It must be in the air. Following the letter from Susan Greenfield, Philip Pullman et al. in the Telegraph (which does indeed come over in a slightly more reasonable fashion than the related piece on the BBC), The Children's Society is now initiating research into the causes of childhood unhappiness.
The reason why the Telegraph seemed a more balanced piece? It didn't just bat on about screen culture and junk food. The authors dared to mention hyper-competitive culture and academic pressures as possible causal agents of childhood stress. This looks hopeful for any subsequent inquiry because it appears as if the researchers have been given permission to seek out causes of childhood unhappiness that challenge prevailing societal memes and requirements. By societal memes, I mean erroneous theories such as the one that school is essential to education and that it is impossible to socialise children anywhere else. Also that children must be achieving such and such at such and such an age, or else they will be forever compromised; or that they must learn such and such, or that they must compete to be the very best or they will not stand a chance. By societal requirements, I mean that school is used by adults as a form of childcare and often becomes an unchallengeable meme for this reason too.
Just how far the research will go in challenging these memes is another question. It may be all too easy to forge responses. For example, if you ask a child who has clearly been horrendously bullied over a long period of time how he would like to improve his life, he most likely won't even fully recognize that he is appallingly bullied, let alone know what he can do about it. He may simply have no context for recognizing the abnormality of the behaviour to which he is subjected. Or he may, perhaps, have cut himself off from his own feelings, having found that this was the only way he could cope. He may therefore have no idea that there is any problem, or he may want to appear as if he can cope with a superficial bravado or avoidant type behaviour.
You may say this sort of thing sounds impossible. It isn't. I spent at least six years of my adolescence living with moderately severe depression which never registered with anyone. Significantly, it didn't even register with me. I didn't realise that life needn't be utterly bleak. I knew I hated school but thought this was normal and that there was just nothing I could do about it. I therefore never mentioned it to anybody and probably would not have done so had anyone asked, since I barely recognized it as an abnormality and there appeared to be nothing I could do about it.
So my worry for this research: they may ask a child how to improve his life, and one way or another, he may not be able to give you an accurate answer. In addition, given societal norms, researchers may not really want to listen to his answer.
How would it be if the BBC Poll asking children if they would prefer to be home educated turned out to be about right...(and bear in mind that this figure is one which may suffer from the problem as mentioned in the preceding paragraphs)? What if more than 50% of children who have already said they preferred to be HEd continued to say that their lives would be significantly improved if they didn't have to go to school? Would the researchers dare to publish? Or would policy makers step in first and make sure it didn't get a proper hearing?
If, (blow me down), all of this happened, how creative could policy makers possibly get? If they really did have to confront such a statistic, could they really rise to the challenge?
My guess it that answers to childhood unhappiness are very often much more easily within our grasp than many of us have realised. If there were indeed a mass exodus from schools, we could find ways of coping: small co-operatives of families, working together in this information rich world! Easy peasy, and all the easier if we are allowed to think big.
There is a remote chance of bending Mark Thompson's ear within the next couple of weeks. It may be awkward, as I think I am meant to be working, but I keep fantasizing about what I would say to him. Something along the lines of: "Tell Mr Blair you need a bit more of a budget and he will be able to close schools. Then pile on the great internet resources, loads of free imaginative educational resources and you will end up saving the country a packet!"
Pipe dream or a genuine hope? Perhaps, with these sorts of initiative and research, the country really is gearing up to make significant changes for children.