It Takes A Village To Raise A Child


Education viewed from above is a huge, unwieldy community made up of millions of people, young and old, movers and shakers, doers and don’ters, politicians and providers.

But from a child’s viewpoint, it looks different. It’s a Village, their own familiar place where they feel safe and loved and told off for pinching apples. It’s a community of people who treat one another as well-intentioned neighbours, self-correcting and honest, in an unending conversation.

It has a unique shared intelligence that can spot threats and defuse them, can promote what’s good and kind and can make sense of changes in the world. It’s young and old at the same time, sitting with the wisdom of history and standing on the edge of change. It’s not bounded by it’s walls and can reach out in imagination through time and space in pursuit of truth.

As children we live in the moment, with fragments of what we experience and the people we meet breaking through. When we look back, we remember the Village simply as ‘School’.

Ancient history

I left school in 1966 going to a job as a lab assistant for a pharmaceutical firm, safety testing new drugs.

The boss of our lab was doing research for his Ph.D. on the effects of thalidomide on a range of animal species during pregnancy. I did some technical work for him, x-raying and assessing cut sections of foetuses. As a novice in the field I was struck by the fact that some species were unaffected and others showed the same severe reactions seen in humans.

Thalidomide was licensed in 1956 for over-the-counter sale across Europe as a mild sedative and a cure for anxiety and stomach upsets. It was not approved by the FDA in USA. In pre-release toxicity tests it had proved to be very safe. No testing was done in those days to look at the effects of drugs during pregnancy because scientists made a major assumption, that the placental barrier kept mum’s drugs out of baby’s system. Once on sale it was noticed that thalidomide reduced morning sickness. It became very popular with pregnant women who could buy it without a prescription.
Soon doctors began to report nerve damage in adult patients with long term exposure and the manufacturers produced no firm evidence to contest any correlation. Other widespread reports started to come in of severely disabling effects on babies, linked to its use during pregnancy. But it was selling well and the reports were treated as artefacts by the manufacturers and their shareholders. In 1961 the link between birth defects and thalidomide use was confirmed by independent researchers, Lenz and McBride, by which time over 10,000 children had been born with disabilities caused by the drug. Thalidomide was taken off the market when Lenz and McBride reported their findings and these emerged into the public sphere.

The Village then

Looking back at this experience it seems to me this was a demonstration of the protective power of the Village.

Things were only put right by independent minds working away at a problem which had been shrugged off by powerful people. Further harm to children was prevented by the Village. It wasn’t due to a top-down edict, it was the ground level expertise and motivation of free minds that did it. As the evidence of correlation appeared, parents and carers with limited expert knowledge reported to their doctors who passed the message on, Lenz and McBride picked it up and observant journalists translated it into everyday language for their readers. The Village with its dispersed expertise, its ethics and shared concern was what kept children safe.

The Village now

Recently, UK Government announced they were going to expand the number of grammar schools in England. The plan was immediately challenged by professionals and non-professionals acting in concert, Village people getting into gear. The Government couldn’t produce evidence to support the advantages they claimed that the segregation of children on the basis of their assessed IQ would produce. Arguments put forward about damage to children who saw themselves as failures at such young age were brushed aside. However the Department for Education started to shift ground, claiming some children would be selected without having to pass the 11-plus test and anyway the plan was all about increasing social mobility, which no-one could disagree with. The pressure exerted by the Village was maintained.

We all know what happened next and the idea was dropped. Segregation still happens, but at least it’s not going down that route.

What you might not know is how the 11-plus came into being and why it’s important that some people in the Village are historians.

Cyril Burt (1883-1971) was one of the founders of educational psychology, the scientific study of learning. Burt was involved in eugenics, a common interest in Europe coming out of the social application of Darwin’s work. Burt hypothesised that intelligence was a fixed, characteristic of children which could be independently measured by testing them. He set about gaining evidence for his ideas and in a 1909 paper concluded that upper-class children in private preparatory schools did better in the tests than those in the ordinary elementary schools, and that the difference was inherited. His experimental subjects were 53 pairs of twins, brought up separately and compared for intelligence.
He soon joined a Government committee developing the 11-plus test, designed to separate intelligent children from what were termed the feeble-minded. The Government liked it, him and his IQ test, he gained national fame and respect and was knighted.

At his death in 1971 it was found that in his will he had ordered the destruction of all of his original research papers. It was also found that his IQ research, on a very small group of 53 twins, was fabricated. He had a great deal of influence on the development of educational psychology. He supervised Hans Eysenck’s Ph.D. . Burt’s principle of segregation of children on the grounds of their fixed characteristics may have been dented by the discovery of his unscrupulous methods, but they were highly persistent. In Burt’s life time there was another strand of educational thinking, perhaps early evidence of the Village at work, with the experimental setting up of comprehensive schools in the 1940s which were non-selective and the full comprehensive system developed in the late 1960s.

The Village in action

Through my research and practice to do with children’s ‘behaviour’ it became clear that Burt’s segregationist principles underpin the promotion of Behaviour Management strategy in general and specifically the support for exclusion based on observed behaviour. Recently a Government adviser has gone so far as to say that segregation by means of exclusion is a ‘necessary part of a functional school system’, clearly echoing Burt, in view of the fact that exclusion selectively affects children with a wide range of additional needs.

How do we carry on supporting and teaching children comprehensively, in the face of strident opposition based on little more than false evidence and ideological belief?

By drawing strength from being part of the Village community, thinking as Village people. Teachers, parents, carers, support staff, academics, those with time on their hands, managers, visionaries, politicians, historians, drawers of water, gardeners. Me and you.

And how do we do it?

By talking to one another about our beliefs and practice, supporting each other when we feel lonely and sharing the success and laughter that comes with communicating.

And when shall we do it?

All the time online and face to face at the Village Gathering in Springtime next year!