Friday, 28 August 2015

Breaking young minds

This morning I listened to a radio programme. Before it was half finished I was screaming in anger and anguish at the radio; by the time it was finished I was sobbing. For the rest of the day I've felt headachy and ill.

The programme was called 'mending young minds'. You don't mend young minds, you break them; and once they're broken it's extremely unlikely that there will be any road back. Of the twenty or so kids who were in the Young People's Unit of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital with me forty-five years ago, I'd be extremely surprised if half a dozen are still alive. Those who are will, like me, have suffered a lifetime of mental illness.

Being mad just isn't fun
It isn't fun for anyone
It isn't fun if you are mad
It isn't fun it it's your dad
If it's your child it's just as bad
There is no fun in being mad.

My mind was broken fifty-five years ago in Stamfordham Primary School in Northumberland. I've never recovered. The damage was probably irreversible after three months, but I had three years of it before there was any intervention, eight before there was useful intervention. And by that time it was far too late.

Since then I've made excuses for them. Dyslexia wasn't well understood then, I've said to myself. My parents were trying to do the right thing. The teachers had no way to know the damage they were causing.

Perhaps. But that was half a century ago. What the hell was the point of me and hundreds like me going through all that pain and suffering life-altering injury if lessons aren't going to be learned?

So when I hear on the radio today of a little girl who's now ten, who showed signs of distress immediately on being sent to school... I am overwhelmed with anger and distress and compassion.

Let's be clear about this: we have a lot of ongoing scandals about elite sexual abuse of children. We should treat that very seriously. We should hunt down, prosecute and imprison the perpetrators, because raping a child is extremely likely to lead to life-altering trauma, to damage that cannot be undone. To ruin the child's whole life.

But for fuck's sake so is sending an obviously distressed child to school.

School is a dreadful, evil institution - a place where we send people to punish them for being young. It's also, of course, an environment in which some young people blossom. But that is the point. One size does not fit all. Mainstream education - in which some flourish and most more or less cope - does dreadful, irreparable harm to many. If we are to have compulsory schooling at all it must be child-centred, highly responsive and individualy tailored. To send a child to a school at which they are clearly unhappy is an act of unconscionable cruelty.

But if the parent who sends a child day after day to a place in which they are being systematically tortured is cruel, how much more so is the educator who inflicts the damage?

This isn't acceptable. It has to stop. If we don't have enough resources to educate the children we have without injuring them, then we just need as a society to have fewer children. If we aren't prepared to have fewer children then we have to put more resources into individually tailored child centred education.

But there is no criminal worse than the adult who sees a child in distress and continues, day after day, week after week, month after month to send that child into the place of torture to be further injured. No punishment which a civilised society could impose would be sufficiently severe to fit such a crime.

You don't mend young minds, you break them. And there's no road back.
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