Wednesday, 28 May 2008


I won't mess around with any second rate film-crit about Mike Leigh's latest film Happy-Go-Lucky. But, at the end of the film, I was left wondering about how it represents the schooling of young children.

First of all, the birds. Poppy spends Sunday with her flatmate Zoe getting materials together to make bird masks with the children. She introduces the idea to the children on Monday in an animated way - they look at a big map together, and she traces a line with her finger to show the extent of the migration routes. Then the children start making bird masks and Poppy moves around them encouragingly, suggesting a bit of extra glitter here, or another feather there. It's charming, in a way, and it's what I remember wanting to go into teaching to do. And it all ends with a lot of fun as the children move around, a little, and make noises, bird-masked.

So - how does Poppy see the children? First of all she stands before them all with a big map. Can little children relate the tracing of a finger on a map, to a thousand-mile journey? No. Then they make "bird masks" - not any particular bird (unless I missed something), just birds. Whatever. A bit of extra glitter here, some more feathers here. They all make these masks. And then, following her urging, they move around a little bit and make some noises.

Aren't the children, then, just elements in Poppy's own play. She wants to play birds. They are obliged to join in. It doesn't relate to their understanding of distance, nor to any observations of bird appearance or movement they might have done. It's for the teacher's enjoyment. I would call this schooling - the children have to be there, and they have to do that - rather than education, where the focus is on development and learning. And though it appears superficially child-centred, it is not at all - it is just as adult-led as any literacy hour or worksheet session.

The other school scene I found interesting, is the bit where the social worker comes in to speak to the child. He just seems to drop in. The child is seated with him and Poppy, and brought into a discussion of how life is at home. No one seems to have discussed this first with the child's mother, or asked whether when she brought her child into school that day, would she mind him being interviewed by a social worker. It couldn't happen in an English school - the chance of even getting social services to take an interest in a case like this is minimal, let alone getting a social worker to come to a school, and parental consent would be needed in a case like this first.

But leaving such procedural nit-picks aside, I think what the film presents here is an idea of school as salvation. The school can go straight to work saving the child - never mind the parent or the family.

Overall, Happy-Go-Lucky (which is well worth seeing) told me two important things about how some left-liberal people see infant education. First, they are easily bamboozled into thinking that poorly-thought out, adult-controlled experiences like the bird-mask-making are creative and a good way for children to learn. They are neither. It was careless thinking like that, which destroyed child-centred education by labelling everything that was informal as child-centred.
Second, they think that schools and social workers act with a kind of benign informality: being nice to children and saving them from harmful experiences. In fact, for very good reasons, the interface between school and social services is quite formal. Unless a child is absolutely in danger of significant harm that day, social workers will always, quite rightly, begin by talking to the parent. When the system works well, long and careful work will then proceed with the family and the child, with the focus on the child's needs. Helping children and their families is much more than an informal drop in and a quick chat.

Social workers are either shown as being so terribly nice, as here, or as callous bungling child-snatchers, as in Ken Loach's Ladybird Laybird. I wonder why?