Where's the FUN gone from childhood?

Monday 17 March 2014

In my opening address to the Society of Head's 2014 Conference I explored some of my concerns about childhood today. Here are some extracts from that speech.

It is clear from Policy statements and Ministerial speeches that the Government believes that success in traditional academic subjects is a key to greater social mobility and happiness. We often hear that we are educating young people for many future careers, some of which have yet to be invented. Well, that’s all very well - but what we seem to forget is that we are educating children who already inhabit a world vastly different from that in which we were educated, and it is a world that I’m not sure we fully understand.

For example, do we have any real idea of the emotional effect that a constant bombardment of horrific news has on the soul of a teenager? There is a danger that our children are living in a world where such images become the norm. If we add to this our method of so called ‘political debating’ which involves politicians shouting at each other in an aggressive and combative way, is it really any wonder that the touchstones of civilised society are slipping away from our youth? Imagine if staff meetings or family discussions were conducted in the same way as Prime Minister’s Question time – it simply would not be tolerated.

Our emerging examinations system and Higher Education admissions policies are by and large designed to select the few and to fail the many. Our inability to properly develop and support the mainstream vocational subjects means that many children simply give up. And what happens when they give up? They become disaffected, they become isolated and they repeat the learned pattern of failure.

There is nothing wrong with having different pathways through education – children are incredibly egocentric and will want what is best for them as an individual. The fly in the ointment is when they are constantly told that one route is supposedly better than another. Better for whom, I would ask?

So, our children are existing at school in an environment that undermines many. And, what of the world around them? Well, the pressure for children supposedly to ‘grow up’ too quickly is shocking. We all know of the high profile cases where inappropriate clothing is being promoted for young children and the like but are we guilty too of promoting childhood as some form of occupational hazard on the road to becoming a real person? What sort of Country have we become where we encourage seven year-olds to have Tutors to get into highly selective schools? When we send young children home for the holidays with practice exam papers? When we build schools without playgrounds, and when we fill the curriculum with subjects that are supposed, by a few, to be more important than subjects that may well be more engaging and more relevant to a modern world?

We all have a part to play in preserving childhood. It is surely a precious time, partly for its own sake, but there is also a very important reason for doing so.

Rod Bristow, UK President of Pearson said “It’s not just about literacy and numeracy. Even the best-performing nations say the number one issue in education is to better equip school leavers with the broader skills needed for working life, and we are no exception. Employers still find that some young people lack the initiative, problem-solving and communication skills to succeed at work.”

So, how can we develop these broader skills? Well, the interesting thing is that children already have them. If you look at a group of young children playing they demonstrate all of these so-called ‘higher level skills’. Play encourages creativity; in play, children learn how to control their impulses and follow rules; and one of the central art forms of being human is the ability to control impulses and behaving appropriately in context. Play is a way in which young children can learn to control fear – and in particular the fear of failing; but children do not fear failure – they fear the response of others to failure. And so why do we undervalue play either by disabling opportunities, or by controlling it so closely that it is of no real benefit?

Our future generations do not need longer school days or fewer holidays.In his recent article in the Independent Dr. Peter Gray said: “The Education Secretary’s hope is that more hours in school will raise test scores in the UK to the level of those in China, Singapore and other East Asian nations. Paradoxically, Gove’s proposal has appeared just a few months after the Chinese Ministry of Education issued a report – entitled ‘Ten Regulations to Lessen Academic Burden for Primary School Students’ – calling for less time in school, less homework and less reliance on test scores as a means of evaluating schools.”

Children need play to develop the skills that are so important for childhood and beyond; and they need play for, dare I say it, the F word – Fun. Often derided as inconsequential or frivolous, there is a danger that we are driving all of the fun from childhood.


New comment

  1. February 6, 2017 20:38

    by Katie Simpson

    We are visiting your school on Friday for a tour with our 12 year old son.

    I am a Form 5 teacher and I completely agree with all of your comments. We look forward to meeting with you and I think your website is excellent and sums up your ethos very well.

  2. July 6, 2016 17:18

    by Paul Hocker

    Thanks for those inspiring words. London Play is embarking on a pilot play in schools project and I would really like to quote from this blog post in the materials we are providing to the schools involved.

    Best wishes


  3. January 3, 2016 23:41

    by Sionaidh Craigen

    Hear hear!!! Brilliant. This SO needs to be published throughout the UK!
    We seem to be a nation obsessed with league tables and academic achievement. The trouble is .. One person's idea of academic achievement can be very different to another's. It is often accepted that there is just one particular way to test knowledge. I was often told at school that my answer could not be faulted but had to be marked as wrong because it wasn't the answer on the published paper! I doubt creative thinkers such as Einstein would have got much out of some present day schools. It seems to me that the incredibly versatile and lateral thinking brains of children are so often squashed and shrunk into a limited way of schooling and expectations! It seems that St.Christophers is truly trying to help children's minds fly! Keep up the great work. Couldn't you get the cameras in to show the rest of the UK your ways?
    Regards, Sionaidh Craigen
    ps and Yes! I've thought for ages about the insanity of selling off school playing fields when the government is complaining of rising obesity levels! I have a dream of one day teaching nutrition to school children as they are more interested than adults realise, in my experience.

  4. September 17, 2015 17:14


    I am a retired primary special school Head. I fully agree with every thing you express in this speech. I always said to my staff 'childhood should be memorable'. My school was full of boys and girls who had suffered all kinds of deprivations, set backs and consequent leaning difficulties. Our task was to try and restore there childhood - 50% of our curriculum consisted of creative activities intended to be therapeutic and to assist language and literacy skills i.e. until the National Curriculum came along. A child's early school life should not end up in a filing cabinet!

  5. October 29, 2014 21:54

    by Musama Heppell

    This is well written and absolutely true! We need to change the direction of our society for the sake of our childrens! We need to preserve our children's innocence. I will sharing this blog post!