Tuesday 4 December 2007

Risk and Childhood

RSA, London, 31 October 2007

This conference was a curious affair. The clear message from the opening address was that childhood, like much else about life today, is less risky now than it ever was in the past. This seemed like a good start to a day of debunking risks, and a full frontal assault on our risk society. Or so I had hoped.

The first clue that this wasn’t to be was the opening sentence of the RSA report of the same name launched that day: ‘Growing up is a risky business’. While acknowledging that ‘the world is generally a safer place for children than in the past’ the authors, Dr Nicola Madge and Dr John Barker, couldn’t help but sound less-than-convinced by the evidence before them. Nearly half way through and I thought I must have missed a session. In the morning we were told all this worry about risk is so much over-hyped nonsense; and by the afternoon, delegates were faced with speaker after speaker redefining normal childhood experiences through the prism of risk. The precautionary principle, as one sane voice from the floor hinted, was never far beneath the surface of the day’s discussions.

For Naomi Eisenstadt – Director of the Social Exclusion Task Force and responsible for work on ‘Families at Risk’, both at the Cabinet Office, and when heading the Sure Start programme – it was poverty and poor parenting that represent the biggest risks. Sir Cyril Taylor, an adviser to government on specialist schools, and chair of the body responsible for the establishment of City Academies, was surely off on a tangent when discussing the implications of poor literacy. But no, this too was a ‘risk’. Others warned of the risks to children’s well-being and self-esteem, or of the risks associated with children’s exposure to, and interaction with, new media. It was soon pretty clear that this risk thing has a tendency to take on a momentum of its own as social and technological changes arise and risky scenarios are dreamt up.

To be fair this was to be expected given the programming of the event itself. It was organised by the RSA Risk Commission, a body that apparently ‘aims to examine and contextualise risk in modern society’. The session before lunch began by blaming modernity and the ‘consequent changes to our physical and social world’ for our attitudes to children and risk. Professor John Adams, one of the principal academic advocates of the risk agenda, alongside the ever batty and belligerent Mayer Hillman, who proclaimed ecological doom for all our children (from the floor) whenever given the opportunity, were cases in point.

Those with an interest in tortured debates about environmentalism will know Hillman in particular for his deep green catastrophist views on our prospects of dealing with climate change (ie not very good); and deeply reactionary views on carbon rationing (which, if you hadn’t noticed, is now official government policy and the prevailing wisdom for want of a better word). He is also an advocate for greater freedom for children. But this potential ally - for those of us, who want to free childhood from the restraints imposed by adult anxieties - has this other agenda in mind when talking about childhood too.

In 1971, Hilman conducted a study into the proportion of children going to school unaccompanied by an adult. Based on a survey of five schools, this stood at 80%. The research was repeated in 1990 with Hilman this time accompanied by Adams. They found that just 9% walked to school. Adams explained to delegates that this was illustrative of his thesis that ‘hypermobility’ (in layman’s terms, ‘too much moving around’) is bad for children, and bad for society. Effectively transport policy (ie, ‘too many cars’) is responsible for the loss of social cohesion, the breakdown of trust in neighbourhoods; as well as children’s loss of independence, and freedom to go out to play. As a consequence, instead of celebrating the greater mobility afforded by modernisation – from 5 miles a day in 1950 to 30 miles for the average person today – Adams thinks it a regressive trend to be discouraged.

***

But if its not modern life per se that is responsible for all this talk about risk and childhood, why are we so anxious about children these days?

David Willetts, heading a new inquiry into the so-called ‘crisis of childhood’ for Tory leader Cameron, was one of the more insightful speakers to address the conference. He seemed to recognise that it is ‘anxiety about risk’ rather than risk itself that is at the heart of the problem. (Similarly, Professor Robin Alexander, who heads the Primary Review into the future of primary education, talked about a ‘discourse of anxiety’ in which children feature as both a threat to society and as ‘at risk’ themselves.) Willetts was critical of the notion that what makes a good parent is so-called risk awareness. As every other adult becomes a threat to their children, parents feel both more alone and are less likely to intervene when another child is in danger, he continued.

This was echoed by Prof. Alexander when he described how there has been a ‘loss of meaningful contact between generations’. Willetts went further, arguing that not only have adults ‘lost confidence in children’ but ‘children have lost confidence in each other’ he said, with play areas abandoned to gangs of youths. Increasingly for all children, ‘childhood retreats into private space controlled by parents’; into the bedroom (for working class kids) or into a regime of ‘organised activities’ (for their more affluent peers).

Ian Lewis, of Campaign for Adventure – Risk and Enterprise in Society, and clerk of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Adventure and Recreation in Society, put up a valiant effort to counter this state of affairs. He talked enthusiastically about testing young people’s ‘adventure thresholds’, setting ‘new horizons’, and berated us to ‘change our own perceptions of the possible’. Dr Tony Sewell, CEO of Generating Genius and a columnist with the black community newspaper The Voice, also injected a much needed dose of inspiration. He echoed Lewis’s warning that in the absence of sufficient risk taking opportunities children will seek it out in the kind of activities society frowns upon, like drug use and antisocial behaviour. If we don’t provide young people with the opportunities to take risks, he said, they’ll seek out bad risks and join gangs. We need more ‘controlled risk’ he continued.

But this distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ risks is a distraction, and irresolvable anyway. It ends up using the risk-discourse to frighten the bureaucrats with the prospect of even more out-of-control youth. And that is no solution either. It only reinforces risk as a currency. Rather than challenging the groundless claim that the world is less safe than it used to be; and that children are more vulnerable to it than before – it extends the reach of risk management by endorsing the search for so-called ‘safe’ or ‘controlled’ risks. The notion that you can ‘encourage young people to take risks safely’ as Madge put it, just doesn’t make any sense. It only adds to the confusion, and paves the way for further policy interventions with the ludicrous objective of somehow making risk safer.

***

Errol Taylor, Deputy Chief Executive of RoSPA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) continued the drift of defensive statements emanating from the risk bureaucracy of late, with his criticisms of both the ‘paranoia and complacency’ about risk. Still, he argued, children need to know and understand what risks and hazards they might face if they are to manage them effectively. RoSPA have set up LASER (Learning about safety by experiencing risk) Centres, in which children are exposed to scenarios such as a simulated smoke-filled house. The rationale is that children are informed about risk in a ‘cushioned’ or safe environment. This idea of providing more safe and supervised ‘spaces’ is also promoted by the authors of the Risk and Childhood Report. But by promoting the idea that we have to create safe spaces we are actually further exaggerating the extent to which children are in danger, ignoring the empirical data, and failing to address the cultural anxieties that inform the risk discourse in the first place.

The title of the presentation (‘Making it safer for children to take risks’) given by Clare Tickell, chief executive of children’s charity NCH, demonstrated how ingrained this confused thinking about risk really is. We should be ‘creating environments that encourage risk-taking with positive outcomes’ she said. But surely the point is that we don’t always and often don’t know what the outcome will be in advance. That is why it is a risk, and that is also why risks are sometimes worth taking. This is not an argument for recklessness but for a grown up debate. It is children’s charities like NCH, and the regulatory bodies appointed by government, who have been driving the risk agenda in relation to children, much as they’d like to blame someone else.

Denise Platt, Chair of the Commission for Social Care Inspection, rightly argued that local authorities, who insist on CRB checks when children in care have sleepovers with friends, are acting contrary to government advice. But this is to underestimate the extent to which councils are acting in a way that is very much in keeping with the spirit of risk aversion that is driven by regulatory bodies like that headed by Platt. The unprecedented expansion of the vetting of people working with children is not a consequence of over-zealous implementation of government dictate. That is the official policy.

Like Platt and Taylor, Judith Hackitt, Chair of the Health and Safety Commission, was clearly on a counter-offensive and intent on confounding the critics of the ‘elf ‘n’ safety’ culture. She too blamed our litigious risk-averse culture on those who have to implement it, by accusing them of turning risk assessment into a paper exercise. It would appear that some of those responsible for instituting such regimes are now recoiling in horror at the implications of their intrusive and hopelessly bureaucratic ‘safeguarding’ measures in practice.

***

So what happens when you get a bunch of policy makers in a room to discuss risk? More reasons to worry and more of an obsession with risk and its management as a way of regulating our lives. The more they talk about the problem of risk in relation to children or anything else, the more anxious they (and we) become. Guy Taylor, an Enterprise & Insurance Risk Management Executive, and founder of the Enterprise and Risk Forum, made a useful point. In an otherwise folksy and rambling speech about life as a school governor, he argued that as a society we have ‘allowed the lowest common denominator to dominate our thinking’. I think we also have an exaggerated sense of children’s vulnerability, and a tendency to regard the modern world as an increasingly hazardous place.

It is perhaps easy to forget then that modern society makes children’s lives safer not more dangerous. But our irrational anxiety originates with the political and cultural elite, and they then project it onto the rest of us. Stella Creasy from Involve (an organisation ostensibly concerned with ‘involving’ people) told delegates that ‘people are irrational’. It is therefore the job of professionals to sort out the management of risks for them, she declared.

The stranglehold of ‘risk management’ on much of public life is perhaps even more worrying than the risk averseness that it seeks to counter. It provides the rationale for a particularly stifling policy orientation to every issue it touches. The promotional image projected onto the back wall of the RSA lecture theatre was I think particularly apt. It featured a puny child in superhero cape and goggles comically flexing his muscles. This sadly was a false dawn for the brave new world beyond our anxious age of stifling risk aversion.


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