, men and women alike will be less likely to lose out in the promotion race by taking a parental sabbatical.

A Gap in the Syllabus?

About 1975 a small working party was set up by the Residential Care Association to consider the effects of stress on residential workers. This was a new topic at the time, and very little work had been done on it. The working party undertook a modest survey - it would be presumptuous to call it research, but it gave some useful leads.

It identified the stages of stress, ranging from the danger of being understimulated, through increasing stress levels to the intolerable. The survey considered the ways in which residential workers responded to stress - undertaking training, raising issues in supervision, displacement activities such as golf, drink, institutionalising practices to make the work tolerable, and so on. The survey also focused on burn-out and the preceding stages leading up to burn-out, such as the frantic efforts of workers being overwhelmed to try to stay on top of their workloads.

The key finding was a surprise. It was found that workers expected to face client-generated stress. Helping other people to cope with their problems was why they went into the work. They prepared themselves mentally to address behaviour problems, mental health difficulties, physical disabilities and so on. Their training gave them skills to cope with them. Their systems and professional practice methods as residential workers were geared to reduce, contain, manage and treat these problems.

What the residential workers did not expect and were totally unprepared for was that the biggest sources of stress were their colleagues - mainly, but not entirely, their managers. Nowadays we train managers of residential establishments and expect them to have qualifications. The quality of management should be better as a result. Managers should be more aware of the causes of stress among staff and of ways of alleviating it. Levels of stress experienced by residential workers should be lower than they were in the 1970s.

We have an uneasy feeling, though, that there are probably still quite a lot of people out there who feel stressed, and that for quite a number of them, the sources of stress will still be their colleagues and, in particular, their managers. (Let us know if you agree or if this is just a blast from the past.)

On thinking it through, it struck us that management is a reciprocal process. Managers need to learn how to manage, but other staff need to learn how to fulfil their roles in the team if the work place is to be happy. We do not train people in how to be managed, nor how they can cope with stress - other than by using the blunt weapon of blowing the whistle. We are not aware of any qualifying training which includes this in its syllabus, but if workers are to be effective team members, maybe it should be.

The Bells of Mittel Appenzell

We have heard again from Heinrich Niemann, the Burgermeister of Mittel Appenzell, who sends us a message on 1 April every year. He tells us that everyone is happy in his Canton, that the cows are producing good milk, and the farmers are making good cheese.

“The children of Mittel Appenzell are becoming concerned, though, about global warming”, he reports. “They wonder if the snow will leave their mountains, and their valley will dry up. They tell the old people that the young ones will still be living when the old people are in the churchyard, and that for the youth global warming is a hot topic.

“They have decided that they need to know about the world outside their Canton, and ways in which the global warming is affecting other children, and so they are thinking to make contact with children in other countries, using their Canton computers. I hope that they are successful. Today they need to be world citizens, and everyone must take care of everyone else. We have a new traditional saying in the Canton, ‘The bells of Mittel Appenzell can be heard across the valley, but the email can be read around the world’”.

From the Case Files

It was noted that she suffered from a mild leaning disability.

From drinking too much mild?

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