This is a much longer piece than I had intended at 08.30 this morning, and with lots of loose ends and only ‘half-way there’ analysis, but I have now run out of time for today and need to attend to an overflowing inbox, and the long list of other things that got bumped off the to-do list to write this post. Oh, and I probably should declare competing interests upfront: I am an academic who does works from home most days because of the structure of my project; please note that I do actually work from home and that I do not ‘work from home’; it is true that I am very fortunate in this climate to have a job, and I have had some lucky breaks, but I have also worked hard to get where I am and continue to work hard to keep my job, make good of those lucky breaks, and hopefully progress; all the academics I know work just as hard, and some work much harder; the only luxury of working from home is that I get to do the laundry and maybe have a cooked meal at lunch time, and if I’m super organised my son will also get an edible and nutritious meal after I’ve picked him up from nursery at 5pm which is by-the-way when my working day tends to end these days, and I have little control over that; I do not organise press conferences in my spare time because I don’t have any spare time; I have had to resign my role of co-director of my Residents’ Association which I held for a number of years and I have had to hold back from getting involved in at least two other community issues I cared about because of my workload and family commitments; work or childcare are probably the only two viable fields of social action where as a full-time working woman and mother I could get involved in things that matter to me; I’m not special in this way and I suspect this is the same for a number of people, especially women; you can read about the intersections of gender and social action here; I will use my voice, and my expertise on issues I know a little bit about to call out bullshit when I see it, and I make no apology for that.
We’ve been off-line for close to a year now. I had been determined, when this blog was started, never to titter on the edge of the desert but I think it’s safe to say that that’s exactly where this blog has been dwelling for the last year whilst we’ve all been immersed in intensive fieldwork in Athens, Hyderabad and London. And, contrary to what I would have thought 12 months ago, taking time out of blogging hasn’t been a bad thing at all, there’s a draft post kicking about somewhere about the possibilities and limitations of blogging and social media at different phases of the research.
In the meantime, the news item that has me dusting off the cobwebs in a hurry, and earlier than planned, is today’s ‘kids’ strike’.
The ‘Let Our Kids be Kids’ is a campaign by a group of parents who would like to see a different pedagogical approach to education that does not rely on standardised tests as a marker of learning (this is my paraphrasing). The campaign has a public face via a WordPress, as well as being run via Twitter and Facebook. The aim of the campaign is described as follows:
Unions and Teachers are already building up towards a boycott of the Year 2 SATS this year – let’s show them that parents support them. On 3rd May we want you to show the government that you want a boycott of the Year 2 SATS and a return to teacher based assessment. Ending Year 2 SATS is a step towards returning to a curriculum of teacher led joy and wonder rather than repetitious grammar and mathematical reasoning.
At time of writing (around 14.45 today) the campaign has amassed 46,295 signatures on the petition site 38Degrees, and enjoys high profile supported from poet Michael Rosen amongst others.
The news of the campaign caught my interest for a number of reasons. The Connectors Study is not a piece of educational research, but we are thinking about how an orientation towards social action emerges in childhood and this ‘kids’ strike’ seems like an interesting case to look at. We are also working with the idea of a ‘childhood publics’, to think about the relationship between childhood and public life and especially the intersections of the public, private, personal and political in children’s lives and how those intersections might or might not shape social action.
One of the things I completely overlooked at the start of the project (I was overly focused on children’s everyday lives and lived experience) was that children do occupy a prominent position in the public sphere – think of the many headlines over the last two years, and prior to that, that relate to children – but not one where they are anything other than victims of others or perpetrators of wrongdoings. The ‘kids’ strike’ is a good example of the role that is assigned to children in the public sphere and another reason to look at it a bit more closely.
So what’s known so far about this ‘kids’ strike’? I didn’t mean to write quite so much about the different coverage of the strike, or boycott or keeping children off school today depending on who you read, but actually going through a handful of outlets, in what I can only describe as a very quick and very dirty discourse and visual analysis, has been quite illuminating.
The newspapers (I’m looking at online versions) have been reporting this strike since late last week. The Guardian carried the news in its Friday online edition and in today’s issue, where the item is the second leader on the newspaper’s front page following Leicester City win of the Champions League. The article is only the second leader until 10.45am after which it becomes subsumed into higher order political issues and the live coverage of today’s political news, with the headline ‘Corbyn says Labour will not lose seats in local election’. The Observer on Sunday also carried a piece on the strike/boycott.
The focus of the above two Guardian and one Observer pieces has been on the introduction of SATs exams to Year 2 pupils, and the government changes to the educational curriculum introduced in 2015 and parents’ reactions to these. The rationale, from parents’ perspectives, for the ‘Let Kids be Kids’ campaign is given, and the campaign is brought to life with short quotes from parents across the country (Sunday article). The visual images that accompanying the Friday, Sunday and Tuesday articles are children, seen from the back, in a red school uniform putting their hands up (Friday and Tuesday); and a mother and her son seated in what looks like a breakfast bar in a kitchen that portrays markers of a middle class life (the brick tilled back wall, the stainless steel counter tops and wood cabinets, a bowl of fruit and veg in the background, a wooden table and a neutral coordinated colour scheme) (Sunday). The pictures are captioned with reference to the campaign or the people depicted in the images.
News of the boycott is also carried by the Daily Telegraph, although given less prominence than in the Guardian, it appears further down the news site [picture] and focuses on head teachers ‘turning a blind eye’ to the strike. The piece deals extensively with the ‘illegality’ of the strike, linked to the fines for taking children out of school for anything other exceptional circumstances, and the recording and reporting process of the strike by head teachers, who they will choose to record it and whether or not they will communicate it to the local authority. What also stands out is the quantification of the small group (five parents) behind the campaign ‘Let Kids be Kids’, presumably to stress the fact that they are a minority, and their decision to be remain anonymous. The image selected to illustrate this article is a boy sitting at a kitchen table, a rainbow pencil in hand, in front of some notebooks and breakfast cereal. It is a similar kitchen to the one featured in the Observer article with a mixture of steel panelling, granite counters, and wood surfaces. A further image shows a child in a blue school uniform, also from behind, her hand raised. Both visual’s are captured for the reader to minimize the inherent ambiguity of visual images: ‘A young boy wearing his school uniform struggles with his revision’ and ‘Primary school girl holding her hand up to answer a teacher’s question in a classroom test’. A further image of a boy in a living room with bookcases on either side of a fireplace and wooden floors, holds up home-made banners saying ‘No SATs’. The image is from a mother’s tweet captioned ‘Rainy afternoon perfect for banner making #KidsStrike3rdMay’. A further two, supportive tweets are featured in the article. Two final images are of a mother embracing her 3-year-old son and being embraced by her 5-year-old daughter. The picture is taken outside with what looks like a gentle afternoon light. The three seem to be standing on wooden decking, a wooden folding chair and a wooden gate in the background.
BBC News carries the item after a number of more prominent headlines. A number of sources are featured in the article putting forward cases for and against today’s boycott action by parents, including the government, the opposition, parents, teachers’ associations, and other educational campaigns and initiatives. The article features a child on a wooden climbing frame with a steel slide, in a local playground with a sandpit surrounded by grass and trees; it’s overcast and with grey threatening clouds in the background. A further image is a close up of a child’s hand holding a pencil and writing responses to a row of sums. The final image is of the Educational Secretary Nicky Morgan giving a speech in front of a series of algebraic equations and fractions chalked up on a green blackboard. Her left hand is to her chest in an emphatic gesture to indicating herself, a gesture often used to convey understanding and passion: I, of all people, get it. (I’ve tried to find the source of these images but can’t, again if anyone can point me in their direct that would be helpful, also to read the actual speech).
Finally, the Daily Mail also reports on the strike focusing on the issue of taking children out of school (there is a further news item on the issue of being out of school for non-exceptional circumstances in the tabloid on the same day) and attempts, to establish a link between the campaign ‘Let Kids be Kids’ and teachers’ unions in order, presumably, to discredit it. The article is accompanied by an image of Nicky Morgan, taken at the same place as the BBC image used, but with a very different hand gesture: of both hands reaching out palms to the audience in a very different gesture indicative of strength, defiance, and reaching out: ‘enough’. A video of Nicky Morgan is also embedded in the article as are some tweets from parents taking part in the strike. There is an insert box explaining what Key Stage Tests are, which is absent in the other articles.
In terms of commentaries from outsiders to the campaign Barbara Ellen (Guardian) and Joanna Williams (Telegraph) seem to reach a similar conclusion about today’s actions: namely that school and learning is suppose to be hard and that a parent’s role is to support children through the challenge. Both criticize the actions for different reasons: Ellen argues that western privilege renders the very heart of the Let Kids Be Kids campaign meaningless, and that today’s actions fall short of ‘a meaningful mature protest and starts looking like unworkable uber-worthy hippie nonsense’. Conversely, Williams argues that children are being used as ‘political pawns’ by government ministers and ‘political footballs’ by teachers, whilst being exploited by their parents, specifically those parents in academia and the media who can work from home and can organise a press conference and educational outing.
However, if, online newspapers ‘most popular reads’ listings can be a crude form of contextualisation and of taking the pulse of a readership then, this morning the school boycott item does not appear to vex the readership of the above papers as much as commentators suggest. It’s not on the top 10 of either the Guardian (the top item is Leicester city), or the Telegraph (this is a top 5 list, the top item is Monday evening’s episode of Game of Thrones) or the Daily Mail (the top item is about health and safety on an Alton Towers ride, but the item about school sanctions for parents taking children out of school is number 10). The news of the strike appears as number 9 on the BBC News website (top item is about RAF jets and sonic booms), when I last check at 10am this morning, up one item from number 10 an hour earlier.
While the different positioning of the campaign and today’s actions in the left-leaning and right-leaning media is unsurprising, I am more intrigued by some of the challenges faced collectively by commentators in thinking about childhood and politics, and indeed politics across the lifespan.
I’ll start with the obvious, at least from a childhood studies perspective, that none of the children staying home from school today are quoted in any of the articles (please do send me anything you come across to the contrary). I would argue that, with some exceptions, this is the norm in reporting on news stories that involve children’s matters especially those matters that affect younger children. There are stronger and many more representations of children and childhood in the public sphere, than there are representations by children. There is usually someone else speaking on the child’s behalf. An opinion piece in the Guardian from a campaign participant is penned by a father, not a child, and the tweets featured represent the voices of parents not children. This has led Ellen (Guardian) to accuse the campaign of being infantile and Williams (Telegraph) to charge it with being ‘disingenuous’ and of politicising children, and the solutions offered are outdated and unethical.
My hunch would be that Ellen’s accusations of immaturity have something to do with the imagined group of parents behind the campaign: liberal, middle class, professionals or what Williams describes as ‘those parents fortunate enough to have jobs in the media or academia that allow them to ‘work from home’ while simultaneously organising a press conference and an educational outing’. What I suspect Williams is reacting to is what Ellen describes as ‘uber-worthy hippie nonsense’. The former’s solution to such nonsense is Victorian: pull your socks up you over-privileged soft, western kids and your indulgent parents. The latter’s solution is deception: “Tests can be administered so that children are unaware they are undertaking anything of any importance.” I think diagnoses and cures in both cases are lacking.
From a social movements perspective the ‘Let Kids be Kids’ campaign is nothing but sincere. It is a candid action by concerned parents who are acting on their core values and what they believe to be the best interest of their children. It is a campaign that seeks to challenge the current status quo in education, a state that has been in the making for some time now. This is not to say that the campaign represents all those families that education serves, but issue-based campaigns generally don’t and this shouldn’t make them any less meaningful or worthy of public attention and debate. The whole point of a campaign is to raise issues.
The charge of the campaign as a form of infantile politics or politicising children seems to rest on an understanding of politics as something that others do to you; adults to children, politicians to the general public. But this is only one understanding of the political, as a formal process of governing that omits issues of politics in everyday life as what matters to individuals, and often matters dearly. Parents enact the things that matter to them on a daily basis, whether consciously or unconsciously, from food choices to activities and leisure pursuits, and of course, education. It is possible disagree with these enactments, and certainly not all of them are progressive even when they mean to be, if your yardstick is equality and social justice in the first place, and there no shortage of examples of such disagreements in the same editions of today’s papers, but, in a democratic public sphere, there is an obligation to listen and to debate first, before dismissing. The campaign material and the father’s opinion piece cited above, repeatedly talk of exactly the opposite experience: of not being listened to. In terms of democratic processes this is an important refrain to engage with and not to shut down.
Parental conscious and unconscious ‘choices’ socialise children into various ways of caring and orientating themselves to the wider world. They aren’t neutral choices but ones that are shaped, and curtailed, by gender, class, ethnicity and race at an individual and family level, as well as by traditions of collective action and social change at a national-cultural level. The role of parents, mothers especially, in ‘bringing up’ a nation has long been identified by feminist researchers (cf. Democracy in the Kitchen), and it seems to me that the attention that the Let Kids be Kids campaign has touched up has something to do with Britain as a nation state trying to find it’s way in 21st century world and a fractured domestic politic scene: ‘Not only are our teachers the best in the world, British parents are also better than this’ is how Ellen signs off her commentary. Parents are, therefore, important members of what anthropologist Benedict Anderson called ‘imagined communities’ that make up nation state. But contemporary imaginings of these parents, across the socio-economic spectrum, tend to think of them as short of the task of parenting the nation.
In this sense, it’s important for researchers to bring in a corrective to such representations of politically naïve and incapable parents, and for parents themselves to stop describing themselves as ‘just mothers and fathers’. Over the last three months I have been interviewing parents in London (and my colleagues have been doing likewise in Athens and Hyderabad) who are supporting the Connectors Study about their biographies, values, politics and parenting. In the remainder of this post, I would like to imagine a different community of parents than the one being explicitly and implicitly constructed in the media. This is a community of parents that is thoughtful about the choices they make for their children. On more than one occasion I found myself surprised by the level of reflexivity that went into parents’ extensive deliberations, and how these parents often, without prompting, spoke openly about values, politics and ethical issues, I had picked up on in the course of participant-observation and direct research with their children. Discussions of these issues and choices were complex and involved trade-offs, much more than parents are perhaps given credit for in public debates. In doing all these interviews I felt a strong connection to many of the dilemmas and tensions of being a parent that these parents talked about, a recognition, as a parent myself, that no decision is ever entered into lightly.
In the Connectors Study we tend to refer to these collections of ‘choices’, however constrained, and the forces that shape them, as ‘circuits of social action’ and we explore how these circuits take shape, how children are ‘recruited’ into them, and, most importantly, children’s own views and experiences of what matters to them which sometimes overlaps with parental concerns, and other times don’t. In fact, learning to think about children’s participation in terms of these ‘circuits of social action’ has been the most important and steepest learning curve for me personally in the last two years of the project. I too, started off thinking I should be looking for “a grassroots movement[s] of tiny rebels” as Williams puts it. What I’ve found instead is that, for the most part, this is an illusion constructed on the basis of exceptional cases that shape our understanding of social change, and that the politics of everyday life is much, much more nuanced and ephemeral than that. Politics is made up of much more mundane stuff than that. Sure, when push comes to shove, and a campaign is created, you need people, and women and men hours to make things happen, but before any of that even materialises there are far more subtle processes at play.
Focusing on these ‘circuits’ foregrounds family, community, institutional and national traditions and stories of activism. In this sense, education has always been a site of political activism and intergenerational politics; that shouldn’t be news. But in the furore over whether or not these parents are right to be acting in the way they are, the focus on what is gained, by both children, parents and education, is lost.
In a paper that colleagues and I have written, to appear in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology, we engage with the recollected experiences of children growing up in the Communist movement in the US in the last century. Our focus was not on whether their parents were right or wrong to hold the beliefs they did but on their children’s evaluation, with the hindsight of time, as to what was gained and what was lost by growing up in the families, the communities and the society they were born into. We juxtapose this analysis to the tradition of school occupations in Greece in the 1990s where, focusing on a slightly older age group, we explore once again what was gained by those children who occupied their schools in response to neoliberal school reforms. We argued that such occupations created liminal spaces –in-between spaces of temporary publics – which afforded children a valuable and real civics education as they confronted and negotiated with adult authorities by the school’s gates; an experience, we argue that has left a mark on the cultural narratives and public imagination of a generation of Greek youth.
Of course, the experiences we looked are by-and-large ones that their narrators tend to evaluate as positive, but even so they demonstrate a complex emotional terrain that leads to ‘the political’ in childhood and across a lifespan. We argue that such experiences, while in some cases not fully grasped until much later in life, offer a way of disrupting powerful categories for thinking about childhood and activism alike. They offer children unique opportunities for experiencing, and in some cases negotiating, politics and power in the real world. In imagining an alternative parental community than the one portrayed in today’s media I hear such conversations taking place, on the fly, alongside other activities. However ambivalent such political experiences might, and whether you like them or not, surely they can’t be a bad thing for healthy democratic processes and debate?