The road less travelled

With the election only three weeks ago, I have decided it is time to think a little more carefully about who I might vote for. And how better to do that, than try to write those thoughts down? An oddity of the MMP system is that for the most part you are voting not just for a party, but also for a coalition government. So it seems to me part of the voting equation is a comparison of the lead party’s policies. Which of the two large centrist parties is most deserving of my support, either directly or by way of a tick for one of their support parties? The usual way to do this is to break it into policy areas and put them head to head. The obvious problem is that for most of us, most of the time, we know very little of the nuts and bolts of any particular portfolio, and have to make do with ignoring the complexity, and attending instead to far simpler substitute problems (perhaps the rhetoric-soggy policy statements, or just a gut feeling about values, or, heaven forfend, the ‘seems like a nice enough person’ test.) It’s a fairly average form of democracy at this point, but it’s still far better than not engaging at all.

If I think about things I believe the government can have a positive influence on, and that I care about, I’d immediately nominate: health, education, the economy, poverty, the environment, housing, race relations and maybe justice.

I know almost nothing about our health system, apart from the fact that it’s one of the biggest areas of government spending, and that as technology moves on, lifestyle disease becomes more prevalent and our population ages, it’s going to get an awful lot bigger. So clearly, the smartest use of the money is what we’re after. It’s also an area, like the environment, where there’s a strong delineation between short term and long term interests. In the short term, the health imperative is to fix those who are ailing now. In the long term, the imperative is reduce the number of people ailing in the future. My largely uniformed guess is that it is in battling with this distinction that a government can do the most good. The immediate spending needs are urgent and compelling. Furthermore, they are the most amenable to political reward. Reduce a waiting list here, expand a hospital service there, approve a new drug for subsidy in that area, and you are seen to be making a real difference. The slower programmes, those that aim to get greater engagement with the health system from the most reluctant participants, those that encourage healthier lifestyles, or enable earlier intervention, are a much harder sell. First because they do not silence a crying need, and second because the benefits will accrue long after the responsible minister has left office, so where’s the upside for them? My tentative conclusion, then, is that our political system will crete a bias towards short term fixes, and preventative measures with better dollar for dollar outcomes will be overlooked.

If that’s true, then I ought to vote for whichever side seems most capable of taking a popularity hit in the name of future benefit. Listening to National and Labour on this, there’s a strong element of tweedle dum and tweedle dee. Neither seems to be promising to take the bull by the horns on this issue, let alone following up on such promises. There is an instinctive left/right divide in play, though. As a general rule prevention means social intervention, altering the conditions that lead to the undesirable behaviours. And, as a general rule, the right don’t much like intervening. Partly it’s a belief intervention just doesn’t work (which feels defeatist to me, it sure worked with smoking, and seatbelts in cars, it’s working with immunisation, and breastfeeding…) and partly it’s the spectacularly stupid idea that individuals, left to their own devices, will tend to make the best decisions. I certainly don’t behave like this, and nor have I ever met anybody who does. Environment makes a huge impact upon my decision making. One would have to be far removed from the social stream to believe otherwise (come to think of it, what social traits do these folk have in common – John Banks, Jamie Whyte, Don Brash… in education we would refer to them as ‘on the spectrum.’) We’ve seen hints of this tendency from National – a reluctance to embrace healthy food in schools policies, for example, and so health leads me to the left, but not by much. I don’t see a game changer here on either side.

Education is a little clearer, and as a teacher of twenty five years, I feel better informed, or at least closer to the action. National have put their money where their mouth is, and backed two major reforms The first is national standards in reading, writing and maths for primary, the second is the proposed new employment condition, wherein teachers and principals are paid extra to share their expertise within and across school groupings. I think both moves are well intentioned, but I have serious reservations about how smart they are. Seen in its most generous light, national standards is a system whereby we get better information about a school’s ability to add value. Presumably, under the system, there is an opportunity to identify schools that have found a way to make a difference. Take that information, and use it to share the successful school’s secrets, and maybe you’re on to something. Particularly when the point of focus is that subset of students we are struggling to educate well. The second change is presumably the mechanism by which the information can flow from the outstanding practitioners to the rest of us. As I say, good intentions, and ultimately they’re about addressing a real problem, which is the difficulty that exists internationally when it comes to educating the socially marginalised.

Nevertheless, they’re very average policies. National standards is very much about using a sledgehammer to crack an acorn, and exists much more because it appeases a paranoid middle class support base than because it does the job it sets out to do. A focus on testing, at the expense of education, is just plain bad practice, especially when the information regarding standout performance could already be gathered so easily. It’s made primary teachers grumpy and suspicious, and so undermined progress in the sector. And the new scheme is probably worse. Whoever thought that identifying the very best principals and teachers and then removing them from their jobs was the way forward has spent way too long inside an office. By all means keep exploring ways to more effectively transmit knowledge about best practice. But surely the easy way is to have people whose job it is to move through schools, observing, comparing and then mentoring. Like, I don’t know, the old inspectorate? The proposed system is ill thought out and deserves to be dropped. Against this. However, the left seem frustratingly wed to the idea that things are fine and all we need is more resources. So Labour are interested in more teachers, and the Greens want to address underachievement by addressing the root cause, namely poverty. This annoys me because it ignores the very great potential there is for changing practice within schools in ways that will lead to more meaningful engagement, particularly for those who are suffering the most. If the right have a slightly defeatist approach to health care, then at the moment the left could be similarly accused when it comes to education. So, well intentioned ideas that fail in the execution, versus no real ideas at all? It’s a difficult call. Maybe I’d give it to National, by a whisker.

The economy is another area where I feel at least vaguely qualified to have an opinion. I have a degree in economics although, in truth, I’m not anywhere near as familiar with the statistics as I’d need to be to put that skill set to much use. Still, that doesn’t stop one from forming an opinion. In general, I think New Zealand has been lucky with its finance ministers. Things got seriously wacky with Rob Muldoon and then Roger Douglas, and gave us a close up look at how badly it can all go wrong, but since then we’ve have a succession of fairly steady hands. History is likely to be kind to Michael Cullen and Bill English, both careful and pragmatic ministers, capable of informed diligence. We hit the financial crisis which much more room to move than most countries, thanks largely to the Cullen stewardship, and Bill English, despite representing a nominally right of centre government, was happy to spend up in order to flatten the downturn. We’ve had the good fortune of a trade bonanza with China, and the misfortune of a major earthquake, both of which have contributed greatly to growth. Unemployment is low by international standards, and jobs remain the surest way out of the poverty trap.

Against this, we remain very exposed internationally. Our current account deficit is high, and in this respect our exchange rate is overvalued, as capital inflows continue to indulge our overspending. There’s a sense that the rewards of growth are not being evenly shared, and like a great many world economies, we see a gap opening up between rich and poor (recent growth has seen this stabalise, but in big picture terms, the last three decades have seen poverty become entrenched.) There’s also a sense that our productive base is still too narrow, with the manufacturing base shrinking, and too little being done to utilise the potential of a highly educated workforce. Basically, we’re awfully good at finding ways to grow more grass and transform it, by way of cows, into milk products, but questions remain as to the long term growth capacity for this particular strategy. It’s not unfair, I think, to characterise National as good managers of the day to day stuff, they’ve provided a predictable, stable base environment, while wondering if they have what it takes to think smartly about the future.

In part this weakness is a reflection of another right-leaning instinct. Government’s, the right often opine, are simply no good at this stuff. Ask a government to think about how the future might look, and what we ought to do to get there, and they’ll get it wrong. That’s why they’re in parliament, and not in business. Personally I think that’s a little gutless, and also flies in the face of international experience. The one thing the great success stories, be they Singaporean, Korean, Japanese or Scandanavian, have had in common, is a government with a very clear sense of where it wanted its country to go. Labour, while not exactly visionary, have been using their time in opposition to put together a plan of sorts, and there’s a lot to like about it. I’ve written previously about how smart it is to be thinking more laterally when it comes to the reserve bank act, and they’re to be applauded for this. A capital gains tax makes sense, as does their more aggressive support for kiwisaver, and they’re talking the talk on research and development. In terms of personnel, there’s good reason to believe that David Parker will also be an excellent finance minister, and on this one the Labour coalition is more to my taste. National have worked hard to paint the Greens as loopy when it come sot economic management, and suggest Labour’s policy will be severely compromised. This though is bluster. As perhaps the last person left in the country who still thinks the Green’s quantitave easing approach was worth pursuing, I’m obviously not one to be spooked by an idea just because the self-appointed wise old men of NZ media commentary don’t approve, but the fact is that the Greens’ approach to the economy is, by international standards, mainstream economics, and the ease with which we’ve swallowed the right’s rhetoric on this is, frankly, embarrassing.

So, that’s me, halfway through my criteria, and this post is plenty long enough already. I’ll be back soonish with part two. Until then, it’s a very narrow lead to Labour and friends, which is reassuring given it’s who I habitually vote for.

The Return of Labour

During the run-up to the 1984 election, that was to usher in the Roger Douglas government and change forever the face of New Zealand politics, Bob Jones liked to make a typically brave and simplistic claim. You don’t need to worry about trade imbalances, he said. All you need to do is float your exchange rate, and the system will automatically balance itself.

The basic thinking was this. When we export goods and services, the overseas customers must buy $NZ in order to complete the transaction. Similarly, when we buy goods and services from overseas, we must sell our $NZ in order to purchase the required oversees currency. If, by Sir Bob’s reasoning, imports outstripped exports, there would be more people trying to sell $NZ than trying to buy them, the exchange rate would fall, making our exports cheaper to the world, and imports dearer to us. So exports would rise, and imports fall until the whole system was in balance. Simple.

During the subsequent years, exactly this experiment was tried, and coincidentally they were the years when I was in university, completing an economics degree, so it was an issue I followed with interest. The economists who taught me warned that things would not be quite so simple. For, apart from buying and selling exports, currency is also traded by people seeking to lend and borrow in foreign markets, and indeed by speculators betting on long term trends in currency values. So, for example, a country could run long and sustained current account deficits under a floating exchange rate, if the circumstances were such that foreign investors were consistently purchasing $NZ in order to lend on our financial markets, or indeed if they were seeking, and able to, buy up local assets or invest in local infrastructure.

The pattern of the last thirty years post float has been pretty much this. Sustained and very high current account deficits (our balance of business with the rest of the world) without a correcting fall in the exchange rate, due to strong capital inflows. In essence, on the back of the amount of overseas money coming into the country, we have been able to consume far more of the world’s produce than we in turn have been able to sell to the world. This is a problem for a number of reasons. First, over time it means that less of the local economy is locally owned, and so each year more income goes off shore in the form of dividends and interest. It also means that the Government, which is answerable to both its voters, and the business community, becomes increasingly answerable to non-local interests, so trade imbalances can lead to a slow eroding of democracy. And finally, it makes us very vulnerable to international shocks. If, for any reason, international financiers were to lose confidence in the NZ economy, their withdrawal of credit could force a massive correction. So, there are good reasons to be concerned about our inability to deal to the large (by international standards) current account deficit, even though it’s barely made the headlines over the recent decades.

Labour’s monetary policy, announced yesterday, is perhaps the first serious attempt in three decades to address this issue, and as such is to be applauded. Working out what exactly drives the financial inflows is not easy, but two factors are often mentioned. One is a low savings rate, so that local savers do not provide the deposits the banks need to meet their lending needs, and so they go overseas. Some dispute the extent to which we are a low savings economy, when housing ownership is factored in, but nevertheless the idea that if we saved more, there would be less demand for international finance, appears to have merit. The other big factor is the interest rate. If the return on lending on the NZ market is greater than the return foreign investors can find elsewhere, then of course they will seek to lend here (once other factors such as risk are accounted for). And since the reforms of the eighties, we have deliberately used interest rates as a mechanism to choke off nascent inflation. Higher interest rates both suppress local spending, and make imports cheaper through the higher exchange rate, and the Reserve Bank has explicitly targeted the exchange rate in this way. As a matter of policy, then, we’ve been asking our export sector to pay the price of reining in inflation. No wonder our current account has suffered.

Labour’s idea, then, is to increase savings rates through compulsory Kiwisaver contributions, and then using variations in the contribution rate as an alternative tool for suppressing local demand, rather than pushing up interest rates. So, rather than being hit by a mortgage increase, you get hit by higher savings deductions, the difference being, in the long term the money is still yours. And, for the first time in thirty years, the export sector doesn’t suffer every time a dysfunctional housing market threatens inflation targets.

In conjunction with this, Labour also hope to be able to bring the pressure off the housing market by building a great number of low cost houses. And, probably most importantly of all, they’re broadening the Reserve Bank’s brief, so that the oddly single-minded pursuit of an arbitrary inflationary target will no longer become the altar at which all other economic policies must worship. It’s slightly embarrassing it’s taken us this long to shake free of the shackles of our 1980’s ideological excesses, but so be it. For the first time in a very long while, I find myself excited at the prospect of voting for Labour.

 

Fire!

2014 is election year in New Zealand, and it would seem that education is going to be one of the defining topics. This isn’t surprising. Education is one of those issues where almost everybody feels invested. If you’re not directly involved yourself, chances are you have children, grandchildren or neighbours who are. Furthermore, it’s about children and the future, both great platforms from which to launch one’s rhetorical missiles. This time round, there’s also a sense that the gap between rich and poor is going to be used by opposition parties to establish a clear point of difference between them and the current goverment, and whatever the solution offered to that particular conundrum, education clearly has to be part of the package. Good schools and good teachers do offer kids from deprived backgrounds a way of breaking the cycle; there’s strong evidence that this happens. Not to the extent that it can be the whole solution, the front end of deprivation also needs addressing, but the best policies are going to come at this problem both ways.

First out of the blocks were National, with a move that surprised most commentators. Their plan is to use financial incentives as a way of spreading best teaching practice through and between school communities. Just shy of $360 million over four years is being put into a four pronged attack. Struggling schools looking to appoint new principals will be able to offer $50, 000 incentives in order to attract top quality candidates. Of the moves, this strikes me as the smartest and most hopeful. An effective leader can do a huge amount for a school, (Makoura College in Masterton is an excellent example that I’ve seen in action) and maybe this is a way of moving talent to those areas where it can be best used. I like that, at the very least, it’s a policy with a focus.

The second move, taking principals who are identified as doing a good job, and then  inviting them to take a leadership role across school clusters, seems to me to be far more speculative. Although relief time is provided to release those principals, it’s not at all clear that removing them from a function they’re performing well, in order to involve them in what could very easily turn into another layer of consultation and bureaucracy, is high risk. Perhaps this level of engagement across schools will lead to better sharing of resources and systems, but my hunch is it’s mostly going to lead to a while heap more talking when there’s work to be done. If this is the outcome, then it will be money badly spent. The detail of how the policy makers plan to avoid this trap is the level at which this should be judged, and that’s something they’re working on.

The other moves, focussing on classroom teachers, I’m even more sceptical about, although I note the secondary union have offered initial support. They would have done better, I suspect, to have held off on their judgements. These moves involve offering pay rewards ($10, 000 and $20, 000 positions, so both significant salary boosts) to teachers identified as being particularly proficient in key areas of delivery. In return, these teachers are expected to share their practice with colleagues, and in the more senior of the positions extend this across neighbouring schools. My reservations here are to do with a mismatch between the problem and solution.

We know where the problem area for New Zealand education is, we have a significant bunch of kids at the bottom end who are not getting the skills they need to participate fully in our society, and the price they’re paying is horrendous. And the thing is, these strugglers are not spread evenly throughout our school system. There are particular schools and particular regions where you’ll find them in far greater numbers. Crudely put, we’re failing Maori and Pasifika students, and we’re failing the children of the poor.

So, it seems to me, if you’re looking to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at that problem, then the absolute priority is to make sure every last dollar of it is put where it’s most likely to at least come into contact with the target group. So, I was expecting, when I heard of these incentives, that they would be specifically aimed at schools with low achievement profiles, but there’s been no talk of this at all. Rather, if I’m reading it correctly, we’re going to see the rewards spread amongst the workforce in a way that is regarded as fair, and the make-up of the steering group almost guarantees that this sort of compromise will occur. And that’s plain stupid. Not only should the money go to particular areas and decile ratings, but it should also go mostly into early childhood and primary institutions, because, developmentally speaking, that’s where you get the biggest bang for your buck (and I say this as a secondary school teacher).

There are all sorts of other fish hooks in this proposal, not least the way these lead teachers are going to be identified, but these are side issues. The crucial thing is that National have come up with the money, but rather than pointing the hose at the flames, so to speak, for some unfathomable reason have decided to squirt the cash about randomly and hope some of it will end up doing some good. There are perhaps good political reasons for doing it this way, but educationally it’s a lost opportunity.

This afternoon the Greens announced their alternative, which on first read looks smarter in terms of targeting, and Labour are surely scrambling to grab their share of the headlines as I type, so maybe I’ll get to talking about them soon.

A piece of PISA

The 2012 international survey of student academic prowess was released this week, and has led to the usual flurry of breast beating and pomposity . There is much to say about this survey, which provides a rich and provocative data set identifying educational trends around the globe. It’s certainly worth spending a little time at the official website where you can peruse the performance of 15 year olds in maths, reading and science at your leisure. The headlines, though a little shrill, capture the essential trends well enough. It does appear that a number of Asian nations are making great strides, educationally speaking, and as a result the top order has been shuffled somewhat (an effect exaggerated by the curious way in which Chinese results are reported).

On the home front, it is also true that New Zealand has suffered some significant slippage. It’s not just that we’ve fallen down the rankings, which I want to suggest is much less important, but rather that for the first time since 2000, we’ve seen a sharp decline in our raw scores. It’s not end of the world stuff, we’ve gone from being one of the elite nations to being still solidly above the OECD average, but the shift in results is large enough to cry out for an explanation. I can’t immediately think what the result does reflect, in terms of background education conditions. We’re talking the difference between a cohort born in 1994, and one born in 1997, and given that this fall doesn’t appear to be part of any broader international trend, the issue is presumably local. None of the usual suspects (socio-economic shifts, national standards, NCEA) seem well matched to the time frame. So, any thoughts, anyone?

Meanwhile, may I take issue with the obsession with rankings that seems to be emerging on the back of this survey. Whether we are educating our children well or not is apparently, if the way we’re reporting this reflects our mood, far less important than whether we are out-scoring our neighbours/competitors. Framing the debate in this way, as if the purpose of an education system is to produce young people who are better at tests than young people in other countries, requires a special, although apparently common, kind of stupid. As soon as we adopt the ‘must do better than others’ stance, we commit ourselves  to prioritising those incremental shifts that might just be enough to push us up a single place in the rankings. Dull minded politicians will begin to set targets and make promises, and as a result precious resources will be moved out of the true priority areas, like dealing with educational inequalities, or walking the talk on the broader values articulated in our world leading curriculum.

The premise on which the obsession with competition appears to be based is the rather crude idea that national economies are analogous to competing businesses, and which ever one can produce the best product at the lowest price will ultimately force the other  out of business. The fear then is that if New Zealand’s students aren’t quite as hot at algebra as those in Thailand, then that’s the end of economic opportunity for us.  Economist Paul Krugman, who’s won a nobel prize for his work on trade theory, and presumably knows a little about such things, has been most vocal in rubbishing this approach, and his work is well worth hunting down. Meanwhile, it should be suffice to note that in all the years where New Zealand’s educational performance sat atop the international pyramid, our economic performance remained below average. The correlation between educational achievement and economic prosperity, at least at the margins picked up by shifts in the pisa data, is negligible, and for very good reason.

Overall investment patterns are much more important than small shifts in the average measures of academic prowess, when it comes to determining economic capacity. The dullard with a dump truck is always  going to shift a load more dirt than the genius with a wheelbarrow.

New Plays

Two new plays just added on the plays page, Hutt High School Musical and Resolution Bay. Both have just had their first runs at school over the last month, and in each case I was reminded, yet again, why theatre is my favourite art form. There’s nothing quite like the immediacy of the connection between audience and actor, and being able to stand on the sidelines and absorb the strange alchemy that such an interaction represents. Novels are fine, film is fun, but theatre is real story telling, from one living breathing person to another. Nothing beats that.

Into The River

Recently I’ve received a few emails from people upset by the book we chose as NZ Post Children’s Book Awards book of the year, the wonderful Into the River by Ted Dawes. Below is the response I’ve sent. If you want to get involved in the debate, here’s one place to express yourself. Although maybe think about reading the book before you form an opinion – just a thought.

Thanks for taking the time to write. This is an important issue, and it’s crucial that people care about the types of things our young people are reading. I sincerely commend you for taking a stand.

I’m also glad to have an opportunity to further explain my part in the decision to name Into the River our book of the year. It’s a truly marvellous and indeed moral book, and I do encourage you to read it and contemplate the messages it contains. I should also like to discuss briefly the broader issues of censorship and how, in a pluralistic society, we might go about establishing mores that truly respect all of those who have a stake in this process.

First, to the book itself. This is a story that captures, better than any I’ve read, the plight of the young Maori boy, looking for a place to stand. Our protagonist is smart, ambitious, and eager to please, and when he wins a scholarship to an elite Auckland school, we are encouraged to believe that this is his chance to make his mark. But life is not that simple.

What this book shows, with tremendous skill and courage, is the complexity of the problem these young men face. If you want to better understand the price we pay for depriving young Maori a place to stand, then this is the book to read. It is not didactic, nor is it sentimental. Rather, it forces us to consider the subtle but powerful forces that make a nonsense of the popular myth that all the dispossessed need to do is pull their socks up and make an effort.

If we measure a society’s moral strength by the way it treats its most vulnerable, then this is a book that speaks to the heart of our obligation to be better members of this community. To be more understanding, more open to difference, more willing to accept the part we play in perpetuating the pain.

I want young people to consider this message, and so I want them to read this book. That groups purporting to care about family values should seek to oppose it is perplexing. Yes, there are harsh aspects to this story. There have to be. Without the harshness, we could not properly understand the price that is being paid. This is a book about what happens when a young man is forced to the periphery, that place where the normal social constraints do not reach. And out there risks are taken, and damage is done. This book stands as a call to arms to those who wish to see an end to such needless, racially primed vandalism.

The language, the sexual references and the drugs are as integral to this story as domestic violence is integral to Othello. That is my considered opinion as an author of ten novels, as a teacher for over twenty years, and as a judge who has read this book slowly and carefully.

Now, it may be that you accept this is an important, and indeed moral novel, and you accept that the graphic content is a necessary part of this book’s story, but still oppose it on the grounds that the price we pay for this message is too high. Specifically, it might be that you believe that young adults reading this book will be encouraged to use the less palatable language themselves, or indeed take this book as licence to indulge in the high risk activities that are portrayed. To this, I would only say, trust your children more, and trust yourselves as parents more. It is simply not true that the young refrain from swearing because they have never heard it. There are no words in this book that a teenager will not have heard in the school ground, at the shopping mall, the bus stop or read online. That they will suddenly, at the twenty third exposure, switch lexicons on us, is an absurd suggestion. All teenagers are exposed to offensive language (‘bugger’ was turned into a national advertising campaign) and most of them, most of the time, manage to express themselves beautifully without it. It is the way we raise them, the way we win their respect, and earn our place as role models, that matters.

With regard to the bullying, the drug taking or the casual sex, there is nothing glamorous about the lifestyle into which our protagonist falls. To argue that because the content is there, young readers will imitate it, is fanciful. Nobody opposes books about World War One, on the grounds that we don’t want our children heading off to shoot Germans. Nor are we afraid of our children seeing the bible, least they develop a taste for crucifixion. The way we process content is entirely dependent upon the context within which we encounter it. Read the whole book. Think about it. Then pass it on to a young adult you care about. They’ll thank you for it.

Finally, although you may not agree with my judgement, ours must not be portrayed as a disagreement between the moral and the apathetic. Those of us who believe in literature like this are as driven to make a better world for our children as those who oppose it. Nor is this even a disagreement about what stands as moral, for I too seek a place where the young may move with safety and joy, live in respect and tolerance, and form healthy, nourishing relationships. To the extent we do disagree, it is about the way this book will be read, and more broadly, the way that reading will influence world view and behaviour. These are difficult questions, to be approached with a cautious and open mind, and crucially, with careful study and evidence to support one’s case. Do that, and there is a chance we can move together towards the sort of world we all desire. Turn this into a tribal war, between the putatively decent and depraved, and everybody suffers.

Again, thank you for engaging.

Kind regards

Bernard Beckett

Bad song Petey.

Today one of my young sons (three and a bit) was having a moment of frustration with his father’s stubbornness/stupidity/inflexibility, and trawled through his ever-expanding vocabulary for a phrase that might adequately convey his rage. Eventually, hands balled into determined little fists, he pronounced,
‘You wrote a bad song, Petey.’
I laughed, and then he laughed, and the moment passed, as the childish moments do. For those of you who don’t recognise the line, it’s from the brilliant Wes Anderson film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox. It’s uttered by Michael Gambon, to the hapless folk singer (played by Jarvis Cocker, of Pulp fame) and is one of a series of superb moments that lift the film beyond entertainment and on towards art. If those are the sorts of insults my boys are going to settle upon when feeling fraught, I couldn’t be happier.

And that got me thinking about film, and television, and children. (I am aware, by the way, that some time in the distant past I promised my next post would be about free will. I meant it at the time, and fully intended to follow through. And didn’t. Which by itself tells you plenty about free will, I suspect. Another time.) Our home is an increasingly common one, in that we have no television. We’re not anti-television, the likes of West Wing or The Wire have moments to match the very best from the world of film, theatre or literature (sometimes I think that in contemporary terms they exceed it). But one can buy box sets of DVDs, buy films online and use the computer for viewing, and that’s plenty for us. An occasional pleasure, rather than a part of the daily routine; none of the desperate popularity contest that network news has become, and with no idiot screaming out at you at regular intervals to get down to some shop or other and change your life. The balance feels about right.

And, without the big screen as a constant background companion, nothing to suck the young ones away from their worlds of construction and make believe. However, we’re a long long way away form being the sort who see the small screen as some sort of poison which children must be protested from. Quite the opposite. I want my children to engage with story telling in every form. I want them to be read to, I want them to attend the theatre, to have sing-alongs, to spin endless yarns to one other, to improvise puppet shows and yes, watch films and television. Because some of the films being made for children today are simply remarkable. Engaging, challenging, inventive and so, so funny. I think of some of their favourites: Shrek, which is such a smart piece of film making, Toy Story, which somehow kept lifting its game over three instalments (can you think of an adult series that has done the same) Madagascar, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc… If you’re a parent, chances are you know the list.

And, if you’re a parent, there’s also every chance you’ve watched your exhausted children sink into the couch at the end of a long day, while you take the moment to get dinner together, and felt the tiniest pang of something like guilt. Isn’t it wrong to plug your children into the screen in this way? Aren’t we meant to be, you know, playing games with them, making interesting things out of dried pasta and teaching them algebra? Aren’t their studies showing that too much television is strongly linked with under-performance later in life? Isn’t Toy Story 3 the first foot on a slippery slope to neglect and stupidity?

The answer, of course, is not even a little bit. To deprive them of the experience of film would be every bit as stupid and depriving them of the joy of books. Yes, one can watch too much television, and at some point that’s going to make you a fairly sad specimen, but then again one can read too many books, and that’s not going to do wonders for your engagement with the world either. You can do too much exercise and become a self absorbed idiot, you can be too careful with your food and develop an eating disorder… you get the point. Yet nobody suggests letting one’s child eat well, read or exercise is irresponsible. That would be insane. So why do we see television and film differently (and we certainly seem to).

To be honest, I don’t have much idea. Perhaps it’s one part snobbery, one part fear. The great thing about the screen is that it’s accessible to almost everybody, in a way that books, for example, aren’t. Some children struggle to make sense of the words on the page, because they are dyslexic, perhaps, or because the foundations were never adequately established. To be a reader is therefore a measure of one’s success, a way to set yourself out as somehow a bit better than those who don’t. But when Alex the lion bites Marty the zebra on the butt, well any idiot can see that and laugh. And so obsessed are we with comparisons (and here my own obsession shows itself again) that universality becomes code for lack of quality. And in the world of children’s film, that is absolutely inaccurate.

As for fear, parenting seems to hit the ‘what if I’m doing this wrong?’ switch more powerfully than any other human activity. Television, then, is just one of a long list of bogey men, threatening to make disasters of your offspring and so cripple you with a lifetime’s guilt. Yet, to steal an analogy (I think I read it in a Matt Ridley book) child rearing is a little like vitamin C. Everybody needs it, and if you don’t get enough, the consequences are serious. But, almost everybody does get enough, and once the minimum threshold is met, any extra makes little difference. The goal is simply adequacy, beyond that fate will do what it will (free will, there’s just no escaping it). To parent adequately is extremely difficult, of course, but almost everybody manages it. Fretting about the difference between forty minutes of youtube versus and hour is like lying awake at night wondering if five segments of orange in their lunchbox was enough, or should have you given them six? Bonkers.

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