Perils of 'people like us'

Hilary Wilce finds two tribes worlds apart in a study of the middle-class parent's struggle to do the right thing.

Childcare, Choice and Class Practices: middle-class parents and their children By Carol Vincent and Stephen J Ball Routledge pound;24.99 Hannah, a middle-class north London mother, wanted her child to go to a mixed nursery, "somewhere where, you know, it was, sort of, you know, different kinds of colours, and, you know, accents and all the rest of it."

But, as she says later, the trouble is "there's mixed and mixed".

Alice, a better-off south London mother, worries about the lack of social breadth in her child's nursery. "Everyone except me, I think, drives these wretched four-wheel drive things, which I hate, but that's the one trouble, for this area's very homogeneous really, so, I mean, I don't think there's any coloured children here."

Welcome to the fraught world of middle-class families trying to navigate their way through the minefield of pre-school care in our capital city. In Stoke Newington, creative types with liberal views demonstrate one range of choices. Across the river, in well-heeled Battersea, banker and lawyer families go for another.

On one level, much in this book is familiar. This research, by Stephen Ball, professor of sociology of education at the Institute of Education, London University, and Carol Vincent, a reader in education at the Institute, probes attitudes and choices which are everyday stuff to most middle-class parents.

Who doesn't know that all mothers feel they have to defend their choices about whether they work or not on the grounds of what is best for their children? And who hasn't known a father like James who doesn't "feel that to be a good parent you have to totally subsume your own wishes and desires ... so I'll certainly do something with the kids, but then I'll also have time out when I read the paper and they can, you know, do something quietly by themselves."

What mother in the world hasn't found her relationship with her nanny or child-carer to be the most delicate piece of diplomacy she has to practise? And which parent can honestly say they haven't eyeballed the children playing in a potential nursery or playschool and found a whole range of politically incorrect thoughts flitting through their heads?

However, this book pulls some very interesting strands out of what seems, at first, a banal mix. For one thing, it points out just how crucial pre-school choices are in reinforcing tribal identities. Little Battersea princes and princesses, mixing only with their own kind and being driven to expensive private nurseries where they will begin reading and writing early, ready for private school later on, can only ever grow up into one kind of adult; Stoke Newington poppets, being walked out from their more relaxed families for days of creative play with Lego and water, before going to a local primary, will inevitably grow up into something else.

It also points out how Labour's childcare policies are digging deeper this country's class divides. Yes, there are now more pre-school places, but these are only available to the neediest families, with inevitable consequences. Middle-class neighbours can't get a look-in, so they take their children elsewhere, leaving the disadvantaged children all playing with each other and, presumably, reinforcing some of the very traits that nursery school is supposed to be educating out of them.

Some quibbles: the interview data here seems troublingly skewed. The Battersea mums who were willing to talk seemed to be mainly those at odds with the status quo. There's a marked lack of anyone saying: "Yes, I'm well-off. I drive a big, polluting car. I'd never dream of letting my kids go to a state school. And so what?"

Ditto of those Alpha fathers who see their kids for just a few minutes a day or only at the weekend. They, not surprisingly, proved hard to get hold of, so there is an awful lot more from those relatively few men who make time for their kids and agonise over what the role of the modern father consists of.

The authors point out that childcare is a "peculiar" market, driven as much by subterranean attitudes and anxieties as by economic forces, and that even the wealthiest families find it puzzlingly hard to get what they want.

The authors also worry about the growth in private childcare, pointing out that issues of low quality are unlikely to be resolved in profit-driven organisations, and they raise serious questions about the unthinking expansion of nursery provision: if what it does is draw more parents into a long-hours, low-pay work culture, is it a good thing?

In fact, we still need to ask some hard questions about childcare, they say. Such as, what do we want for our children? And how do we think it can be best provided? Although, having said that, they also make it clear that views vary, most parents get by on compromise, and that there are never likely to be clear pathways.

"People's perceptions of 'appropriate' childcare are varied and (at least partly) influenced by spatial and financial constraints and opportunities, as well as their understanding of what 'people like us do'," they say.

Ah, that "people like us"! How that is the bane of the middle-class mother's life, as she battles to sustain the right sort of pre-schooling, the right sort of after-school clubs and tutoring, the right sort of childcare at home. Because one thing this book makes plain is that, wherever middle-class families live, whatever their choices, it is still always the mother who makes it all work. Men are not juggling their lives like their partners are. They are not carrying the same weight of guilt, responsibility and anxiety that mothers carry. Government policy on pre-schoolers may have changed radically in recent years. Fathers haven't.

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