Sunday, 28 October 2007

Early childhood education and care: some of this week's news

Preface/Apology

Oh dear...I see that a huge amount of time has passed since I last wrote anything here. Something to do with the aftermath of Ofsted visiting and then being really busy with other stuff. I spent a very enjoyable evening at Froebel College , Roehampton University discussing some of the history of the great daycare/nursery education divide. I hope to write this up soon.

Also a delightful visit to Cornwall for a conference entitled "Enabling Outdoor Learning in the Early Years Foundation Stage" at the Eden Project . Organised by the extraordinary Wendy Titman, I had a wonderful day talking, listening and learning about outdoor play and learning. In her keynote address, Wendy praised some wonderful work going on in Cornwall. And despaired over suggestions that surgery will be the only option to solve the obesity crisis in childhood; that the first under-five has been prescribed anti-depressants in the UK; that a toy manufacturer won a major award for a plastic flower-in-a-box set.

If you get the chance to hear her talk - then go. If you don't - check out her new book. And if you are involved in the design or development of a Children's Centre, then the guidelines which she helped to write are, in my opinion, invaluable.

No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society

In keeping with a major theme of the Cornwall conference, Tim Gill launched his new book No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society.

The advance publicity for the book claims that a "nannying" approach to childhood from 5-10 is hindering children's development.

Tim sees through the superficial sophistication of many children, to a more important truth: they are being stopped from growing up and getting away from the surveillance of adults: "Although there is a widely-held view that children grow up faster today, in fact their lives are far more controlled than they were 30 years ago", he says

I'm pleased to say that in Cornwall, staff working with young children were talking with great enthusiasm about the need for challenge and risks, the importance of children spending time out in the wind, rain and snow, cooking outdoors, having places to go where they cannot be seen. I feel somewhat hopeful that attitudes are changing and that we will look back on the last twenty years as a strange aberration from the English tradition (which includes the post-war nursery and infant school tradition) of children playing freely outdoors.

Hatred of disabled people

I blogged a while back about hearing Richard Rieser speak in Tower Hamlets, London. One of Richard's themes was that it is not sufficient to think about discrimination against disabled people in terms of buildings that are not accessible, denial of employment, etc. Though these are very important issues.

There is also, in British society (and doubtless elsewhere) a hatred of disabled people which perhaps comes hand in hand with fears of difference, and the sort of fears which are perhaps stirred up in childhood by the equation of "badness" with "physical deformity". To take just one example - the witch in Hansel and Gretel, who captures the children, is stooped and blind.

As I listened to Richard, I wondered whether this is quite right - because another big theme in fairy tales, and popular culture, is that appearances are misleading. So the dwarfs turn out to be good, not scary, in Snow White, and the "beauty" falls in love with the "beast".

However, he has (shockingly, distressingly) enabled me to see that there is something horrifying going on in British society: persecuting, bullying, attacking and even killing people because they are disabled, or have learning difficulties.

Whereas the media is now quick to spot a theme, when people of the same race, or religion, are being attacked, I don't think they are really onto this one. The reports tend to be categorised as signs of the breakdown of law and order, or the ill effects of mobile phone cameras, "happy slapping", YouTube, etc.

In only the last 5 or so months, the following events have been reported:

A 50-year-old disabled woman from Hartlepool is subjected to taunts and bullying as she lies dying.

A gunman shoots a disabled pensioner as she tends her husband's grave.

Two men are attacked as they help their disabled brother into a car on Plymouth Hoe in Devon.

Two boys kill a partially-sighted man by kicking and stamping on him at a tram stop in Sheffield.

Three men and a youth launch a cowardly attack on a disabled man in Staffordshire for no obvious motive.

This list of recent news stories excludes the many crimes against disabled people for which there is an obvious motive to accompany the cruelty - for example, burglars who attack disabled people to rob them, muggers of disabled people, etc.

I wonder if Richard Rieser isn't on to two important things.

Firstly, that there are crimes being committed every day against disabled people which are analogous to, for example, the history of lynchings and beatings suffered by African-American people in the American south.

Secondly, while we continue to tolerate discrimination against disabled children in schools and nurseries, we are bringing up yet another generation of children to fear disability, difference, and all kinds of otherness.

I have sat (with parents) and listened to primary school headteachers say that:

We couldn't possibly have a child who needed gastro-nasal feeding in this school.
It would upset the other children too much.

Not enough room in the reception classroom to fit a wheelchair in.
Against Fire Regulations.

Couldn't admit a child with autism into reception.
It would be upsetting for his sister - she needs to get away from him at school.

It's generally unwise, I think, to make suppositions about what should be done in early childhood education by imagining a journey backwards from the crimes of adults and youths.

But isn't it possible that the bureaucratic violence of school discrimination all too easily easily grows into physical violence on the streets and in people's homes?