As children are increasingly able to claim their voice in society, UniSA Dean and Head of School: Education, Professor Stephen Dobson says it is important to recognise that it is still only well-educated middle class children who dominate.
Prof Dobson will be looking at why and how we should be listening to children at UniSA’s annual de Lissa Oration on October 16 with the topic, Paradise Lost and Gained: “Capturing” the Voice of the Child in the 21st Century.
“Children still have a long way to go in garnering a significant voice in society, but it is true that a small minority of better educated and more affluent children tend to dominate and quieter or disengaged children go unheard,” Prof Dobson says.
His oration will explore the shifts that have taken place in the way children engage with society and how they are perceived by society throughout history.
“Change in attitudes to children has accelerated in the past few centuries,” Prof Dobson says.
“In the Middle Ages it was very much the case that the child was considered subservient, malleable, someone to literally ‘be seen but not heard’.
“Between1870-1940, children were given greater consideration and greater protection evidenced by the industrial changes of the era and the introduction of reforming, child labour laws and, in the UK, the Education Act.
“More recently, between 1945 and 1975, we have seen the emergence of the notion of the ‘vulnerable’ child – the child left alone as more women enter the workforce.
“The latest stage is the participatory child – the authority of the parent disappears, as children today tend to challenge and negotiate on everything and are less disciplined and less subservient.”
But Prof Dobson argues the privilege of being a participatory child is an experience that does not extend to every child.
“Our research took us to a few schools where we saw children, aged eight and nine, in meetings, on the children’s board and in other fora and we found that it is usually verbal, middle class children whose voices dominate,” he says.
“The ambition – the Paradise Gained – is that all children’s voices can be heard equally, but the reality is it is usually just the voices of the few.”
Prof Dobson says finding ways to enhance inclusion for all children despite their background is a challenge for educators and the whole of society.
The value of capturing children’s voices is of growing importance though, as identified recently by Professor Pauline Harris, de Lissa Chair, who will be introducing the oration, and whose research in this area is captured in her book: Children as Citizens.
Prof Harris explains that children and young people’s views have informed the review of SA’s Strategic Plan and a review of one local government’s social plan.
“Children’s views have also been used to inform proposed legislation and the SA Government’s Every Chance for Every Child policy,” Prof Harris says.
“Children count and their views absolutely can make a difference in helping to shape the world around them. It’s important to listen and important to encourage participation.”
The de Lissa Oration is an annual event that takes place during Children’s Week, and is named in honor of Lillian de Lissa, who was a world renowned early childhood educator and reformer whose significant work in South Australia and overseas has left a lasting legacy.
(Source: University of South Australia)