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Archbishop's speech at House of Lords Debate - Good Childhood Inquiry Report

Thursday 12th February 2009

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams spoke at the House of Lords 'Children: Good Childhood Inquiry Report Debate'.

Moved By The Lord Bishop of Leicester, the debate called attention to the publication of the Good Childhood Inquiry report.

My Lords, I am very happy to declare an interest both as vice-president of the Children's Society and as patron of this inquiry. I am delighted that my right reverend brother has secured this debate.

The report paints a very sobering picture of a society that has become clumsy and neglectful in the priority it gives to the central task of civilised humanity: the task of inducting children into responsible and fulfilling life. That being said, however, the report is not an apocalyptic document. It does not simply paint a picture of a society ravaged by feral youngsters, and it does not, despite some versions of it in the press, seek to find scapegoats for all problems. The aim of its analysis is not to find one simple root cause for the problems currently surrounding childhood in our society but to identify a "climate" in very broad terms—specifically a climate, as we heard, of individualism, but not only that. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, that simply to speak of individualism is a simplistic strategy in this context. However, I think that we need to take into consideration, alongside issues around our attitudes to the individual, attitudes that also have to do with our short-term perspective on decision-making. This is perhaps a rather timely observation given our financial straits, but I pass hastily over that.

When we make choices, we make choices that have a cost. We like to avoid the awareness of that cost; none the less, it will not go away. No choice fails to bring some sort of cost, and if cultural and economic factors press us towards certain choices rather than others, the costs remain. And that, I believe, is the essence of what is being said about patterns of work among parents. Cultural factors make it desirable and natural for women to seek fulfilling work. Economic factors, as we have been reminded, make it desirable and sometimes necessary for a family to think of two working parents. Those are moral and reputable choices but their moral and reputable character does not remove the cost. The question, therefore, is not where we apportion blame but how we are to look long and hard at those things that offset the cost. The report suggests that we have barely begun to do this effectively in terms both of our attitudes to paid work in our society and our attitudes to the professionalism demanded in childcare.

Attitudes to working practices are a very significant and troubling dimension of our life in society today. We all know how heavily work presses upon those in employment, and we know the demands that can be made on working mothers and fathers in ways that are deeply detrimental to family life. But we also have a deficit in many of our attitudes to the status of those who work specifically with children. I wish to pass on briefly to think about some of the issues that surround this question. The report notes the undeniable fact that those working in education and in mental health care with the young are often poorly paid, inadequately resourced and seriously undervalued in our society overall. Perhaps I may be permitted to spend a little time on these two areas.

Chapter 7 of the report repeats the now quite familiar statistics on the levels of young people's mental health, the decline of those levels during the 1980s and 1990s, the relative stasis since then, but the lack of any improvement. The point is not the trivial one that one in 10 young people is unhappy but the far more serious point that this significant percentage suffers from serious, diagnosable, treatable mental health problems. The report also notes that only 25 per cent of them gain the right kind of specialised help. The report calls for an integrated approach to the mental health of young people involving both schools and the care system. It calls for training in the recognition of mental health problems, for professional assessment as a priority and, therefore, for evidence-based treatment as the way forward. All of these points seem to me to be of the greatest importance as we look at what children's mental health requires in our society.

There is an implied point here about the professionalism of those who work in this area—not that it is poor at the moment, but that it could be better and more extensive—and the urgent need for more workers. A specific call is made for a five-year programme to train 1,000 more child therapists. I hope to hear from the government Benches their sympathy for this proposal. I also underline the need for a fair and proper regional spread of such provision, and I do so having in mind a painful conversation last weekend with a friend from west Wales who described the dire situation of mental health care for young people in the area.

This of course spills over into the broader area of issues around schooling and the causes of stress in our schools. I note another specific recommendation here, already mentioned by a previous speaker, which has to do with testing in schools. The report observes that, sadly, testing is frequently oriented towards what we might unkindly call PR and marketing rather than to feedback for those most deeply involved: the children themselves. The demand made in the report that testing should always have a strictly educational purpose through feedback is one that I hope will be weighed very carefully. There is also some significant material about the payment of teachers and also about apprenticeship schemes as a way of releasing the energy and creativity of young people. A request is made for government guarantees about apprenticeship schemes, and once again I shall be delighted to hear a response to this. Already some schools are running imaginative projects in this area. Some months ago I was privileged to visit a church secondary school on the south coast, in a deprived area of Eastbourne, which had devised an extremely imaginative project whereby early school leavers were encouraged to return to the school part-time to study for their A-levels while being trained in various IT skills at the same time.

Mental health and education are just a couple of aspects of a very rich report, and to focus on them illustrates the level of failure in our society to give value and priority to the work of forming adult personalities by the way in which we engage with our children. But to form adult personalities means that we must first take children seriously as children, not simply as embryo adults. That means listening to them and taking very seriously their own account of their needs and their problems. One of the great strengths of this report is that it seeks to do just that.

The dimension of religious faith and spirituality has already been mentioned in this debate. To develop a sensible, creative, celebratory attitude to our children requires at the very least a vision of what human maturity looks like, and a sense of the absolute imperative of creative care, not merely protective care, for the growing and the vulnerable. Religious faith may not be the only source from which such a vision comes but it is a crucially important one both individually and socially. Above all, if I may speak here as a Christian, the Gospels' injunction to take example from children is one of the strongest possible cultural incentives to look with pleasure, with gratitude and with eagerness towards our young people. Very little except such a perspective can break through the mixed climate of fear and dislike which sadly seems to surround so much of our perception of young people, at least as reflected in the media. This report is a crucial step towards breaking through that sad stereotype, towards a more celebratory and more creative approach.

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