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Challenging the neoliberal onslaught on our children

Tireless childhood campaigner SUE PALMER talks to Richard House about her top priorities for improving kids’ wellbeing, the impact of coronavirus and averting a mental health crisis among the young

You’ve been championing the cause of children’s wellbeing for many years — most notably, perhaps, with your internationally bestselling book Toxic Childhood (2006). Can you summarise what you see as the most important factors that are threatening children’s well-being in today’s world?
Sadly, it starts from birth. There are two biological necessities for children’s long-term physical and mental health — close, loving relationships with the adults who care for them; and from around age three, social, active, outdoor play with other kids. Love and play. 

As long as families’ basic material needs are met, our evolutionary heritage provides both of these for free: parents naturally love their children and kids have an inborn drive towards independent play. 

But a hyper-competitive market economy encourages adults — and children — to confuse love and play with “stuff.”  
This excessive materialism (along with increasing urbanisation) means children’s lives are increasingly institutionalised from an early age, and “play” is generally indoors, sedentary and often screen-based. 

Our value system has become so skewed that the toxicity affects all socio-economic groups, but it’s obviously worse for children raised in poverty. 

And the evidence suggests it’s contributing to the widening of the poverty gap.
So what is happening in modern society to interfere with these natural, healthy processes of love and play? “Too much, too soon” is a phrase we use a lot. What’s the nature of this “too much,” and why is “the too soon” happening? 

It boils down to a mixture of “cool” and school. Too much competitive consumerism, with marketing aimed directly at young children, so they’re pressurised by marketers to obsess about stuff like fashion, physical appearance and the latest screen-based gadgets at an increasingly early age. 

And an education system driven by economic imperatives: children have to get the grades so they can get a job so they can contribute to the economy. It’s spawned a tests-and-targets culture based on pressure to “achieve” that even extends down into pre-school. 

Now that human beings are almost universally regarded as “units of production and consumption,” children’s lives are blighted from the start. 

Both parents need to work to pay the bills, so many babies and toddlers spend much of their waking life in nursery, and there’s now funded childcare for all three- and four-year-olds. 

Early childhood is defined by the United Nations as birth to eight, “a time of remarkable growth, with brain development at its peak. During this stage, children are highly influenced by the environment and the people that surround them.”

So this is the time when love and play (active, outdoor play) are vital. And I fear the institutionalised care on offer is often lacking in both. 

We need a home care allowance like they have in Finland, so one parent can stay at home for the first three years, and a really high-quality kindergarten stage for three- to seven-year-olds. But no-one is prepared to pay for it. 

If you were education secretary in a genuinely reforming Labour government, what are the three most important educational changes you’d make that would enhance children’s wellbeing, and encourage a schooling system grounded in co-operation and mutual support rather than cut-throat competition and soulless commodification?

Well, I’ve mentioned two changes I’d like to see, but they’re currently not under the auspices of the education secretary. First, a homecare allowance for children’s first three years — giving families time to care for their own wee ones lays sound foundations for education. 

The second — a high-quality kindergarten system — would come under “early years” rather than “education,” and it’s what I’m currently working on in Scotland.

I’m chair of Upstart Scotland, a campaign to provide relationship-centred, play-based kindergarten care and education for all three- to seven-year-olds, with an emphasis on active, social, outdoor play, as often as possible in green places. 

We have enormous support from people from all sorts of professional backgrounds: public health, education, social services, children’s rights, the play sector, the arts, developmental psychology, environmental sustainability, even criminal justice. 

They can all see that, if we give children a decent shot at childhood, it will mean they’re well fitted to benefit from formal education. 

But it will also enhance their long-term health and well-being, which benefits society as a whole in the long run. 

As for change number three: what should I choose? Scrap the tests-and-target culture? 

Obliterate “academisation”? In England, it’s all now so awful I wouldn’t know where to start. That’s why I’m happy to be home in Scotland, a much more left-leaning country that’s already moving towards a socially-conscious Nordic approach to childcare, education and public health. 

Everything starts with early childhood. Get that right and the rest — including education — is much easier.   

Can you tell us what you’ve learnt in your campaigning work about the political class’s mindset in relation to education, and what the best approach might be for helping politicians to really understand the kind of humanistic, child-centred vision that progressive educationalists like us share?

It’s not just the politicians we have to help. We need to change deeply ingrained cultural assumptions about education in the entire population, starting with the age that formal schooling should start. 

Most countries wouldn’t dream of sending kids to school till they’re six or seven. 

All the great early years pioneers — Froebel, Steiner, Montessori, Malaguzzi — reckoned seven was the best age to start formal education. 

So did the Greeks and the Romans. So did Piaget and Vygotsky, the two great developmental psychologists of the 20th century. 

The UN errs on the side of caution when it defines early childhood as birth to eight. 

But for 150 years, we Brits have been putting our kids into compulsory schooling — and expecting them to crack on with the three Rs, the year they turn five. Our children have always been expected to achieve too much too soon. 

Until the 1990s, most kids still had mums, grans, aunties or someone around at home when they were little. And they still went out to play … But things have changed. And we have to change our universal state services to ensure that love and play are reinstated at the heart of early childhood. 

I reckon that’s the only way to stem the rising tide of mental health problems that currently threatens to engulf the nation. 

I’m wondering what an authentic left-socialist response might be to the coronavirus in relation to schooling and children’s wellbeing? 

The immediate imperative is to listen to the NEU and other teacher unions about the reopening of schools, and to early-years specialists (like those in the Early Years Forum) about the best way forward for Year R and Year 1 of primary education. 

In the long run, I reckon putting young children’s developmental needs at the heart of all policy-making would pay off in terms of all-round well-being for the nation as a whole. 

Obviously, there will be significant economic constraints but our society is so generally f***ed up that I reckon the only way to improve things is to start from the beginning! 

I once interviewed a Finnish politician who told me that back in the 1960s, they had terrible economic and social problems. “So we asked ourselves: How do we get a good society?” he told me. “And we thought: We should do our best for our little children.” They haven’t done too badly in the intervening 60 years.   
Sue Palmer is an ex-headteacher, author and childhood campaigner. She is chair of Upstart Scotland ( and tweets as @Upstart.Scot. Richard House is green-left activist and writer in the Corbyn tradition living in Stroud, Gloucestershire.


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