Thursday, 20 January 2011

Regular assessments of the social and emotional wellbeing of under fives

It sometimes seems to me that if it is possible to adopt a muddleheaded and foolish attitude towards some aspect of childhood and learning, then a fair number of home educating parents will do so. Graham Allen MP has produced a report in which he concludes that many children are being raised by parents who do not prepare them for life with other people very well and that one result is that the kids struggle and then fail at school. Anybody working with children will know this to be true. He recommends that between birth and the age of five, children who are at risk of having problems at school should be identified and their families given help and support. I cannot imagine anybody who knows anything about the sort of families of whom he is talking, disagreeing about the need for such an enterprise. Here is an account of the report;

Perhaps it was the implicit assumption in the report that children would all be attending school at the age of five, but Allen's report has annoyed some home educators, who of course regard it as a manifestation of the 'Nanny State'. Since I have for many years been involved in this field, I thought that I would just give one or two examples of the type of parent who is being talked of here.

Last week I was talking to a Friend who is a Community Psychiatric Nurse. She told me of a family she visits, a mother and father with a baby just starting to walk. The mother suffers from depression, nothing major, and the CPN just pops round to see how she is coping. A few weeks ago, she noticed that the baby had bruises on one side of her face and the arm on the same side. She ignored this, because all toddlers have falls. Last week, she noticed a new set of bruises, overlaying the old ones. She mentioned this to the parents and they laughed. It turned out that the child regularly fell out of his high chair and that that was how the bruising was happening. As they said, 'It happens a lot.' These are not bad people, but they lacked the sense to realise that they should do something about the problem, like strapping the kid into the highchair, for instance. My friend gave them a little common sense advice and the problem is now solved. It could of course have gone very badly for the family, with a hospital assuming that the injuries were repeated and non-accidental. There are many parents like this and they are often clustered in certain places.

A few years ago when I helped run a support group for mothers who were struggling, we organised a day at the seaside. None of the children and some of the mothers had never seen the sea before. One mother sat in a deckchair near the water's edge and her eighteen month old child toddled into the sea. She walked in up to her thighs, tripped and then fell face first into the water. The mother simply sat there, completely unable to conceive of the danger to her child. Fortunately, we were all aware of her, what might politely be called 'poor parenting skills'. I and the psychologist who worked with the group both reached the child in about a nanosecond. She was fine, but if left to the mother might well have drowned.

There are many parents like the ones above who welcome help and support. When they are directed to support groups which meet regularly, they are grateful and without such support they risk having their children removed from them and placed in care, which is a terrible thing. Graham Allen's report is suggesting that more help be directed to such mothers and fathers and that an effort is made to identify them and offer help so that their children are not taken away. It is also hoped that with appropriate help, their children will be able to thrive at school. Because a lot of children these days are starting school in such a pitiful condition that they are destined to fail from day one. These are children who have literally never sat at a table. They have never even held a knife or fork, having used their fingers up until now. Increasingly, they are still in nappies at the age of four or five. Some of them do not know how to sit in a chair. We are not talking here about children who have not been taught to read and write before they start school, but of children who can really only communicate in grunts. I suppose I should describe this as a 'delay in the acquisition of expressive language', but the fact is that they do only grunt. This is not a pathological condition caused by a neurological deficit; it is because nobody has ever talked to them normally or attempted to have a conversation. Because they cannot talk and do not know how to listen, they are unable to learn.

That anybody should be opposed to an initiative aimed at helping these children is beyond my comprehension, but then as I said at the beginning, if there is a muddleheaded or foolish attitude to be found about education, one can depend upon a certain type of home educator to put it forward! It is to be hoped that Graham Allen's recommendations are adopted by the coalition and that these wretched and vulnerable children are provided with the help they so desperately need.


  1. What's beyond comprehension is that an MP can be so unaware of the paucity of support services that he wants *more* parents of under fives to use them.

    Parents whose children have severe speech problems, are doubly incontinent or have seriously delayed development due to known genetic disorders and who have asked for help can't get sufficient assistance with speech therapy, nappies, occupational therapy or lifting. Or if you are completely exhausted with looking after a child with severe disabilities, forget trying to get a specially trained babysitter for the odd evening out.

    My son (12) has visual and auditory problems that have impacted significantly on his speech, educational attainment and motor skills. His orthoptist has no consulting room and has to use her open-plan (shared) office; his paediatrician can get my son's auditory processing function assessed but can't see the point because no treatment is available in the UK.

    My question is this: how do you *know* that a child doesn't have a neurological deficit if there is no reliable screening programme in place, and if children strongly suspected by a paediatrician of having neurological deficits are simply given a label (autism, ADHD, whatever) and put on the too-hard-to-do pile without a full medical work up?

  2. Just to add that I suspect the marginalisation of the biological causes for children's health and education problems in the UK has stemmed from policy-makers seeing them almost exclusively in terms of the social model of disability. I don't believe reading PPS at Oxford includes a module on physiology and biochemistry - more's the pity.

    Looking at a child's social and emotional wellbeing isn't going to help much if they have medical that's being ignored.

  3. Should be 'a medical problem that's being ignored'.

  4. I dare say that the language problems of some children are caused by neurological deficits. Assuming that most are not is nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with the conditions in the homes of many of those who have difficulties. When I used to do a lot of home visiting, my colleague and I would sometimes amuse ourselves beforehand by predicting what we would find in the home of a child with severe language delay. No books, a gigantic television blaring out constantly, making it impossible to hear anybody speaking, racks of videos, no dining table, that sort of thing. This has nothing to do with class or income; not all the homes we visited were like that, but t was far more common with language problems. It is just that when you can guess in advance the environment of a child based purely upon observation of his problems, it is a fair bet that the environment is a factor.

  5. Old Webb says-A few years ago when I helped run a support group for mothers who were struggling, we organised a day at the seaside.

    How sweet! did you build sandcastles with the kids!? Did it make you feel good Webb taking these mothers out for the day?

  6. It sounds as though he wants to encourage businesses to finance schemes that they already know are needed. They don't need find out about these children, health visitors and social workers already know who they are but can do little to help because of lack of funds. The report does not ask for new legislation or government funding so it would not give anyone greater access to the family than they already have. This article gives more detail about the report:

  7. My problem with the proposals is the assumption that poor = bad parent. Oh and that phrase "inadequately institutionalised". I always thought being institutionalised was a bad thing. Now it seems it's a bad thing if a child isn't institutionalised.

  8. I think it is hard to believe that there are parents who don't realise the importance of talking to their baby or toddler if it is something that seemed obvious and 'natural' to you. But it clearly is not universal.

    I often see parents with young children on the bus who don't say anything to their child unless they are telling them off. It seems not to occur to them that talking to their child would be sensible - rather than ignoring them and waiting until they are bored and start 'exploring' the bell or standing up on the seat. Similarly, parents often seem not to offer the most simple things when their toddler is upset - a drink of water, a toy, a snack, a book. I sometimes wonder if they don't carry those things or don't want to offer them, or what?

    Of course, I have no idea what's going on in those parents' lives. Maybe they are pre-occupied with problems. Maybe they are grieving or depressed or just having a bad day. I don't know them or their child. I try not to judge but I do observe and many times it seems that the conflict and unhappiness for parent and child was probably avoidable.

    The thing is that *most* of what govt means by 'good parenting' is the sort of thing that makes life with small children more pleasant and satisfying for everyone - talking, listening, helping children negotiate the demands of life in society. I don't have a problem with govt promoting that. What I do object to is their slipping from the realms of common sense and everyday happiness into education policy. Childhood isn't a preparation for nursery or school or work - it is life. It seems to me that doing anything for the sake of the happiness of children is never deemed reason enough - it's always got to be about their academic achievement. I don't see life as a race and I don't encourage my children to either. That's probably why it always sticks in my throat when govt tries to push that world view as if everyone holds it.

  9. 'I often see parents with young children on the bus who don't say anything to their child unless they are telling them off. It seems not to occur to them that talking to their child would be sensible '

    I remember that when I used to take my baby round with me I talked to her in a normal conversational tone about anything which I felt. This included stuff in the newspaper, science, anything at all. people used to look at me as though I were insane! In health centres, one sees parents talking to each other and their babies are disregarded as though they are parcels or something.

    I don't believe that this is about trying to drive children to achieve academically. A lot of the kids this is targetted at are not going to be high fliers, with the best will in the world. But at least we can hope that they will learn to speak and hold a conversation, to read and write; basic stuff like that.

  10. Allie says-I don't see life as a race and I don't encourage my children to either

    But it is a race winner takes all im afraid! government the system has made it like this. no reward for the losers in life im afraid! unless your offering to pay they bills? if you dont tell your children this they lose out im afraid!

    I copy old Ed Balls tell half truth grab what you can and look after number one thats the lesson i have learnt from labour and good old Ed Balls and learnt not to be scared of any one to thanks Balls?Labour!

  11. Breaking news Ed balls to replace Alan Johnson as shadow chanceller now who said life is not a race!? LOL