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Praying is a remote experience

The child of 2025 can log on to assembly, but has just been given a chance to vote for its abolition. Stephanie Northen joins Zara, 14, half Iranian and anxious not to lose touch with her roots, and Tod, 3, who speaks English and Mandarin and is monitored weekly to gauge his precise linguistic development

Tod hated watching "Shrek V..." in Mandarin. He knew a few words because Lee Huang, his key worker at the children's centre, was Chinese. But this didn't stop him rolling on his back and screaming if the film was put on.

Perversely, though, he would refuse to watch "Billy the Bullet Train" unless it was in Mandarin.

Eleanor, his mother, and Lee grumbled over these contradictions as they struggled to pinpoint the boy's exact stage of linguistic development. It was their regular weekly meeting. Tod was playing with the alpha-board, max volume of course, so they were interrupted by strange sounds as he shuffled the letters. "Bzumt." "Moptiv."

"Could you play with something else, please, Tod?" asked Lee.


They sighed, longed to enter "typical three-year-old" in the machine, turn it off and go home. But they knew it would only respond with a puzzled "Please try again". Tod's data would be compared with national averages to double-check he was on track, and spot any incipient special needs. The figures would, in theory, be with him for the rest of his life - although employers who displayed an interest in early ogre and bullet-train preferences were probably to be avoided.

At least the women could tick off the toilet-trained section. Yes, he'd finally done it, largely thanks to the new talking potties.

"Should we put in that he seems to prefer the potty talking in German?"

asked Lee.

"Umm," said Eleanor, "Maybe not."

The two were settled in the family room of the centre in the basement of the flats where Eleanor lived. Most of the youngsters in the block attended a few days a week. It was a popular place. Parents liked the emphasis on music and the fact that it still used paper books. They also appreciated the staff who stayed long term, thanks to the flats that came with the job.

There had been outrage when Kent's centres had been threatened in the cost-cutting purge of 2020. Women, including Lee and Eleanor, took to the streets in protest. Their placards said "Never again". Never again was the Government to encourage women into work, only to try to send them home again when the economy took a downturn.

The women won, mostly. Some centres did shut, the ones struggling in ghettoes untouched by anti-poverty measures, where parents, mired in drugs and debt, had no time for family centres. In other words, the ones that were really needed, said Eleanor.

"Tod? Tod, where are you?" It was Tod's teddy, abandoned in the sandpit.

(Some things never change.) "Go and get your bear," Eleanor said to her son.

"No," said Tod.

"Please," said Eleanor.

"No," said Tod.

"Please," said Lee.

"No," said Tod.

"Please," said Teddy.

"OK," said Tod, and ran off, dropping a shape-changer toy in a bowl of half-eaten yoghurt on the way.

"I guess that's a 'Yes' to the question about imaginative relationships with human-substitute toys," said Eleanor.

"Um," said Lee. "But what do we put about relationships with toy-substitute humans?"

The two women got on well. Eleanor had met all the key workers before Tod started, and been able to indicate, discreetly, which one she preferred.

Lee had graduated in child development, a boom area of study in China since the birth rate had started to soar again. She was one of three graduates at the centre - progress towards an entirely graduate early-years workforce had been slow, although all centres now employed two teachers.

"That's it," said Lee , after recording Tod's building of a brick tower six blocks high, and also his preference for knocking down his mate's.

"Thanks," said Eleanor. "I know this is tedious for you, but it is good for me. I always end up feeling more in touch with what he does here."

"Oh, by the way, where is he?" Lee called up all the centre's rooms on her screen.

"Err, I can't see him. Oh, no. He's taken the lid off the wormery and Teddy's taking a dive."

Eleanor rushed over and held out his coat. "Time to go home, dear."

"No," said Tod.

"Please," said Teddy.

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