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Interview: The Good Childhood Inquiry

Monday 18th September 2006

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams appeared on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme to talk about the Children's Society's The Good Childhood Inquiry which is being launched today. He was interviewed by James Naughtie.

JAMES NAUGHTIE: The Children's Society, the Church of England charity, is to lead what it calls the first independent national inquiry into childhood. It's inviting views from everyone and it is led by a panel which includes many distinguished people and the Children's Commissioner, for example, for England, Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green who says he is shocked by the extent of the breakdown in this country between children and parents. The Children's Society is also releasing today the results of a study of about 8,000 children, and with us in the studio to reveal those findings and talk about what lies ahead is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. Archbishop good morning, in this survey what hits you?

ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY: Two things immediately. One is there is a very high level of confidence among most of the young people interviewed about the degree to which their parents or carers really do care for them. Less confidence about understanding, and that, in a way, you would expect, but it's interesting that they do take for granted that there is good will. The second thing that leaps out is they talk about freedom from pressure and the pressures they identify are very often to do with bullying, peer pressure and the overloading of the curriculum.

JN: And you think those is real pressures rather than just a sort of traditional feeling that the world is out to get me and I'm a teenager and life's horrible?

ABC: It's not just 'Kevin the Teenager' I think, there are measurable problems here, we're talking about one in ten young people with measurable identifiable mental health problems, including self harm and clinical depression - now that's a very disturbing statistic.

JN: You see you mention school there, and what's interesting here is a sort of paradox that people say we've got to drive up school standards, we've got to make schools better and improve the school atmosphere and, by common consent, under governments of both parties, that's sort of made progress over the last couple of decades, that's common ground. And yet people say school is now intruding too much in people's lives, the testing is too great, there are too many exams and so on. That's a very difficult thing to start to work on.

ABC: It's a very difficult balance to get right because accountability in education is what everybody wants and that's where the pressure comes from for these changes. At the same time I think the levels of testing, the point of which testing begins, the relentlessness of it, the fact that teenagers don't any longer have even a year that's free from some major public testing - that makes the whole of the education institution, not just the children, anxiety driven. One of the things that strikes me very often when visiting schools, even the most excellent schools of which there are loads, is levels of anxiety, professional anxiety.

JN: Michael Morpurgo, a former children's lawyer, when he was talking during this programme last week after that letter was published, talked about fear.

ABC: I think it's there, the fear of failure. When you surrounded education institutions with criteria hoops to jump through, if you put it rather crudely, then of course there's going to be some element of fear, and some element of fear that somehow your professional skills are not taken seriously. So we're not just talking about young people here in schools, we're talking about the whole culture.

JN: On the one hand you're talking about that as a danger, and then you're saying you want to see love in the family unit, however that's put together, but at the same time, a growing up with an understanding of discipline. And again there's a balance there, that it's easy to aspire to but much more difficult to attain.

ABC: Much more difficult, and nobody's suggesting - I think this Children's Society inquiry certainly won't be suggesting - there's a quick fix here. But I think it's tremendously important that we have publicly recognised the cluster of problems here and that there's some public interest and willingness to think it through. I don't think that last week's letter, that the enquiry that's now being launched, that these are just a flash in the pan, I think there is a widespread unease about what's happening.

JN: One of the difficulties I suppose is that an easy target would be the video game culture, and say 'oh well let's blame the computer'. Does that worry you or do you think that's a distraction?

ABC: It worries me occasionally but I think again we have to go to the roots of the difficulty and that I think very often has to do with our shared unwillingness in our culture to let children be children for long enough. We don't give them a lot of space, we're worried about physical space and the unsafety of the physical space.

JM: Do you think we overdo that worry?

ABC: We do, yes and it's parents being parents, worry comes naturally, worries you breathe as a parent, and I really hope that this enquiry is not about loading more guilt from parents

JN: If you listen to some of the coverage or read some of the coverage you think there is a paedophile lurking in every corner. But if you look at the statistics compared with 50 years ago?

ABC: Compared with fifty years ago? Yes it's not disturbing in that way , it's not as if we've got a vast tide of paedophilia but I think we've become more aware that we've got a responsibility to our children to provide physically safe space wherever they go, wherever they're involved. That's a good concern, but the way it's worked out, as a number of people have pointed out, is of course to discourage and undermine a volunteer culture, because people are afraid of their liabilities, [and] to instil in children themselves a sense of suspicion and unease, certainly to withdraw them from the great outdoors.

JN: What about the commercial pressures, which are turned on them at a very early age because they may not have money, but their parents have?

ABC: I think this is an enormous problem and that's certainly one of the factors that has driven the setting up of this Children's Society Inquiry; an awareness of commercial pressure, an awareness really of all of the things that are trying to make children consumers before they are ready.

JN: So you say there is no quick fix, and if you look at education, it's an extraordinarily complicated problem. But some people might say 'right here's a little idea - ban advertising aimed at children' - there's a fix, now it may not work, but it's worth a try.

ABC: It's worth a try, I quite agree.

JN: You agree it's worth a try?

ABC: I think there are real issues there, which the Advertising Standards Authority is concerned to pick up and work with, I've had conversations with them in the past.

JN: So things aimed at children, for example, not just in the run up to Christmas, but generally about consumer spending?

ABC: Well the whole thing about 'pester' power for children which advertising of course colludes with so often, that needs challenging. And I think also, no quick fixes, but we can begin to ask some questions about the testing culture in education, we can begin to ask questions about how we encourage rather than disable volunteering.

JN: So there's a rule for government here, and you want this enquiry to come up with proposals that might be taken into schools, but also for people who are invited to come along and give evidence if you like, I mean how do they do it if they want to do it?

ABC: Well you would have to ask the Children's Society, the website tells you all you need to know about this inquiry. []

JN: Let me just move on to another subject, which is obviously consuming your interest as it is the interest of so many people. What do you think the outcome has been of the Pope's remarks the other day and his apology in that whole inter Faith dialogue which you're inclined to undertake in your own way?

ABC: I think it's fore grounded a set of issues about how we, as Christians and as Muslims, tell each other's stories. There's always a temptation I think for Christians to say to Muslims 'I will tell you what your history is all about', as Muslims sometimes say to Christians, and sometimes they get it deeply wrong. And the example that the Pope took from the Middle Ages shows I think, in it's phrasing, how the Middle Ages people got it wrong on both sides and Muslim distortions of Christian history are just as laughable as Christian distortions of Muslim. So, the big question that comes out of this for me is how much, first of all, are we prepared to listen to the other person telling their story and making their sense of it? And how much, secondly, are both sides prepared to be self-critical and acknowledge there are aspects in their history that are not pretty and not edifying?

JN: But there's a real problem here, if you go about it in an intellectually coherent way, if you like in an academic way, you're bound to say things, or touch on territory that, to those who are not approaching it in the same way, if you like, on the other side, are going to find deeply offensive and is going to cause violence. So how can you do it, being intellectually honest to yourself and, as it were, get away with it?

ABC: I think you've got work at very different styles, very different environments for dialogue. Sometimes in an academic dialogue it's a matter of saying 'look this is safe space, everybody has got their voice here, nobody's got an agenda, we're leaving political agendas, power plays, outside the door and so we will be saying things that will be hard to hear and will be responding toughly' and that's what happens in that environment. I think at the local environment, where you're talking about the dialogue between the local mosque and the local church, again you need to make room for people to say what they feel, not to make them feel that they are being manipulated or put upon - and that means a lot of patience because people aren't used to dialogue of that kind.

JN: Let me ask you in conclusion a very obvious question. There are Muslims saying 'look however Pope Benedict dresses it up, we can see from what he said there and we've seen from what he's said in the past that he harbours a deep suspicion that in some elements Islam encourages violence'. Now if a Muslim leader or serious figure in the Muslim community were to say that to you as Archbishop of Canterbury in this country, that you believe that somewhere in Islam there is something that encourages violence, what would be your straightforward public response?

ABC: My straightforward public response would be to say there are elements in Islam that can be used to justify violence, just as there are in Christianity and in Judaism. These religious faiths, because they are held by human beings who are very fallible, can be distorted in those ways, and we all have to recognise that.

JN: And you would accept that in the Christian tradition they have been distorted?

ABC: Yes of course they have.

JN: And still are to this day?

ABC: We are answerable to our basic principles and judged by those.

JN: But you think that it's something that has to be addressed publicly because if it isn't, is that not worse than causing.....?

ABC: Quite. With a spirit of honesty all round and self criticism all round...

JN: Including when necessary, even from a Pope an apology?

ABC: The Pope has already issued an apology and I think that his views on this need to be judged against his entire record where he has spoken very positively about dialogue.

JN: Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, thanks very much.

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