A non-partisan journal of the left.

We Must Invest in People’s Souls as Well as Their Skills

Fri 18th Jan 2008

Too often young people find themselves on the receiving end of policy. They become symbols rather than voices in public debate. Partly as a result, many young people channel their interest in political issues away from formal politics itself. And children’s needs risk going unmet by public services and public spaces that are designed without giving them any real stake.

That problem began to change last week, with the announcement of a national play strategy, supported by £225 million of public investment over the next three years. The play strategy illustrates how the place of children in modern society has risen up the political agenda over the last twelve months. Most people recognise the huge steps taken forward over the last ten years, driven by landmark reforms of children’s services and record investment in education. But the wider development of young people remains an important concern.

Earlier this year I argued, in a think-piece for Compass, that whilst no adult would question the value of play to their own childhood, the danger is that children in modern societies do not experience those same opportunities. This relates both to protection from the commercialisation of childhood and to the creation of more positive opportunities for children to express themselves and develop in welcoming surroundings.

These should be important concerns for the Left. They represent key political issues: how to give a voice to those who do not enjoy electoral power-bases, how to build the market around society rather than visa versa, and how to create public services and public spaces that are genuinely inclusive. I believe these are also issues that only the Left has the ability to tackle. The Right, enthralled by the market regardless of its outcomes and hostile to the state regardless of its achievements, simply lacks the mindset or the political will-power to address them.

The announcements made last week start to move things forward. £160m will be set aside to widen the range – and improve the quality – of places for children to play. Youth provision, such a priority in inner city constituencies like mine, should benefit enormously. Alongside this, the most deprived areas, where opportunities for children to play are the most restricted, will benefit from new adventure playgrounds for children of primary and secondary school-age. And there will be a full independent assessment of the commercialisation of childhood, recognising many of the concerns that have been raised over the last year.

The test of these measures, of course, will be their impact on real children’s lives over the coming years. What inspires genuine optimism for me, though, is that the underlying questions that the play strategy asks are the right ones. It focuses on the quality of children’s childhood, not just their education. And it builds on what young people themselves have argued is important and must change. A vision of the good society means that we must invest in people’s souls as well as their skills. Nowhere is that more true than it is for children – and never has there been a better opportunity to make it a reality.

David Lammy is the MP for Tottenham and the Minister for Skills. This article first appeared on Compass.
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