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A future fit for our children is one we must help them create

Brendan Martin

My partner and I welcomed our first grandchild into the world this year, and as 2023 ends he fills our lives with some new kind of wonder each day.

So it was sobering to end the year by joining the staff, trustees and fellow supporters of Children England in an inspiring evening to mark the charity’s passing after 81 years.

It was an occasion for both grief and hope, as Lauren Roberts-Turner said in a powerful call to action at the event. Unless we resist and reverse the government-led attack on democracy, she insisted, today’s children will be robbed of not only the joy that should fill their lives today but also of their opportunities as adult citizens of tomorrow.

Lauren was one of the 23 ‘young leaders’ assembled by Children England to research and write a Vision for a Childfair State, which was published in May and should be high on the reading list of every policy maker in every government department and public service. I wrote about it at the time.

As the always insightful Children England CEO Kathy Evans noted in her own remarks at her charity’s farewell party, the results of the Childfair State inquiry were as well-informed and cogent as they are because of the process by which it was produced.

From start to finish, the agency, capability and creativity of young people themselves was enabled and supported, not in a patronising spirit but because of Children England’s understanding that there is no better way to achieve the best results.

I was privileged to serve on the project’s adult Sounding Board, tasked with listening to what the young leaders had to say, and sharing our knowledge and experience when asked for it.

Our job was not to second guess their own findings or recommendations, and they would have given us short shrift it we had forgotten that. But neither was it to shirk our own responsibility by failing to challenge when our own understanding and beliefs made it appropriate to do so.

Clarity about relationships between authority and responsibility are central to our work in Public World, supporting the introduction of self-organised team work into organisations aiming to move away from hierarchical structures and bureaucratic cultures.

Some of our clients are so committed to that aim that they tend to begin by simply passing responsibility for everything to the ‘frontline’. Other organisational leaders are put off self-organisation precisely by the fear of where that would lead.

The truth is, however, that self-organised team work can only succeed sustainably with clarity about boundaries of authority and commitment to combining freedom with responsibility.

Just as children cannot learn to become responsible citizens unless enabled and supported to exercise authority within boundaries appropriate to their childhood, so trust in self-organised team work can only grow in a culture of self-discipline, honesty and rigour.

I recently came across what might be the opposite of Children England’s supportive and enabling approach when one of my close colleagues found that her son’s school operates with disciplinary standards that seem designed to crush responsibility beneath obedience.

It is a reminder that the pernicious growth of authoritarianism is manifest not only in governments undermining the rule of law and attacking civic rights but also in how we are treating our young people – and in how many organisations treat their employees.

In her beautifully crafted and inspiring speech to say farewell to Children England, Lauren Roberts-Turner laid down a challenge to us all to spread not just the Vision for a Childfair State but above all the ethos that produced it.

As we look forward to a new year, I will do my best to rise to that challenge, and I know my colleagues in Public World will do the same. If you’re up for working with us for a better future for all our children and grandchildren – at school, at work and in life – we’d love to hear from you.

Meanwhile, wishing you the very best of the season, and here’s to working together in 2024 for better health and more happiness in local and workplace communities in which we help each other to look after ourselves.

Brendan Martin is founder and managing director of Public World