Monday, 14 May 2012

Childism and Well-being

Well-being is a concept that is frequently banded around in discussions of childhood and children’s development.  At first glance, well-being sounds like a positive thing for government to promote, but I want to question this by considering how one local authority in Wales is choosing to respond to the requirement to promote ‘well-being’ and argue that it is institutionalized childism that drives their policy, not child well-being. 

I think that the concept of well-being is often harnessed to a view of childhood that focuses on what children might become, rather than what they are, and that this attitude reveals a view of children as mere proto-people, rather than persons in their own right.  The development of children’s well-being is seen by many as a form of capital investment that will reap future rewards; that children are to be cherished and nurtured not out of the respect due to them as persons, but for their future potential.

The local authority in question has produced a set of well-being indicators that are designed for two purposes.  First, to guide teacher assessment of each child’s well-being against indicators that are expressed in levels, and secondly to define for teachers what well-being is so they can promote it in their interactions with children to help them move through the levels.  Teachers in the LA are therefore being told (for the purpose of leveling) what well-being looks like and how it can be broken down into stages to help them promote progress through the levels. Teachers are required to level each child against the well-being indicators; it is therefore a teaching guide as well as an assessment tool. The descriptors will inevitably shape how the adults think about the children in front of them and, depending on how they judge the children’s levels of well-being, will shape the experiences they offer to the children. 

In seeking to identify characteristics of well-being as observable and measurable and through descriptive levels provide an account of what constitutes well-being, the local authority is claiming to be able to describe a concept that has defied definitive description hitherto.  In implementing the policy teachers will be required to judge each child’s levels of well-being.  The descriptors are presented in stages linked to children’s ages, so well-being is being seen as developmental and therefore assumes young children will not exhibit higher levels of well-being. By linking the levels to ages and stages the LA has firmly nailed its colours to a developmental mindset that renders children as immature adults in the making, on a journey towards some kind of imagined end – in this case: well-being. 

In this model children are being positioned as different from adults and implies that well-being is something we move towards developmentally. It legitimizes the exertion of adult power over children as they are both judge and jury in assigning levels to each child. Underpinning these assumptions is a view of childhood as a period of socialization where children are expected to move along a trajectory leading towards the achievement of well-being.  

This raises a number of questions:

·    What ascribed identities will be given to children who will be assessed according to the well-being indicators?  
·    What labels will be ascribed to children (and by implication, their families) who lack ‘well-being’? 
·    What will the impact of such labeling be?
·    Will the labeling intersect with other labels of class, ethnicity or gender to enhance or diminish the opportunities of children?
·    How will the labeling of some children as having ‘high levels of well-being’ impact on the way adults interact with them? 
·    Who is this ‘child’ who can demonstrate levels of well-being, is s/he merely an artifact of those engaged in making and implementing policy, bearing little relation to real children in all their diversity? 
·    What kind of identity is being promoted by this policy? 

My fear is that children will be objectified by this policy and children, who are quite capable of speaking of their lives and their experiences as knowing and informed agents, will have little voice. 

How does such a policy sit alongside another established policy of the Welsh Government to take into account the rights of the child (UNCRC, 1989) and listen to children’s voices (see Article 12). Leveling children against well-being indicators privileges adult voice and not the voices of children. The ‘futurity’ inherent in this policy ignores the sociological body of work that makes the case for recognition of children’s agency and competence, that sees children as capable of being active agents and reflective judges of their own well-being.

It follows that the existence of these levels of well-being will shape adult beliefs about childhood and influence how teachers respond to the children in their care.  They will serve to reinforce an adult view of how children’s lives should be lived, how they should develop and how they should respond to events in their lives.  By insisting on a ‘one size fits all’ approach described in terms of ages and stages, the policy renders individual children invisible.

By creating a set of developmental stages towards well-being, the LA creates the notion that children are immature and that progress or development towards adulthood and to mature adult behavior will follow a predictable, pre-given pathway.  If such developmental ‘truths’ are established by a set of well-being indicators, then programmes will follow to facilitate, enhance and maximize children’s well-being.  Special programmes for those who don’t make the expected progress will be designed as children will be labeled as developmentally delayed with regard to well-being.

I don’t regard levels of well-being, well intentioned as I am sure they are, as meeting children’s needs or respecting their rights. If we are to genuinely support the well-being of children, this is not, in my view, the way to do it. That a local authority charged with implementing the UNCRC and pupil participation would choose to disempower children by ignoring their ability to judge their own well-being, by not consulting them or considering their points of view, says a lot about underlying childist attitudes that are at the heart – albeit well-meaning – of this policy.

I believe it is an example of institutionalized childism, where policy, which ostensibly is designed to improve children’s lives, in practice, is more likely to diminish them.