Lemn Sissay and ‘the child of the state’

Paula Stone is a regular contributor to this blog. She lectures in Initial Teacher Education and her research interest focuses on how class and education influence each other and the impact this has on social identity

picture copy write Paula Stone

I went to see Lemn Sissay in Canterbury last week. Poet Laureate of Canterbury, Lemn Sissay spent his childhood in care, a subject he talks about with heartbreaking effect in his plays, poems and documentaries. He said something in his performance that has troubled me since leaving the theatre. He said that ‘we can define how strong a democracy is by how its Government treats its child – not its children – ‘the  child of the state’ i.e. those brought up within the care system.  The Government is in loco parentis for those children who are children of the state.

At 31st March 2017 there were 72,670 looked after children, an increase of 3% on 2016. The number has increased steadily over the last nine years. Children in care are five times more likely to have been excluded from school. Children in care are four times more likely than their peers to have mental ill-health, and those who have been in care between the ages of 10 and 17 are five times more likely to be convicted of a criminal offence or subject to a final warning or reprimand. Overall, they face a much higher risk of homelessness, teenage pregnancy and unemployment overall. And just 6% of young people with experience of the care system will attend university, compared to almost 50% of the general population. Family, and its support and its structures, are extraordinarily difficult to replicate in any other setting; but not impossible (Sissay, 2016). The gap between what family life provides and what a life in care provides is a yawning chasm.

As teachers and practitioners in educational settings we too are in loco parentis,   and only last week I was talking to my own group of student teachers about their responsibilities to the children in their care. Drawing on the work of Gert Biesta (2010) I talked to the students about how education should not be seen merely as a means of gaining  knowledge, and skills. Through education pupils become part of the existing social, cultural and political practices and traditions. This, according to Biesta is the socialisation dimension of education, and can reinforce social inequality in which those who do not meet social norms are seen as the ‘other’.  Biesta (2010) argues that any education system worthy of its name should always contribute to processes of subjectification, a dimension of education that promotes all of those being educated to become more autonomous and independent in their thinking and ways of being.  To do this, children need to feel safe and have a sense of belonging. Indeed, John O’Donohue (1998) suggests that  the desire to be loved for yourself alone is one of the deepest longings in the human heart. O’Donohue states that it is difficult to love yourself if you are not first loved but when you are touched by love, it reaches down into your deepest fibre.

So as parents, guardians, but particularly those of us in loco parentis– teachers and practitioners, we need to reconnect everything we know as professionals and as humans to equality and responsibility, encouraging children to study, not just learn and to ‘become’. We need to anchor our practice values of justice, fairness and compassion and create conditions under which each child is respected, valued, and heard.

This post is really thought-provoking and touching. Thank you, Paula, for your insights. Do add your comments below; what do you think it means to be in loco parentis? And what do you think the role of education should be?

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