We must stop vilifying young people and listen to their views if we want
to tackle social disorder in our communities.
From the debate that's been going on over the past week, one might be forgiven for thinking that all our children and young people are out of control. The government's Respect action plan has focused the nation's attention on antisocial behaviour and aggression. But we desperately need a more balanced approach which recognises that these difficulties have not arisen overnight. We must also examine how political decisions in the past 30 years have contributed to the turbulence in which so many of our children and young people live.
How many adults have really tried to understand what it is like to be a child or young person today, particularly one whose behaviour is challenging? How welcome are children and young people in our streets, shops and playing fields? No dogs, no children, no ball games – these are the prohibitions seen all too frequently. Moreover, we have been told that 70% of press articles about young people are negative and perpetuate stereotypes of thuggish behaviour. The culture of society is a key influence – the marketing and celebration of gratuitous violence is so common as to be unremarkable, as is the ruthless promotion of alcohol. Conflicting messages are given to young people about the use of cannabis, yet alcohol and drugs are powerfully linked to poor behaviour and crime as well as mental health problems.
The government has made progress in tackling poverty and deprivation but much more needs to be done to improve the blighted environments in which children are brought up. Young people tell me repeatedly of their fears for their own safety, and why they meet in groups to overcome this. Often they have nowhere to go and nothing to do. Few adults in these communities volunteer to work with them to meet their needs.
In many schools, excellent work is being done to give children a sense of pride and moral values. But a recent survey on spiritual health carried out by the Commission on Urban Life and Faith shows that just over 40% of young people have no sense of purpose in their lives. The physical environment of many schools is unsatisfactory, coupled with bullying, poor teaching, dependency on agency staff and low expectations.
Tony Blair is right to focus on the importance of families and parenting,
but how have policies contributed to the collapse in the stability of
families, the value of marriage and the distortion in work-life balance? We
need to take note of new scientific data that shows the biological basis for
the trajectories of aggression in children. Children who s
show persistent behavioural difficulties are often very troubled, with longstanding anxieties that relate to poor attachment and bonding in infancy. Sure Start has provided much-needed support to the most vulnerable young children, and we need to look at new approaches to promoting resilience and empathy for others in very young children.
Two good examples of this are the government's Seal programme (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) and the Roots of Empathy programme in Canada. The latter is an evidence-based classroom programme that has dramatically reduced levels of aggression and violence among schoolchildren. It is designed to introduce children to babies and help them to understand the principles of parenthood as they witness the baby's development.
Finally, there are major difficulties in making public services available to support vulnerable families and communities. Lack of capacity in social services, youth work and child and adolescent mental health services must be addressed if progress is to be made. The government has launched exemplary policies for children and young people - Every Child Matters, Youth Matters and the National Service Framework are hailed internationally for the quality of thinking. We need political will and intent to ensure they are implemented. Frontline staff are pleading for a period of stability to get to grips with the implications of these policies and not to be distracted by reform of education and the NHS.
I welcome the opportunities we have been given. Progress will only be made by understanding the root causes of social disorder and giving sustained, long-term commitment to addressing them. Local leadership, community engagement and, above all, understanding and engaging with children and young people themselves are key.
Children and young people are used to being spoken about, as the current concerns about sex offenders working in schools testify; what they experience far less is having their views and ideas listened to and respected. The respect agenda must also include a responsibility for adults – parents, doctors, nurses, teachers, neighbours, relatives and friends – to treat children and young people with respect. They are often vilified as a group and tell me that they are not listened to as individuals. Everyone should recognise and accept this responsibility and consider whether they do, in fact, treat children and young people with the respect they deserve. Adults act as role models for children, and very often children are following where adults lead.
By Al Aynsley-Green
Children's commissioner for England
19 January 2006