The cold heart of educare future

Every time I hear the word educare - which is all the time, now that politicians have woken up to the fact that school-age children have lives and that these lives get in the way of how we adults live ours - two things leap to mind.

The first is envy. How much would I, a part-time working parent, have loved to have been able to leave my children at school from time to time when they were younger, instead of always having to lean on the rickety goodwill of friends and neighbours.

But then, almost immediately, comes the thought of Milton Keynes.

Milton Keynes was where I went, decades ago, to report on one of the first after-school care schemes. It was, if I remember rightly, in a community hall, near a primary school, alongside a busy roundabout.

Inside, children drew, a bit, and played indoor basketball, a bit, but mainly milled about doing nothing very much and looking wan and tired under the strip lights. At 10 to 6 they were put in their coats by helpers who wanted to be off prompt at six. At 20 past, two were still there, and when the parents finally turned up, tetchy words were exchanged, the children were grabbed roughly away, and I drove off feeling distinctly lowered by the whole experience.

I didn't have children back then, but could still sense how much these under-11s did not want to be in a municipal care at that time of night.

What they wanted was home, warmth, telly, baked beans; to be in a place that was theirs, with people who were their own, who cared about them as if they were special.

So, yes, it's great that there is to be more before and after-school provision; great that working parents are going to get more help in managing their lives.

But in this, as in all the current talk of childcare strategies and pre-school provision, there is also something chilling: a cold heart at its centre which is the fundamental failure to acknowledge that, even with the most wrapped-around educare in the world, children still need copious amounts of their parents' love and care to thrive; that proper parenting is hard to squeeze into the tired fag end of the day; and that being a good parent in today's pressured and consumerist society is a real battle.

Margaret Hodge plans to put out pamphlets telling us how to do it better, but that isn't the point. Diktats won't do it. What we desperately need, from all quarters, is explicit understanding and acknowledgement that being an attentive parent is time well spent; a truly valuable job - perhaps the most valuable there is, not only for children, but for society in general.

If you doubt it, spend time in today's classrooms and see what pupils are like when they don't get this at home. Teachers meet them every day, and in huge numbers: the tired, the anxious, the sullen, the ill-fed, the angry, the rude. Huge amounts of educational investment go to waste because of them, while the children themselves are never going to make what they might have of their lives. And parents aren't happy, either. Survey after survey points to people who feel frazzled and frustrated by the endless, competing pressures on their time.

Will better state childcare help with this? Or could it actually make it worse, as parents are increasingly made to feel that work's the thing, and children can easily be tucked away around its edges? Why is the long and time-consuming haul of parenting - the flu, the fallings-out, the struggles with maths, the summer holidays, the broken arms, the being bullied, the homework, the GCSE choices - an invisible entry on any national balance sheet?

Maybe it's because the people setting our childcare agendas are politicians, who have never made getting to the school gate a priority, and policy wonks, who only see the world in terms of planning and resources, and civil servants, who never glimpse anyone under 18 in the corridors of Whitehall. In this world children are only ever going to be statistics in a briefing paper; a number for whom a matching number of places must be found. No one will ever pause to think about what they are really like, sitting wanly in their coats waiting for their parents to pick them up.

Hilary Wilce is a freelance journalist and author of Help Your Child Succeed At School, published by Piatkus, pound;9.99

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