As readers will know, I have often written for Yorkshire Bylines about the topic closest to my heart, and the area across which I taught in university for 25 years: the development of children and young people between birth and age 18, with a focus upon psychological issues.
As the pandemic (hopefully) draws to a close, I draw upon my knowledge of child development psychology, biology and neurobiology to suggest a draft ‘charter for childhood’ to improve both physical and mental health in the nation’s children and young people.
Societal issues and the impact on childhood
Long before the pandemic, societal issues were negatively impacting children’s physical, mental and social development, and yet the challenges were never addressed or even sometimes recognised by the government. As we move into the post-pandemic period, these issues are likely to be exacerbated by the impact of the stresses of lockdown, illness and bereavement.
We cannot yet estimate the impact of long covid. But this is likely to be particularly pronounced in the UK due to government insistence that the UK’s under-18 population must be used as a mass herd immunity experiment without the permission of the children themselves or their parents; an issue that will no doubt merit many articles and reviews as the situation further unfolds.
This list is just a first attempt, considering practical actions that would better comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), signed by the UK in 1990. My intention is for it to start a discussion, and hopefully be further shaped into a set of ambitions that will be generally acceptable across the nation’s workforce for children, young people and families, the children and young people themselves, and their families.
Attachment and emotional development for children under five
Practical and financial support for families with children under three is necessary to provide high adult:child ratio care, at a maximum one adult to three children. This does not necessarily have to be solely within the child’s family home, it could be the homes of extended family and childminders, or daycare settings designed to work on small ‘bubble’ provision.
This arrangement for the care of under-threes enables infants to create secure attachments with a small circle of adults who provide regular care for him/her, a feature of early childhood that is essential to build resilient mental health.
Financial support must also be extended to families with children under five to ensure that they never live in a situation of desperate poverty (for example, dependent on food banks) which creates stress within families which has a far-reaching impact on children’s emotional health and readiness for learning.
Early education and care
Children should be guaranteed a half-days or half-weeks nursery place from the start of the term following their third birthday, which would then be extended to a full time offer from the start of the term after they turn four. They should remain in nursery education until the term prior to their seventh birthday, meeting their need for play-based learning in the relevant developmental stage.
Early years education and care settings for children from birth to six should be managed, led by graduates and staffed by early years specialists who are specialists who are trained in human physical, psychological and biological development and early years pedagogy.
Play and socialisation
The provision of safe out-of-school play spaces adjacent to local schools for seven to 14 year olds could offer children opportunities for collaborative play and socialisation both indoors and outdoors, overseen but not directed by adults, managed, led and staffed by trained play workers. Free places within such centres should be available for children before and after school during term-time.
If local schools and play centres co-ordinated on children’s attendance between 8am and 6pm on weekdays, with at least four hours spent in non-school activity every day between these hours, this would be beneficial to both the child and parents/ guardians.
Play centres should additionally be open 8am to 6pm on weekdays in school holidays, with families paying an attendance fee that is proportionate to family income.
Personal and social media access
Despite its benefits, social media can be immensely damaging to young people. Thus, the government would do well to implement new legislation preventing children under the age of 14 the ownership of networked smartphones and tablets (ownership of mobile phones with call and text facility permitted), as well as ensuring parents and schools are supervising the use of networked devices.
The UK has an important opportunity to create an international initiative to move children under 14 away from adult social media and gaming, and to set up adult-moderated social media and gaming alternatives that are both suitable for children and are not financed by commercial advertising.
Education protocols for mental health
Children in Key Stages 1 and 2 would benefit from an eradication of statutory exams and testing up to the beginning of Key Stage 3. Instead of focusing on the statistics generated by testing children, school inspections should focus on work sampling and the quality of teachers’ professional development.
If not already in place, there should be both a statutory minimum mid-morning break of 20 minutes and a 40-minute lunch break for both teachers and children in all schools.
All school exclusions should be managed by a department in each school or group of schools staffed by specialists, including specialist teachers, psychologists and counsellors. While it must be accepted that some children will always need ‘time out’ from mainstream classrooms at some points in their schooling, they should never be designated to be outside the supervision of the school in which they are enrolled.
The blanket age of criminal responsibility at age ten must be removed, and instead, a rehabilitation/non-criminalisation model of justice should be applied to young people under the age of 17 that does not leave them with a criminal record for the remainder of their life.
A difficult path ahead?
Our children and young people have been one of the demographic groups most heavily impacted across the covid period. This has worsened due to our government’s lack of understanding of child development, and its disregard of children’s needs in their policies for poverty reduction and education, most particularly in the early years.
It has consistently refused to consult with experts in child development psychology, and for this reason, sadly I am not hopeful that the current government, or their complicit children’s commissioner will act on any of the above during their remaining term in office.
If attendance is the right focus now, perhaps we should be doing more to stop children getting ill. As an aside, a person in public office only allowing people who agree with her to reply to her tweets is cowardly. https://t.co/ZuTyELlPO2
— Debra Kidd #Antiracist (@debrakidd) September 29, 2021
Scotland shows the way?
However, Scotland has made a good start with its bill to incorporate the UNCRC in its legislation for children and families, and it is hoped that England will follow in their footsteps once we have a government that is more open to social justice and developmentally-informed practice.
I have hope that this may come around in England sometime in the next 5 years, when the covid and Brexit dust has settled, and a general election has taken place. For now, I think for the children and young people’s workforce, although the way ahead may currently seem very dark, it will still be helpful to talk, and to look hopefully to the future.