A few years ago I was involved in the making of a documentary for BBC Radio called ‘The Invention of Childhood’. Working on the series gave me a powerful sense of how childhood has evolved over the ages, and how long it took for the lives of children to emerge from the dark ages of poverty and neglect and exploitation.
I discovered also how it is only comparatively recently that we have begun to talk of the rights of children. Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’ was published in 1791. Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ came out, in response, in 1792. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that Children’s Rights began to be taken seriously, culminating in 1989, with the introduction of ‘The United Nations Convention on The Rights of the Child.’ The convention declares that every child should have a right to a name, to a nationality, access to health care, to play and recreation, to survival, to liberty and to an education. Who could possibly object to that? Well, you’d be surprised.
It is yet to be ratified by two countries at the United Nations – Somalia, and the United States. We in Britain have ratified the convention, but I wonder, do we live by it? How is it that so many children in this country, and the world over, still never know the joys of childhood? This evening, I would like to confine myself to three primary rights as laid down in the UN Convention, rights that all children should enjoy: the right to survival, to liberty, and the right to education. It will be a personal and sometimes an uncomfortable, journey. We shall discover that even under our own noses these rights have been and still are woefully neglected.
For the most part I’m going to use my own experience as a guide. I’ve been a parent, a grandparent, a teacher in one way or another for 35 years, and a writer for children. So children have long been at the centre of my world.
I know this is a lecture, not a story-telling session, which is a shame because if we’re honest about it, many of us prefer a story to a lecture. Whichever you prefer, you’re going to get a little of both this evening, a kind of story-lecture, weaving of sad stories, happy stories. This will absolutely not be a talk stuffed with statistics.
Less is more when it comes to statistics. A few will do. It estimated that today 8 million children a year die before the age of 5. That’s a holocaust of children every year. 69 million children never go to school. A billion of the world’s children still live in poverty. But let us not imagine for one moment that it is only elsewhere in the world that the rights of children are so conspicuously neglected. 3.5 million children in our own country are still mired in poverty. And some of the most vulnerable of these have been appallingly treated.
Two lines from William Blake,
‘A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage’
Over two hundred years ago, Blake, that great visionary poet, pricked the conscience of a nation to consider the plight of its children. I spoke those same two lines to camera a year or so ago, outside the barbed wire fence of a place called Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire, an immigration removal centre for asylum seekers, including families and children, a kind of holding pen before deportation. Yarl’s Wood was opened in November 2001. Since then thousands of asylum seeking families and children had been effectively imprisoned there, sometimes for months. I was with a BBC film crew for the Politics Show. We wanted to go in, but it was not permitted. I am not surprised, for something deeply shameful to us all was going on inside that place.
Until 2008 I ‘d never heard of Yarl’s Wood – very few people had, we like to keep quiet about such things – until I happened to see a play, called ‘Motherland’ by Natasha Walter – a play later staged at The House of Commons. It was put on to raise awareness of the plight of these asylum seekers, and of the injustice being done to them. The play was largely told through the eyes of the children imprisoned there – their own stories, in their own words. I watched the play in disbelief. This was happening in my country, in Britain, where we so value childhood, where – supposedly – we so cherish children.
In the play we hear the story of Meltem, a 13 year old girl from Turkey: these are her own words:
My name is Meltem. It was 7 o’clock in the morning in August. At our home in Doncaster. We’ve lived there for six years. They banged and banged on the door. As soon as my mum opened the door they rushed in. There were twelve of them, twelve big men. They took us to the police station. They told us to wait, they said there is a car coming to take you to the removal centre.
‘The car came and it was awful. It had a cage. For a minute I thought to myself, am I an animal? The journey took a long time and this is where we ended up, here in Yarl’s Wood. I tell you it has no difference from a jail.
‘It has been more than 2 months I’m here so far. For education in here, I get maths for 9 year olds, and jigsaw puzzles. No. They don’t give you an education here. I don’t think you can get educated when you know you’re in a prison. I saw an officer slapping a little two year old baby because he was playing with lights. And I saw a mother crying for her baby because they wouldn’t take her to healthcare. The officers were being really nasty, like they are just lowering people down and saying words to make them sadder. At school I was good at science, maths, and history. I wanted to become a doctor. My teachers, they were really kind. I miss them all so much, just being at school and doing normal things, with my friends.’
So for a decade or more we had been locking up asylum seeking children, like Meltem, in this country, thousands of them, and all of them innocent of any crime. But Meltem’s story doesn’t end here. She finished up, after an attempted deportation, in Bedford hospital. Sir Al Aynsley-Green was the enlightened children’s commissioner at the time. He visited her in hospital. He’d been a children’s doctor himself for thirty years. These are his words.
‘I talked to this vulnerable child about her experiences. I felt that this case exposed such glaring faults in the treatment of child asylum seekers that I should express my concerns to the Home Office. Since then my office has been deluged by appeals from supporters of other children in detention. I cannot take up individual cases. But this begs the issue, who, in the present system, does have the power to take up their cases and defend their rights? I hope you understand the enormity of my fury. To see this young child, who is not much older than my own granddaughter; one cannot help thinking, what would one want for one’s own children in that situation? The impact on the children themselves of such treatment is profound, not least because they are also witnessing the enormous distress of their parents. In many of the practices we see in our asylum system, there is an absence of common decency, humanity and dignity. One has to struggle not to be too emotional.”
This story at least has an ending we might call happy. Meltem and her mother were released, and now, after years of protest by a dedicated group of campaigners, government has changed its mind. Although Yarl’s Wood itself has not been closed, at least no children are locked up in there any more. But we have to ask, how on earth men and women, many of them no doubt parents themselves, sat down around a table and thought this was an acceptable idea in the first place? It was done, of course, out of pragmatism and political expediency, the interests of the child quite ignored. This was no petty case of right or wrong, but a flagrant abuse of rights. A great wrong has, in part at least, been redressed. But had it not been for the determination of these valiant campaigners I fear nothing would have changed.
Fired up by their example and by the sufferings of the children concerned, I wrote my own story, a fictional tale, of a young Afghan boy, who along with his mother, and a stray dog called Shadow, escape from Afghanistan, and make their way to England, only to find themselves, six years later, locked up in Yarl’s Wood. Writing the story was my way, I suppose, of dealing with the feelings I had about such a grave injustice.
One day, we will apologise for Yarl’s Wood, just as we did, over those children forcibly expatriated to Australia after the Second World War – another example of what might be called ‘the bureaucracy of neglect’, not intentional maybe, but cruel all the same in its collateral damage.
It may seem that I seek out causes to write about. It doesn’t happen that way. Rather, they seem to seek me out and very often it is children themselves who bring them to my attention. I was in Jordan, in Amman, with Clare, my wife, some ten years ago, and had the opportunity of talking about stories to Jordanian children – about eighty per cent of whom are Palestinian refugees, many of them still living in camps. At the end of one session, I asked the teenagers whether they had any questions. To start with they were not all forthcoming. But once the first found the courage to speak, the floodgates opened and I was bombarded with questions – mixed metaphor I know, but I like mixed metaphors. It’s probably why I got a third class degree from this very college, but I’m sure it was a good third! As a matter of fact, I took some of my exams in this very hall, – I think I was sitting just there!
Anyway, the question and answer session became very relaxed and jolly. Then I was taken completely by surprise. A teenage girl who had said nothing up to now, got to her feet. “I don’t want to ask a question,” she began, “I want to tell you something.” The room went quiet.
“You say you write stories that are always based on what is real and true, something you feel strongly about. I want to tell you something real and true. My family lives here in Jordan, but I do not belong here. I belong in Palestine. It is my home but I can’t live there because it is occupied. I can’t even go there. I want you to tell a story about us.”
I said, “I don’t know enough about the lives of Palestinians, nor about the conflict in the Middle East, certainly not enough to write a story about it.”
“But you could find out, couldn’t you?” she replied .
For many years I thought about what she said and became more and more interested about the lives of the people and the children on both sides of the struggle in the Middle East. I think it was a documentary about the walls the Israelis were building on the West Bank and around Gaza that first gave me the idea for a story I might write. After a while it became a story I needed to write, had to write.
I come from a generation that witnessed in the 1960’s the construction of another wall, a wall that divided the world and brought us to the brink of destruction, as this one still might.
Difficult to imagine, but the Cold War had once seemed just as intractable as the conflict in the Middle East does now. Then one day in Berlin, quite suddenly it seemed at the time, people simply decided enough was enough and tore the wall down. Surely the same thing will happen one day in Israel and Palestine. So, in that hope, I wrote my story of the children living either side of the wall, their lives already scarred by tragedy. I called it The Kites are Flying.
Told in part by Max, a journalist visiting the Palestinian side of the wall for the first time, it is the story of Said, a young shepherd boy, who has not spoken a word since he witnessed the death of his brother, killed by an Israeli soldier while out flying his kites. Said becomes obsessed with the making of kites, and when the wind is right sends them off over the wall to an Israeli girl in a wheelchair – injured when her family car was blown up by Palestinians and her mother killed. Each of Said’s kites has a message of peace written on it.
At the end of the story, Max is about to leave Said for the last time. Said is sitting on the hillside making his next kite, with his sheep all around him. This is what happens:
‘I was just about organised and ready to film him again when Said sprang to his feet. The sheep were bounding away from him, scattering over the hillside. Then I saw the kites. The sky above the Israeli settlement was full of them, dozens of them, all colours and shapes, a kaleidoscope of kites. Like butterflies they danced and whirled around each other as they rose into the air. I could hear shrieks of joy, all coming from the other side of the wall. I saw the crowd of children gathered there, every one of them flying a kite. Then, one after the other, the kites were released, and left to the wind, and on the wind they flew out over the wall towards us. From behind us now, from Said’s village, the people came running out as the kites began to land in amongst us, and amongst the terrified sheep too. Uncle Yassa picked up one of them. “You see what they wrote? Shalom,” he said. “They wrote, Shalom. Can you believe that?”
‘All around me Said’s family and many of the other villagers, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, began to clap, hesitantly at first. But I noticed then that it was only the children who were whooping and whistling and laughing. The hillside rang with their jubilation, with their exultation. It seemed to me like a glorious symphony of hope.’
Sentimental clap-trap, I hear you thinking. Maybe, or rather a hope that a new generation will one day rise above the prejudice and suspicion, hurt and hatred – as has happened in Europe, in South Africa, in Ireland, and now only days ago in Egypt. Each a process of reconciliation that’s still ongoing, of course. It is the children of today, yesterday and tomorrow who will do this also in Israel and Palestine, given half a chance.
During the last Israeli incursion into Gaza, just over two years ago, according to Amnesty International 300 Palestinian hundred children were killed. And yes, I know Hamas rockets had been landing in Israel for a very long time and that Israeli children have been dying there too. And I know it is absolutely the right of every nation to defend itself. So most certainly the Israelis have had their reasons. But I’m sure that most of them believe as we all do that a child’s life in particular is precious, any child’s life. Yet Palestinian children died. Collateral damage, some might call it.
And then sometime after I wrote my book I was asked by Save the Children to become an ambassador for them, to go to the Middle East, to see the work they are doing in Israel and Gaza, and to find out whether there is in reality any cause for hope. I went there last November. I wanted to hear the children’s stories on both sides of the Wall, to tell my own stories, to make kites and maybe even fly them if we could.
First, I spent two days in Israel. I visited Neve Shalom/ Whakat As-Salam, a co-operative village school, bilingual, bi-national, the first such school in the country. Here Arab and Jewish children play together and learn together. I wanted to know what they thought, how they felt about one another. We made kites and we flew them, and on the kites they had written without any prompting from me their own messages of peace.
Next, to Tel-Aviv to a meeting organised by ‘Windows for Peace’, a forum where Israeli and Palestinian teenagers can come together to try to reach some understanding of the point of view of the other side, however difficult that may be. There was obvious resentment and hurt, but no anger, no bitterness. The very fact that these young people were there together, and talking, seemed to me to be hopeful. I learned from them that both communities felt hemmed in, caged in, the Israelis by the states that surround them and threaten their very existence, and the Palestinians by the walls the Israelis have built, and by the take-over of their land, the building of settlements. With the best will in the world, I could see it would be a long time before Israeli and Palestinian kids would be flying kites over these walls. It would take time, they said. Maybe their grandchildren would see peace. “No,” said one of them, “I think it’ll be my grandchildren’s grandchildren before they’ll fly the kites. But there will be peace one day.”
Then came my two days in Gaza. Just getting in was a nightmare. Gaza itself is a narrow strip of land, only eight kilometres wide in places, and barely forty kilometres in length. Until you see the place for yourself you can’t imagine it. The land and its people are under siege, imprisoned, with the wall on three sides, and blockaded by warships out at sea. Even if you’re with Save the Children, I discovered, you might not get in. To my dismay, my companion, Kate Redman, was turned back by Israeli border guards. No reason was given. The Gaza crossing seemed designed to isolate and maybe even to humiliate. There were rigorous questions about my intentions in Gaza, my bags rummaged through and then, at last, I was allowed through into a 100 metre long steel tunnel – it was like a set from Dr Who. I was alone, except for the surveillance cameras watching me. Then I was out into a walkway, about two kilometres long, completely caged in, with a kind of no man’s land, a blasted wilderness of rubble and ruin stretching out as far as the eye could see on either side of me. Halfway down I heard the sound of a shot being fired – it sounded to a country boy like me as if someone was shooting rabbits.
All around young Palestinian boys were racing around on their donkeys and carts whooping and shrieking. I had no idea what they were doing at the time. I was in another world. I didn’t know who was doing the shooting.
In this other world I went the next day to visit a hospital for malnourished babies and then on to a project for blind children. I thought these children had something in common with those at Yarl’s Wood. They were walled in, imprisoned.
‘A robin redbreast in a cage,
Puts all Heaven in a rage.’
I went to talk to children in a school in Gaza City, to make kites again, to fly them, but sadly not over any wall. I discovered no one is allowed within 300 metres of the wall that surrounds Gaza. But we made kites all the same. Some of them wrote on their kites: ‘Rights and Peace’. Hamas, who controls what can and cannot happen in Gaza, would not allow boys and girls to fly their kites together on the beach, I was told. So we went to a park, the only green space I saw in Gaza City, ‘Le Jardin de Paris’, it was called.
Here I flew kites with the children. There was more laughter than wind, but that was fine. A day or so later, on my way out of Gaza, I found myself waiting at the Palestinian Authority barrier. The reason we had to wait was that the border had been closed. Only an hour ago, two boys had been shot close to the wall.
All around me, I saw those youngsters again, hundreds of them, out with their donkeys and carts collecting rubble and gravel, to be recycled for building blocks in Gaza City – no new building materials are allowed in. Earlier that morning, before I got there it seems, some of the scavengers had ventured too close to the wall and had been fired at and wounded. I waited in the heat for long hours watching the kids at work, coming and going with their donkeys and carts. They didn’t seem worried, so I wasn’t worried. I just wanted to get out of this place.
It was then I heard shots, then screaming, saw the kids running to help their wounded friends. Now I really was outside the comfort zone of fiction. A doctor from Medicins sans Frontieres, waiting there with me, told me that the shots were probably not fired by marksmen from the watchtowers on the wall, but that these scavengers were sometimes targeted, remotely, electronically from Tel Aviv, which was miles away – ‘Spot and Strike,’ they call it. Like a video game – a virtual shooting. I don’t know if these claims are true but I do know the shots were real, there was blood, the boy’s trousers were soaked in it, the bullets were real. I saw him close to, saw his agony as the cart rushed by me.
Many like him, the doctor said, ended up maimed for life. Here was a child, imprisoned and under siege, being deliberately targeted, his right to survival, the most basic of all children’s rights, being utterly ignored.
When I think about it, it isn’t just the shock and horror of that one terrible moment that I remember. But what will live with me as well, are the voices of the children I met, the stories they told me: the blind boy who said his greatest wish was to worship at the mosque in Jerusalem, and a girl in the same group who told me that it wasn’t the Israeli children that she hated, but the soldiers. She wanted to be friends with Israeli children. Her greatest wish? “Freedom,” she said, “and peace.”
So, when on my return I was asked to give this lecture, I knew immediately that I would take this opportunity to speak out about the rights of all children everywhere. I’m sure some people will accuse me of taking sides in this conflict but let me make it quite clear that I am simply on the side of the children, all of them, from whichever country – for children in any conflict are always the innocent victims. It is not children who make wars.
It’s all too easy for each of us to feel helpless when we witness such appalling treatment, such flagrant abuse of children’s rights. But if ever we think that one voice can’t make a difference, then remember, that if it hadn’t been for the campaign against Yarl’s Wood – single voices added together – children would still be imprisoned there.
Those people helped to set those children free.
We have to set our children free, all of them, wherever they are – free to enjoy their childhood, to live in peace and security, free from poverty, disease, and ignorance. This last, brings me to education, by no means the least of the rights of the child. For me, one of the most fundamental. In this respect we should ask the question: Are we doing the best for children in our schools here at home? The answer is, I’m afraid, that we are not, that far too many of our children are failing, which means we are failing our children. And we are responsible for that, not just Government and teachers, who are blamed constantly, but all of us.
Time for another story – I’ll tell you why afterwards. It’s one that I heard in Russia in 2003. There was an extraordinary happening to which I was invited, a gathering of 400 librarians from all over Russia. On my first evening in Moscow I found myself in the Kremlin, a glittering palace of gold and white, buzzing with people talking about books. It was a great, celebratory evening, the kind of glitz that you would never ever find at a conference for librarians in England – more’s the pity. (Think of that in a month when we’re told hundreds of libraries across Britain might have to close). In fact it was a celebration of librarians – the unsung heroes of the book world – of the importance of the work they do in bringing books to children and children to books. So this was dear to my heart.
Instead of a cabaret, there was a prize giving. And right at the end of a rather long evening, the last prize-winner was announced. As he stood up, a rather diminutive man in an ill-fitting suit, 400 librarians rose to their feet and began huzzah-ing like Russian troops at Borodino. I turned to my minder and asked her what was so special about him. Ah, she said. He is a hero. One day his library caught fire. With no thought for his own safety, he rushed into the building and began to carry out armfuls of books. Inspired by his courage and determination, the townspeople followed suit, so that before the building burned to the ground, they had saved about three quarters of the books in the library – thousands of them., “And the story doesn’t end there,” she said. “He told the townspeople to take the books home and look after them, as many as they could; and then when the library was rebuilt, as he was sure it would be, then they could bring them all back. And that is exactly what happened.” So, with tears in my eyes, I huzzah-ed along with the rest of them.
And I was thinking, it is people like this Russian school librarian who make a real difference to children’s lives, a different kind of hero, unfamous, unglamorous. His love of books and his ability to inspire reminded me of the people who had made a difference to my life, my mother reading to me the stories and poems she loved: Kipling, de la Mare, Masefield, Edward Lear; my choir master at school, Edred Wright, whose enthusiasm gave me a lifelong love of music. We can each of us remember the individuals who made the difference in our own young lives. Yet, something is wrong here and it is this, so often the importance of these individuals in children’s lives is not reflected by their importance in our society.
I’m not thinking here simply of the financial rewards, although that is part of the problem. Whether we are talking about people who work in children’s theatre, children’s television and radio programmes, children’s films, or children’s books, it is the same, you are at the bottom of the pile. It’s just for children. And within these worlds, the younger the children concerned, it seems, the less status there is for those involved.
The teaching profession, itself, is the most obvious example of this. We all know how important those early years are, in or out of school. Yet, those teaching our infants and primary school children are the worst paid in the profession and held in least esteem. So what inevitably happens, of course, is that so many of the most talented young graduates are not just diverted away from teaching altogether, because of its lack of status or lack of financial incentive – but in particular from teaching our youngest children, in the very schools where they are needed most, where they can do most good. A pound spent in the early years can save ten pounds later.
But the truth is that because of the nature of our political system, with its short-term target-driven mindset, we change what happens in education only superficially, usually so that it can be measured within the lifetime of a government. We endlessly jiggle the system and call it reform. I think we have to go back to the child, back to basics – and I do not mean the three R’s, though they are important of course – I mean something very different.
At the heart of every child, new born, is a unique genius and personality. What we should be doing is to allow the spark of that genius to catch fire, burn brightly and shine. What we seem to be doing with so many of our children is to corral them, to construct a world where success and failure is all that counts. Fear of failure is what does the most damage.
Back to stories again, to Dickens and Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times, whose notion of education was to ram facts into children’s heads. We may not beat children any more, and that is progress of course, but sometimes I’m not sure how far we’ve moved on since Gradgrind or since I was at school myself in the 1950s.
We still have classes that are twice the size they should be, far too big for teachers to make those vital relationships with children that are so important, particularly with those children who are already disengaged and alienated. And we still have a society where, although some schools are wonderfully successful, others remain mired in poverty and failure, a situation which continues to wreck the lives of so many of our children, and exacerbate divisions in our national life. It is those schools and those children we are not reaching and whose rights we are denying.
As Michael Gove, the Education Secretary has recently said – and he is right about some things (though not about banning graduates with third class degrees from the classroom!) – he suggests that maybe we should look abroad. Take New Zealand, a country that’s not at all keen on school league tables, but somehow manages to rank 4th in the world in the OECD education ratings in 2010. Here, a child begins school on his or her fifth birthday. They do not arrive in bunches of 30 at the beginning of the school year, but as individuals, so that teachers have a chance to get to know each child properly, to build a relationship. I’d prefer it if they went to school a couple of years later as they do in Finland, which, incidentally ranks 2nd in world tables. There they consider that the first seven years of a child’s life are best spent at home. I think they find that a child goes more willingly to school, more prepared, confident and less frightened perhaps. And before you ask, the UK came 20th in the same OECD world table.
We must remember that we are preparing children not simply for employment (though that is important), and for the contribution they can make to the common good (which is also important), but for the difficult decisions they will have to make in their personal lives, in those moments when they have to take responsibility for themselves, and for others, when they decide whether or not to have sex with someone new, to be tempted into drugs, bully a school mate on the internet, carry a knife, or throw a brick through a window. In those critical moments their decisions, the choices they take, rely so much on the relationships they made when they are young – with their parents and their teachers – on their self worth and self confidence – and there is no league table for relationships.
Let me tell you another story, this time set in France. I think it’s worth telling, because it is about the making of friendships, the building of relationships.
About 6 years ago we were invited, Clare and I, to Apt, in the Luberon region of France – it’s a hard life! – to help with a school project. This is what they were doing: they had in their college a group of disenchanted and hostile teenagers and were trying to find ways of engaging them, of making them feel involved and needed. They had formed an alliance with a local old people’s home. Every one of these teenagers had ‘adopted’ one of the old people, and they would all go up and see them two or three times a week, and simply talk, or walk, just be with them. Alongside this, the children were encouraged to read stories about relationships between old people and young people, and that’s where I came in. I’d written several books where this kind of relationship was central to the plot, and many had been translated into French. “Cher Monsieur Morpurgo, come and read to the children,” they wrote to me, “and talk to them, and hear what they have to say, and listen to what they write.” So we went.
It wasn’t easy. Their body language was aggressive, but at least they seemed to be listening – perhaps because of our funny accents. They did not talk easily about their relationships with their newly adopted old folk, or about anything else much. But what worked wonderfully well was that young and old were encouraged to meet on their own, away from school. They had allowed the young people to go off piste and to trust them.
On the last evening I was there, these previously diffident youngsters read out the poems and stories they’d written about their new friends. The event was held bizarrely in a wine merchant’s warehouse. There was a large audience of family and friends there to hear them, amazement writ large on every face. You could have heard a pin drop. They meant every word they’d written. The friends they’d made up at the old people’s home mattered to them. They cared.
My time with those children and teachers in Apt reminded me again that the most important thing in a child’s life is the quality of the relationships they make, whether at home or at school, parent, grandparent, teacher, librarian, whoever. So let’s not distract ourselves endlessly with what we call our schools – academies, charter schools, free schools, comprehensives. Forget league tables and targets, and let’s break free of the shackles of a narrow curriculum; it’s time to focus on the commitment and talent of the people who touch our children’s lives.
We have wonderful, well motivated, knowledgeable teachers out there – I’ve met hundreds of them. I’ve also met many who are not so wonderful, and sometimes that’s because they don’t have the confidence to be wonderful. They need self-worth too. They need training well, that’s for sure. But most of all they need to have a love of their subject, so that they mean it when they teach it. That’s what the children will pick up on.
I have been to many schools up and down the country, and have found children there who love reading. Why? Because they have teachers who have a passion for reading themselves, and want to pass it on.
But we can’t leave it all to the teachers. If we are to do our best for our children we have to get involved, and the teachers have to let us get involved. Let’s have more writers and poets and story-tellers in schools, along with artists, musicians, dancers, scientists and wizards of technology, sportsmen and women – it is these people, along with the teachers will make the difference and change lives, and let’s find the funds to do it, even if we are in the grip of austerity. Let’s have more trips to theatres and concert halls and museums. Let’s get children out into the open air, tramping the hills, sailing the lakes, whatever. All of this should be an integral part of their education, a right, not an extra. It will pay dividends in the end.
And why not, for instance, give over a part of every school day – the last half hour perhaps, when everyone is tired out anyway – simply as a time for reading stories, no questions asked afterwards, no comprehension tests. Call it ‘Dreamtime’. Call it what you will. And let’s get thousands more grandparents and parents in to listen to children reading, and tell their stories too. What we absolutely do not need, is to be closing down our libraries, cutting back youth services, and provision for special needs children. Can we not see the collateral damage that will be doing to young lives? Let’s give them the time and the freedom to dream, to learn – yes, and to fly their kites. Our children are our seed corn. They have only one chance to grow, and they need all the help they can get. We have to be there to give them that help.
One last story and I’ll shut up. Just one example of how one individual can enrich our children’s lives. There are hundreds of thousands of such people up out there, unnoticed for the most part, doing their best for our children. This last story is sung in praise of all of them, and of one in particular.
I live down a deep lane in Devon near a project whose work is close to my heart. Farms for City Children was founded by Clare, who loved the countryside when she was a little girl, and wanted to enable as many children as possible to enjoy it as she had. Over the past 35 years, some 80,000 children from our cities and towns have come to spend a week living and working out in the countryside. For children it is an experience, like a great book, a great play, a great symphony, that opens their eyes to new possibilities and fresh hope. It also gives them a sense of belonging and responsibility. Here’s what one of our neighbours wrote – the poet Sean Rafferty – he used to see the children out at work on the farm every day.
‘Now more than ever it matters that children from the inner-cities can experience life in the country. This is a generation that will hear repeatedly of ecological disaster; will be told that the earth itself is threatened. For some of them the earth will not be a globe in the classroom or a map on the wall but a Devon farm where they scuffled beech leaves along the drive and broke the ice on the puddles in the lane. When they are told of polluted rivers it will be one river, which has had its share of pollution, where they first saw a trout jumping and a wading heron, and plastic bags caught in the branches to mark the level of the last great flood. Last Spring two children went down to the river at dusk to watch for badgers. They did see a badger and they also saw two young otters at play, something many people born and bred in the country have never seen. It was as though Nature herself were choosing her champions.’
Only poets can write like that – even if it was prose. In my next life I think I’m going to be a poet, if I can’t be an albatross or an elephant, that is. But in this life, at least, I shall continue to tell the story, sing the anthem, and speak up for the needs and rights of children, as best I can.