When does a person cease to be a 'child' and become an 'adult'? Legally someone under the age of 18 is considered to be a child if for some reason a care order needs to be made out. In other cases a child is deemed to be someone below the age of 14. at which point they become "young people'.
The concept of 'child' as we have come to understand it is relatively new in historical terms. In the last century and before it was largely only the offspring of the rich that could benefit from a time of comparitive leisure before the onset of adult life. For the majority of the population there was a hazy transition from infancy into the world of work as soon as coordination would allow, in order that they play their full part in supporting the family unit. Quite apart from the well known stories of children down the mines, in the woollen mills and up chimneys the task of maintaining the home without labour saving devices such as vacuum cleaners or washing machines was considerable. This called for active participation and contribution from all members of the family and often left little time for the luxuries of play or even of education.
We are fortunate to live in an age when this sort of pressure on the majority of children is no longer an issue. The potential for successful education for all children has never been greater. It is indeed a very exciting time to be a teacher, but at the same time the external pressures on us as educators have become more intense. There are calls from all quarters. Education is seen as the solution to so many of societies' problems. We are urged to transform our 'age weighted pupil units' into precisely the correct shaped pegs to fill the percieved holes in the labour market, even though we can have very little idea exactly what sort of hole will be about at the time these children reach that stage of their lives.
I agree that it is important to recognise that the children we teach will some day be responsible for the perpetuity of all that is worthwhile in society but I also believe that these same children are already a significant part of that society today. They learn from us and in spite of us and it is only through them that we can hope for development of a fair and just community.
Biblically speaking, as is pointed out in the Church of England report 'Children in the Way' the old testament view of children, whilst celebrating their birth as a blessing, sees them merely as potential adult members of the community.
'Sons are a heritage from the Lord,
children a reward from him.' (Psalm 127 vs 3)
'Children were not seen as having any contribution of their own to make to the life of the community until they reached the age of being able to keep the Law.' All education at that time was geared towards that aim. In a manner not dissimilar to England in the middle ages children learned at home, the boys learning their father's trade and the girls the skills of homemaking.
As Christians we must hold a slightly different view. When the disciples were turning the children away they did it because they thought them of little consequence and an unwelcome drain on their Master's time and energy. Jesus rebukes them.
"Let the little children come to me; do not stop them;
for it is to such of these that the kingdom of heaven
belongs. I tell you solemnly, anyone who does not
welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will
never enter it." (Mark 10 vs14-15)
In this statement he points out that far from children having much to learn from us, we have much to learn from them.
I would go further to say that it is only by working alongside children on an even footing, taking their perceptions seriously and treating them as equals that we can hope to establish a little of that kingdom among us here on earth.
The primary function of the period of life we call childhood is one of growth. These first years of life must see growth in the physical, intellectual, emotional and social elements of the child's human existence. It is at this early stage of life that external influences can have a profound effect on the rest of their development. A baby who is severely malnourished in the first years of life is unlikely to acheive its full intellectual potential in later life. Similarly an infant allowed to lie in its cot, or sit alone can not be expected to learn to talk, think or form relationships easily. We have all seen pictures of the orphans of Rumania and how children as old as seven or eight appear to have barely progressed to the emotional expectations of a two year old. The role of significant adults or peers in the child's development is therefore one of utmost importance.
By far the most significant of adults to the child are its mother and father or those who have in some cases replaced the natural parents. Social and emotional development is dependent on the love and security of the home background. Children have a natural urge to explore and make sense of the world around them and the extent to which this can be maximised is dependent on the encouragement and the facility they experience in following this urge.
As a parent myself I am blessed with two lovely children. I know at first hand the joy and delight of watching their progress, their perceptions and reactions to whatever the day brings.
But parenthood is not a bed of roses, or if it is they are of the thorned variety! The anxieties and frustration we experience seem to increase with time. We no longer feel it is safe for children to pop up the road to play with friends, or to make that quick journey down to the local shops for a loaf of bread. We are presented with harsh realities, possibly amplified out of proportion by the media, but nonetheless frightening. We are reminded of the high proportion of marriage breakdowns and children born outside stable relationships with a single parent often left in a feeling of isolation to face these anxieties alone.
It is from a wide range of home conditions then that children arrive at our schools. Some will have spent time at a playgroup or nursery unit where they may have developed fairly sophisticated social skills whilst others may be totally unused to company of their own age on this scale. Some will have suffered the trauma of divorce and separation, others will have experience of competing for attention in a large family. It is almost certain that no two children, even from the same family, will have had identical formative experiences.
The arguments still resound over whether a child's attainment potential is a result of these environmental influences or is governed by genetic inheritance, and I do not propose to enter into such debate at present. I will say that I am convinced that if we are serious about wanting to provide the best opportunities and education for the children in our charge then we need to be well in control of the physical, social and intellectual environment in which we intend to fulfil these aims.
It is to this end that all members of the school community; staff, parents, governors and supporting personnel must work in direct partnership with the children in our care.
At a basic level we respond to the wide range of previous experience we encounter in the classroom through the provision of differentiated activities, designed to take the child from its own level to a new positive progressive position in manageable stages. This requires accurate assessment of the child's existing perceptions and understanding. If a child enters school having already learned to read to a fair standard there is no need to place that child at the very beginning of a reading scheme. The teacher must assess the level of competence and provide an appropriate programme to build on the existing ability.
This basic idea can be applied to the less academic lessons that need to be addressed with children with specific difficulties. Recently I had the task of teaching a school phobic child. This child had been away from school following a trauma surrounding the sudden illness of his father. During the time he was away the child had built up a great barrier to returning to school, to the extent that this usually mild mannered and sensitive child had attacked the welfare officer with a weapon as a result of his fear. His twin sister had not reacted in the same way and maintained a normal attendance. By encouraging him to attend school for an hour here and there to work on computers, which he enjoyed, away from the classroom with friends the previous teacher had prepared the way for his return. Initially his mother agreed to accompany him to school and helped out in the classroom in the way parents often do. The child himself worked in the hallway outside my classroom where he was joined by close friends. Initially this was just for mornings but as his confidence grew he was able to stay for some of the afternoon provided that his mother was in attendance. Eventually it was to work on the class computer that he made the step into the classroom.
From then on he continued to progress in stages, accepting that his mother might work in another part of the school and eventually becoming independent of her. I understand that he is now doing well at the comprehensive school and needs no special provision.
Although an extreme case this highlights the need for all children to feel comfortable with their surroundings and with the regime. In discussion with colleagues it is generally agreed that children need to know what is expected of them, as I might add do we all. Thus clear guidelines for behaviour with agreed rewards or consequences have helped to set the tone for activities in the classroom, with a seperate clearly defined set of rules for the playground. These are all the more effective if devised with the children so that the reasons behind the rules are made clear. It must be one of the skills of a teacher to be able to present and adapt these negotiations to the level of perception that the class has reached.
With the resultant common ownership of the rules I have found children extremely supportive of measures to help those less able to live by them. The achievements of a child with behavioural difficulties in reaching a preset goal, say collecting four 'smileys' as a reward for four trouble free sessions is shared by their peers. Often the child is taken aback at the care they express.
It is all too easy to spend a great proportion of our energy considering 'problem' children. These children will face, and indeed are facing the same world and must be encouraged to overcome their difficulties or learn to live with them. To give them any other impression would be unhelpful to them and us.
Being in touch with children's culture can also make the experiences we provide for them more effective. In assemblies I have found that bible stories or moral messages have come alive when linked with characters from Disney, for example.
The supreme self sacrifice of the Sea-King Triton in the 'Little Mermaid', answering for the waywardness of his daughter; the brave defence of his friend against all odds displayed by Baloo the bear in jungle book; and with its recent video release the death of Mufasa and subsequent struggle against psychological barriers and the face of evil in the 'Lion King' all have obvious parallels not least tied in with the forthcoming Remembrance Day commemorations
This progression, taking the children on from where they are, is comprehensively addressed in the documents of the National Curriculum, and the content guidance it gives should free us to look more closely at the way in which we deliver it and the physical, social and intellectual environment that we can evolve with them. There is here a danger that rather than educating, or drawing out, the potential of each child we return to the 'pint pot' view of education, attempting to fill the child's mind.
Yes; equip the children for the world of work. It would be negligent not to. And Yes; give them as broad a foundation as possible where they can identify their talents and special interests and discover what they are called to do in good time. But we need to educate for the child's self fulfilment and not for self gain. Educate with a view to improving the society in which they play and will continue to play an increasingly important role. This means building that society in an atmosphere of care, positive reinforcement and friendliness here at school. Something a church school has both a clear duty and a unique opportunity to do well.