Is it time to go back to the future for children? How greater knowledge of the human developmental process can inform policy makers.
Today is ‘Back to the Future’ day, and within my own academic discipline, a useful reminder to pause for consideration of how policy for children, young people and families in England may unfold over the next thirty years. And, if we look back to 1955, the point in time at which mid-1980s American high school senior Marty McFly arrives in the first ‘Back to the Future’ film, we can contemplate some interesting ways in which a developmentally informed policy may involve both looking back, and moving forward to the future.
In 1955, we find a culture where small children were principally cared for at home by their mothers, and policy for infants dominated by the attachment theory of Professor John Bowlby, which warned of the dangers of early separation from the mother. Later findings indicated that it was not only the mother who could provide such care, and in fact the child thrived quite happily in a situation where care was provided by a small circle of adults to whom s/he had affectionate attachments. However, the modern practice of providing mass daycare for infants has been shown to be problematic with respect for lifelong mental health. A range of studies have recently discovered abnormally raised levels of the stress hormone cortisol in infants placed in mass care facilities. Perhaps then, the provision of care for children in 2045 will involve flexible employment options for parents and grandparents of children under 3, so care during this highly vulnerable ‘entry’ life stage can become principally home-based.
In 1955, education for children under five, such as it existed, was principally play-based. There were no government targets or tests for children of this age; and in England, the learning through play, child-led practices of Susan Isaacs and Margaret McMillan had been widely adopted in nursery education. In 2015, children are moving into formal education at ever-earlier stages of development, with the first statutory formative test at two, a proposed statutory ‘baseline’ test of academic skills at rising five, and a statutory phonics test for rising six year olds. However, research evidence is now mounting up to indicate that overly formal education practices are harmful at such an early stage of learning, particularly rote instruction in reading as a technical skill rather than as a communicative medium. In particular, young children need to make sense of communication in context, both spoken and written; following conversations and stories is not just about understanding words, but about grasping narratives, which therefore have to be met within contexts that are relevant to the child. Hopefully then, education for children between three and seven in 2045 will be structured in a more developmentally appropriate fashion, focused in particular upon nurturing the skills of social understanding that underpin later intellectual development.
Finally, turning to the later stages of child development; in 1955 we find a legal system in England that operates the ancient principle of ‘doli incapax’- the duty of a judge presiding over a case where criminal charges have been brought against a child between ten and fourteen to carefully examine whether the child understood that what s/he had done was in fact criminal. Doli incapax was removed in 1998 by the Crime and Disorder Act in the New Labour attempt to be ‘tough on crime’. In 2010, problems arising made national headlines when two eleven year olds were placed on the sex offenders register for attempted rape, as a result of an episode of inappropriate play which occurred when they were ten years old.
Recent findings from neurological and psychological research indicate that the last areas of the human brain to mature are those that deal with impulse control and complex social understanding; again, we find that our increasing knowledge of the human developmental process can inform policy makers towards more developmentally informed policies, not only for infants, but also for children in the later stages of development. If we have the will, we are therefore now in a position where our understanding of the human developmental process could underpin the creation of a comprehensive range of developmentally informed policies for children, young people and their families.
In conclusion, we live in a time in which understanding of the human developmental process is rapidly increasing. Current social policy creation in England is largely uninformed by such knowledge. If policy makers of all political persuasions can be called upon to work with child development experts, policy for children, young people and their families in 2045 may indeed ‘go back’ to some practices based in ancient wisdom that were previously ill-advisedly dropped, but in further interpreting the evidence, informed by twenty-first century research, we can begin to move forward to the future.