New Labour’s recently published Children’s Plan sets itself the modest target of making Britain the “best place in the world to grow up.” Unfortunately, the mixture of good intentions, technocratic changes and small-scale reforms on offer don’t add up to sort of radical vision that is needed to tackle the growing crisis of childhood. But a little caution is needed before the left throws this particular baby out with the bath water.
For, whatever its other shortcomings, the plan does at least identify the real issues that are blighting the lives of so many children in the real world – child poverty, the commercialisation of childhood, the near-replacement of independent outside play with indoor screen-based entertainment, fatty foods and childhood obesity. Hidden away in chapter 3 is also the first real indication that the current version of scholastic aptitude tests (SATs) might be replaced by a more personalised “test when ready” approach, even if this does not guarantee that comparative school performance tables will necessarily disappear. The plan’s proposals are also wide-ranging and include many things that reformers would want to support, such as more and better playgrounds, youth clubs, the integration of children’s services and more effective use of school resources in the community.
Children spend only one-sixth of their waking hours at school, so it is perhaps surprising that so much of the plan focuses on education. The reality is that the plan has been published at a time of increased concern that the school “standards agenda,” which is still a major cornerstone of government policy, is running out of steam, the education system is not quite as “world class” as it should be and that there appears little chance of reaching the 90 per cent A-C GCSE target by 2020. In many respects, the plan is largely an extension of the standards agenda. If things were not going wrong for Labour with schools, it’s questionable whether it would have even reached print. For example, a whole chapter is devoted to the government’s proposals for “staying on” in education, such as raising of the leaving age and creating new vocational diplomas. It also reiterates that every secondary school should have specialist, trust or academy status and a business or university partner.
Libertarians from both the left and the right might fear a further extension of the “surveillance culture” that is creeping into more areas of family and personal life, but the plan is careful in its language and its tone and designed to be supportive rather than coercive, while many of the proposals are too shallow and far too limited to represent anything Big Brother-like. Pointing the finger at schools and teachers is another matter. The plan continues to do its fair share of this – “weak and failing” teachers are criticised, schools are set a minimum standard of 30 per cent of students attaining five A-C GCSEs and, in future, all teachers are to be expected to gain masters degrees. Labour strategists, however, understand that blaming parents, who are ever more financially overstretched despite working longer and working harder, could spell electoral catastrophe.
The only section of parents directly addressed by the plan are from “disadvantaged” areas. These will receive expert parenting advice, encouragement to access Sure Start and 20,000 subsidised places in nurseries for up to 15 hours a week.
A disappointing number of the commitments contained in the Children’s Plan are either too small-scale to make a difference or are unlikely to be adequately funded. Some spending commitments are paltry, the largest being £220 million on playgrounds over the next three years. Most kids would soon be able to calculate that the yearly spending increases are unlikely to be more than their monthly pocket money when divided by the total number of children in the population.This last point is going to become ever more relevant as Brown’s bubble economy deflates over the next few years, squeezing public-sector resources. Perhaps that explains the emphasis on information and consultation, with new parenting advisers, personal progress records and new focus groups called “parents’ panels.”
However, other key proposals need to be carefully considered. While reformers have rightly sought to extend subsidised nursery places as a means of liberating women and teaching co-operative and communal values to the young, the plan clearly envisages more target-based, formalistic and standardised early years provision. This raises the question, is it really a good idea to ratchet down the sorts of prescriptive regimes to ever younger children?
Some commentators on the plan have also noted that many action points only involve publishing and commissioning further reviews and reports, the most important of which will look at the commercialisation of childhood and on the risks of video and internet games. There is also a lot of technocratic tweaking and rearranging of departmental deckchairs on offer, but these sorts of organisational solutions will not transform those aspects of everyday life in advanced consumer capitalist societies that are fuelling the crisis of childhood. And this perhaps brings us to the real empty hole in the plan – the lack of any clear vision. For there is nothing at all to suggest that the government is ready to start questioning the free-market dogma that has helped fuel the crisis of childhood. Instead, the plan continues to parrot the increasingly empty claim that unlimited opportunities and personal fulfilment are available to all in a globalised economy.
Nevertheless, the publication of the first ever Children’s Plan will hopefully encourage wider discussion and debate among socialists and radicals about the condition of our young people. The left urgently needs to sharpen up its thinking about contemporary childhood. That calls for some honest discussion about the relationship between young people and their parents or carers. About the ways in which young people are being encouraged to think and act. About the limits of the education system in a society like this. About the ways in which parents may be able to reclaim the spaces in our children’s lives that have been colonised by commercialism, consumerism and the state, but also about the way in which the “workaholic” culture inhabited by many parents actually props up the sort of economy that new Labour says that it wants to protect children against.
Above all, the left needs to ask more searching questions about the way in which our young people are being prepared to respond politically to the economic and environmental crisis that they are likely to experience later in their lives. If youth is the future, what next?