10 December 2005

Self esteem will beat crime

By Jacqui McCarney

"Let us reform our education and we will have little need to reform our prisons" so wrote John Ruskin. If Ruskin were right surely New Labour would have emptied our prisons by now.

From SATS to league tables, religious schools to new academies, time energy and money has been lavished on educational reform during this government's time in office. Increasing numbers of children have jumped A level hurdles and gained places at university.

So why has all this effort failed to produce a more civilised society? Why are our prisons increasingly overcrowded, violent crimes growing and horrifically violent acts of bullying at schools becoming all too common?

The relationship between education and crime is borne out - in reality the vast majority of people who end up in prison have failed at school - many reach adulthood illiterate, and large numbers will have been labelled as having learning difficulties. Yet, the real reason for failure is overwhelmingly linked to bias in the current system against their poorer deprived backgrounds.

Despite the media obsession with fractional changes in A level results, the real measure of a school's success has to be the number of optimistic, self confident, caring young people it produces - pupils who feel that they are of value to themselves and to the world, now and in the future. This is the holistic education vision that Ruskin, and many others, advocate.

Whether their talent is in making a cabinet, building a wall, gaining A levels, growing vegetables or caring for others; all these skills are equally valuable to society and deserve to be valued equally.

The damage to society from alienated young men that have experienced nothing but failure and are turned onto our streets with little self-esteem and even less hope is incalculable. We have only to open our newspapers to be bombarded by the results of their anger. Paul Taylor and Michael Barton the young racist murders of Anthony Walker are all too familiar; no-hopers with a history of failure at school and then at work.

Extremist and racist views are more a reflection of a personal sense of deprivation and powerlessness, which can be just as easily turned on homosexuals and women.

What if these people had been given the opportunity to study philosophy from a young age as had the fortunate children at Tuckswood First School, a Community First School, here in Norwich. Feeling valued must start early - children as young as four are learning about "Peaceful Disagreement" and the opportunity to discuss issues freely. Their teachers notice that leads to "increased self-esteem" and "respect for others". It is hardly surprising that these open, non-judgmental sessions have a "profound effect" on the children. The excellent work in this school could be lost if it is not continued when the children move on to their next school.

School should be the start of a lifelong education - children need such opportunities to explore their ideas and develop the skills for independent thinking early if they are to become fully participating members of a democratic society - involved in the community and politics, and becoming voters.

We must begin to produce a win win situation for all children in our schools. And it is only by doing this and enabling every child to feel valued will we begin to decrease the prison population. We need people with a wide range of qualities and talents, and these needs to be reflected and valued by schools. Schools need to have academic success as just one strand in a broad and inclusive education. To limit intelligence to academic intelligence is unrealistic surely in life emotional intelligence, practical abilities, physical skills, entrepreneurial talent, creativity are all of equal value. Children with these wonderful and useful talents are made to feel like failures in our school system instead of using these to boost their self esteem and help them too enter the adult world with a sense of pride.

Both David Cameron and Tony Blair have lost the plot in their apparently close educational views which provide for more competition and choice for a few. They continue to regard schools like factories with quotas and targets, and assuming, that if we put children on the national curriculum conveyor belt, then success is guaranteed.

The achievements of dedicated teachers in enriching the lives of young people are usually achieved despite successive governments' policies and interventions in education, not because of them. It is essential that present and future Governments of all political colours should start by listening to teachers, and their needs for smaller classes. Education bringing on all talents will only flourish in less stressful environments.