“We have to go back to the child…”

“All children should enjoy the right to survival, to liberty and the right to education”, says writer Michael Morpurgo in this impassioned speech. But how can we achieve this in the age of the Big Society…?

 This stirring, impassioned address given by the writer and activist Michael Morpurgo, bestselling author of War Horse, at the Richard Dimbleby lecture criticising the state of education and children’s rights around the world and at home – had us captivated and angered in equal measure here at Bold. Echoing the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s dictum on the treatment of prisoners, we join Morpurgo and other children’s and human rights campaigners in saying “if you want to see how civilised a society is, look at how it treats children”.

On that count, the United Kingdom doesn’t fare as well as we all hope: Morpurgo’s story about the treatment of immigrants at Yarl’s Wood, the UK’s immigration removal centre, and the effect on children is haunting and a shame-inducing indictment of our society.

Particularly interesting to us was the interaction between of young people with the older members of society: As we found out during Bold’s It Ain’t Disneyland and I Am Britain projects, the young and the old get on surprisingly well, and when the two meet, the encounter is often moving and educational.

In our I Am Britain project, for instance, veteran servicemen who fought in the second World War had a conversation with young people with fantastic results, and in our Tower Hamlets-based It Ain’t Disneyland campaign, many youths spoke to the older people around the estate who felt threatened and frightened by the young people around and reassured them, displaying a stunning maturity and wisdom beyond their years.

The story of an East London housing estate, as told by the young people who live there.

Some of Murpurgo’s suggestions seem radical but have been taken from Finland and New Zealand (2nd and 4th in the OECD’s educational rankings for 2010, compared to the UK’s 20th) where children don’t go to school until the ages of 5 and 7, respectively. One ray of hope is that the current Education secretary, Michael Gove, who has come under a great deal of deserved criticism for his policies, has himself suggested learning from educational policies abroad. Then there is his suggestion for what he refers to as ‘dream time’: a time of the school day when ‘children can just read, no comprehensions tests’.

Above all, in the age of the so-called Big Society, he is also surely right in emphasising that ALL of us are responsible, not just what he calls the “bureaucracy of neglect” i.e. the government and teachers, for the appalling state of children’s education around the world and in our own societies. Referring to librarians as “the unsung heroes of the book world”, Morpurgo joins a host of voices (including the celebrated author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, Philip Pullman) in criticising much of the coalition’s social policies. Are you listening, Prime Minister?

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