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A nappy too far

The news that pupil numbers in private nursery schools are rising so fast is all the more remarkable given the contempt which some head teachers evidently feel for the parents who are their customers.

The outburst this week from Paddy Holmes, founder of Ditcham Park School in Hampshire, in which she asserted that many parents are treating their children like young animals by packing them off to nursery school too young, was a strange way of celebrating an expansion which the Independent Schools Information Service was eager to announce.

Mrs Holmes may have embarrassed her colleagues, though more than one chairman of the Headmasters' Conference has accused parents of such sins as "opulent neglect".

The independent sector is there to meet parental demand, as Mrs Holmes acknowledges, though she does not take children younger than four in her own establishment. What she finds hard to accept is that there is now an increasing demand from parents for all-day high-quality nursery provision for children as young as two who might not be out of their nappies.

This increase is not surprising given the growing proportion of mothers in the labour force at all levels, and the Government's failure to provide a coherent programme to meet all needs, so private schools which deliver the goods deserve some credit. And that makes it all the more offensive to hear such unreconstructed comments on parenting from a head.

There may be a minority of parents who want to dump their child on nanny or independent school and forget about them, but most women juggling families and careers can demonstrate that the quality of the mother-child (or father-child) relationship does not depend on spending every minute together. Of course there are questions about what sort of settings are best for two-year-olds, as the French are also debating (see next column), but it is a prime age for learning and widening social horizons, with or without nappies or Mrs Holmes.

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