We have to talk about the children


It was a delight to welcome a diverse gathering of alumni last Friday at our annual lecture for the Meeting Minds weekend. Professor Bernhard Ebbinghaus, Head of Department, gave a brief introduction to the history of Barnett House, before giving the stage to Professor Mary Daly.

Mary’s topic was ‘Children and Social Policy in Europe’. She declared at the start - about the state of current social policy scholarship - “We have to talk about the children… we don’t talk enough about them.”

Mary, who was elected as a fellow of the British Academy in July last year, is one of a growing number of scholars now working in this area. She told the gathered audience that a “concern for children is animating policy development” but she believes we need to question how child-centred this concern is. There are significant bariers and tensions to progress.

Mary looked at the main developments in policy across Europe – in social investment, anti-child poverty, and social rights for children. Recent innovations include the European Pillar of Social Rights (2017) which is a significant development towards placing children’s rights on the policy agenda – suggesting two new rights for children (the right to affordable childcare and the right not to be reared in poverty). The European Parliament has also adopted a ‘child guarantee’ to free childcare, free education, free healthcare, decent housing and adequate nutrition.

Yet Mary encouraged the audience to question whether these developments represent as much progress as we might think. Do these initiatives really focus on children in the present, or on what they will become in the future? Policies are always multi-purpose, so are these innovations child-centred, or rather seeking to serve other purposes such as resourcing parents and keeping families intact?

She took us through a range of tensions and struggles which explain why progress might be slow – ethical concerns, technical challenges, ideological difficulties and cultural differences. Mary’s conclusion is that we need to acknowledge children’s value in their own right, we should countenance some ‘defamilisation’ of children, and ask ourselves what families are for, and what we want them to do in their own right and in relation to children.

Mary’s lecture inspired the audience to a lively response section. Questions addressed why as a society we might be more ‘heartlessly’ focussed on what children will become rather than who they are now, and at the impact recent governments have had on the UK’s lack of success in alleviating child poverty. Inevitably the question arose about whether Brexit will mean a divergence (worsening?) in UK social policy, but Mary suggested that the UK has been a greater contributor to EU social policy than vice versa.

Overall it was a fascinating afternoon, and our heartfelt thanks to all the alumni who chose to kick off their weekends with us. The podcast is available here.